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The International Writers Magazine: Earth News

Encountering Nature Through the Twelve Senses
opening the doors of perception to the natural world
Josef Graf

Silence stillness immensity
Forest stretching endlessly
Snow covered, quietly breathing its tremendous, wide, conifer expanse
And the sough of wind rising and falling

Most beings here - plant or animal - are melded into this spacious and soul-purifying landscape
As is the human - But the human is also, at least in part, separate from the land.
And human nature can discern, by way of the 12 senses, aspects and nuances of the natural world through these 12 portals.The snow sifts down into the forest, falling windless and so light as to seem almost weightless, afloat in place. A deep silence holds sway, an ocean of stillness that invites entry. And there is space enough here for any size contemplation.

In the northern, boreal realm, across this endless range of semi-homogenous evergreen forest radiating its steadfast and grounded, robust energy - across the conifer deep - here and there, an accent counters the etheric expanse with an astral focus, an animal being - raven, jay, squirrel-hunting marten, wolf, moose, or chickadee. Tracks in the snow tell the stories. A snowshoe hare nips birch tips from a fallen tree. A luxuriously furred marten pursues a red squirrel. Unless the squirrel quickly makes it to one of its underground dens it will become the marten’s meal.

Sometime in the night the wolf came near. It came to investigate who was howling in the evening, howling like, yet unlike, another wolf (it’s own sense of language revealing that, although the sound of my howl seemed very similar to a wolf’s, there was a subtle difference). It came near enough to discern the scent of human presence, approached as near as it dared, always keeping a periphery of safety as it circuited the area of the cabin.

What curiosity was left unquenched? And in the daylight I could feel the wolf watching me from somewhere in the woods, as I went out on the frozen lake to investigate the passage of its own movement, the story told by its tracks.
Surely, from the wolf’s point of view, it experiences the most challenge of interpretation (in a sense, the wolf’s level of conceptual sense) from the human community. As is well known, the wolf can read, very intimately, the comings and goings, the various aspects of, the moose, and other inhabitants of its immediate neighborhood. But the human being becomes rich in enigma, embodies a broad range of Unknown in the sphere of the wolf’s experience.

Snow-shoeing through a forest during a snowfall can be an ideal setting to attune to the landscape. Distractions are reduced - sound is muffled and visibility is confined to a radius of a few feet (of course it goes without saying that one has to exercise care, bring a compass and be good at orienteering, or you can end up in oblivion!)

Overall, the Spirit of the boreal forest - the heart of the boreal forest landscape, like the heart of one of its trees, one senses, is golden, intricate, warm despite the climate, perhaps because of the climate, to counterpoint the cold.In sharing this encounter with nature through the twelve senses, I will begin with the outermost, least penetrating sense and proceed to the deepest-registering sense (please note that the following presumes a basic understanding of the 12 senses.

If the reader wishes to prime him/herself on this subject, use the links under "Further Resources" at the end of the article. Alternatively, information is readily available by entering an internet search via "12 senses" - and adding "Rudolf Steiner" can be helpful):
The longer I touch the snow and ice here, the number grows this sense. Then, in turns, it is awakened by prickle of conifer needle, rasped by bark, or caressed by the soft feel of usnea moss. Whatever the sensate experience of touch, I have to admit that it defines my separation, the self’s bounds, or at least the physical body’s self-bounding. I do touch nature with this sense, but only her outermost surface, a Braille of rebuff, no entry past the outermost edge. As we continue down this list, we enter, increasingly, into the inner nature of things. But the sense of touch is the most external.
For example, when the wind gusts across my face, my sense of touch feels the impact of that gust, but my sense of temperature registers how cool or warm it is.

A manatee, with more brain space dedicated to touch than any other mammal, has a long-distance sense of touch. Whisker like hairs all over its body act as sensors, so that it can, in effect, "touch" from a distance.

After a long day of snow-shoeing my sense of life feels drained, very low in energy/chi, even despite practicing energy-enhancing Qi-gong along the way (I’m not by any means a master in the art yet). Overall, as I undertake this trek, my sense of life is both enhanced and exhausted. My constitutional energy is put to the test, the body forces are working at their limit. However, the etheric energy of the forest is so resplendent that there is a constant influx of vitality. An interesting point to be made here is that in urban areas people have to enhance their life sense due to the lack of nature-borne vitality. In consideration of this, we can say, if asked what is truly the most valuable property in, say, New York, the answer is that Central Park has more worth that all the rest of Manhattan combined!

Migrating birds can detect and use magnetic fields of the Earth to navigate by. Is this so-called "magnetic field" actually part of the sense of life of the planet streaming forth? And are the birds, in a way, projecting their own sense of life outward to detect the Earth’s energy in this manner?

