Spring 2018 Conservationist

Taking It All In

by Abigail Dean and Keriann Dubina, Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center

We live in a world where it’s normal to be busy with the demands of work and home. Much of our time is planned out, and many of our thoughts are devoted to the future, leaving us little time to rest, reflect or experience life in the moment. Fortunately, trying a few easy practices in a DuPage forest preserve can help clear some headspace and allow us to enjoy the here and now.

If you’ve read any magazines or newspapers or watched any TV over the past decade, you’ve likely heard the term “mindfulness.” Rooted in religious teachings dating back centuries, today’s mindfulness takes many forms. Therapists, corporate managers, clinicians and teachers have all adapted its principles, and there are even a few apps. But for many individuals, mindfulness is simply a way to break the cycle of worry by bringing immediate attention to the present and focusing each of their senses on their physical surroundings. Regardless of your age or abilities, mindful thinking can help you reduce stress while improving memory, concentration and attitude.

The concept may sound intimidating, but the practice of mindfulness is easy, especially if you’re walking or sitting in a forest preserve. After all, the natural world produces a constantly changing stream of phenomena for the senses. How does the sun feel on your face? The wind on your skin? What bird songs can you hear? Do you smell the aroma of mountain mint? How does a fallen oak leaf feel between your fingertips?

For one specific mindful experience, walk the labyrinth at the visitors garden next to the Danada House at Danada Forest Preserve. Labyrinths are meandering, open geometric paths made of circular twists and turns. You walk from the perimeter to the center and out again along the same route. They’re not mazes, and there’s no way to get lost. By focusing on how you take each step, your brain relegates stressors and distractions to the background, allowing you to recognize otherwise-overlooked sensations along the way.

You can also practice mindful thinking in the forest preserves while jogging, walking your dog or (in a few preserves) floating on the water. In a kayak you can close your eyes and breathe along with the rhythm of drips from the blades of your paddle. Place the tips of your fingers in water and feel the coolness move around them. Watch clouds’ reflections morph across the surface.

If you’re interested in other ways to find peace through the forest preserves, consider joining “Poetic Prompts to Mindfulness,” “Mindful Walking for Seniors,” or “Shinrin-Yoku,” the Japanese approach to reaping the restorative benefits of nature through calming walks. These programs and more are in the new “Health & Well-Being” section of our calendar.

On your next forest preserve visit, take a deep breath and give mindfulness a try. It might be your favorite new route to relaxation.

egret standing in the water at sunsetForest Preserve Feel-Goods

If practicing mindfulness doesn’t seem like your way to relax, you can still benefit from a visit to a DuPage forest preserve. Studies show spending time in nature reduces stress and blood pressure, increases focus and energy, and improves sleep. Scientists are also researching “phytoncides,” which trees and other plants produce, for the chemicals’ reported ability to boost human wellness for up to 30 days. (Let’s face it, though. After a long winter who wouldn’t feel better after some time on the trails?)

visitor-by-water.jpgCountdown to Calm

Focus on FIVE things you see around you — birds, an oak tree or passing cloud, or a leaf cartwheeling over a trail in the wind.

Focus on FOUR things you feel. Maybe it’s the bark on a tree, the supple green leaf of a milkweed or the rocks between the toes of your bare feet.

Focus on THREE things you hear. Listen for the wind through blades of prairie grass, water over rocks, or the whistled pairs of notes of a black-capped chickadee.

Focus on TWO things you smell. Think about the multiple aromas in a damp forest or a spicy stand of bergamot.

Focus on ONE thing you taste. Can you still sense what you last had to eat or drink?