“Secret Spot”, “Sacred Place”, “Campsite”, call it what you will, this will be the place that you become at home in the outdoors. It will be a place where you will discover an endless bounty of natural mysteries, relax in the sun, observe nature, clear your mind and connect deeply with yourself and our landscape. I can tell you from personal experience that the practice of going to my sit spot routinely has taught me more about nature than any college course, book or YouTube video. So this is what we would like you to do this week. Find a spot all your own.
Tips and recommendations-
Most important is to find a place that is convenient to get to. I would take a backyard sit spot in a town over a 15 minute drive to a nature sanctuary any day of the week. Humans are creatures of habit AND convenience, so this is the first thing to consider.
Leave the phone at home. This is about disconnecting from the noise of modern society and reconnecting with ourselves and our natural word.
Don’t overthink it. There is no “right or wrong” when doing this. Just go with the flow.
Dress for the weather. Be prepared for mud, rain, cold, warmth, etc. Know your body and dress so that you can be comfortable and at ease.
Make sure your spot is free of hazards such as poison ivy, yellow jacket nests, etc.
Plan on spending at least 20 minutes at this spot each time you visit.
“Tools of the Trade”.
Always bring something to drink, a journal and writing tools. That is all you really need, however, cameras, snacks, a seat, binoculars and other outdoor items can make your experience all the more enjoyable. But don’t complicate it!!!
Create an “Anchor Point”
This will be the center of your study area and it is important that you make this place recognizable, comfortable and familiar. I love using a landmark tree for an anchor point. Over the years, these trees have become like family to me.
This time of the year, I find it helpful to build a “Squirrel’s Nest” for my butt. Gather up dry sticks, leaves and pine needles to give yourself some insulation from the cold, wet ground.
Find the directions.
It’s always good to get a sense of direction when finding a new place. Think of a way to remember where the 4 cardinal directions are from your sit spot. Here, I’ve made a little compass rose with rocks. As a bonus, this picture was taken at 5pm on 3/21/2020. Can anyone tell me which rock represents north?
Try to take notes on the temperature, wind, cloud cover and anything else you might notice. This will help us better understand the relationship between weather patterns and animal behavior, it’s effects on plants, etc.
Okay, so that is the basic idea for this week. Find a spot and get familiar with it. Take notes on the weather, the directions and just sit down at your spot for a bit. Walk around the anchor point just to get a feel for your little area, but don’t wander off too far yet. And don’t worry about the tracks you can’t ID, the bird songs that are unfamiliar, the plant species you are baffled by. All of this will come in time. For
now, find your spot.
Creating a Master Map
We hope that you have found a place where you are able to decompress, breathe and take in the abundant beauty of nature. If you haven’t, no worries, it will come to you in time but my advice for now is DO NOT OVER THINK IT! One of the primary goals of Sit Spot is to get out of your head and into your senses. So, find a place outside and plop down for a bit. No pressure, no worries.
This week we will be working on creating a master map. This should be something very simple, that can be drawn in a matter of minutes or copied on an at-home printer with ease. You will be using this map for many of the lessons, and as time goes on, you will be able to fill in more details than could possibly fit on a page. But for now, keep it SIMPLE!
The first step is to go to your anchor point and determine the 4 directions. This DOES NOT have to be precise, but do your best to find North, South, East and West if you haven’t already. Then, pick a direction and head as straight as you can for about 50 steps. Don’t worry if you hit a barrier before you take 50 steps, such as a house, body of water, etc. Just map it and make a note of how far from your anchor point you are. After you take about 50 steps, find something that stands out as a landmark.
I like to use a small pocket pad to jot down quick notes for the mapping so I can still observe my surroundings and not get distracted with overly detailed notes. Find what works for you and go with it. Again, there is no wrong way to enjoy a sit spot.
To the South, I found an interesting cluster of beech trees. To make sure I could recognize these trees from afar, I put this rotting log in the V of the tree. I also try to spot my anchor point from each landmark I find which gives me a better feel for the area.
To the North, I found this white pine snag riddled with carpenter ant sign and woodpecker holes.
Once you’ve made a few notes of the landmarks in the 4 directions, sit down at your anchor point and see if you can spot them from where you are. If not, no big deal. We’re just trying to get a deeper sense of place and our surroundings. Spend a few minutes breathing, listening, looking. You can take notes if you like, but be sure to avoid keeping your head down. Try to engage all of your senses and just BE for a bit.
