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Playing in the dirt

A nature-lovin' approach to slowing time in a frenetic age



As kids we did our fair share of lazy summertime cloud gazing. Hours would wander on and on until at dusk, one of the neighborhood moms yelled "Suppertime!" ending the outdoor portion of the day for us all.

With adulthood came an ever-contracting sense of time, which scientists currently attribute to grown-up brains writing down less new information than kid brains do. In other words, the way children learn is like drinking from a firehose, and the monster continuum of fresh observations makes time seem to snail forward. Age, on the other hand, brings a jaded familiarity with the world — and much less novel input to record — which causes the sensation of time flying past at warp speed.

Theoretically, then, we could recapture the pace of summertimes past by slowing down, becoming mindful, and opening our brains to something new (and preferably sublime). This being Colorado, we recommend that you do this by embarking on a lazy love affair with the natural world, and offer the following, a list of our favorite observation-driven pursuits and resources.

An alternative view

The "Earth Windows" activity comes from Joseph Cornell's 1979 classic, Sharing Nature With Children, but is perhaps a more powerful experience for adults. Lie still on the forest floor, covering your body up to your face with pine needles, sticks and clean leaves (ask a friend to help), and carefully arranging the pine needles and leaves over your face, leaving only your eyes exposed. Now that you've shed your human form, enjoy the forest quiet.

Keeping field notes

One of the best ways to slow time in nature is by capturing observations in field notes: sketches of plant life, rock and cloud formations, birds in flight, descriptions in poetry or prose. It's a blend of science and personal recollection in the tradition of naturalist John Muir, who wrote "Everybody needs beauty ... places to play and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike."

Although a journaling toolkit can include fancy-schmancy waterproof notebooks, a miniature watercolor set and various scopes and hand lenses, all you really need to get started is a pencil and some paper. From there, some humble suggestions:

• Curl up with a copy of Ann Zwinger's Beyond the Aspen Grove, in which she sketches and catalogs the plant life on 40 acres near Colorado Springs. A beautifully written local classic.

• A good book for beginners: Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth.

• A splendid volume for those who want a deeper consideration of the subject: Field Notes on Science & Nature, edited by Harvard biologist Michael Canfield, brings essays on observation and field journals by such natural science luminaries as Bernd Heinrich (check out Ravens in Winter, The Trees in My Forest and pretty much everything else he's ever written) and a foreword by E.O. Wilson. See bits from the book in "Beautiful Data: The Art of Science Field Notes" from Wired magazine (wrd.cm/1EwqEST).

• Can't draw? Check out How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook by Susan Leigh Tomlinson.

• The Smithsonian's Field Book Project (bit.ly/1H0weO4) gives you online access to historic field notebooks, and its blog (bit.ly/1dYUtoS) is full of nature observations new and old.

• Spend some time inside Charles Darwin's notebooks (bit.ly/1rvOLwj).

• Build your bird observation skills with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds site (bit.ly/1HbqMu6), including field marks, behavior, habitat, shape, size and more. Plus ... keeping a field notebook (bit.ly/1EwvHCW), and the free Merlin Bird ID app (bit.ly/1K3S7lE).

• Letters to and from naturalist Muir (1838-1914) "show how Muir dedicated his life to revealing the complexity and beauty of the natural world as a scientist, writer, and activist" (bit.ly/1H0CBkk).

Sundry views of Earth life

A decidedly chaotic list of our favorite sites, designed to stretch your mind and imagination:

Start in the Milky Way, 10 million light years from Earth, then travel through space through orders of magnitude down to the microscopic world (fla.st/1j0X9Rt).

• Here's tonight's starry sky, as seen from your front porch (bit.ly/1KEn90h).

• And just because it's beautiful: Harmonie/Harmony, the birds of John James Audubon (bit.ly/1zXuk3K), turn up the sound, click on the birds on the opening screen).

Eggs: A Virtual Exhibit (bit.ly/1K3XtNZ), from the Royal Alberta Museum. Again, just because.

• Trace prehistoric family ties through the Tree of Life web project (tolweb.org/tree).

• Dip in to the ever-expanding Encyclopedia of Life (eol.org), the gathering-place for information on all life-forms.

• Take a look inside rotating 3D animals both prehistoric and modern (digimorph.org).

• Watch the most recent ice age force plants and trees to migrate up and down mountains and over continents (1.usa.gov/1QF9aeM).

Paleogeology maps that make you feel insignificant and humble (bit.ly/1IyyXlY).

• And a theme song for your voyage, scroll down to "Infinite Eye" by Keb' Mo' and Ricky Skaggs (bit.ly/1K41cep).

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