'Mindfulness in Texas Nature' by Arlington author Michael Smith publishes July 6 by Texas A&M University Press. Above, looking south from the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park. Photo by Meghan Cassidy.

July 3, 2024

An Arlington author, naturalist and retired psychotherapist says it took him many years to learn to practice mindfulness in nature. Now he's helping others find their way.

Michael Smith's new book Mindfulness in Texas Nature publishes next week by Texas A&M University Press.

THE ROAD TO MINDFULNESS

Smith's journey into mindfulness was not a sudden epiphany but a gradual transition. 

As a psychological associate, he was already intrigued by how people respond to nature and use it to manage their stress. But it was his extensive time spent in the great outdoors — initially preoccupied with his hobby of hunting for reptiles or just enjoying outings with friends  — that slowly deepened his awareness of the importance of being more intentional in nature. 

"It's almost like a continuum, and I think I slid into it gradually," said Smith. One of his most memorable moments was in 2018 when he was in the mountains and embraced his solitude so much that he began to hear one of Beethoven’s compositions inside his head.

“At that point, I was just really thankful for being able to be there, and I increasingly discovered that I really like spending those kind of moments, just quietly being still and being present,” Smith said.

Over the years, those fleeting moments became more frequent and rewarding, leading him to embrace mindfulness more fully — and eventually write a book on his experiences and how others can learn to embrace it, as well.

Writer Michael Smith says the practice of mindfulness is something he developed over many years. Author photo by Meghan Cassidy.

MINDFULNESS TEXAS STYLE

Mindfulness in Texas Nature is Smith’s third nature-themed guidebook. 

Smith, a cofounder of the DFW Herpetological Society, has also authored The Wild Lives of Reptiles and Amphibians: A Young Herpetologist’s Guide and co-authored Herping Texas: The Quest for Reptiles and Amphibians. 

In his new book, Smith veers from the traditional textbook-style guide, combining introspective prose and meditations with the gorgeous nature photography of Meghan Cassidy, a nature photographer now living in Minnesota. 

A western meadowlark's song is especially beautiful in a quiet setting says Michael Smith. Photo by Meghan Cassidy.

Smith divides his narrative into two primary parts. The first part, "Restoring a Connection with Nature,” prepares the reader for a mindful foray into nature with an introduction to mindfulness techniques and real-world tips.

In his thoroughness and attention to detail, the author includes a primer on the basic elements of the wide-ranging Texas landscapes as well as a hiking checklist. He also offers advice for bringing children along.

The second part of the book, "In the Field, Through the Seasons,” walks the reader through a dozen of Smith’s favorite Texas natural areas through the lens of the four seasons.  

“In particular, [mindfulness] is about ways to be fully present when visiting those places, freed from the distractions and restlessness that can let the sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations slip past us before we really notice.”  — from Mindfulness in Texas Nature

His aim is to foster a deeper appreciation of nature and mindfulness within the natural environment, enriched by his firsthand experiences.

“There's a mix of description of natural history of the place that we're visiting, in the wildlife we found, as well as what it's like to be there mindfully,” Smith said.

A gray tree frog spotted in the Big Thicket National Preserve. Photo by Meghan Cassidy.

Throughout the book, Smith leads readers on an emotional and restorative journey through seven diverse ecoregion of Texas. 

Whether writing about the high deserts of Far West Texas and the mountains of Big Bend or the prairies and grasslands of the Panhandle or the Piney Woods and Big Thicket of East Texas, Smith describes the unique beauty of each landscape. 

“In our book, a desert is in no way desolate even though it is flat and open,” said Smith. “You can feel like you’re really alone out there sometimes. Like, at the Chisos Mountains, you could just really feel the difference between the pace of our lives and the slow pace of geologic time.”

“Sitting in a quiet spot on the side of the mountain, the world seems nearly to stand still. There is the soothing hum of bees, and butterflies of various colors and patterns visit the flowers and flutter off through the woodland. Mexican jays fuss and call to each other, but the busy activity of all these things just makes the underlying stillness more manifest. Here, we can let go of the pace at which our lives move and join the near-motionless time scale of weathering granite.”  — from Mindfulness in Texas Nature.

Among one of the most evocative moments that he detailed was his experience at the Kirby Nature Trail among the Big Thicket in Kountze. 

“We came to a slough and sat on the bridge and just looked at the water for a while and that was, I guess, a particularly mindful moment,” Smith said. “I was very still and looking at the reflection of the trees and other vegetation in the water and then leaning back and looking at the sky and seeing the movement of the air and the movement of the clouds and the movement of the water — just that whole experience was really powerful.”

A slough along the Turkey Creek trail in the Big Thicket inspired a reflective moment. Photo by Meghan Cassidy.

TIPS FOR BEING MINDFUL IN NATURE

Most people who teach adult mindfulness start with attention to the breath, Smith said.

“One of the things I describe in the book is noticing how each breath feels going in," he said. "Centering your awareness on breathing — how it feels going in, how your body expands, how the air feels — and then how it feels on the out-breath, and continuing to pay attention to your breathing, so that you're not somewhere else. 

“You're not in the past or future. You're in the present, noticing your breathing, which is always with you and always in the present,” he added. 

This focus on the breath is a convenient way to bring yourself to a mindful place, from which you can turn your attention to your surroundings, he said. 

A great egret fishes at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge in Grayson County. Photo by Meghan Cassidy.

Citing a definition from Jon Kabat-Zinn, a clinical expert who developed a widely known clinic-based stress reduction program using mindfulness, Smith said that the purpose of mindfulness is that you just continually let each thought go.

“Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention in the present, on purpose, and without judgment," Smith said. "You don't feel like you've failed if you keep having thoughts. You just note it, let it go and come back to the present … In other words, you're not pushing some things away and wishing for other things. You're just OK with where you are right now."

Smith said mindfulness can help us appreciate nature's value and benefits, and this can contribute to our being good stewards of the environment.

A waterway through coastal prairie east of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge in Chambers County. Photo by Meghan Cassidy.

"Some of the things that go with mindfulness include affection, gratitude and a spirit of not doing — just being, instead of trying to get something done,” he said. “If more people spent time in nature with that attitude, they would feel more connected to it. We would probably take care of it better and feel more of the sort of gratitude that you can feel for everything that nature provides for us."

 In addition to publishing a book on the topic, Smith frequently leads mindfulness walks at the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge and the Sheri Capehart Nature Preserve. Through these walks, he guides others on the journey of understanding its importance for their body and mental well-being.

Mindfulness in Texas Nature publishes July 6 and can be purchased on Texas A&M Press or Amazon.

 

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