We humans are visual creatures. Most of us, whether we realize it or not, rely almost entirely on our eyes to provide us with information about the world. We notice movement, color, news headlines flashing across the television, the words on a book’s page, and the faces of our family and friends. We even describe people, places, and events using visual words. Have you ever tried to describe a place or an event without using any visual descriptors? It’s not easy, especially when so much information comes in through our eyes. Our other senses tend to take a backseat, and we don’t often notice the role they play in how we experience the world.
For the past few weeks, it’s been very windy here in the west. Every morning, even before I get out of bed or open my eyes, I can hear the wind whistling and blowing around my house. It sings through a window at my office, and nearly knocks me off my feet when I leave. I can also see that it’s windy by watching the grasses and trees outside the window bend and blow back and forth, or watch the flocks of geese beat their way to the northwest making no noticeable progress, before turning back south and moving quickly away. What are some of the ways you can tell if it’s windy outside? What senses are you using?
In the same way that practicing scales helps you become a better piano player and practicing free throws helps improve your basketball game, we can practice using our other senses. Find a place outside, maybe in your backyard, at the park, or in your favorite bit of wilderness, sit down, and close your eyes. Start with your ears. What can you hear? Count how many different things you hear, and then break them down more. You hear birdsong. What birds are singing? How many? Can you tell from what direction the song is coming? Are they close or far away? Is the wind moving through the pines? What does that sound remind you of? Do you hear the voices of other people, the sounds of traffic, or maybe an animal moving through the landscape? If you like, bring some paper along and write down what you hear.
Let’s move on to our sense of smell next. Again, close your eyes so they can’t help. What do you smell? You might have to sit for a while before your nose begins to make distinctions in what it can smell. That’s ok. If it’s windy, are there smells that are only picked up when the wind blows? Where might those smells be coming from? Are they strong or weak, a good smell or one you’d rather not take home with you?
Now it’s time to use our sense of touch. What does the ground beneath you feel like? What about the air around you? Is there the warmth of the sun on your face, or the coolness of tree’s shadow? Maybe dappled as the sun’s light moves through the leaves or the slats of a gazebo. What about nearby plants or trees? How do they feel different from one another? What does the tree bark remind you of? Is it smooth or rough, patchy or whole? How would you describe the feel of your surroundings?
Taste can be a difficult sense to really focus on, especially when we’re outside. There are a lot of plants that don’t taste very nice, or are harmful to us if we eat them. However, there are a few ways we can use taste without worrying about plant safety. Breathe in through your mouth instead of your nose and really focus on what the air to your taste buds. Does the air just after a rainfall or snowfall taste different from the air of a cold winter’s day? Can you taste the difference of the cold, dry outside air and the warmer, moister air inside your home or school?
As you explore your senses, think about how your worldview might be different if you didn’t have use of one of your senses. Had lost your sight or been born blind for example. Or were fully deaf, or born with a very poor sense of smell. How might your remaining senses compensate for the loss of one? Which of your senses do you think you would miss the most? Why?
Each time you go outside, think about using all of your senses. Write down new things you hear or smell or feel as you explore. How does what we notice change with the seasons? The weather? Where we are?