A friend once told me an old hunting trick.
“Turn around and slowly walk backwards to see what is behind you,” he said. “You might find animals creeping out along the way you have just passed. ”
I have tried this technique several times. Not for hunting, but for nature study.
A few times I did see ruffed grouse dart out across the path behind me. And once I spotted a fawn and her mother leap across the lane I had just walked.
Most of the time the road behind me remains as quiet and empty as a church after a morning service.
Yet there is something delightful about the act of walking backwards on a country road or across a field or meadow.
First, the scenery looks different. Yes, you are looking at the same trees, wildflowers and grasses. The break in the woodland canopy still reveals glimpses of bright clouds overhead.
But you are viewing this familiar scene differently, from a different point of view.
Somehow everything seems fresher.
Newer. Brighter. As if you have discovered a new path.
Even more surprising is how off-kilter your body feels when you try to walk backwards for any distance.
Suddenly you are aware of the muscles in your thighs. The bones along your shins. The arches of your feet.
Your body is startled into awareness where it had previously been lulled by the familiar. You feel every bump in the road, the breath of every breeze across your face.
It’s an invigorating experience and a slightly scary one. Unless you have eyes in the back of your head, you can’t see what you may be about to blunder into.
So every once in a while, you need to break the spell of enchantment and glance backwards over your shoulder, to make sure you are not about to stumble into a tree trunk, or trip over a branch.
Walking backwards may seem like a silly and pointless exercise. But I believe our senses can become blunted over time, so that we no longer experience the depth and surprise of the natural world around us.
If it seems a little foolish or even foolhardy to walk backwards, try this instead:
Stand in one place. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. And listen.
That quiet, empty church that I mentioned before? It’s actually an illusion.
The natural world is always humming, stirring, and breathing around us.
We just don’t always take the time to listen and breathe along with it.