“I have never met a man who was truly awake,” Thoreau
Thoreau called us sleepwalkers. Have you ever found yourself walking along a path in the woods and then suddenly realizing that the whole forest around you has changed? You start out among conifers but now you find yourself surrounded by deciduous trees. Or you realize that the birds are active and noisy, and you don’t know when the change took place. You have awakened. You let the smell of a fern leaf wash through you. You realize why you were asleep. You were talking to yourself, caught up in a familiar endless dialogue…”I have never met a man who was truly awake,” Thoreau said nearly 150 years ago…How much more applicable is this comment to people today. How much farther have we strayed from the wild within.
Fun and enlightening awareness activities described by tracker Tom Brown, Jr. (1988) include the following:
- SPLATTER VISION
Stand staring straight ahead and stretch your arms out to the sides at shoulder level. Wiggle your fingers. While staring straight ahead, notice the movement of your fingers in your peripheral vision. Work to maintain this simultaneous central and peripheral vision. Notice how much wider your perceptual field becomes, how any movement within this wider visual field is now in your awareness. Practice shifting focus from the center to the periphery as you walk through a natural setting (e.g., a wooded area).
- SMALL WORLD
Using sticks or string, demarcate an area of ground about a foot square. First stare at it from a standing position, noting every detail you perceive. Then move to a kneeling position and notice new things that you perceive. Finally, lie on your belly and imagine yourself as an explorer about 2 inches tall. Students will see a Lilliputian jungle with animal signs (e.g., insect-chewed blades of grass, tracks of mice) and a buzz of activity. This experience should last a minimum of 15 minutes.
- FOCUSED HEARING
Close your eyes and focus on what you can hear without distraction of visual input. Try to identify the location of individual sounds in the background. Notice the variety, texture, and complexity of sounds. Then, cup your hands around your ears and use them to localize sounds (just as animals with large ears alter the shape and direction of their ears to locate sounds). Try cupping both hands around one ear and using your hands to focus the sounds. Next, move around in your environment and use solid objects as sound conductors (e.g., when you pass a big tree, put your head down next to it and notice what you can hear).
- BLINDFOLD WALK
For this exercise, the instructor must create an intricate string path through a natural area (densely wooded areas are good), winding the string around trees and rocks, crossing it back over itself. Some portions of the string path should be at waist level, others higher or lower. Students should be blindfolded (and preferably barefoot) as they are started on the path with about 45 seconds between each person. Students use one hand to lightly follow the string. The goal of the activity is not to complete the path quickly, but to experience as much as possible along the way. Students will report novel sensory experiences (e.g., that they could “feel” trees before they reached them, or that they found themselves orienting according to the warmth and light of the sun). Note: Students will walk so gingerly and deliberately that injury is highly unlikely. This activity may be adjusted to accomodate students with mobility limitations– the main point is to restrict visual input so the person must rely on other senses.
Other recommended activities include the following:
- HUMAN CAMERA
This exercise is done in pairs. One student is the camera and the other is the photographer. The camera closes his or her eyes and is led around by the photographer. Every so often, the photographer should stop, point the camera at a scene, and then open the shutter (the camera’s eyes) by tapping the camera on the shoulder. The photographer should keep the shutter open only briefly (a few seconds) and then tap again to close it. The camera should try to take in as much detail of the visual scene as possible in those few seconds. The photographer should take 5 or 6 photographs and then ask the camera to verbally describe what was in the pictures– keeping the eyes closed the whole time. After the camera has recalled as much detail as possible, the photographer should lead the camera back to each spot and let the camera take a longer look. What does the camera notice/realize about his or her perceptual capacity?
- DRUM STALK
This activity is similar to Tom Brown’s Blindfold Walk, but instead of navigating with to a string path, students will find their way (blindfolded and barefoot) through a natural area toward a regular repetitive stationary sound (e.g., a drumbeat every 10 seconds). Students will experience similar novel sensations as they do during the string walk. With both activities, students should remove their blindfolds at the end and look at what they walked through. (When Britain Scott did this in a dense woods with her class, one student looked at where she had walked and exclaimed, “I wouldn’t even have walked through that with my shoes on!” She kept her shoes off– and stayed off the path– for the entire walk back to the classroom building.)
- SCENT TRAIL TRACKING/ONION HIKE
This activity is a favorite with Girl Scout camp counselors. Ahead of time, the instructor takes a cut raw onion and rubs it across surfaces (e.g., tree bark, rocks) along a predetermined path. Students must figure out the path by following their noses. The point of this activity is to make students more aware of their sense of smell. Encourage students to try smelling with a single inhalation vs. with a serious of short sniffs (like other animals do); they will find that sniffing is more effective than the single inhalation. In the process of trying to find the onion scent markings, students will be sniffing tree bark, rocks, etc. As they become aware of a variety of scents that they otherwise would not have noticed, the world around them will likely become more perceptually vivid.
It is important to have students reflect upon their experiences and, as Deborah Winter suggests, consider how elevated awareness might contribute to heightened ecological consciousness and more sustainable behavioral choices. Short papers or journal entries are a good format for these reflections. Students should connect their subjective experience of the activities to course readings and topics.