Technology and Nature: Life Through the Lens


 Out on a forest trail, I was just closing on a particularly gorgeous specimen of Passiflora Edulis  with my iPhone camera when the phone gave the morose little beep of a dying battery. What?? It was fully charged when I headed out! I glanced down with surprise at the glowering red battery icon… How I could have used up that much battery in the last 2 hours? 

The answer was pretty simple. I was completely immersed in experiencing the world through my viewscreen- a couple hours of continuous use was more than enough to use up the battery. Thinking back, I realized that lately I had been spending far more time behind the lens of my phone’s camera than I had directly experiencing the sights, smells and sounds of the world around me. I recognized then I needed to once again re-evaluate my use of tech in nature- to find a balance that enhances my connection, rather than detracting from it.

Here are some key steps I use to help me find my personal balance between technology and nature: 

1. Realize that Modern Technology is not inherently nature’s enemy– it’s just a tool. 

Used correctly, Tech absolutely can help us connect better with nature: Online nature photography can motivate us to visit a beautiful place. Google Earth can help us plan our expeditions. Hiking forums, web based meetup groups and amazing outdoor photo communities like Yonder can inspire us to join together with others.

At the same time, unaware usage can narrow our experience of nature; shut down our senses, funnel our experiences through the lens of our camera, have us checking our social media or chatting on the phone while out on the trail. 

In order to see if you need to rebalance your personal relationship with tech and nature, ask yourself: which side of this equation do you usually fall? 

2. Test for addiction. The instant gratification of snapping a photo provides your brain with a quick shot of dopamine. If you’re not sure where you stand, try this simple test for addiction: Shut your camera in your pack for the day. If you find yourself automatically reaching for it at every beautiful view, instead of letting your eyes explore and caress the mountains and valleys, then you might just consider a more extreme digital detox for your addiction. 

3. Leave it behind. As a digital detox, choose designated times or trips that you will leave your tech (cameras, music, etc) behind and just experience nature through your own eyes and ears. No matter how useful your tech is, it should not become a replacement for your own senses. Using our own eyes and ears helps us develop and strengthen mental pathways that actively connect us to the patterns of the world around us. 

4. Take time to Interact with Nature without your tech. Sitting down on a rock and drawing what you see, writing or even just deeply listening to the world around you are all far more intimate and revealing interactions with nature than simply snapping a photo. Photos are so quick and convenient, we don’t have to be really there to take them. A more committed form of ‘recording the moment’ may ask more of you, but also can gift you with far more connection with your world. 

In the end, technology is only a tool. It offers the opportunity to get closer to nature- and an equal potential for separation. It is in how we use our tools, our technology- mindfully, that we define our relationship as addicts or independents. 

Kids activities: Nature’s Soundscape

I was recently hiking a rugged mountain trail when I realized that a man was approaching from behind me. I realized this when he was still over half a mile away, since the individual in question had obviously taken the advice to use his “outdoor voice” far too literally. I prefer to think that he was not completely inconsiderate, but instead a person who had never had the chance to get more ‘in tune’ with nature and see himself (and his voice) as part of her natural soundscape.

Much as the bright lights of the city obscure the flickering glow of stars, so too our modern sounds drown into oblivion the delicious lilt of nature’s own subtler soundtrack… Double paned windows, while keeping us warm, isolate us from the sounds of nature. Leaf blowers, cars, jets and other engines of their ilk confound our ears and not so subtly assault our souls. So we compensate, by becoming ever louder ourselves, and listening ever less to our surroundings.

The dance of sound through the wilderness tells a story millions of years old- the insistent mating calls of songbirds, the yip-yowling midnight rave of a coyote pack, a rolling wave of wind sweeping through the pines… Each of these sounds has a context, a ‘backstory’ that, long ago, we used to know how to read….

Luckily these stories haven’t been lost! Listening to nature is a skill that can be regained. Here’s some play centered suggestions to help get you (and any little ones you have in your life) back ‘in tune’ with your natural soundtrack:

1. Take a Bird (Sound)bath… Ever have trouble telling the difference between a raven and a crow? Listen to their individual calls and there’ll be no doubt!

Do a little research and find out who the common local birds are. The local ranger station usually can point you to some good birding resources. Recordings of bird calls are generally available on Internet birding sites (or even in your smartphone App Store).  Choose several for you (and any little tagalongs) to identify. Then take a walk and have at it!

2. Silence is a Soundscape. Vegetation softens sound- millions of little pine needles disperse sound waves in a jumble of directions, softening the edges of close sounds and deadening them over a distance. Hard, flatter surfaces like rock will reflect the sound back more uniformly, keeping it crisper and more intact. (Anybody ever heard rock climbers on Half Dome yelling to each other – all the way in the valley below?!) Knowing this, ask your little hiking tribe what is the quietest space(s) they think you can find on the trail? What would be the loudest?

3. All sounds have their place. Record the sound of your feet on the trail in different (unique) spots for segments of 10-20 seconds. Play them back: walking on gravel has a distinctly different sound than sandy soil, rock or pine duff… Who in your little tribe can guess where you were at for each recording?

4. Can you be as quiet as a deer?  There are a lot of ways to train children that their “outdoor voices” (and movements) shouldn’t necessarily be loud ones. One fun game:  Using a decibel meter (available at music stores or for free on your smartphone App Store) try moving through the terrain and measuring the sounds you make.

