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Before the pandemic, one of my favourite past-times was sitting in cafes or bookstores, enjoying the casual company of strangers as I read, worked, or drew. Now that that is no longer an option, I began to explore in sincerity, for the first time in my adult life, the outdoors. There has got to be something to all those articles and research about nature being good for both your mental and physical health.
(Spoiler alert: they’re right).
Not that I hated the outdoors before. But I was never much of an outdoorsy, hiking, canoeing, jogging, biking person that defines a lot of the North American west coast. The most I did was take walks and enjoy flowers. However, as social media became stifling and staying inside all the time drove my brain into fits of depression and anxiety, I turned to nature (a safe distance away from other human beings).
Moving the indoors, outdoors
The first thing can be as simple as moving playing video games on your phone inside, to playing video games on your phone in the park. You get fresh air and the benefits of open space whilst still getting to do what you like to do.
I’ve taken to drawing outdoors a lot. Not only does it feel somehow more mindful and calming outside, sketching next to the ocean also makes me feel like I’m living some YA indie coming of age film, which is cool.
It turns out there is a whole world even in a backyard. Sometimes, it’s just about where to look. If you find sitting beneath a tree staring out at grass the most boring activity possible, why not turn to the macro scale?
It astounded me the biodiversity of plants, fungi, insects, and more, that grew right beneath my feet or right on the bark of that tree I was leaning morosely against.
With just my phone in hand, I zoomed in at the rocks on beaches and the petals of flowers in gardens and found textures, depth, and gorgeous biodiversity that I simply had never noticed before.
I made this macro-documentation of nature a little hobby as I tried to find interesting shots even in the most mundane of places, like the grass of a local park. Whether it was just a shot of a dew drop on a flower petal or the vast array of seaweed, barnacles, shells, and ocean bubbles gathering on and around a single rock, I found a multitude of universes beneath my very feet.
You can also help scientists just by snapping photos of plants. As I spent more time outdoors I grew curious about all the different flowers, insects, and birds around.
I browsed around for plant-and-animal-identifying apps and eventually found a wide community of citizen scientists and casual enthusiasts on iNaturalist, a site and app where ordinary people photograph and document sightings of just about every plant, animal, insect, and living thing imaginable. If deemed quality enough by the community, your photos may be used for research, and in helping track the range and spread of varies species across the globe.
At the time of writing this, I’ve gotten to identifying 41 different taxa on my iNaturalist account. (It almost feels like catching Pokemon, except I don’t entomb them but just get a photo of them).
I’ve flooded my phone’s camera roll with gorgeous flowers, birds doing weird things, and intricate looking insects going along their day without a care about pandemics or human society.
It has been both an educating and fun activity to do outside.
When I was young I used to spend a lot of time digging around at the beach for shells and rocks. I don’t know when I lost that habit, but the stress and boredom of the pandemic brought it back.
Whether it’s rock or shell or leaf collecting, there is a myriad of things you can collect or record in nature — as long as you’re not disturbing the ecosystem.
PS, to keep ocean rocks looking wet and shiny, and not dull when they dry out, I discovered that a simple way is to just coat them with clear nail varnish. Just be in a well ventilated place so you don’t dizzy yourself with fumes like I did.
Caring for insects and bugs
Okay, so this is a very niche thing. And maybe insects make you scream or hurl and you kill every ant you see. But it just might be a hobby to take up in the meantime, and a great way to practice curiosity and empathy for living things that are incredibly different from us.
One of the biggest communities like this out there is the ant-colony raising community. Done ethically, it can be one of the most enlightening things someone can do, partially because ant colonies act a lot like human societies (also, they’re pretty much self-sufficient and need little direct attention). They care for each other, communicate similarly to how we use social media, bury their dead, take out their garbage, and dig intricate tunnels on par with human engineering.
If you’re not completely turned off by this, AntsCanada is probably one of the biggest organisations that has information on responsible ant rearing and education.
I can moan about exercise for hours, and I have. Turns out though, past the bodily aches and effort, it’s more than worth it. If you’re someone like me who has never once been able to establish a proper exercise habit no matter how many New Years resolutions you’ve made, there isn’t a better time to start than now.
One of the unconscious reasons I didn’t maintain any habit was because I had no way of tracking my progress — it just felt like I was putting my body through pain for no reason whatsoever. (That, though, is an illusion. Your health is exponentially improved every time you exercise and move).
Then someone suggested Strava, a free app for tracking not only your running or biking time, but also distance, speed, and a myriad of data that can quantify your progress to your brain. There are a lot of apps similar to it too, so pick whatever works.
I’ve built up a vague routine of biking to the beach and doing some photography and nature exploration there, combining both exercise and other hobbies. I never thought I’d ever do anything like that. Even me half a year ago would’ve been bemused and shocked.
However, the health benefits have been astounding, and not just physically. Some of my most peaceful moments in between all the stress and anxiety, have simply been sitting on a rock by the ocean.
There are of course, endless things you can do in nature that isn’t just sitting there (though that’s perfectly fine too). Exercise and meditation could each take up another article entirely. But the idea is to be curious and open minded, because that feeling of discovery and grounded mindfulness in nature, is unparalleled by anything. During a time where we’re not supposed to be in crowds or at clubs or parties, nature is still there for us, like it has been since the beginning of human life on Earth.
And if you’re one of the lucky ones who even has access to green spaces and the time to explore them, this would be probably the ideal time to do so, responsibly.