Sharpening the senses

We are far removed from our early selves, those brilliant predators who shaped tools and imagined. Their creativity born of adversity and proximity to their sensory perceptions, like newborns absorbing information. There are not many places now, in the modern global world, where you can gaze at the stars with the same dark skies our ancestors enjoyed. Certainly not to marvel at huge herds and giant flocks, oceans teeming with life that once existed; life spread thickly across the planet.

As we lose this richness, generation to generation, we lose with it our senses. We are losing our tune and intuition with nature, now also amending parameters for the impending climate crisis. We have been long removed from food, as explored in the book Hungry City by Carolyn Steel and in this recent article by Bee Wilson. The sweetness of the strawberry gobbled in the field at the Pick Your Own farm, the warmth and softness of retrieving the eggs from under the chickens; I remember these from childhood, and I was an urban child.

At certain times of the day, I am in the privileged position of being able to sit and look across a big, wildish garden. Right now, the land is fresh from a few days of rain. I take in the scene and try to use my whole sensory self. The smell is fresh, airy and pure. The zingy greens of the distance turn into the foreground, tall, military straight forms of grasses, pushing as high as the longed for water will allow them. Dotted across them, sometimes in frothy clouds such as the wild radish, others picked out by a splash of colour like the poppies, are the wildflowers of spring. Their growth has been astounding to observe, a few days of rain and sun giving life to the present lushness. And with it the buzz.

There is the underlying, constant chirrup of the crickets, zzz zzz zzz. I can hear a woodpecker but I’ve not been able to see it yet. All types of bird, some I recognise by sight, others are new, chattering and fighting in flight, noisely chasing each other in small flocks, acrobatically in and around bushes and trees. Their speed and agility is thrilling to watch. I’m not an expert in birdsong but wish I was. My enjoyment is not diminished without this knowledge though and fiddling with an app is not for these moments.

Overhead the thundercloud slowly rumbles by, it’s dark underbelly, blue and purple like a bruise, rolls across the horizon, giving way to brilliant sunshine that lights up its gigantic white, puffy tops. I feel a single drop of water land on my cheek, the escapee from the brief earlier shower, or an adventurer floating as far as it could on the breeze, which now licks it away as quick as it comes.

The reeds and grasses stretch windwards and return. Sometimes, an eagle soars past, circling and catching the updrafts as its head moves left and right surveying the scene with a sharpness of eye that we can only imagine. Sets of butterflies flutter-by and all around me other flying insects shuttle past, the pitch of their buzzes different for the species and speed. I’ve never been good at meditation, this feels as close as I could be.

My Mum taught me to smell food, never wanting to waste anything we learnt to trust our noses. Days old leftovers were polished off happily, sometimes after a second opinion with the smell; hardly any food went in the bin. Sell-by dates were regularly ignored and bargains were always picked up from the discount section. She squeezed the onions and the garlic strongly in the shops, checking for hardness, or gently if searching for the soft give of ripe fruits. We smelt the mangoes and pineapples, if they smelt sweet we would buy them.

I’ve always gathered leaves, nut and berries, picked and rubbed herbs as I’m walking around, especially with the kids when they were young. On our short adventures around the block killing time, we would find the lavender and rosemary, old bushes spilling out onto the pavement, covered in bees when the purple flowers were out. We crushed the sprigs between our fingers and inhale deeply the aromas. Sometimes, I can feel the weather, especially the electric feel of the air before a storm, when the gulls play in the winds calling to the sky.

These sensory delights were gifted to me, by my parents and nature herself. I feel lucky to have been captivated, feel lucky to have experienced long hours playing with wet frogs and smooth slow worms. I’ve worked with kids, labelled as disfunctional teenagers, who had never been exposed to wildlife. Strapping 16 year olds, who ran away from grasshoppers until we got the bug book out and examined them more closely. The book Perfume by Patrick Suskind comes to mind, which I read as a teenager myself and was blown away by the vivid use of language, exploring our sense of smell without ever getting repetitive.

We are now caught in a wierd trap of sensory overload, our mobiles constantly blinking for our attention, but without the satisfaction of wholeness or completeness. Our senses are singularly ambushed to sell us some stuff; bright colours and lights enticing us into stores like moths to the flame, baking bread smells piped into supermarkets when all the bread is securely wrapped in plastic.

Rekindling our collective senses was an early side-effect from the pandemic lockdowns. Daily walks around the neighbourhood opened many people’s eyes to the wildlife and burgeoning spring in our urban places. The pause allowed us to observe. How can this be maintained and encouraged now? We need it more than ever, we need the sensory wholeness that nature provides. The connection shown again and again to support good mental and physical health. The Japanese embrace forest-bathing and other cultures too, save space for committal to nature in their lives.

This spring, as all around us the life is blooming, we should take the time to observe and breathe. Touch, taste, smell, see and hear the delights around us. By sharpening our senses, particularly by emersion using the whole set provided to us, we can gain real pleasure. Walk barefoot across the morning lawn, stick noses in new flowers, look at the small and the big, listen to the wind, nibble the fine end of the grass blade, tender and sweet. Enjoy and savour this time.

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