What is a sit spot?
Sit spots are a vital practice for any student of bird language and nature connection. As a kid I’d never even heard about sit spots, but over years of searching for birds I developed a native affinity for silently stalking through bushland. Kids just adapt to whatever works. Often, in response to something scratching or calling behind dense shrubbery, I would pause in my slow meandering. It was in these long-poised moments that my breath would automatically find a slow rhythm and my nervous system seemed to enter a calm, float state. I remember experiencing a form of annihilation-of-the-self. I just sort of forgot to be me.
I suppose any form of sustained concentration could bring on this effect, but nonetheless this sensation of ‘merging’ the self with your surroundings is a profoundly joyous one. I firmly believe it to be a signature experience of deep nature connection.
Many years later, when my good friend Sam Robertson introduced the practice of “sit spot” to me, I realised it offered a reliable way for people who hadn’t grown up stalking birds to feel that same joy of dissolution. So yeah, I’m a big fan of the sit spot which is why it is a core routine for all my bird language workshops.
When working with a group, sit spots should ideally be done individually, but participants should have the opportunity to share their stories and experiences with the rest of the group afterwards. I totally recommend using a field journal for solo sit spots. Keeping a record of your sit spot stories and observations is critically important.
How to start a sit spot
A sit spot is a place in nature, or on the edge of nature, that you’ll visit as often as you like. It’s a place where you feel comfortable to just sit down, go quiet, stop fidgeting and simply start observing what goes on around you. It’s totes fine to take a camping chair or a little cushion (I do!) but the more low-key the better. You may need to spray your hat rim with insect repellent and wear appropriate clothes for the conditions. I usually wear long-sleeved shirt and long pants that are treated with permethrin to ward off ticks.
Sit spots in the rain might sound like a really dull prospect, but you should give it a try, at least once…rain masks the sound and smell of approaching predators so some predators get extra busy under such conditions and besides that, the forest just looks so cool and everyone’s behaviour changes. You don’t want to miss that do you?
Ideally your sit spot won’t take you more than 5 minutes to walk to. You might imagine that you’ll always be inspired to climb that steep knoll to reach the AWESOME sit spot on the top, but in reality you probably won’t, or at least not as often as you should. You want your spot to be handy enough that it’s not a hassle to get there, but not so close to home that other people are able to easily or inadvertently interrupt your silent vigil.
In terms of habitat features, you’ll want to choose a place that has a variety of overlapping natural habitat types (flowering shrubbery, forest canopy, water body, grassy glade, open sky etc). The better the quality and the more diverse the habitat, the greater the abundance and variety of creatures who will share your sit spot with you. On that note, it’s worth checking that you aren’t going to be sitting on an hostile ant nest or adjacent a stinging plant. Just saying.
To begin with, you will likely only want to sit for 15 – 20 minutes at a time. With practice though you’ll find your sense of time becomes untethered and several hours can drift past before your body needs to stir. Your only job while at sit spot is to pay attention. To everything. Don’t catalogue stuff like you’re a forensic investigator, rather allow your thoughts to run aground and falter – become a passive observer, a listener of tiny sounds, a noticer of moving shadows and timid creature movements, a sniffer of the breeze. Act like a mossy log or a rock. Allow the bush to swallow you up and accept your presence…and stop making everyone feel so freakin’ alarmed all the time ok!
Concentric Circles of Alarm
As I stroll from my house to the nearby rainforest gully where I typically like to do my sit spot, my movement inevitably creates a fuss. Like a pebble thrown into a still pond, the disturbance I make radiates outwards in all direction, with me at the epicentre. If I’m chatting loudly to my mate Miles on the phone while I walk, swatting mosquitos or not caring how much noise my feet make on the forest floor, the ripples of disturbance become like mini-tsunamis and carry a long way into the surrounding forest. It wouldn’t be surprising if a Logrunner started up an urgent alarm call at more than 100 metres away. The hills have eyes.
But if I’m careful and mindful of where my feet are stepping, I can reduce the ripples down to a minimum, and that nervous Logrunner stays quiet. Not only will my disturbance aura not travel so far, but it will take far less time once I arrive at my sit spot for the forest to return to baseline.
It takes a while for the creatures of the bush to feel confident enough to relax and go about their creaturish business again. But with practice, your sit spot will allow you to experience nature in a way you’ve probably never known before – its “baseline” state.
Nature’s Baseline State
Whenever we move into or through a natural environment, we inevitably create ripples of disturbance and threat. Animals don’t trust us, and I don’t blame them one bit. Millions of years of evolution have endowed the creatures living in this environment with sophisticated early-warning systems (sensitive ears, sharp eyes, keen sense of smell, fast wits, etc) so upon detecting your approach into their personal space they flee to safety. For most of us then, this is the only way we have experienced the bush, in a state of anxiety and vigilance. It’s as if the bush is holding its breath until we leave.
But, ever wondered what it’s like when you’re NOT there? When it’s off-guard and in a relaxed baseline? To experience this baseline state, we need to let wild nature forget about us and forgive our intrusion. The truth is that money can’t buy this stuff, you have to earn it through patience, practice and humility. You have to do what Jon Young calls “dirt time”. That’s why sit spots are so personalised. Every time you go out to you sit spot the experience you’ll have with nature will be entirely unique. In a world so preoccupied with off-the-shelf experience-commodification, sit spots offer us something authentic and genuine.
Subscribing to Nature News
Once you’ve been at your sit spot for a while, say half an hour or more, you can reasonably expect that the environment is approaching baseline. Now, any alarm ripples across the pond that get created (and you detect) can be attributed to someone else. Typically, that someone else is a predator of some kind. In Australia, it probably means a snake or goanna, but sometimes it’s a quoll, owl, bird of prey, fox, dingo, cat or another person.
This is where the sit spot really starts to get cool. Because, if you’ve managed to “go dark” and let everyone relax again, you’ll feel yourself gradually transform into just another vigilant and wary critter. Your sensory system, normally left idling at a low hum, will now phase shift into a higher gear. Ready now to detect the slightest disturbance ripples, you’ve unwittingly signed up to Nature News, where all the latest happenings and dramas are reported in real-time. Only now, the front-page story isn’t about YOU!