Written by: Catherine Browne
In nature its easy to absorb what you see, but when you delve further there’s a lot more to discover if you use your other senses. Next time you are out and about, revel in the smells, sounds, textures, tastes, emotions and memories.
The braille trail at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens is something worth visiting. It allows people of all visual abilities to enjoy and experience nature in different ways.
The trail has been described as the hidden treasure of the gardens as it is always cool and quiet under the shaded forest, and there is always something unique to experience. This brief trail through the forest gives those who are visually impaired the chance to discover an indigenous Afromontane forest unassisted, and it also encourages everyone to explore the forest with all of their senses. The entire trail is outlined by a guide rope that leads you on a winding route through the forest and over a patch of wetland. Blocks on the guide rope indicate points of interest where you can learn about the forest and the plants and animals found within it. When you reach a marker block, turn to face the rope and ahead of you, you’ll find an information board with large text. On the back of the board is also braille. The trail is 450 metres long and takes 15-30 minutes.
But even without visiting Kirstenbosch, you can experience any natural setting by using all of your senses and the Botanical Society of South Africa encourages you to do just that – to really connect with nature and appreciate her in all of her splendour.
It is a world at your fingertips. How many different plants can you feel? There are some long and narrow, some pleated like a fan, some bristly. Some are leathery with serrated edges, while some are tough and scratchy with curved edges, and others are hard-jointed and bendy. Some are even soft and feathery to the point of tickling. Feel and rub them, but do be gentle as you do not want to damage any of the plants.
Feel the tree’s skin, its bark. It can be smooth, rough, flaky or bumpy. Bark protects living tree trunks from fire, disease, animals and insects. Every kind of tree has a unique bark, often helping you to recognise and identify them. Just under the bark is a layer called phloem, which transports the plant’s food. Tripping bark can damage the phloem so the tree cannot feed properly and will die.
Learn about ageing trees by counting their rings. Trees use the sugars they make in their leaves to build layers of wood in their stems, which means that thicker trees are older than thinner ones.
Enjoy a rest on a bench and listen carefully. What do you hear? Perhaps water, the wind rustling in the leaves, children laughing, birds singing, insects buzzing?
What’s above and below you? Can you feel the breeze or rays of sunshine that break through the canopy? The forest floor is richly diverse – bend down and try to work out what you feel. Sticks? Leaves? Wood? Sand? Smell it, what does it smell like? Dusty? Sharp? Musty? Sweet? This is leave litter – a key player in the forest; a carpet of dead leaves, broken branches and things that drop from the trees. As these decompose, they release nutrients back into the soil for the trees to use again to grow and live. It also protects the soil from being washed away by the rains and keeps the soils moist, perfect homes for fungi and lots of little creatures.
You can learn more about the different layers of the forest and who lives within them. You can enjoy a refreshing drink of mountain water from the water fountain. How does it feel and taste? Sweet? Earthy? Cool?
Experience natural sponge and the wonders of the damp areas. Hear frogs chirping, clicking, croaking. What other creatures can you hear?
The forest is full of life, and many creatures may shy away in the day but come out at night. Imagine how the forest may differ at night time.
There are so many wonders to experience and things to learn. Twisting wild almond trees related to proteas, and unique partnerships of lichens that dwell on the forest fringe.
Find your niche. A forest is an intricate network of trees and other plants, animals, birds, insects, fungi and bacteria that live together and depend on each other for survival. Like a village is a community of people, so a forest is a community of animals and plants. Each has a home and a role to play in the community. How many different places that you find can be inhabited in the forest? What jobs can you see? If you were a forest creature for a day, which one would you choose to be?
Learn about history, biology, mathematics, art, science, yourself and more. The forest is the perfect classroom and we can learn so much more using all of our senses.
Protect our forests, they give us life. Forests play a very important part in making it possible for us to live. They give us clean air to breath, they help make rain, they help to keep the weather stable, and they stop soil from washing away. When forests are cut down, the environmental problems we face worsen.
Respect the forest:
– Keep to the paths
– Don’t litter
– Don’t make fires
– Don’t carve your name into tree trunks
– Don’t strip off bark
Care about the environment:
– Support sustainable farming and harvesting
– Buy goods made from recycled paper
– Support conservation
Get out into nature and truly experience it. Breath it in, absorb it, learn from it, appreciate it, and look after it. Excited to stimulate all of your senses? Read about fragrance gardens before you head off on your adventure.
You can support plant conservation by enjoying the benefits of becoming a member of the Botanical Society of South Africa and by getting a MyPlanet card and selecting the Botanical Society as your beneficiary.
Kirstenbosch is only one of the 10 SANBI National Botanical Gardens. Other gardens also offer magnificent sensory stimulating areas to explore, experience and learn from.