Sensory Awareness – If You Learn Nothing Else!

Child of Air - Artwork by Joanna Powell Colbert
Child of Air – Artwork used with permission by Joanna Powell Colbert of

Do you get a vague feeling that you hike past a lot of wildlife without seeing it – the deer hiding in the thicket, the coyote silently watching your every move, or the minutes-old cougar tracks saying she heard you coming?  Do you wish you could be as good as those wildlife photographers or famous naturalists who tell stories of countless wildlife encounters that seem unreal?

It is true that some people have a natural aptitude for putting themselves in situations that attract wonderful experiences, and you may actually be one of those special people who can see the entirety of a situation and know its outcome. Most of us, however, need to consciously practice these skills to make them work.

Consider for a second that by using a few simple skills of sensory awareness, a whole new world of nature may be revealed, no matter how much time you’ve spent outside. With this expanded awareness, you won’t just be “out in nature” anymore, but with nature, developing a deeper understanding of its patterns.

The Most Important Awareness Skill

There is an underlying skill which is critical to gain expanded awareness.  It is so obvious, that most of us neglect to appreciate it: breathing.  It is the thing that will keep you calm in a crisis situation, and it is even the key to body control, such as feeling warm or cold.

Try it the next time you get chilly, and instead of curling up against the cold, stand up straight, and take 10 slow, deep breaths into your lungs.  Be sure to blow absolutely all the air out of your lungs each time, and then you will naturally take a deep breath afterward.Ad-Blog-Wildlife

Blowing the air out first is critical, so push your stomach inward when you are exhaling, getting the air out of the bottom of your lungs first, then your chest.  Then go ahead and pull air into the very bottom of your lungs by sticking out your stomach at the same time as you inhale.

The more air you take into this bottom third of your lungs means the more power you will have in any situation.  But to breathe fully, you have to go the next step and get oxygen to your brain as well as the rest of your body.  Go ahead, practice this breathing whenever you can.  It can’t hurt.

Pull another breath into the bottom of your lungs, then stick your rib cage out, bringing lots of air into the middle of your lungs.  When you feel that you have successfully filled the lower and middle part of your lungs, blow all the air out again, first by pushing on your stomach, then swiftly pushing on the your chest.

Go ahead the take another full breath.  Start by sticking out your stomach and pulling air into the bottom third of your lungs.  Then expand your chest fully, pulling air into the middle of your lungs.  Finally, raise the top of your rib cage high into the air and pull any more air that you can into the top third of your lungs, which will feed your brain, allowing you to think clearly.

Most people get really tense at first when they try to fill up their lungs fully, especially the top third.  See if you can do it without straining yourself, without tensing up your neck and other parts of your body.  Over time, you will relax into this form of breathing, and nothing will tense up.  That will be critical if ever you get into a survival situation.

Breathing is the key to expanded awareness.  If your breathing is calm, deep, sure – then you will have a full amount of oxygen going to the brain, and your awareness will be keen.  If you breathe like this, you will know what is going on around you in every situation, with your mind crystal clear and able to make all correct decisions.

Great nature photographers, such as Jim Brandenberg, must understand this skill.  From the vast amounts of time spent in nature, waiting for the perfect shot, to the moment of truth, when a steady hand on the camera is critical, they know that breathing is the key.  Practice it, and employ it next time you are in outside, and see if nature opens itself to you more fully over time.

Engaging Peripheral Vision – See Like The Owl

Barn Owl by Nikki van Schyndel
Barn Owl by Nikki van Schyndel

The best naturalists are constantly aware of the entirety of a situation.  They use “wide-angle” vision to concentrate on what is around them as well as directly in front of them.  Our society of computers and books trains us to focus narrowly, but great trackers flourish due to their expanded awareness.

With your eyes open, choose an object to focus on.  Without moving your eye balls (owls can’t), see if you can notice everything in your whole field of vision, including what’s out the corner of your eyes. Unfocus your vision if needed. In this way, and without moving your eyeballs, count (or at least take into account) all the objects, colors, shadows and anything else in sight.

Whenever you are having a hard time holding your concentration on the things that appear above, below, and to the left and right corners of your eyes, try extending your arms straight ahead of you, right where your eyes are focused.  Then separate your arms slowly, wriggling your fingers.  Notice your hands as they separate, but keep your eyes pointed straight forward.  See how far apart you can spread your arms before your wriggling fingers disappear from the corners of your eyes.

Peripheral vision is the trick to being the first person to see anything that moves. Be that person who shows others where the hawk flying, where the rabbit is standing, where the deer’s ear just twitched, and where the cougar is crouched with one paw lifted and every-so-slightly shaking. Add this skill to the others on this page and the knowledge of tracking and especially bird language described in my previous articles, and you will know where most animals are moving.

