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By: Nelson Weber

An elderly gentleman commented that the invention of the garage door opener has been a big contributor to the fact that many of us do not know our neighbors very well. In the past, upon arriving home, people would need to exit their car in order to open the garage door. That often-offered opportunities for brief exchanges of neighborliness before going inside.  

In a similar vein, people once spent much of their time outdoors where they made many casual observations about the natural world. Air conditioning and ubiquitous screens have limited our awareness of the surrounding environment. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer says that our inability to recognize the flora and fauna around us and the seasonal cycles which occur is like “being lost in a foreign city where you can’t read the street signs.” 

Some people find that nature-journaling, jotting down their observations, feelings, connections, and sketches, helps them to foster a connection with nature. Some enjoy writing or reading poetry.

Other people find that using nature apps on their phone allows them to better understand and engage with the natural world around them. Many apps are available, but the following two are my favorites. The first is Seek. Using your phone’s camera, Seek  allows you to quickly identify plants, fungi, and animals. Seek is a joint venture of the National Geographic Society and the California Academy of Sciences. I especially enjoy using this to identify wild flowers. Whenever I identify a flower, it tells me if this is a new observation, or when and where I have previously identified it.  

The second app is Merlin Bird ID, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This allows you to identify birds by answering a few questions, or with a photo that you submit. But the most transformative feature of this app is its ability to use your phone’s microphone to identify birds by their song and calls with a high degree of accuracy. As I walk, I turn on this feature to learn what birds are calling around me. As I connect the sounds I hear with the identity of their source, I find that my ability to identify many birds without the use of the app is constantly improving.

While I take great pleasure in identifying the flora and fauna around me, the enjoyment increases when I can say the name of the bird that makes that chirp, without consulting my phone. Or when I look to see if the Bloodroot, Lady’s Slipper, or Trillium is blooming this year in the same spot where I found it last year.  

What habits have you fostered, or what apps do you use to help you connect to the sights, sounds, and aromas of the natural world surrounding you? 

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