Rediscovering the Magic in Nature – Giving your youthful innocence a chance to speak again

Do you fit into your daily schedule? Or are you an afterthought?

Nature can help.

Nature provides the space and clarity that allow us to experience the vastness, the texture of life that is difficult to find anywhere else. Nature allows us to cultivate the present moment. It reaches out to us to reconnect with our innocent, younger, unvarnished selves without bias, without shame, without all the layers of personality we have developed to survive our childhood and the society we live in.

Nature allows us to be naked without being self-conscious. Nature doesn’t care whether we think we are short, tall, skinny, overweight, blemished. Nature defines acceptance. All have an equal chance to enjoy the cool stream, to feel the green moss, to fall into a rocky ravine. The rhythms of life and death continue to flow regardless of our age, wealth, or identity. Guilt, insecurity, self-loathing, judgement have no meaning in Nature. We become beautiful in Nature because we are allowed to define ourselves, by ourselves.

No matter our personal connection with Nature today, our intellects and emotional selves have created filters, perspectives, biases, the cobwebs of life, that often make it difficult to allow the youthful love and curiosity for Nature we all have within to be fully expressed.

Think about the last time your busy mind was distracted, if only for a moment, by a bird sitting in a tree, or a flower blowing delicately in the wind. How did you feel? Wonder, awe, compassion? It softened you. That was the door of your childhood opening up ever so slightly, allowing your emotional self to speak again, like a gentle wind pushing away the cobwebs, asking your intellect to pause for a moment and allow your life to breathe.

For us to allow Nature to reestablish this connection, permanently, to make curiosity and compassion (as opposed to judgement and apathy) guiding principles of our lives, we need to form new neural pathways to replace the older, worn channels that have been directing our thoughts and actions for years.

Where once we thought adult brains were fixed, we now know that the brain can grow new neurons to repair damage, replace older neural pathways that no longer serve us, change to help us change. It takes conscious effort, practice, to form new channels, to no longer allow the older, easier path to determine our actions. But the practice is within our reach.

It is this fundamental assumption, that all of us have a wild child within, suppressed in order to adapt to the judgmental, insensitive social world that often surrounds us, that underlies our new naturalist program.

How do we form the new neural pathways to allow our youthful, natural innocence to assist both our intellect and our body to slow down and listen?

We are developing activities that will be an integral part of our program next year to do just that. We are excited about the possibilities, and will keep you informed as to our progress. In the meantime, give the one below a try.

And please, ask your intellect to take a vacation for a moment if it shows up as doubt, judgement, embarrassment. Verbally say, “Go away.”

1. Please find a photo of yourself under the age of 12 enjoying you, playing outdoors if possible. If you can’t find a photo, maybe find something you made back then or find an object that reminds you of that time.

2. Print this set of instructions and take it and your photo to a quiet space where nature can be felt. Your space can be a backyard, a park, or perhaps a vista where you can see across the landscape.

3. Standing or sitting, adjust your body and feel your balance, how your body feels in the position it is in. Look around. What natural patterns do you see? How are they arranged? Reach out and touch the earth, a leaf, a twig. Feel the textures, the temperature, the shape. Set it aside and take a deep breath through your nose. Pay attention to the fragrances in the air. Exhale. Take a deep breath through your mouth and allow the air to swirl along the top and edges of your tongue. What do you taste? Now listen quietly. If there is background noise, focus on the bright noises – the birds, the wind moving through the leaves.

4. Now close your eyes and repeat the process of experiencing these six senses – balance, sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing.

How was the experience different from the first time when you had your eyes open?

5. Now, look at the picture of your young self or the object you brought. Look into your young eyes or feel the object. Closing your eyes again, keep your young self in mind. How are you feeling as that child? Just stay with the emotions. If your intellect shows up, ask it to take a vacation for a moment. Verbally say, “Go away.” Say “welcome,” out loud to your youthful self.

Imagine running through a field, being chased by friends. Falling down on the grass. Look down from a tree you have climbed. Watch the baby birds in the nest you’ve just discovered. Take your shoes off and walk in a cool stream. Lay on your stomach and stare at the sand on the beach. Bring up you own memories of playing in nature, be it a vacant lot, a park, a backyard, or out in the wilderness. Just run with it and laugh. Feel what if feels like.

We’ll see you next time.



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A Plea to Governor Brown. Please think differently so you can help protect us from fire, mudslides, landslides, flood, and drought.

After wandering through the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens, one is struck by the huge boulders scattered about. Where did they come from? It shouldn’t be a mystery. The Garden is within a creek bed, right below a steep mountain range.

As is Montecito.


Mission Canyon Potential II

The potential of a devastating mud flow event above the Santa Barbara Mission.