Finally, when you have returned home from your sit, create a master map. I like to use a plate or bowl to sketch a circle in the center. Remember, nothing too intricate or fancy yet, we want to be able to duplicate this quickly.
New England is fortunate to have very few serious hazards that we need to be aware of when we are out in the woods. Just think about the hazards we would need to consider if we were in Africa, Brazil or Australia. That being said, we are not without our stingers and itchy plants, and we can use the presence of these hazards to heighten our awareness and get a deeper understanding of our landscape.
If you think about most of the things that can ruin our day in the woods, there is one common theme to staying safe. Our ability to pay attention and keep our senses engaged is the MOST IMPORTANT thing we can do to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience in the outdoors. Around the world, people that live in less cozy environments have an amazing knowledge and awareness of their surroundings because they have to. A drop in their awareness could result in dire consequences, and so they naturally navigate their world in a much more “tuned-in” way than most. So, do not think of these hazards as enemies, but as opportunities and reminders to get out of our heads and into our senses.
Walk your area with your eyes wide open.
Think about the most common hazards we have and keep your eyes out for them. Poison Ivy, hornet nests, ticks, widow makers, broken glass and barbed wire are all commonly found in the woods. Take a walk throughout your area and make quick notes of the hazards you find in and around your sit spot. Here, I find a small patch of poison ivy in the western part of my area.
Widow-makers can be very dangerous, but luckily, we just need to know where they are. Look for large limbs or trees that are hanging up in the canopy. These areas are a MUST AVOID during windy days, but we should make a habit of staying clear of them at all times. As a note, trees that are dead and standing straight ARE NOT widow-makers.
After spending a good amount of time walking throughout your area and taking notes on the hazards you find, return home and map the locations. You can add to this map as you get more familiarized with your spot.
On the back of my map, I’ve written a few fast facts on the most common hazards of our area. Get to know these as best you can. Use the internet, books, or send us a question to deepen your knowledge.
Lastly, I would love for students to do a journal entry on one of the “big 3” listed above. The better we know the hazards around us, the more confident we will be when we head out in the woods.
Owl Eyes or Wide-Angle Vision.
Humans are sight dominant creatures. “I have to see it to believe it”. While we are going to work on trusting our other senses, we can’t ignore our reliance on sight. What we CAN do, is try to adjust the way we look at things by broadening the information we take in through our eyes. We call this “using owl eyes” and with a little practice, you can turn on this heightened awareness “mode” with ease.
Owls have incredible vision and their ability to take in information from a large area is vital to survival. If an owl becomes over-focused on a particular spot, they may miss the vole scurrying under a pile of leaves or be unaware of the chipmunk perched on the top of the pine stump. So, rather than being hyper-focused on one location, they kind of “zone out” and take in the information throughout their entire field of vision. This might sound counterintuitive, but it’s not as though the owl is just staring blankly off into space, thinking about the burrito it wants for dinner. He or she is fully present and highly aware, but has that awareness spread out. When something moves or seems out of the ordinary, it’s time to focus on that area and move into more precise “laser vision”.
So, keeping your eyes still and pointed forward, stretch your arms out in front of you and move them to the sides of your head until you can no longer see your hands. We have a very wide angle of vision in this direction. If you do the same exercise but move your hands up to your ceiling or down toward the ground, you’ll notice that we do not have as wide an angle, but it still affords us a huge area to take in information. If we can make an intention to see the world as owls do by staying in this wide-angled vision, magic happens. You’ll start to see things that others miss and a whole new world comes into focus.
Who Lives Here?
Okay, so equipped with your new owl-eyes, head out to your spot and just walk slowly around. You can make this as random or organized as you like, but the important thing here is to just keep your vision wide and aware. If you see something that catches you’re eye, go in deeper. DO NOT worry if you have no idea what you are looking at! The point of all of this is to be curious, ask questions and observe. If something interests you, make a note of where it is and what you see. You can make a drawing, take a picture, whatever works for you. Remember, there is no wrong way to do this.
This is a little dig spot I located to the west of my anchor point. I know blue jays will cash acorns and dig them up later, as will squirrels. I wonder if there is a way to tell the difference.
