Anne Murray: 10 ways to come alive in nature

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      Online, indoor, instant communication lifestyles are second nature to most of us today, yet maintaining our "first nature" is essential for mental and physical health.

      We need to stay in touch with the natural world. Study after study has shown that outdoor exercise, views of trees and sky, and interactions with animals have hugely beneficial effects. Exposure to nature on a regular basis can decrease recovery times from operations, reduce the length of depressive episodes, and help children with cognitive and behavioural disorders.

      Sometimes it can be difficult to move away from the computer, put aside the smartphone, and take in what nature has to offer. A good incentive for stepping outside is to learn about local ecosystems. It is surprising how much there is to see, even in the city.

      Richard Louv, author of the 2005 bestseller Last Child in the Woods, defined the condition of "nature-deficit disorder", suffered by many urban children who do not roam free like their parents and grandparents often did. He links “the lack of nature in today’s wired generation” to rises in “obesity, attention deficit disorder and depression”.

      Children need to explore nature and their local landscape, on their own terms and in unstructured play. Fortunately, this need not be a problem in the Lower Mainland where many beaches, forests, and parks offer opportunities for families to get out in nature on a regular basis. Naturalists and gardeners often live long, healthy lives—not just because of all the fresh air and exercise, but also because they absorb the inner calm of their natural surroundings.

      Furthermore, if each new generation knows and values nature they are more likely to develop both a strong conservation ethic and interest in wise stewardship.

      One does not destroy what one loves.

      Here are 10 ways to come alive in nature:

      1. Go out early in the morning

      To see wildlife, go outside as early as possible in the morning. Birds greet the dawn in springtime with a riot of song. Although they are quieter in late summer, there is still much more bird activity around sunrise than later in the day. In more rural areas, larger animals, such as deer, bears, and coyotes are often seen first thing in the morning.

      2. Learn the names of plants, birds, and animals

      When you know a name, recognition becomes much easier. There are dozens of field guides to help you identify what you have seen. Taking photos and checking on the Internet can also work, although not everything is correctly labeled there. The easiest way to learn is to ask a keen naturalist, birdwatcher or gardener.

      There are many naturalist clubs in the Lower Mainland (check the list at BC Nature) offering free walks in local areas. The Young Naturalists Club of B.C. caters especially for children and families; the club's Grandparents Day is on September 15 this year, at the B.C. Heritage Centre (1620 Mount Seymour Road).

      Metro Vancouver Parks also offers many nature activities.

      3. Go for a nature hike

      No need to pound up the Grouse Grind; there are hundreds of much easier trails in the Vancouver area, including Pacific Spirit Park, Stanley Park, and the miles of dyke around Richmond and Delta. Check out massive Douglas firs, Western red cedars, and Western hemlocks in the forest, or marvel at huge flocks of shorebirds over Boundary Bay. Walk quietly, watch and listen. For successful shorebird viewing, check the tide tables before heading out; an hour before high tide is the best time to see the birds close to shore.

      4. Explore the beach

      Strolling by the ocean is one of the most mentally restorative activities possible. Every beach is different. Look for shells, seaweed, and treasures washed in with the tide. Nature Vancouver has a helpful illustrated guide to the marine life of Stanley Park’s rocky shores.

      5. Putter around a pond

      Wherever there is fresh water, there is life. Listen for croaking frogs, watch dragonflies darting around, and look for fish. Herons, grebes, ducks, and shorebirds are all attracted to fresh water too.

      6. Plant a garden

      Gardening is well known as an excellent therapy for mind and body. Those with a garden might like to create a hummingbird and butterfly patch, or a water garden. If you do not have a yard, even a couple of large plant pots on a balcony can be fun to sow with annuals or bulbs. Fall is a good time to plant bulbs for spring flowering.

      7. Feed the ducks at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary

      A lovely destination for young and old, this dedicated wildlife habitat on Westham Island, at the mouth of the Fraser River in Delta, has an amazing diversity of birds. Huge flocks of snow geese flying in from their breeding grounds in Russia in October are a not-to-be-missed sight.

