Nature provides some of the most incredible sensory experiences. They can be intriguingly small or spectacularly wide.
Nature never fails to educate or entertain. From a sensory perspective all we need to do is ask simple questions: What can you smell? What can you see? What can you hear? What can you feel and what can you taste? The answers can amuse, puzzle and surprise us and on any given day you might well come away with something different.
Most of us will live within relatively close proximity of a place where nature is given at least some space, be it a park, a forest or wood or even the coast. Each location can give our senses a stimulating field day as nothing else can. The outdoors can become the ultimate sensory experience teaching us how our world works through the reaction of our own bodies to its different facets.
There’s a huge difference between seeing and looking. If we’re honest for a moment, many of us will accept that we take our sight for granted amidst the helter-skelter of our busy lives. Stopping and concentrating and looking more carefully for a moment to see the detail that we often overlook is well worthwhile. Even people with severe visual impairments can often distinguish different colours or the difference between light and dark
An obvious starting point is to simply appreciate the view. Scanning the horizon for physical landmarks such as hills and mountains or perhaps even tall trees can give us something of a starting point in understanding where we live.
Get up high
You don’t even have to go outside, although you’ll be missing out on so many gifts if you don’t. You could look through your bedroom window if you don’t like the look of the weather, noting how things have changed day-to-day or even season to season.
If you do venture outside, a high place, such as a hill will often give you an unusually broad viewing point that seemingly starts to connect the sky with the earth.
Clouds aren’t as mundane as you might think. Different clouds will prefigure different sorts of weather and it’s interesting to try to predict what’s going to happen by their shapes and structures. A little more light hearted is the game where you try to spot discernible shapes within the fluffy masses before they literally morph into something else.
Depending on your location and the weather, clouds move surprisingly quickly and change other visual factors, notably sunshine one minute, becoming overcast the next.
Of course, plants range from the smallest flower to the tallest or most gnarled trees. The seasons will determine the colours, with muted browns and greys usual in autumn and winter and dazzling colours in the summer months.
It isn’t just colour that’s fascinating; it’s scale. Standing at the foot of a tall Poplar tree for example, can make your head spin as your eyes follow the trunk to the canopy. At the other end of the scale, take a magnifying glass to get up close and personal with smaller plants such as lichens and mosses. Each species has a distinct colour and structure that are rarely noticeable to the naked eye.
You’re more than likely to see some sorts of animals wherever you live. In a woodland setting you might well spot Squirrels running about up and down tree trunks. (For a closer look, they can be tempted to almost within touching distance by a few peanuts.)
You’re also likely to see birds of one kind or another. In urban areas you might find Gulls or Starlings that aren’t known as being especially pretty but who nevertheless do have certain interesting behaviours in the way they group, feed and squabble over territory. Watching them regularly will give you a genuine insight and you might even start to spot individuals amongst the crowd and be able to predict their movements.
In areas of countryside you might well see a greater variety of birds but only fleetingly since they won’t be as used to human contact. Binoculars can bring you closer to the action before the fly away out of sight.
One of the benefits of living on a planet, spinning, as Earth does, in orbit around the Sun is that we are able to witness glorious sunrises and sunsets. Photographers often say that the most interesting light is that either one hour after sunrise or one hour before sunset.
Sunlight is rarely the same from day to day in the British Isles because weather systems are so variable. Light in the autumn is seemingly more golden whereas winter days are renowned for crisp blue skies. Sunshine also causes shadows and can be highly intriguing when passing through opaque things like water or even as it casts dappling shadows as light passes through the canopy of trees.
A great method in helping to look carefully at nature is to draw it. A small sketchbook and pencil will encourage a closer examination of angles, shapes, textures and colours.
It isn’t all over at tea time. The dark brings out its own visual treats. The waxing and waning Moon will present itself in various shapes and positions in the night sky and the stars are a friendly phenomena that can be studied for identifying different constellations. (It’s also interesting to see how rain passes in front of street lamps – but that’s not really ‘natural’.)
Often regarded as the most evocative of our senses, smell can take us on a nostalgic trip back to childhood or tell us what the world is doing.
Most flowering plants have some kind of scent for attracting pollinating insects. On still days the scent will hang heavier than when there’s a breeze and of course it will differ depending on the planting and the time of year.
It isn’t just flowers that have a scent. Herbs (flowering and non-flowering) also have scents. Lemongrass and Lavender have familiar scents but other herbs if you can find them, will release small amounts of scented oils when rubbed. (People with specific allergies should take advice before touching certain plants.)
Different natural environments will have different smells at different times of the day and different times of year. Meadows smell differently to grasslands and moors. Woodlands, perhaps because they’re sort of enclosed and host different plants, have their own distinct smell.
Closer to home, grass, especially when it’s wet has a very specific smell. It also smells fresh just after it’s been mown.
Yes, really. If there’s a dry spell that lasts a few days it’s worth going outside as it starts to rain. You’ll actually be able to smell the rain. (Well, not the actual rain but the harmless airborne bacteria that start to wake up again in the moisture.)
Not all sensory stimuli are as delicate as flowering plants. Some are distinctly, ‘smelly’. Without being too graphic, pigs leave a smell that’s different to cows and so on. The sweet smelling heavier scent isn’t manure but silage – fermented grass cut from fields and stored by farmers for winter animal feed.
Some people have a genuinely better sense of smell than others. There are people that can smell when a fox is nearby. Apparently, they are rather ‘musky’. (I, for one, have never smelt a fox.)
No matter where you go, there will be sounds. Depending on the conditions you might even hear yourself travelling along. When everything else is quiet you can cup your ear with your hand to hear a sound like the sea (it’s actually the blood flowing in your head) or after you’ve exerted yourself you’ll probably hear your own heartbeat pounding in your ears.
