The 60-Second Nature Challenge — how small moments can increase our awareness of the natural world

It seems like nature is turning up more and more in popular culture these days, as we seek out relief from our busy, technology-driven lives. It’s ironic that our appreciation for nature seems to be growing even as the natural world itself is disappearing. Not just physically disappearing from the earth, but disappearing from our consciousness, from our personal frame of reference, from our daily lives. And that’s not good.

Studies have shown that walking in nature, or even just looking at nature can improve our mood and brain function, and nature even has positive affects on our physical well-being. But looking back over human history, you’d think we were trying everything we could to get away from it. Each new advancement seemed designed to keep us safely indoors, protected from the wild, wild world.

I think we’ve taken nature for granted because it was always there, and it was always bigger than us, at least as individuals. The wilderness seemed boundless, and it felt like nature would always be there to provide food, raw materials, fossil fuels, everything we need to survive. But it turns out we need more than just the stuff nature produces, we need nature itself, we need proximity to trees, birds, flowers, oceans — and that’s not always easy in the modern world.

Certainly the internet lets us experience nature virtually, through millions of photos and videos. But I worry that experiencing nature through media is slowly replacing our actual experience with nature. And while videos of penguins and sloths do indeed brighten our day, and make us more appreciative and sympathetic to wild creatures, they can also lull us into a sense of complacency, making us feel that the wilderness is safe and sound, and will always be there.

Also, there is something about real-life nature that can’t be duplicated on a computer screen. Real plants and animals have a presence, a life-force that can only be felt in person. Physical encounters help build connections with other living creatures, which leads to a higher level of understanding.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult for many people to experience nature in person. We lead busy lives, surrounded by cities or tied to computer screens all day. And when we do get out into the wild, we often feel like strangers in a strange land, unsure how to act or what to look for.

So, I would like to propose a small challenge for busy people, a way to develop a closer connection with nature. I call it the 60-second nature challenge, and it’s very simple. Find a living thing in the wild — it can be an insect, a bird, a squirrel, even a tree. Then, spend sixty seconds looking at that one thing.

That’s it. The idea is to dig deeper, to study one tiny piece of nature in order to better appreciate the whole. It may seem tedious to watch one thing for a full minute, especially if it’s not moving. But I know from experience that small moments of nature, studied closely, can bring a greater understanding and appreciation of the natural world as a whole.

You may find that sixty seconds is too short, once you get going. The actual time limit is arbitrary, the idea is to spend enough time to really see something in a new way. What details do you notice? How does it interact with the world around it? There is a meditative quality to studying something for a long time, which opens your mind to new ways of seeing. Try it a few different times. The more you observe small moments of nature, the more you will begin to see larger patterns and connections.

And you don’t need to hike into the wilderness to find a subject — it could be an ant on the sidewalk, a pigeon, a moth, a flea. It just has to be wild (not a pet.) If there are no animals around, a flower or tree will do nicely. And if you’re wondering what could be gained by looking at a tree for a whole minute, try it and see.

We always talk about getting “back to nature” as though it were something separate from us, but we are actually part of nature, we always have been. That’s why we feel the effects when we extract ourselves from it, we feel less whole. When we separate ourselves from the rest of the natural world, I think we actually lose part of our humanity.

So I appreciate our need to reconnect with nature, despite our busy lives. I won’t promise any startling revelations from staring at a honeybee or wildflower for a minute, but I hope that once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll begin to see things in a new way.

Now, go outside — the world is waiting.