Wolves are known to stare into the eyes of their prey before opting to attack, reading in their potential prey the nature of their sense of life, their overall constitutional strength and condition of health.

This sense of awareness of the body-in-motion enables us to know where any part of our body is even with eyes closed. It is a sense that can be refined and enhanced, as in the case of intricate choreography.

When projected outward, we can sense movement in others. One evening, as I was bent over a campfire, cooking a meal, I could sense something passing over above me. As I looked up I saw an owl flying in the trajectory I had been sensing. The owl, as we know is capable of flying quite silently. I did not hear its passage, nor could I see it in any way, until after I looked up.

Tracks of a solitary snowshoe hare enter the woods, appearing to have crossed the frozen lake - a distance of about 2 miles. What could have drawn the hare across such an long open distance? Its progress would have been little noticed as its coat matched the snow so well (here again, a developed sense of movement projected outward would have helped to sense the hare’s passage.) Does the weasel sense the movement of mice and voles in the sub-nivean chamber beneath the snow, before it dives in?

Often have I watched a flock of shorebirds, or snowbirds, as they fly in complete unison, twisting, turning, diving, swooping as one. Here, the sense of movement has been refined and con-joined to each member of the flock, as though a single being is operating every nuance of movement. This particular example can also shed light on how the sense of ego operates within the realm of nature - more on that below.

The human sense of balance is conveyed through inner ear structures. In animals, "otoliths" serve a similar purpose. In nature, we are often challenged to refine our sense of balance, as the terrain is often rugged and variable.
As with movement, deep appreciation of a dance presentation actually requires us to project our sense of balance, as we extend ourselves into the performance. Within the animal kingdom, exceptional acrobatics in the balance arena include the cat and squirrel.

A blossom permeates the air with it’s gaseous aroma. Forces of will meet, from outer (e.g., the rose’s "will") and inner, as our own will streams out to meet it.
Desert animals can smell water vapor over a great distance. A wolf’s nose has been estimated to be from a hundred thousand to a million times more sensitive than a human’s. The bear has one of the most sensitive olfactory capacities of the animal kingdom, and is able to track through water, or read information from a scent trail several days old.

Just as the sense of smell operates via the airy element, taste depends on the liquid element. A substance must first be partly dissolved before we can taste it. Nature has a way of producing the most flavorful tastes, for example, in fruits that evolve in natural conditions. Despite humankind’s most lengthy and deliberate attempts to improve crops in this regard, nature cannot be topped. Notice how the smallest fruits, such as a wild strawberry, have the most incredible taste. The larger agri-business causes its fruits to grow, the more the taste of its products seems to fall bland.
Salmon are famous for their ability to taste their way back up to waters from which they originated. Some fish can detect substances diluted to one part per billion. Bees have taste receptors on their jaws, forelimbs, and antennae.

One night, as I lie in my sleeping bag, I am enchanted by a pre-sleep show courtesy of Aurora borealis. I look through the window up into the night sky, past willow and spruce to the backdrop of stars and drink in the Aurora ribbons, the northern angel flights, radiating, dancing in striations that breathe in and out in fanning coruscations.
Vision is a sense that begins to penetrate further than the foregoing senses. When our eyes perceive the blue-green color of the spruce tree, compared with the yellow-green color of the pine tree, we begin to discern something about the inner nature of these different trees.
Bees, birds, and some animals can see in the ultraviolet range. A hawk has 20/5 vision - it can see from 20 feet what most people can see from 5 feet. A falcon can see a 10 cm object from a distance of 1.5 kilometers. A buzzard can observe small rodents from an altitude of 15,000 feet.

We can sense outer surfaces via touch, but we actually use another sense when it comes to detecting temperature variations. As stated above, the wind is physically felt on one’s skin, but its relative cold or warmth is sensed via our sense of temperature.
Because an object is permeated by its warmth or cold, the sense of temperature reaches still deeper than vision, further into the foundation of things.
Pit vipers, and some boas, have a heat sensitive organ between their eyes and nostrils, with which they can ascertain body heat in another organism.

As I journey on, I can hear the rise and fall of the wind through the trees, and the crunch of my snowshoes atop the crusty snow. Resonance, the sound quality that permeates an object, in its vibrational tone reveals much about the nature of the object. Consider candle ice clinking together. The tone the snow gives forth when walking reveals a lot about snow conditions underfoot. When sawing firewood, the sound of the particular log reveals much about the wood’s quality. As we listen to the sounds of both things and living beings, in a certain way hearing begins to tell us something about the soul level of what we are encountering.
A pigeon can detect sounds in the infrasound range far below our own limit, as low as 0.1 Hz. Bats can hear through a range from 3,000 to 120,000 Hz (compared with the human range - 20 to 20,000 Hz.).