Tiny scratch marks on a beech tree have me thinking about squirrels. In my location, gray squirrels are EVERYWHERE and they are always running around in search of food and harassing each other. Try not to get in the mindset of “just another”______. The most common animals are often our best teachers.
It looks like some critter found this spot perfect for a meal of acorns. How can we tell if this was done by a squirrel, chipmunk or other local resident?
While we are focussing on mammals, anything else that catches your eye is worth making a note of and learning about. For me, I find that I have to edit myself, becase there is just SO MUCH to take in. Do your best to keep your observations to mammals, but if something really catches your interest, follow that fascination.
Lastly, when you get back inside, take a little time to map your observations and come up with a few questions you might have. I always say that its not the answers, but the questions that count. If you’re feeling inspired, pick an animal you think lives in your sit spot and learn a little more about it. This can be as simple or intricate as you like. The most important thing is to follow your passions and spend some time in the woods. Everything else will organically fall into place as you strengthen your connection to your special place.
Trees as Elders
Well, a week of rain and wind and even a few snow flurries has just gone by. Spring is full of weather surprises and I hope some of you are braving the elements and feeling a little more “at home” in your area.
This week, we will be focusing on the trees in our spot. Specifically, we will be looking at the trees that have been around for awhile. They can tell us a lot about the history of an area and hold that history within their limbs, bark and rings. For me, an old tree is like a wise elder, patiently experiencing the world and willing to tell us stories if we ask the right questions. There are trees all around this area that I consider dear friends: the giant white oak in Greenland, the Grandfather White Pine for storytelling in Stratham, the porcupine den red oak in Eliot, just to name a few. I encourage you to make friends with the elder trees of your area and see if you can get a few stories out of them.
Find a stick that is about 12 inches long and use it as a guide. As you wander through your area, look for the biggest trees and hold your measuring guide about chest height against the trunk. If its about as wide or wider than the stick, make a note of it on your map. Do not worry if you are uncertain of the species. What is important is for you to make observations such as bark color, texture, needles or leaves. Also take a look at a branch, if you are able to, and try to notice if the twigs and buds are opposite or alternate of each other. This is a very helpful characteristic to take note of when identifying trees. If you happen to miss a few big trees in your area, no big deal. We’re just trying to get the general layout of your sit spot.
Here, we have a red maple branch with OPPOSITE branching. Notice that the buds and smaller twigs come out like arms on a body.
This black birch twig has alternate branching. This is more common for our northeastern tree species.
Tree bark is not simply “rough or smooth”. Some trees have large plates of bark and others, shaggy strips. You can find eye-shaped features on beech and maple trees and soft, cotton-like bark on cedars. Engage your senses and your imagination. Perhaps the bark reminds you of an elephants skin or burnt potato chips. Come up with your own ways of describing and remembering the things you observe in nature.
Black birch has horizontal “staples” along the trunk. A quick scratch and sniff of the bark reveals a wonderful wintergreen scent.
The smooth bark of the American beech is reminiscent of an elephants skin. You can also find eye-shaped patterns where old branches once grew.
Black birch has horizontal “staples” along the trunk. A quick scratch and sniff of the bark reveals a wonderful wintergreen scent.
There are thousands of resources out there for tree identification. Apps, websites and books can act as on-call mentors for the budding naturalist and they are as essential as any tool in your backpack. Here is a quick list of some of our favorites-
When you get home, transfer your notes onto your base map. Follow up on any questions you might have, including identification. If you want to take your knowledge deeper, write down a few facts about the trees of your area. Doing so may unlock a few mysteries regarding your area. For instance, my site is dominated by old white pine trees. The information I discovered leads me to believe that they are about 100 years old. Because they need a lot of sun to grow, that tells me that this location was likely a field in the early part of the 20th century. The presence of old barbed wire supports this. So the story of my spot is becoming clearer.
I imagine a small farm in the 1920s, with sheep, cattle and chickens. Something caused this little farm to be abandoned (great depression?) and the forest began to reclaim the area. The pines were first to come in, followed by red oaks, maples and black birch. Eventually the shade became too much for the pines and oaks, and now the younger generation of trees is comprised mostly of the shade-tolerant beech. So much to learn from these tree elders.