I'm sitting on deep green moss at the base of an old Sitka spruce. Sunlight is filtering down through a canopy of pine and alder, vine maple and salmonberry. On my right, a small creek tumbles over rocks and fine silt, wraps around the little knoll I'm on and continues down a small green ravine into a sedge-filled marsh. There's a tiny, mouse-sized (and mouse-colored) Pacific wren a few feet away feeding in the tangle of sword ferns, and a few minutes ago a varied thrush flew up from the underbrush into the spruce, staring down at me for a minute or two before flying off.
Half an hour ago, as I walked into my beautiful little oasis located just a five-minute walk from my house, I was carrying the weight of a overly long to-do list and drafting emails in my head. My stomach and shoulders were tensed and my brow was furrowed with full force, though I didn't really notice because my mind was elsewhere.
But as soon as I arrived at the creek bank, I forgot all about what I wasn't getting done and what was being asked of me in my day. It melted away as I noticed a new aloe-shaped plant I'd never seen before and would look up in my field guide, and that the snag has a new flush of oyster mushrooms, and that the Steller's jays seemed agitated … oh, there's why, a red-shouldered hawk is in that tree over there. As I sit and observe, my mind and body are free from the daily grind and I feel a smile curving up the edges of my mouth.
The location I'm describing is a place I visit at least four or five times a week. It's my location for a sit-spot routine that makes me a happier, healthier, more observant and more optimistic person.
The sit-spot practice is a favorite — practically required — routine among naturalists who have noted for countless years that it's the best way to really learn about the species that live around you.
But increasingly it's also a practice that doctors can get behind.
For decades, studies have shown how reconnecting to nature makes us kinder, more generous and of course healthier. In 2017, author Florence Williams explored and summed up a good deal of this research in her book, "The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative." The book made a splash, and E.O. Wilson himself called it, "A beautifully written, thoroughly enjoyable exposition of a major principle of human life now supported by evidence in biology, psychology, and medicine."
This is certainly not the first or only book written about why spending time in nature is healing. Time outdoors increases concentration, decreases stress, lowers blood-pressure and provides many more positive effects. Call it nature connection, forest bathing or whatever else you like, the long and short of it is that going outside is good for you.
One easy, straightforward routine you can do on a daily basis to gather some of these benefits is adopting a sit-spot.
How to find your sit-spot
As I mentioned, a sit-spot routine is a practice that naturalists use to learn more about the world around them. You might have other reasons for adopting the practice, but following the advice of these experienced sit-spotters for selecting your location will help you create a routine you can stick to. Universally, naturalists agree there are three basic requirements for a good spot:
1. It needs to be close to your home — no more than a five-minute walk from your front door. Yes, it can even be in your backyard.
This close proximity is what will help make visiting your spot a routine. The longer it takes you to get to your spot, the less likely you will be to visit multiple times a week. And if you aren't visiting it regularly, then you can't tap into all those healthful benefits.
2. It needs to have some animal activity.
Most any location you choose will have at least a handful of robins or sparrows hanging around, if not more wildlife to watch. Notice the evidence of how they're using the landscape. This helps you tune in to more than just the scenery around you but also to the fact that you're part of a larger ecosystem. It inspires the connection — the awe — that triggers so many other wonderful benefits of nature.
3. It needs to be safe.
Ideally, your sit-spot will be secluded so that you can have some solitary time to sit in peace and get comfortable without distraction or influence from other people. But in this solitude, you must feel safe. Pay attention to the area around you and the area leading into and away from your sit-spot. If any red flags go up that make you feel unsafe, select a different location.
There are ideal sit-spot locations that wrap you entirely in nature for hundreds of yards, and there are practical sit-spot locations like a bench in the corner of a city park. It's more important to have a practical location than an ideal one. Maximize what you have around you to make any amount of outdoor time part of your daily or weekly routine.
What to do at your sit-spot
Turn off your phone. No really. Turn it off. There are infinite ways it distracts you even if it's tucked away in a bag. The urge to check the time, look up something online, respond to that text you just remembered, take a quick photo, or, groan of groans, livestream your sit-spot experience on social media. However much it pains you, turn off your phone. You'll be happier for it.
Write notes or sketch things that spark your curiosity. It's wonderful to just sit and absorb what's around you, but it's not against any rules to keep your hands busy. This is especially helpful if you're feeling fidgety as you start this routine.
Bring a notebook and jot down observations, such as bird behaviors, the shape of a plant leaf, new buds emerging on the trees, the angle of light at that time of day or the direction of the wind in that moment. Anything that comes to mind about the nature around you is fodder for a notebook entry, and you can use those details to look up more information when you get home.
Notice your senses. Make a point of tuning in to your field of vision and what you see in your periphery. Actively listen to sounds around you. Take a few deep breaths and notice what you smell. Check in with your body and notice the temperatures and textures of where you're sitting. This helps pull your brain even further into the moment and awareness of the wild around you.
Stay for at least 15 minutes. It should only take a few minutes to arrive at and return from your sit-spot, so you should be able to spare at least 15 minutes in the spot itself. Even if you think you're immensely busy that day, and there's no way you have time for a sit-spot, in actuality you probably do have the time. You'll be surprised at how quickly that time goes by and how much you can observe — and how much you can relax — in just 15 minutes of sitting in nature. If you can stay longer, do!
It may take some time to select just the right sit-spot and build the habit of visiting. But once that initial effort is invested, you'll begin to notice how much you crave a few peaceful moments in your sit-spot and how much you learn about the nature right there next to you. You'll start to reap the healthy rewards of bringing nature back into your life.