Reading, writing and realizing nature: explore your local place this holiday season

Explore your local place this holiday season

I co-facilitate a student-run class (through the DeCal program) at UC Berkeley called “Reading, writing, and realizing nature.” This semester, thirteen of us embarked on a journey to discover what it means to live in our local place of Berkeley. We read to grasp at a deeper understanding of our local region and how its current living shape evolved. We write to explore our own new ways of reading the land, translating what our senses experience into symbols we can share with those in our communities, thereby strengthening our collective relationship with place. We begin to realize, or be vividly aware of,our own nature and the nature around us, a realization that we can all actively participate in together in order to re-imagine and re-create the way we co-inhabit our home.

Classmates writing in the Berkeley hills












This course developed over the span of twelve weeks with twelve distinct, progressive themes to help us along our journey. But you don’t need a formal class to have some similar experiences. Make the most out of your winter break, whether you’ve traveled home or you’ve stayed put, by embarking on your own journey. Personally, I’m home in Maryland for my break, and I don’t know my surroundings nearly as well as I’ve come to know Berkeley – so I’ll be doing some exploring and reflection myself. Here are eleven activities you can use to strengthen your personal relationship with place – and maybe even share your experience with family, friends, or community members.

  1. Start a nature journal: This is the first step in any reading, writing, and realizing nature journey. You can use a journal that you already write in, or create a new one to specifically be your “nature journal.” This is where you’ll write observations and ideas, sketch your surroundings, and more – basically a vessel for your translations of your surroundings into symbols that fit on paper. Encourage friends and family to start nature journals with you – a journal makes a great gift!
  1. Sensing haikus: Bring your nature journal and a pen on a walk with you. Pick an interval – say, every 20 steps, every fifth tree, every seventh house, every block. At each interval, stop, immerse yourself in the moment, and write a haiku about what your senses experience. See, smell, touch, taste, hear. A haiku traditionally has three lines: the first, 5 syllables, the second, 7 syllables, the third, 5 syllables. So the point is to capture a moment in time with few words, which can be a challenge. This is a chance to ground yourself in a very specific moment in time and space, something we often forget to do in our busy lives. 
  1. Google sensing maps: Take your sensing haikus a step further. Use your G-mail account (or start one) to make a “sensing map” of your neighborhood. Using Google maps, you can place pinpoint markers on specific spots. Pinpoint each place where you wrote a haiku, type your corresponding poem in to each spot, and soon you’ll have a map of sensual poetry experience! In addition to your haikus, add information, experiences, instructions, photographs, and whatever else you desire to the map. Don’t forget to share your map with friends to make it a collective experience, so that everyone can contribute to new experiences and explorations.
  1. Read: search your local library or the Internet for literature on the history and present state of your place. We can only really get to know the place where we currently live if we know how it came to be that way. Do you know who lived on your land before you? What sort of landscape it might have been? How it has changed? A good way to start your search is to do some research on the people who have buildings, streets, parks, or neighborhoods named after them in your town. After reading, it’s always a good idea to write down some of your own thoughts and feelings as a response. Now that you live here, you are part of the historical, and potentially literary, tradition of this place!
  1. Make your own rituals: A ritual is an activity that you repeat in your everyday life with a certain special meaning to accompany it. Performing different types of rituals can be a great way to more fully experience place. Many of us have rituals in our lives without realizing it. Think about your holiday rituals – be it a Christmas Eve tradition, a certain place you always return to, a food that you eat, etc. Recognize the importance of these rituals in your life. Then, think of a new ritual you can start for yourself that brings more meaning to your local place. For example, make a ritual of bringing something you find in your yard or outside if your house that you use to decorate your house. Share your new ritual with others in your life, and see if you can make it last. 
  1. Make your own unique maps: Making your own maps of places that are meaningful to you is a great way to realize the different ways you can experience and interact with a place. Determine your mapping criteria – this can be anything from streets, to graffiti, to your favorite hangout spots, to your favorite places to eat, to environmental justice issues – get creative! Take a walk and draw a map of the elements that you choose as you go. Maps can be made up of lines and words, drawings, photographs, and more. The possibilities are endless. 
  1. Landscape art: Landscape art is a form of expression in which you use what you find in nature to make art. This can be anything from arranging stones in a creek, to painting leaves on a tree with berry juice, to arranging sticks into some sort of symbol. Creating landscape art usually means leaving what you make behind to weather away or decay – the natural processes that accompany your creation are as much a part of the art as your human effort. Taking a photogrpah of your creation is a way to preserve your landscape art for eternity, even if it physically disappears with time. Check out Andy Goldworthy for inspiration – he’s a world-renowned landscape artist (and has an installation in the San Francisco Presidio!)

Landscape art in an urban Berkeley creek

  1. Urban ecology walk: spend an hour, half a day, or even a whole day just walking around your town/city. Discover how the streets, trails, streams, buildings, and neighborhoods fit together in a sort of urban ecosystem. Talk to people you meet on the street. Everyone has his or her own niche in the urban ecosystem, including yourself. Every walk is a chance to discover how your place is pieced together, and where you fall within that puzzle. This fall, our class started a ritual urban walk from the hills to the marina, creating a transect of the city, writing and observing as we walked. If you find a particularly meaningful route that you take, make a tradition out of this physical journey and bring friends along. 
  1. Explore an environmental justice issue in your hometown: find out who’s involved, how this issue evolved, and what you can do to help – then volunteer! Even if there’s not a way for you to volunteer or intervene, simply learning about the issue and then spreading awareness via conversations with your friends or by writing up a blog post about it can make a big difference. If you do write about a local issue, please send it to me ( to be featured on the CSSC website! 
  1. Host a “Celebration of Place” with your friends and family – let this be a time and a place where people come together to share creative writing and artwork that dwells on themes related to your local place. Incorporate rituals of place into this celebration, and encourage everyone to participate. 
  1. Collective poems: as an activity for your next gathering, give each person a sheet of paper. Decide on a central theme, like the local food system, a local park, a local mountain, the local watershed, etc. Each person writes one line of a poem and then passes the paper around the circle for the next person to write a line. By the time you’ve gone around the circle, you’ll have as many poems as you have people, and each will be a mosaic of voices and a collective effort!

Collective poem

I’d love to hear your experience with any of these activities, and I would especially love to hear about your own ideas for place-based activities that help you interact with your local environment.

How does this all relate to the sustainability movement? Many of us in the CSSC are involved in campaigns that span various scales: from local, to regional, to state-wide, to nation-wide, to global. As individuals, our voices and actions resonate outward, and especially when we join together, we can build solutions that are bigger than ourselves. Reading, writing, and realizing nature is about returning to our individual foundation of what we experience in our own sensing bodies. We can only act and interact with the greater world around us if we understand how we personally fit into the places where we live, work, and play. I’ve found it to be comforting and empowering to realize that in a chaotic, overwhelming world, many questions can be resolved simply by returning to myself and doing some firsthand exploration of my world. Creative expression like poetry, journaling, and landscape art can help us open our eyes to the way the planet expresses itself. The holiday season is a perfect time to return to your core – often we have a little more free time, and we get to spend it with those we care about in our communities. Don’t let winter weather keep you from getting outside. You won’t regret making the choice to get out, explore, and set your senses free – you never know what you’ll discover.


If you are curious about the course that I facilitate, would like a copy of our syllabus, or have any other questions, don’t hesitate to send me an email at

Posted in California Student Sustainability Coalition Magazine.