Who in your group can talk the most quietly and still be understood? Who can move the most quietly?  How fast or slow do you have to move? Are you louder in hard soled boots, soft shoes or even barefoot?

This exercise helps kids (and adults) truly get why choosing each step carefully is a natural part of a wild animal’s life! Turn it into a game and reward points for the quietest traverse of a particular terrain.

So next time you’re outdoors stop for a moment to sit on a rock and stretch your ears out to hear… Nature’s soundscape is a richly textured story, if only you care to listen.

Kids Activities: Yucca Uses: making soap!

Want to have some fun with your kids making soap out in nature? Here’s how to make cleansing suds from yucca spines. 

Yucca roots and spines both contain the compound saponin, which has detergent properties. It will not only suds up and help to clean your skin and hair, but anything else you decide could be a just a little bit fresher! 

Roots vs Spines? 

The roots contain more saponin, and thus more sudsing potential, but harvesting your soap that way means death for the plant you take it from. I prefer to harvest some of the green spines- it may be more work for me, but means less damage to the plant. 

Soaping up in the field: 

1. Cut spine(s) from the plant, being careful to move slowly and avoid their sharp edges! OUCH! (Careful! Don’t get cut by your soap source!)

2. Pound and scrape the spines between 2 smooth surfaced rocks to break open the surface of the spine and separate the fibers. 

3. Once the fibers are adequately separated and no sharp edges or points remain, the yucca is ready to suds up. 

4. Add water and rub it between your hands. The first suds will be green as the spines give up their chlorophyll, then gradually turn clear/white as you continue rubbing and adding water. 

There you go: all clean!

Soaping up at home:

1. Gather up your spines as before

2. Use a knife or sharp rock to scrape off green waxy skin of the spine and save it to the side. 

3. Put your scrapings into a sealable container with water and shake vigorously for a few minutes to combine the saponins with the water. 

4. Pour the mix through a filter or mesh to separate out the scrapings. 

5. Store in the container of your choice- tip: hand soap pumps can work great! 

6. Enjoy your natural suds for anything from shampoo to dishwashing detergent. 

SAFETY NOTE: always test the first time of any topical plant use with a small patch of non-vital skin to make sure you’re not one of those with the rare but serious reaction!



5 ways to Keep Your Family Safe on High Country Winter Hikes

As we finally enjoy the snow we so rightly deserve it’s a good time to remember a few practical tips to keep us safe in this all beautiful white stuff!

Hopefully you’ve already figured out that taking a winter hike in the high country takes a bit more planning than a summer day hike, especially if you have little ones in tow. You already know to bring the right gear and check your weather forecasts – so I won’t belabor those points. (Not sure? Check past articles.) 

Here’s a couple tips about the worst winter offenders to help keep you and your little loved ones safe: 

1. Melt/Freeze. Teach your little ones the relationship between snow and ice and how to recognize changes that can signal danger. Just because you crossed that slope in the bright midday sun does not mean that it will be traversable in the late afternoon. The day(sun)/night(shade) melt/freeze cycle can turn friendly white powder into something slick and deadly in a matter of hours. As soon as that snow exits direct sun, watch out!  That also goes for crossing from open to tree covered trail- any area of shade is a potential skating rink in the right conditions!

Pause early in your hike to have your little ones test the tactile difference between shaded snow and sun illuminated slush to help drive the point home.

2. Stay awake and aware. “A little bit of ice” is nothing to scoff at – it becomes especially dangerous on the steep slopes of the high country, where an ice chute can turn you into a human pinball, and not in a good way.

Being alarmist about this (or any) risk can intimidate kids about winter hiking- instead of attempting to scare, I prefer to teach awareness and involve them actively in the process of taking care of our little hiking “tribe”: “This can be dangerous, so I’d like to ask you to help me look out for it as a team”. Involving them in the responsibility of taking care of the group does a lot to develop skills that they can use in later solo adventures.

3. Choose your trails wisely! Don’t assume that lovely summer hikes are going to be just as much of a pleasure in the winter… Some trails are seasonal for a reason! Just because you have hiked it a thousand times (in the summer) does not mean it is a safe trail in the winter! Consider level of exposure to the sun, recent weather conditions and elevation (amongst many other things) in making your choice of trail! 

4. Turn back if you encounter conditions beyond your experience. And keep a close tab on the energy levels, enthusiasm, gear and overall condition of any little ones in tow.

It’s not worth it to push it- most of the time you will probably squeak by, but don’t let that make you get cavalier- when the time comes, the cost can be far too high.  I remember one Ranger Patrol on Ramona Trail- an ‘easy’ hike made deceptively dangerous by a river of ice that had formed on the trail! If you and your “tribe” don’t have the experience or get to safely traverse the whole range of trail conditions, and double your efforts to get back home- get your butt out of there!

5. Navigation Skills. fresh snow leaves a lovely white blanket across the land… Obscuring  every single detail of the trail that once seemed so familiar. Don’t just head out on a wing and a prayer (“I’m a local- I don’t need a map!”). Make sure and bring a Topo map and the navigation skills to appropriately use it. (It never hurts to plan in navigational experiences for your little ones as well.) And don’t just assume that you can always just track your self back – new snowfall can cover up your shoe prints in a matter of minutes!

Now that I’ve been a Scrooge about all your wonderful winter plans, I want to encourage you to get out there and enjoy with your tribe- just do so with forethought and safety! Happy hiking!