a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration,
caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.
Rediscovering Our Sense of Wonder
Familiarity may not necessarily breed contempt for nature, but it can certainly make you take things for granted. After all, when you walk past the same trees in your yard every day, and every spring a crop of robins hunts for worms on the lawn, it’s easy to let them fade into the background. Add in that many of us adults are busy running from place to place, and who has time to stop and smell the roses, or to see what tiny pollinators may be creeping among their petals.
Our brains are still wired for savannahs and forests and seeking out rivers and lakes. We’ve managed to show more than enough cognitive flexibility to meld the landscape to our own needs to an unprecedented degree, but if we spend too much time in human-dominated places we begin to feel a greater level of stress, and health problems may be amplified. Conversely, when we go outside for more than a dash to our car or a quick smoke break, we experience measurable improvements in our physical, mental and emotional health .
Most of the activities meant to get people engaged with nature are meant for children. We send our kids off on school field trips to zoos, wildlife rescues and farms while we hide away in office buildings. Girl and Boy Scouts activities are an opportunity for us to get a little kid-free time rather than learning along with them. After a certain age somewhere in the teens, it becomes uncool to be obsessed with nature unless your plan is to be a biologist, veterinarian, or other nature-related professional.
It can be hard to remind ourselves of the wonder we can feel at nature’s beauty and complexity. Have you ever been on a vacation where you had the time to sit and enjoy a beautiful sunset, or the view across a crystal-clear lake? This is what happens when you give yourself the time and attention to reconnect with nature and allow the spark of wonder to have a place in your life again, even if for a few moments. The real challenge, of course, is how to bring that spark back into your everyday life.
Go to your yard or another outdoor place that you walk by every day, and pretend you’ve never seen anything like it before.
Examine a single blade of grass up close: look at how the veins run up the entire length of the grass, giving it the texture that you can feel beneath your fingertips. See how the grass tears in a ragged edge if you tear it crosswise, but tears cleanly if you tear it lengthwise. Look more closely at the color, and see if there’s any variation in shades and tones, rather than a uniform green. Do the same with other parts of nature: feels the softness of moss, observe how a robin or other bird hops across the yard in search of food, notice the angle of the shadows cast by the sun now compared to two hours from now.
Pick something in nature that you frequently overlook or know very little about and learn more about it.
There are a lot of books that make great jumping-off points because they’re written for laypeople rather than scientists and so are very accessible. Amy Stewart’s The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms shines a new light on these squirmy little gardeners. The Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds by Bernd Heinrich may amaze you at just how intelligent these big black corvids are. Or if you like documentaries, David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants shows how plants, rather than being stationary and boring, have active lives full of competition and cooperation just like us.
Make an excursion outdoors, either for a day or a weekend, to really immerse yourself in the wonders of nature.
And don’t just go to pitch a tent, sit in a camp chair and take a nap. Instead, let this be a time where you ask questions like “What is this animal or plant?” and “Why does the river flow through here rather than over there?” Take along a field guide to local native plants and see how many you can identify. Pack a magnifying glass and a good set of binoculars so you can explore nature in more detail. Download the free iNaturalist app for your smart phone at http://www.inaturalist.org and use it to record the animals, plants and fungi you find; if you don’t know the identity of a particular being, just put “unknown” as the species and another iNaturalist user may very well come along and identify it for you! If geology interests you and you’re in the United States, get the Roadside Geology book  for your state and take a road trip to see how many unique geological formations you can find in your area.
At least once a day, take a few moments to be thankful for even the smallest things in your life that are going well or that you may have taken for granted. (I even show gratitude for my ability to continue breathing oxygen!) Over time, this teaches you to be more aware of the little things you’ve been overlooking and to be aware of how precious and important they are. And the more you cultivate that awareness, the more you may find it popping into your life at odd moments—being grateful for the trees and other plants that are producing the oxygen we breathe and sequestering away atmospheric carbon, or for the sunshine on a beautiful summer morning, or the rain that cools the land after a long, hot day. Nothing is too small or insignificant to be included in your gratitude practice.
I know it’s tough, given that we’re conditioned toward a go-go-go pace of life, especially when we live in more urban areas that require more time for travel and logistics. But in the same way that you take a little time each day to practice gratitude, also take a few moments each day to slow your pace a bit. Sit on your porch for a few minutes and let yourself daydream. Or spend a few minutes with a book and a cup of tea. You don’t have to set aside an entire hour; even ten minutes can be a wonderful recharge. And the more you’re able to slow yourself down, the more you can free up some attention and energy for something other than the daily grind. Do that enough, and you may just find that you have the space for a little more wonder in your life.