Did planning agencies and developers consider the story the boulders told in the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden prior to developing the areas within potential highways of mud and rock along the coast? Did they consider the severe danger that would present itself after a major fire removed the protective chaparral cover from the mountains above?

The heartache that happened in Montecito was predictable.


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How We Think about Nature and Fire

After the massive 2017 firestorm that hit northern and southern California, it is important to take a look nature’s relationship to fire and how nature has been characterized in the wake of what has happened. For this discussion, we will be focusing on the fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties, although most of what we write is directly applicable to the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties as well.

How We Talk About Nature. First and foremost, we need to reframe the discussion and consider the words we use. Nature provides beautiful habitats for a wild diversity of creatures. It is not “fuel.” Fuel is what we put into our cars and what heats and cools our homes. A dense thicket of shrubs offers the wild foundation of green for countless organisms from lichens to wrentits. It is not “overgrown.” The term “overgrown” can be used to describe our gardens and backyards perhaps, but it’s not an appropriate or accurate way to describe our wildlands, no matter how many fire or flood cycles have been missed. Saying nature is “overgrown” is at best, derogatory. “Overgrown” is a highly subjective term based on hubris, not the needs of a woodrat, a Scrub Jay, or a ceanothus silk moth.

Words matter. Due to the loaded terms that are continually used to describe the natural environment, it is no wonder that a significant number of politicians and members of the public either fear or distain nature and see no reason why we should protect it. To them, terms like fuel, overgrown, brush, and dead trees, have become bludgeons to attack those of us who want to protect the rapidly vanishing natural environment and as an excuse to log, clear, and eliminate our public lands.

Natural Fire Return Intervals. The best way to determine what the natural fire cycle is for an area is to examine the frequency of lightning-caused fires.

Napa and Sonoma Counties have some of the lowest lightning frequencies, and hence lightning-caused fire, in California. From 1919 to 2016, Sonoma County had a total of 489 fires per million hectares per year. Only 6 were from lightning (the rest have been human- or unknown-caused). In contrast, the half-million hectare northern California County of Siskiyou had 44 lightning-caused fires in the year of 2004 alone. Therefore, before humans arrived in the Napa/Sonoma region, fires of any significance were likely spaced over relatively long periods of time, probably on the order of 50 – 100 years or more. This kind of fire return interval cannot produce the fire suppressed/”overgrown” environment the media has described. We have a response to one of the worst examples of reporting like this on our chaparral blog.

When discussing natural fire return intervals, people often ask about Native American burning.

We know they burned the landscape. Exactly where and how frequently is a subject of much debate and is mostly knowledge lost in time. But it is fair to say that early Native American burning was likely responsible for creating some of the patchiness of plant communities in the Napa/Sonoma region as well as in other areas. It is also reasonable to hypothesize that Native American burning, especially around villages, began the process of eliminating native shrublands in favor of more open landscapes.

As with wine makers who clear their land for vineyards, Native Americans modified the land to obtain what they wanted as well.

Interestingly, the loss of chaparral in California due to type conversion has been discussed in one of the earliest works on chaparral by William Cooper (1922). He did some, as he wrote, “painstaking” searches to locate remnants or relic stands of chaparral in areas presently dominated by non-native grasslands in northern California. He also interviewed a number of old timers who remembered what the place looked like before the onslaught of settlers changed the place forever. He found ancient chamise shrubs along fence rows, on rocky ground, in ravines, etc., where humans and cattle couldn’t finish off what was left (Fig. 1 below). He discusses several relic sites in Colusa County near Arbuckle, in the Santa Clara Valley, and near Hershey in the Sacramento Valley. He also suggests that the impacts by European ranchers/settlers were, “of small importance compared with the effects produced by the aboriginal population” due to yearly burning practices.

The steady transformation of California’s wilderness began about 10,000 years ago after the arrival of America’s first peoples.

The frequently heard call that we should return to what we think Native Americans did on the landscape is counterproductive to our current efforts to protect what natural environments we have left. With millions of people lighting fires, the climate changing, and invasive, non-native weeds that Native Americans never had to deal with, when it comes to land management, it is best to consider the challenges we are facing in the future.

Fig.1. Chaparral relics (chamise) surrounded by non-native grassland in Amador County, CA.


Fire and Habitats Today. So how does this all figure into our land management today? We obviously cannot allow what few natural fires we have to run their course in populated areas.  And we certainly can’t let human-caused fires run. Hence, we suppress. In wildland areas far from communities, we can let fire play it’s natural role. Most natural parks do this now. Sometimes, however, the public and their elected leaders do not have much patience for that.

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Posted in Climate Change, Fire, Misconceptions, Native Plants | 2 Comments