Are you reading this article at your dining room table? A booth at a local restaurant? Your desk? Wherever you might be, pause, take one moment, if you will, to look out a window. Spend enough time to shift that look from a glance to a gaze and really see what is outside. Do you see any wildlife? What does the sky look like today?
I often move through my day at a quick pace. I understand if this is the first real good look you have taken of the outdoors in a while. I recently read an article by respected Environmental Psychologist Stephen Kaplan that discussed the psychological benefits of access to nature. The take away message was: Nature is restorative. Kaplan suggested that a long overnight trip in the wilderness is not required to gain the restorative benefits of nature. We can "get away" from our busy day for a moment or two just by looking out a window. This power of nature to affect our emotions, to move a person from the brink of information overload into a relaxed state of mind, is perhaps not a surprise to you. We are lucky in Alaska to have free and easy access to nature, to undeveloped places, even to wilderness, vast stretches of Congressionally-designated Wilderness on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
What does surprise me, however, is the number of Alaska residents who don't experience nature on a regular basis. Sure, we all get snowed on, or wind-blown, or grit-scoured as we walk across the parking lots on the Kenai Peninsula. But how many local residents have walked a trail or stopped at a lookout and taken in the scenery this week? Have you?
I mention all of this because I have had the honor of sharing moments in nature with many local residents, on guided trail hikes, during walks through Refuge campgrounds on warm summer nights, all as part of my work as a resource interpreter for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. I believe what Kaplan says about nature's restorative power because I have seen it myself. I find myself in awe of nature's wonders daily, sometimes in the most surprising ways.
Take this morning for instance. I received an article from a colleague about a small fly, Coenosia attenuate, popularly called "killer fly" because of its voracious appetite for other insects. What I found remarkable was the observations of the article's author. This species of fly repetitively chose to walk up on the author's finger, go with him into a greenhouse and after flying off to catch an insect, returned to the man's finger to eat its prey. I find it absolutely fascinating that, not only is there a fly that willingly uses a human finger as a perch, but there is a man in Slovakia who has the patience to make these observations, and the skill to capture beautiful macro photographs of his study subject. That was my "Aha!" moment for the day.
Moments in nature that make me exclaim, "Wow!" are what I term "aha" moments. They are when a connection is made between humans and the natural world, even if that connection is not fully defined, explained or studied. It is enough that we feel a sense of wonder.
Professionally, I hope to share that feeling of awe with the visitors to the Kenai Refuge. The Refuge interpretive programs are designed to reveal details of our natural world that are easily overlooked. Sure, I know that not every stop on the trail will produce an "aha" moment every time.
Sometimes these moments come as a whisper few hear, sometimes they are a shout to the world. Still other times they are captured visually. I love these kinds of inspiration. This fall, on a digital photo safari, a teenager exclaimed their amazement about a new mushroom he had found growing around another plant.
We enjoyed sharing his find as a group and more than one other budding photographer chose to snap their own photo of the brown star of the show. That was an "aha" moment.
The more time I spend outside, the more I get to witness the restorative power of nature. In turn, these memories become the thoughts I turn to when my own day gets too hectic.
Sitting at my desk this winter, my inspiration for next year's public programs are the little connections to nature I witness while guiding nature walks. On a climate change hike last August, a young child chose a special stalk of club moss (Lycopodium) from the forest floor to share with our group. She held it delicately away from its companions so we could see just the one she had in mind. In a soft voice she cooed over its soft spikes and showed us where it grew into the duff.
I had asked the group to find one thing that makes the boreal forest special. The answers were beautifully varied. The forest meant something unique to each person, but the important thing was that it meant something.
Early in spring, the forest floor comes to life after the first thaw. The same forest turns brown and, in the words of a young visitor, "slimy" just before winter.
Now in early winter, the brown leaves blanketing the trail down to Headquarters Lake will be covered by white crunchy snow in the coming weeks. I'll be strapping snowshoes onto my boots and exploring the winter world on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
I hope you'll join me on the trail.
For now, go ahead and take another look out your window and seek an "aha" moment for the day.
Leah Eskelin is a Visitor Services Park Ranger at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov and see more participant photos from the fall photo safari at http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.