Whether you live in an urban area or the countryside, part of your familiar ‘soundscape’ will be made by birds. It isn’t always strictly birdsong; birds also make different noises as they attack other birds or even attempt to misdirect predators away from their nests. A trained ear can tell a lot from what appear to be random squawks. Birdsongs can, of course, be very distinct between species. Deaf people, in particular, are likely to be able to pick out Robins, Blackbirds and Thrushes.
The slightly bad news is that the one of the best times to hear birdsong is during the so called ‘dawn chorus’, during the summer months. The downside is that this is likely to be at around 4am – but it is fantastic.
Waterfowl are amongst the noisiest of birds. Geese hiss and of course Ducks quack. It’s always a good idea to tempt them closer with a few bits of stale bread.
From trickling streams or fast flowing rivers, water makes more noise than you might think and most people agree that there’s something very pleasant indeed about it. Even the rain makes an intriguing pitter-patter especially when you’re inside and it’s outside. Saying that, there are few things more dramatic than hearing a roll of thunder when you are out and about. Even more satisfying is the plop of a stone dropped into water.
Rustling leaves turn a light breeze into something far more dramatic. Similarly, in autumn walking through leaves and kicking them up can make quite a pleasant noise too.
For such small creatures, insects quite a bit of noise. There’s something of a content feel to the buzz of a Bee, whilst it can be good fun to try to track down a grasshopper by listening to its clicking its legs.
Time of day
Different points in the day will signal different creatures to be active and the soundscape will vary accordingly. If you’re very lucky you might live somewhere where there are periods of genuine silence – these are quite few and far between these days.
Just as drawing helps the eye concentrate on visual details, trying to imitate sounds starts with listening to the precise details of tone, volume and duration.
Although there are taste stimuli around, you’ll probably need to invest a bit of time or use your imagination. The other senses are very easy to stimulate out of doors but taste is a little more complicated.
There are plenty of fruits that grow in the garden or in wild places. Trees usually fruit during the early autumn and you should be able to find apples, pears and plums amongst other things. Be sure that the fruits you’re harvesting are edible; whilst a raw cooking apple will probably give you a stomach ache, selecting the wrong berries to eat could be very dangerous. (Blackberries are pretty easy to identify but you might want to at least rinse them under the tap if you want to eat them in their raw state.)
There is likely to be little risk in cupping a handful of water and slurping it down. Don’t drink water that has algae growing on its surface. Although it’s not a guarantee of thorough cleanliness, look for fast flowing brooks or streams. (Take care when scooping up water not to slip into the drink yourself.)
Fruits are not the only edibles you might find out of doors. You could well know of a hazelnut or chestnut tree. These tend to fruit during late summer (August). You may need to dry the nuts (or roast them) before use, not least because they may still be wrapped up in their cases. (Again, make sure that the variety you have picked is edible.)
Don’t bother. So many mushrooms look the same that it just isn’t sensible to consider touching them, let alone eating them. Lots of mushroom varieties that grow in the UK are highly toxic.
Yes, it’s a bit of a cheat but you could pick fruit, prepare it – either cleaning or cooking it – and take it back to eat it in the same place as you originally harvested it.
Apart from avoiding things that sting or are toxic, friendly touch sensations are genuinely all around us. It isn’t just our hands that we can feel sensations through. Our feet can tell if we’re walking on solid or unstable surfaces and our faces are very sensitive to subtle stimuli such as the stroke of a feather or a leaf.
Different tree species will have different types of bark. Silver Birches have a paper layer that peels off quite easily whilst other trees will attract lichens more easily than others. Gnarled trees have bark that you can’t help running hands over.
Be aware that some people do have allergies to plants and can break out in a rash after they’ve touched certain plants. Take care to wash your hands after touching plants, especially before you eat since many plants secrete fluids like sap or oils that not only taste bad, but can be toxic.
In summer months, you’ll see that many woodlands and meadows become inundated with ferns (like Bracken). These plants are amongst the oldest on Earth and have existed since pre-history. Start by feeling the shape and texture of the whole leaf before getting more precise with the tips of the fronds which you will note are literally miniature versions of the larger leaf.
Water has several characteristics depending on where it is. It can be warm if it happens to be shallow and exposed to sunlight but will more probably be shockingly cold, especially if it is deep or fast flowing (or frozen into ice or snow).
The face is a very sensitive area of the body. Perhaps allow the rain to fall on your face by putting your head back for a few seconds. (It will also start to change the texture of other things.)
Generally found in shaded areas, including crevices in rocks or walls where moisture collects, there are a variety of different species. Note how some are spongy after a rain shower whereas others barely seem to have any physical structure beyond that of a stain or mark on a rock.
Rocks and pebbles
There are endless shapes, sizes and weights. Naturally occurring minerals like chalk or coal will have dusty surfaces and leave marks behind on hands or clothes, whilst other rocks might be enveloped in Moss or slime. Lifting or turning over a large rock out of the soil might well expose small creatures like Centipedes, beetles or woodlice. Be sure to feel how cold the earth is below the stone compared with the rest of the surface material.
Certain times of year produce different types of fruits (not all of them edible by humans). Conkers are usually readily available and have a number of interesting characteristics. Conkers fall from trees in spiny cases that are fairly easy to split open under pressure to reveal a slippery, glossy conker. It may not even be browned yet so take it home and observe how it dries out and starts to toughen up.
Pine cones and other shell cases will also do strange things over time such as opening or closing or shedding their seeds.
Sunshine and shade
At the most basic level our sense of touch will also help to distinguish between hot and cold to quite a precise degree. When the sun is high, around midday, you’ll find very distinct, sharp shadows. Where sunshine meets shade you’ll find that objects vary in temperature if you touch the shaded or the sunlit parts.