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A saddleback moth caterpillar—beautiful but highly toxic—sits on a leaf

Make your world a little bigger

By SARAH BOSTICK
Sustainable Agriculture Agent
UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County

As we spend more and more of our time at home, sheltering in place for safety and health, it can easily feel like our personal worlds are shrinking. We feel isolated, claustrophobic, and even bored.

National Public Radio today offered a wonderful way to fight these feelings, publishing “Tips From Someone With 50 Years Of Social Distancing Experience.” The story centers on Billy Barr and his life alone for 50 years in the remote mountains of Colorado. Specifically, Barr offers his tips for living sanely in isolation.

Billy’s number one tip: keep track of something.

So, I encourage you to embrace the idea of keeping track of something during this time of social distancing with this idea: keep track of the nature right outside your door.

a person observes weeds growing from a city sidewalk, with a tomato plant growing in the foreground

Weeds grow from a city sidewalk, with a tomato plant sprouting in the foreground. [CREDIT: UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County]

Observe the weeds that grow in the cracks in the sidewalk. Download a plant identification app on your phone to learn the names and the life cycles of those weeds. Many of these apps are so sophisticated, you can take a picture of the plant and let technology do the work of finding a match. Notice how different those weeds look on dry days compared to rainy days. Notice how the types of weeds change as we head into summer. See the beauty in their tiny flowers.

Spend time studying your landscape plants, the bark of oak trees, the variations in thickness of your lawn. Turn leaves over and observe the insects living on the shady underside.

a brown-and-yellow, "furry" saddleback moth caterpillar—beautiful but highly toxic—sits on a leaf

A saddleback moth caterpillar—beautiful but highly toxic—sits on a leaf. [CREDIT: UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County]

Use a magnifying glass or invest in an inexpensive clip-on microscope for your smartphone to study the texture of grass blades and the incredible diversity of insects living in the grooves of your palm trees. Clip-on microscopes magnify up to 60 times normal size, and allow you to capture magnified images with your phone’s camera. (Watch a swallowtail butterfly caterpillar eat a parsley leaf.)

Take pictures of what you see and use those pictures to learn about the incredible world right outside your doorstep. Spend time looking through the high-quality photos on insect identification websites, like www.insectidentification.org/insects-by-state-listing.asp.

And if you need a bit more inspiration, there is a great book by David George Haskell called “The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature.” Haskell observed each day for a year what would seem a small, simple 3-foot-by-3-foot patch of forest. By year’s end, though, he had seen so much he that it took a 250-page book to hold his observations. There are also dozens of websites with tips for photographic urban nature.

Observe. Notice. Learn about the world right outside your door. And keep track of what you learn. Make notes, take pictures. Your world may feel a little bigger.

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