      8. Take a boat tour or ride a ferry

      The B.C. coast can be spectacular for marine life. Watch for harbour seals, California and Steller’s sea lions, and harbour and Dall’s porpoises. Grey whales, humpbacks, and orcas (killer whales, actually a sort of dolphin) visit local waters seasonally.

      9. Lists, diaries and bio-blitzes

      Taking observation a step further helps keep your brain active. Many birdwatchers and naturalists keep diaries, or annual, area, and life lists of species they have seen. Some nature photographers and artists make visual records through the seasons. Super keeners set goals: to discover all the wildlife species in their garden, a one-kilometre radius, or a local park.

      Sometimes this is done in an organized way with a “bio-blitz”, when amateurs join experts to inventory everything found within a defined habitat. Whistler Naturalists organize an annual bioblitz. The 2013 event attracted 65 top scientists and nature educators as well as a lively crowd of young volunteers.

      10. Share your knowledge with someone else. Great friendships are made in nature.

      Anne Murray is an independent writer, naturalist, and author of two books on the natural history of Boundary Bay: A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay and Tracing Our Past—A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay (www.natureguidesbc.com). She blogs at www.natureguidesbc.wordpress.com.

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      3 Comments

      Anita den Dikken

      Aug 29, 2013 at 8:39pm

      Good column, Anne. Helpful hints that almost anyone of us can follow.

      Jean W.

      Aug 30, 2013 at 2:32pm

      This straightforward column is a wonderful reminder of the importance of nature,especially in these times were people of all ages seem to be continually connected to a gadget. (Whatever happened to eye contact?)
      I wish everyone would take weekends off from technology and get out into the great outdoors. We in British Columbia and especially in the Lower Mainland are blessed with places to explore and to talk and appreciate life around us. We could save a lot of tax dollars on medical system if folks got outdoors more often.

      Mike Vandeman

      Aug 30, 2013 at 8:11pm

      Selling Snake Oil: Last Child in the Woods ––
      Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,
      by Richard Louv
      Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
      November 16, 2006

      In this eloquent and comprehensive work, Louv makes a convincing case for ensuring that children (and adults) maintain access to pristine natural areas, and even, when those are not available, any bit of nature that we can preserve, such as vacant lots. I agree with him 100%. Just as we never really outgrow our need for our parents (and grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.), humanity has never outgrown, and can never outgrow, our need for the companionship and mutual benefits of other species.

      But what strikes me most about this book is how Louv is able, in spite of 310 pages of text, to completely ignore the two most obvious problems with his thesis: (1) We want and need to have contact with other species, but neither we nor Louv bother to ask whether they want to have contact with us! In fact, most species of wildlife obviously do not like having humans around, and can thrive only if we leave them alone! Or they are able tolerate our presence, but only within certain limits. (2) We and Louv never ask what type of contact is appropriate! He includes fishing, hunting, building "forts", farming, ranching, and all other manner of recreation. Clearly, not all contact with nature leads to someone becoming an advocate and protector of wildlife. While one kid may see a beautiful area and decide to protect it, what's to stop another from seeing it and thinking of it as a great place to build a house or create a ski resort? Developers and industrialists must come from somewhere, and they no doubt played in the woods with the future environmentalists!

      It is obvious, and not a particularly new idea, that we must experience wilderness in order to appreciate it. But it is equally true, though ("conveniently") never mentioned, that we need to stay out of nature, if the wildlife that live there are to survive. I discuss this issue thoroughly in the essay, "Wildlife Need Habitat Off-Limits to Humans!", at http://mjvande.nfshost.com/india3.htm.

      It should also be obvious (but apparently isn't) that how we interact with nature determines how we think about it and how we learn to treat it. Remember, children don't learn so much what we tell them, but they learn very well what they see us d