There’s just no substitute for sitting in the woods…

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Tompkins Weekly 6-30-14

By Steve Gabriel

An important part of my personal education journey was spending many years at a local environmental education program called EarthArts in Ithaca. From my first visit with a friend in high school, I knew there was something special going on at this place. Founder (now deceased) Dale Bryner created what she called an “invisible school,” which has no walls, but is everywhere outside as students explore nature and their own self in a number of ways. In this school everything – people, plants, rocks, the landscape – is a teacher.

One of the key tools employed at EarthArts and in many nature awareness programs is called Sit Spot. The goal of this practice is to spend time alone, outside, for 20 or more minutes, focused on taking in ones surroundings with the only tools each of us carry with us at all times; our senses.

The reason its best to spend at least 20 minutes sitting is because we humans tend to create a chaos of disturbance when we enter the woods. If you’ve ever watched a cat stalk prey or a blue heron flying across a wetland, you gain a new respect for the ability to move with grace and quiet. We have largely lost that ability, partly because we don’t spend time outside, and partly because we just don’t have to. If you were constantly worried about a predator around the bend you’d walk softer and slower on the land.

While a mere experience sitting in the woods may not seem to be a profound practice, it truly is. Imagine visiting the same spot, day after day, season after season, to sit and open your eyes, ears, and nose to the events going on around you. This creates a relationship to place, and you can begin to see the subtle changes that nature takes. While I am so thankful for all the books I’ve read and classes I’ve taken over the years, there is no doubt I have learned more in sit spot, and in practicing observation, than I ever could have from any other way.

An important distinction here is the relationship between primary learning and secondary observation. In primary observation WE are directly receiving information and learn from interacting with the elements we are trying to learn about. An example would be learning tree identification by collecting leaf and seed samples, feeling the bark, and observing the landscape habitat where the species persist.

In secondary or mediated learning, we get this information from a book, or media, or from a person. In the tree identification, we’d be working with a diagnostic key, or someone would be leading us around and telling us about the trees we are seeing. Or perhaps, the best example of secondary learning would be to not be in the woods at all, but to be inside, looking at slides or listening to a lecture about trees.

It’s an obvious statement to say that most of our learning these days is secondary, or mediated by something – whether it is a person, book, or the internet. I run into this in all my educational ventures, whether short classes or longer programs. The interesting paradox however is that most students want “hands-on” or primary learning experience, but very few have any actual skills or experience learning in this way.

A good example of this would be with tree ID, where many students just want to know the name, and once they do, are satisfied they’ve “learned” the tree. Yet in only knowing the name, and no taking the time to observe and interact with a given species much is lost. When I work with students, instead of telling them the tree name, I ask, “What does the form look like? What shape are the leaves? How does the bark look and feel? What does the tree look like in different stages of life?”

Students can often at first be frustrated with this approach, but often appreciate the process of discovering an answer rather than just being told. As a mentor, asking questions forces students to look at the plant in their hand, assess her surroundings, and take charge of the situation. It doesn’t matter if they get it “right” or “wrong”, but more important is the willingness to try something, and learning by observing the results of their actions. This is primary learning.

All this touting of primary learning is not to discount or blow off the value of secondary materials; it’s of course important to also learn from people, and books, and movies. Instead, it is more about the need to tip the balance – to create a world where students are provided the opportunity to each take responsibility for their own learning by diving in, and not sitting back waiting for someone to state the facts. This is the main way conventional education has failed in our society. The good news is that primary learning is easy to enact on, with immediate results.

Back to Sit Spot, which is at its most basic form sitting in the woods, practicing exercises to open ones senses and take in the environment. This can be coupled this with asking questions about the forest as you look around, such as:

“How long has this tree been lying across the creek?”
“What evidence do I see of past humans here?”
“Why is the moss growing on that log and not the other?”  (I learned why from a book, but only after I had asked myself the question!)
Those who are interested in being better land stewards, farmers, foresters, and gardeners can all benefit from finding a quiet spot that can be visited daily, or several times a week. Sit there for 20 minutes or more. Make observations. Ask good questions. And don’t doubt the benefits of this exercise. Imagine doing this through sunny days, rainstorms, and in the snow. Imagine seeing your sit spot waking up from winter, being there when the first green shoots emerge from the ground. Who needs television?


Steve Gabriel is an ecologist, educator, author, and forest farmer who co-founded the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute and along with fiance Liz operates Wellspring Forest Farm in Mecklenburg NY where they produce shiitake mushrooms, duck eggs, and maple syrup. He has co-authored a book called “Farming the Woods” with professor Ken Mudge, due for publication in Fall 2014. He can be reached at



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