Language is a sense that goes beyond merely hearing something spoken. By the sense of language we are able to perceive meaning behind an expression. Language in nature is a great challenge to de-code. The language of animals and birds, the language of a landscape. Once some familiarity is attained in this area, the human element of language interpretation (that is, truly understanding another in one’s native tongue) becomes more facile.

One morning, a ptarmigan singing its dawn poem became a particular challenge to interpret. As the sun began to rise, and the ptarmigan began its song a few meters from the cabin I was waking in, I could sense an intricacy to what it was voicing. But my own sense of language, being not yet sufficiently developed, wasn’t up to interpreting its message. However, in my research I have discovered that within the human community there are individuals who are becoming increasingly adept at this level of communication.

Besides the human capacity to interpret language, within the animal kingdom there are some who can use this sense fairly effectively - e.g, the gorilla. However, on a deeper level, all animals have a Spirit of the species aspect that is as egoic as ourselves, and thus capable of fully exercising this faculty. And so, by evoking connection with, say, the Spirit of the Wolf, we can begin to enter into a viable level of communication.

As with language, the sense of concept is an arena in which individual animals reach a limit. "One can be directed by intelligence without possessing it, and that is how if is for animals," according to Rudolf Steiner. Here, he is referring to how the over-lighting being, the Spirit of an animal species, can utilize the higher senses - language, concept, and ego - on a par with human capacities, but not in the case of a single animal.

This is not to say animals are not intelligent - only to acknowledge a level of conceptualizing that differs from human. The Spirit of an animal is, indeed, intelligent, and has much to offer in ways that can deepen our understanding about our sojourn upon Earth.

Sense of concept can be a potent arena due to the way in which prana/chi has moved from its traditional forum (the breath) to thinking. Once we learn the ropes, through our thinking life we can enhance our energetic levels.
Nature causes me to conceptualize in particular ways. One key mode is to reflect on the spiritual ecology of aspects of nature. How does the spruce tree part of me have its being? The wolf? The squirrel? The forested part of my inner terrain? the spring? The lakeshore part? The starry dome? What does the magic of Aurora borealis evoke in me?

Sense of ego - among ways of getting to know oneself further - that is, using one’s sense of ego upon oneself - relating to others is primary. But so, also, is spending time in nature in solitude. Nuances of one’s individuality can be explored. How do I experience solitude over a duration? What issues arise? What fears are met and what are my individual "edges" therein? For example, fears related to loneliness, or provision (as one’s food stock depletes), of the darkness (what shapes form in the dark out of fear?), or what mid-life issues still prevail?

Central to this line of questioning is - how am I in the face of prolonged silence and stillness, the great leveler of humankind and human aspiration. In what ways does this sabbatical from my life cause me to reflect on my life? What things to strengthen? Or to change? Or to come to terms with? Or seek more understanding about? How do each of the animals, plants, etc I encounter resonate with various parts of my being?

In reference to animals, the world is in a state of spiritual evolution, meaning that while we humans are evolving toward a fifth kingdom level of being, animals are also becoming more egoic - individualized, and more and more capable of abilities that were once attributed only to humans (or to the overall species level of the animal). Especially those animals who are spending time with humans, pets, are advancing more rapidly in this way.
All forms of life are advancing, including the other two realms of life on Earth. as plants develop more astral qualities, and the mineral kingdom becomes increasingly etheric.
Hearing and vision - nature automatically creates aesthetically beautiful forms in both aural and visual arenas. Humanity chooses to create beautiful, or not-so-beautiful forms. The more one spends in nature, the more one is immersed in aesthetic beauty.
Projecting one’s sense of motion onto the snowflakes, and there is a feeling of softly sifting down through one’s being.
Projecting to high mountain peaks, there is a feeling of excarnation, or moving up out of one’s body, in a sense.
Similarly, on the West Coast, where the energy is experienced as diffusive - all the rain and sea and growth and abundance of plant life, rainforest exuberance, calls for an extra degree of focusing to counteract the diffusion.
The 12 senses referred to here pertain primarily to the physical aspect of humanity. Other senses come into play as we enter into our spiritual nature, including the human astral body. Steiner refers to some of these metaphysical senses as imagination, inspiration and intuition. Earth Vision proposes to delve into this subject, along with a more extensive examination of the 12 senses in relation to the natural world - a book will likely result in the foreseeable future. If you would like to contribute to this project, please contact author Josef Graf through the email on the EV site.

The foregoing article is part of the Earth Vision project. Visit for more information and articles that provide in-depth treatments of current environmental issues, as well as E-books on spiritual ecology.

© Josef Graf April 2008
Encountering Nature Through the Twelve Senses
Visit the Earth Vision site for in-depth treatments of environmental issues, or e-books on spiritual ecology.
Josef Graf
nature in the light of spiritual ecology

Further resources:Mercurius on the 12 senses
A 12 Senses Chart

More Life and Times


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