During a recent lunch-break walk at my day job, I almost stepped on a bird feather. It might not sound so extraordinary. After all, birds are part of the everyday outdoors. But unlike fallen leaves, clods of dirt, or patches of grass, it’s not every day that your foot comes in contact with a stray feather. So I stopped and picked it up.
Two thoughts crossed my mind then. First, the feather itself. Gosh, was it gorgeous. It was slender, slightly curved, and mostly brown with white horizontal bars that became indistinct closer to the tip. And at over 1 foot long from shaft to tip, it was also HUGE. I still haven’t identified what species it belongs to. (Someone suggested the wild turkey, and it seems to be the closest match.) But as I twirled the feather between my fingers, what bird once wore it didn’t matter. What did matter was how I felt at that moment: as if I’d found a piece of treasure.
Second, as I returned the feather to the ground, I thought about writing. For me, nature and writing have been deeply connected for a long time. In fact, they might be more so now than ever before.
Appreciation and Admiration Through Observation
The funny thing is, I’m not an outdoorsy person. I’m neither a gardener (no place for one at my condo) nor a sports enthusiast (no skiing, mountain climbing, etc.). Instead, I’m an observer. Whether it’s a beach at low tide, the overlook for a waterfall, or my own street, I love seeing it and smelling it. Walking in it, photographing it, feeling the sun and the breeze on my skin. Admittedly I prefer to do this during the warmth of spring and summer. But the point is, I enjoy nature for the gifts, surprises, and experiences it offers, and I cherish every moment I can immerse myself in it.
What’s also “funny” about my reverence for nature is I’m not sure when or how it started. When I was younger, I hated doing chores outside. Raking leaves, plucking weeds, pushing wheelbarrows of woodchips or mulch – unless I was watering flowers, I wanted no part of it. In college I won the Poetry Award for graduating seniors, and my prize was (among other things) two volumes of Mary Oliver poetry. And initially, I was bored by her work – because it was mostly nature poems.
Yet an admiration of nature was there. It was just sleeping, hibernating, until the right moments. Then it would wake whenever deer loped through the backyard or hummingbirds dashed to and from their feeder. It would sing at the colors of sunrise and the first bursts of crocuses in the spring. And at night, it would grow quiet enough to listen to the hooting of owls and chirping of crickets.
Indeed it was there, and it still is now. A childlike sense of wonder that doesn’t fade as I get older, but rather grows taller, lusher, and deeper in its roots. Maybe it’s because I eventually grew to love Mary Oliver’s poems. Or maybe it’s because when I moved out on my own, I could choose how I wanted to experience nature. Or maybe it’s because I’ve matured, and now I have a greater appreciation for the world outside my window.
Most likely, it’s a little bit of all those reasons.
Turning an Observation into an Experience
Eventually I found myself following in Mary’s footsteps and writing about nature. It wasn’t emulation by intention, but a product of my own attentiveness. I would listen to the nighttime noises outside my window and hear an orchestra. I would notice birds, insects, or other creatures, then spend hours researching them online. Once I looked down the driveway during a snowfall and swore that the light of the lampposts was magical, as if I’d traveled to Narnia.
And in each discovery, great or small, I would find a poem to write.
To me, the goal of writing a nature poem is to turn an observation into an experience. It’s never just about what you see or hear. It’s also about what you smell, taste, think, and feel with your hands and your heart. What effect does this everyday occurrence have on you? What about this seemingly ordinary thing makes it so extraordinary?
Those are a few of the questions I ask myself when I write a nature poem. I’m not trying to exaggerate what I’ve borne witness to. Rather, I’m recapturing a fleeting moment, and reminding myself (and, hopefully, readers) of the beauty and brilliance that surrounds us but that we, sadly, take for granted all too often.
I’ve also recognized a similar mindfulness to nature in my fiction projects. With my previous WIP, a YA fantasy quest story, I included flowers, trees, and other wildlife that were appropriate for the latitudes and climate of each location. And for my new WIP, a YA magical realism set in my local area, I’m studying the current change in seasons. The manuscript begins in early October, so all of the details surrounding me now – the crispness of the morning air, the fiery colors of foliage, even the threat of plummeting acorns – are crucial to painting a vivid, accurate picture of autumn in Massachusetts.
A Spontaneous Pathway that Opens When We Step Outside
Outdoor walks offer more than sparks of inspiration or environmental studies for writers. It can also clear one’s head when emotions run high, or help us get “unstuck” if we’re, well, stuck on a writing project. If I’m struggling with a chapter or a blog post, I simply put it aside to work on something else. Then, the next time I step outside for fresh air, chances are I’ll come back inside with a solution to the problem and other new ideas. Thank goodness for cell phones and text messages – I can type whatever the muse sends my way and save a draft for future reference.
Believe it or not, there’s a psychological explanation for this. Numerous studies have shown that exercise puts the brain in a relaxed state that opens the “spontaneous pathway.” Here, ideas are processed subconsciously and then appear as flashes of insight. So those “a-ha” moments for your manuscript that strike when you’re running, driving, or doing something else aside from writing? That’s your spontaneous pathway at work.
The subconscious doesn’t deserve all the credit, though. When I walk on a treadmill, do yoga, or exercise indoors in other ways, my brain stays quiet. The creativity tap that runs so freely in the world outside turns off. I’m not sure whether this is true for other writers who use exercise as part of their writing process. But for myself, I don’t question it. A walk outdoors is not meant to be simply a walk outdoors. It’s my optimal time for brainstorming and problem-solving with my writing – a time I’ve learned to readily take advantage of.
Transcending the Physical and Enriching Our Lives – and Our Writing
Nature truly offers a cornucopia of gifts for writers and other creatives. And in our increasingly fast-paced world of technology, deadlines, and constant connection, it’s also easy to forget to pause for a moment and disconnect. That’s why being out in nature for any reason is vital to our well-being. We can reap more benefits than we know by slowing down, stepping down, and taking a deep breath.
What kinds of gifts? Sure, we might find souvenirs that we can hold in our hands and, in some cases, take home. (Though you might want to consider local, state, or federal laws first. It’s illegal in the U.S., for example, to move bird feathers, eggs, and nests from their natural habitat, which is why I put the feather back.) But the most enduring gifts we can receive from nature are the immaterial ones. Ideas, lessons, memories – things that transcend the physical and give our outdoor experiences more meaning.
Nature beckons us to embrace the present, to open our eyes and be mindful of our surroundings in all their splendor (or otherwise, depending on the circumstances). It reminds us that, no matter how forward-thinking or lost in imagination we might be, it’s just as important to pay attention to the here and now. It also prompts us to be grateful for what we have, and to appreciate the everyday as well as the extraordinary.
The list doesn’t end there, of course, but the truth should already be clear. Without nature, a writer’s life would be less enriching. And because of all the reasons we might turn to nature for assistance – studying a setting, absorbing sensory details, stumbling upon ideas, and much more, so would our work.
I know I’ll keep going on my outdoor walks whenever the weather cooperates. And while I didn’t keep the mystery feather, I did take a photo of it with my phone. So as soon as time allows, I’ll find the image, and I’ll dive back into my thoughts and feelings from that moment.
And then I’ll follow my poet’s childlike heart, and complete the task I gave myself that day: I’ll turn it into a poem.
What do you like to do outdoors? What benefits have you found through any hobbies, sightseeing, and related experiences? And if you’re a writer, how has nature influenced or helped you with your work?