The Naturalist: Can you sense it?

Autumn is a time of great change in nature. The northern hemisphere prepares itself for winter in a spectacular way, especially in the temperate forests of New England. When out on a hike we always have an excellent opportunity to engage the senses we were born with, but even more so in autumn.

To notice our surroundings more fully, we have to engage all our senses, which luckily have evolved to help us do just that. Humans rely most on our vision. But have you really noticed all the colors around you? Now is arguably the best time of the year to look for color as nature gets painted with warm hues of red, yellow, and brown. How many different colors can you find? You can also notice the shapes of the leaves falling. Trees have evolved differently shaped leaves to help give them subtle advantages over each other.

Next I’m going to ask you to smell the dirt. (Yes, for real). It shouldn’t smell bad. If you pick up some of the leaves and debris on the forest floor and give it a whiff it should smell like… well, like the earth! The process of decomposition creates healthy fertile soil that the forest uses to nourish itself. We have evolved to be able to identify healthy soil with our noses because it benefits us, too. They are many beneficial microorganisms in that soil. Scent is very important in identifying healthy objects in our surroundings, including pinpointing when food has gone bad.

Since we are with the dirt, stick your hands down into it. What do you feel? Do you feel the moisture in the ground? Even when the world looks dry around us (and this year it is very dry), we can still find water in the ground. The leaves and brush scattered around the forest floor help to retain moisture. This is important for supporting the lives of many different species, from mighty oak trees, that can drink hundreds of gallons of water a day, to worms, that need to stay moist to survive. In years like this one when there is a drought, water is especially important.

Now close your eyes. (I would also recommend you stop moving because humans in general are not good at walking with their eyes closed.) What do you hear? Many people first hear the birds chirping in the wind. There are many different bird species and each has many different calls, so it can be difficult to keep track of who’s who in the chorus of chirps. By October, many birds have begun their migration, which helps narrow down the list. If you hear simple little chirps, those are called companion calls; birds use them to keep track of their mates as they forage around.

As for taste, foraging and gathering food from nature — including from a garden — adds to the beautiful relationship we have with our environment. When foraging for food in the forest, it’s best (and safest) to learn from an expert. That way you can have a pleasurable experience.

Next time you go outside, engage as many senses as you can. Stretch your body’s ability to experience its surroundings. Even on well-traveled trails you can always notice something new! And you’ll feel good while using your senses.

Sam Nunes is an environmental educator at Woodcock Nature Center.