Finding Gifts and Inspiration: The Blessings of a Writer’s Relationship with Nature

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

Turkey feathers similar to the feather I had found. Courtesy of Game Changer Taxidermy.

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?

14 thoughts on “Finding Gifts and Inspiration: The Blessings of a Writer’s Relationship with Nature

  1. I must admit to something of a love/hate relationship with nature, partly shaped by a farming background where nature is both an ally and sometimes a foe. Relatives and friends of mine love gardening, and I like gardens, but not gardening. I’ve always walked a lot and liked it, but more often in suburbia and cities than in the countryside. But I do notice the scents and seasons of flowers and other plants, even if I can identify very few of them. I also rarely read poetry, but I’ve recently seen Mary Oliver’s work praised by several writers, yourself included. I should check her out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful, inspirational article. I love my garden, but in the past couple of years I haven’t done all that much gardening – I’ve simply too busy. Or gone walking all that much, either. And I think that has been part of my problem. Too much time spent in front of the computer and not enough getting fresh air and allowing myself to relax. I need to rebalance and reprioritise I think – and take a leaf out of your book:). Thank you for the kind advice!

    Liked by 2 people

    • You reminded me of one of my biggest concerns about being a writer, Sarah. If I don’t consciously make time to leave my condo, I’d probably stay inside all day – or, worse, become a recluse. :S So I learned to schedule my outdoor time around work or writing. And if I feel the need to clear my head, then out I go.

      Unless it’s winter, though. I don’t like going outside into the cold and snow. At all. XD

      Anyways: Yes, it might be a good idea to re-evaluate your routine and see when and how you can bring your outdoor hobbies back into your life. (Gardening might have to wait until next spring, though, I’m guessing?) Maybe ask yourself, when is your optimal time for writing? And your optimal time for walking, gardening, etc.? Knowing those answers might be a good place to start.

      Btw, were you and your family impacted by Hurricane Ophelia earlier this week?

      Liked by 2 people

      • And you’re right. Once I’m fully back on my feet, I am going to overhaul my life. There are major stress points I cannot do anything about – probably one of the reasons why they make me so stressed. So I need to try and distance myself from those situations and make more outdoor moments. The garden… I can still connect in the wintertime, I think, so long as it isn’t chucking it down with rain… Thank you – I have found your example very helpful, Sara:)

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I love the outdoors. I always have. I love its changes and surprises. No matter how many times I spot a deer or another graceful wild animal in the woods it never ceases to be a little thrill. It’s also very fun to describe nature in stories. ^ ^

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love seeing deer, too. I actually saw one in the woods during a recent walk. And I stopped to watch it – and it watched me back. 🙂

      Seeing animals in their natural habitat is… I don’t want to say “magical,” because it sounds cliched, but it’s the only word I can think of. Ospreys hunting along a river, herons at The Pond at Central Park, the deer I mentioned earlier – they’re all moments that make us pause, and watch in wonder, and think about life from a different perspective.

      Thanks for your comments, Tori. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  4. (Ex)Hurricane Ophelia had just passed over us here in Ireland when I posted my comment above. That may have discouraged my nature-loving a bit. Though Ophelia had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit us, there was still a lot of damage and three deaths, a lot less than in storms elsewhere, but we’re not used to weather extremes here.

    Though I’ve recently tended to walk by night and in built-up areas, as I said above, there are several wilder but still convenient paths not too far from me, which I will try to re-explore by day. We often get mild days here in autumn, and even winter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve had a bit of a fascination with tropical systems since I was young (one of my favorite pastimes in the summer used to be tracking such storms and watching the Weather Channel for frequent updates *loL*). So when I saw where Ophelia was heading, I knew that was incredibly rare, and not in a positive way. :/ Did you lose electricity? Or have much damage at home?

      And yeah, I can imagine how living on a farm can impact one’s relationship with nature. My mother grew up on a farm as well. It must have encouraged her love of gardening and outdoor work in general, but it also instilled in her a short temper for animals. (My brother and I weren’t allowed to have pets when we were younger, for that reason.)

      Mary Oliver’s poetry is stunning. It’s so full of balance, simplicity, and awareness of the world around us and the world within ourselves. If you find one of her poetry books, buy it. You won’t regret it, John. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a beautifully written & inspiring post!
    Like you, I’m not an outdoorsy person in the sense of gardening or sports, though I go for daily walks outside to clear my head and breathe fresh air.
    As a writer, I find it to be a constant source of inspiration, bringing calm to a disquiet mind. And sometimes, it provides a welcome distraction from the glare of the computer screen. Whether I’m standing in the midst of trees or at the edge of the water, it is enough to remind me that the world is bigger than my own bubble, and that life should be lived fully.
    Thank you for sharing this, Sara ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  6. It is chucking it down with rain, to borrow Sjhigbee’s phrase, as I type. And Storm Brian is now headed our way in Ireland, even before we’ve fully recovered from Ophelia. Nature appears to be testing my resolve to see her in a new light!

    We had no power cuts during Ophelia, though I know people who lost both power and water. Our only damage was a eucalyptus tree that fell, luckily without hitting anyone or anything. Hopefully, Brian will pass over with as little harm as possible. Being a Monty Python fan, I keep thinking of it as Storm ‘Bwyan’…

    Like

  7. Nature has always been one of the main inspirations for my writing, especially for poetry. Even when I was in ninth grade I was writing little stories and poems about the mountains and wildlife and seasons. Maybe that stemmed from my childhood occupation as a birdwatcher and forest ranger.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s impossible to not be inspired by nature when you’re already a nature lover, right? 😉

      A forest ranger! How were you doing that as such a young age?

      My dad’s a bit of a bird-watcher, too. He doesn’t actively pursue it, but when he spots a bird he’s not familiar with, he’ll try to identify it using Google or the bird guide he has at home.

      Thanks for your comments, E. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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