Hands Around Your Ears – Hear Like The Deer

Ace of Earth by Joanna Colbert
Ace of Earth by Joanna Colbert used by permission from

Next, practice expanded hearing.  Relax your eyes, but keep them fixed in place.  Listen to the sounds that are to the left.  Wait until you have perceived them all, even the soft ones, the low-pitched ones, and the high-pitched ones.  Then listen to the sounds to the right.  Again, wait until you have counted them all.  Now take time to listen to the sounds above you, then below you.

Now cup your hands behind your ears so that you expand your ear size to become like a satellite dish. Experiment by cupping them in front of your ears, and cupping your hands backwards. Do just one ear, then another. Listen behind you very carefully, for this is where only your ears can perceive the presence of creatures sneaking around.  This is obviously a very important skill to develop, since we are otherwise blind to what may lay behind us.

Try to let your ears dominate your eyes in order to perceive what lies in front of you.  Can you recognize things in front of you by sound, even if you aren’t looking at them?  Last but not least, take time to recognize if there are any other monotonous sounds that were so regular, you didn’t even notice them at first.

Going Deeper – Bear Nose, Snake Taste & Coon Hands

If you read books like Jim Brandenberg’s Chased by the Light (NorthWord), Tom Brown’s Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature and Survival for Children (Berkley), Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree (University of New Mexico), or Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi – The Last of His Tribe (Bantam), you will find that the people who intimately know their natural environments have a “peaceful place.”  They return to the same place again and again, year upon year, where they can be alone, to reflect and to observe their favorite surroundings.

At your favorite or peaceful place in nature, take as many slow, deep breaths as you want before moving on with this exercise. Remember to concentrate on everything in your field of vision, then on all the sounds around you. Breathe again deeply, and identify the smells. Taste the air and try to identify things in connection with the smells. Notice the birds and other animals.

Turn your concentration, though not necessarily your gaze, to the insects and arachnids that may be crawling, flying, or jumping around you. Can you perceive them without looking? Often you can hear them. Sometimes you can feel them. You might even be able to smell them, and if you want, try to taste them. If you bite them before they bite you, and they don’t taste nasty, they’re edible. Of course, you should cut off any glands that hold poisons, and cook the critters when possible.

Bear Nose: Don’t worry if you can’t seem to smell much. You probably eat foods from the grocery store, or maybe your garden, but not foods that grow or roam naturally at your peaceful place, so your sense of smell and taste will be hampered. It would probably take a couple days of fasting before you could smell quite like an animal must in nature. In the meantime, try to penetrate through the unnatural smells you exude, and sense what is right in front of your nose. Don’t sniff scat or anything that could transfer a disease, however.

Snake Taste: After appreciating the smells as much as you can, taste the full flavor of what currently lingers in your mouth. Keep your attention as best you can on what you are seeing, hearing, and smelling. If you have just eaten something, savor that flavor. Is it sweet now? Sour? Rich or bland? Now try to taste the air. Do so by taking a mouthful in, then running it over your palate like there’s something there – imagine cotton perhaps. Pretend to swallow it, and concentrate on how the air tastes. Can you identify anything lingering in the air by its taste? Remember not to ever sample any poisonous plants, or even any plants that may be only slightly familiar.

Pacific Chorus Tree Frog photo by Kim Chisholm
Pacific Chorus Tree Frog photo by Kim Chisholm

Coon Hands: Close your eyes and feel your body. Does it feel cold, hot, relaxed in general, stiff, calm or unsettled anywhere in particular? Blow all the air out of your lungs, and take in a really deep breath before letting it out, relaxing every part of your body. Take a moment to feel for any parts of your body that are tender, or that you wish were stronger or more relaxed. Take a deep breath in, concentrating on one of those uncomfortable places, bringing strength into it before exhaling, and imagine the pain leaving you. Stay unattached to whether it “works.” Just do it.

Keep your eyes closed and begin to feel around with your hands. Crawl on your hands and knees, or slither like a snake if you want. Spend as much time as you possibly can feeling what your peaceful place is like without your sense of sight. Use your skin to learn more about the things right around you.

If you are able, move all around your peaceful place using your ‘coon hands. See if you can crawl from one point toward another destination without looking. Wherever you go, try to identify all the things you touch without opening your eyes. Each time you successfully reach a pre-determined destination using only your ‘coon hands, choose another which offers a slightly greater challenge.

Bringing All The Senses Together Into Full Awareness

Open your eyes and keep your gaze fixed. Notice any birds or other animals around you without looking directly at them. What are they doing now? Again smell all the aromas around you, then take note of the sounds. Notice everything out the corners of your eyes. If anything moves that you want to positively identify, shift your gaze to focus on it. But be very careful when doing so to stay aware of everything in the corner of your eagle eyes, and maintain awareness of what’s coming to your bear nose and snake taste.

Article author Chris Chisholm is founder and co-owner of Wolf Camp and the Wolf College. To practice these skills with him and other staff instructors, we recommend the following programs:

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