Ben Kielesinski is up a tree. He's drinking tea out of a blue-and-white ceramic mug, watching the clouds part over the wilds of British Columbia. All of a sudden he has a choice view: a nearby body of water, just past the treetops.
To reach his scenic perch, he hiked through snowy woods, stopping to pat the trunk of one tree and comment on the shape of another, all while talking to an audience on TikTok as if they're trailing him on his adventure.
In a sense, they are. The video, originally posted in January, has racked up more than 14 million views. Kielesinski has been making TikToks like this one since August 2020. He usually starts off asking the viewer, "Do you want to come on an adventure with me?" And then providing the answer: "Too bad, you're coming." Eventually he ends up in some painfully beautiful spot, inside an otherworldly ice cave or swimming with vibrant purple starfish.
"I wanted to ... show people what I experienced," the 28-year-old Vancouver resident tells me over Zoom, "and not necessarily in a way of 'anybody can do this' but 'I know other people can't, so let me at least be your virtual chaperone.'"
Technology and nature can seem at odds -- the drive to always be plugged in versus being present in nature -- but Kielesinski is one of many TikTokers showing it doesn't have to be that way. While watching a hike isn't a replacement for going on one, it can serve as a moment of peace, a window into a different world, an educational tool, and even an entryway to the proverbial great outdoors.
There's certainly an appetite for being out in nature. In 2019, national parks in the US saw more than 327 million visits. Fifty-three percent of Americans ages six and up did some kind of outdoor activity at least once in 2020, according to a trends report from the Outdoor Industry Association. Yet not everyone has easy access to the outdoors. The Brookings Institute found that among those in the 100 biggest US cities, a third live farther than a 10-minute walk from a park.
During the pandemic, depending on where you live you might've been under a stay-at-home order, or local parks might've been closed.
Keith Paluso, who goes by Ranger Keith on TikTok, is a park ranger in the Memphis area. He also happens to be the current lead singer for Blood, Sweat and Tears, a rock group dating back to 1967, known for songs like Spinning Wheel. After touring halted because of the pandemic, he decided to test the waters on his TikTok account and talk about another of his great passions aside from music: birding.
"I instantly got more feedback on it than I ever did playing music," he says. One of the first videos he posted, where he pointed out different bird calls, got 10,000 views the night he put it up, a significant jump from his usual several hundred.
Paluso posts Birding Breaks, among other types of videos. In a hushed voice, he'll say something like, "I thought you could probably take a minute to just be present. We're going to let the world be whatever it is."
Layered atop the sound of wind and insects, you can hear birds chirping, and Paluso will tell you what you're listening to, whether it's an Acadian flycatcher or a yellow-billed cuckoo. For Paluso, birding is a mindfulness practice he can share with others.
"The world is an amazing place if you can stop thinking about what is coming up next," he says.
Mushrooms, sharks and poison ivy
Communing with nature doesn't have to be about birdcalls and filling your ears. It can also be about filling your stomach.
Alexis Nikole Nelson makes videos about all the edible plants, nuts, roots and mushrooms she finds, often just in her neighborhood. She can turn acorns into vegan-friendly bacon or maitake mushrooms into steak and soups.
She also uses her videos to talk about how foraging used to be a part of the lives of Black and Indigenous folks, and to reconnect with the practice.
Nelson told NPR in September, "If you can't hunt and forage on public property, and you don't yet have private property to your name, boom, that is a part of your life that you are not partaking in anymore. And it doesn't take a whole lot of generations passing for that knowledge to just fall away completely."
Education is important to other nature-based TikTokers, too. Kayleigh Grant, 34, founded Kaimana Ocean Safari with her husband in Kona, Hawaii. She posts videos not only of her dives with sharks and encounters with various sea creatures, but also on topics like littering and reef-safe sunscreen, and she hopes to provide some knowledge of the ocean and its inhabitants, even to those who can get to Hawaii only through their screens.
"If you don't feel connected to something, you may not focus on it in your daily life," she says, "I hope my audience is mainly the younger generations, as I know it's their future at stake. The younger generations can be instilled with this sense of care for the ocean, and they will be the future lawmakers, scientists, environmentalists, conservationists who will help protect the planet."
Angie Hong, 42, coordinates a local government partnership about water education in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. Normally, she does public outreach, including educational programs, but the pandemic put a stop to that. Instead, she turned to TikTok to document some of her activities, like hiking, paddleboarding and running in the woods. For the first year, her account didn't get much attention. But a video she made about a project 10 years earlier that had revitalized a neighborhood with sidewalks, rain gardens and trees, took off. It has more than 90,000 views.
Hong has done videos on how to use a compass, how to eat a puffball mushroom (she found hers in her neighborhood), and how to recognize poison ivy, to name a few. While she hopes her videos inspire people to go outside and poke around, she also hopes viewers take pointers from her on how to respect and take care of their environment.
"Ultimately, the final goal is that people are doing good things to steward the environment," she says.
A common thread with the TikTokers I talked to is the idea that getting out in nature doesn't have to be a monumental excursion.
"You may be accustomed to thinking that beautiful amazing things only exist in places where David Attenborough talks about," Paluso says. But that's not the case.
Back in Vancouver, Kielesinski says most places he goes for videos are within about 20 minutes. What's more, he says it's not just about reaching a specific destination, like the summit of a mountain.
"I'm more excited to enjoy the journey of it, as cliche as that sounds," he says, "I want to portray that you can just enjoy each step of the way. ... The whole point of the nature video is to be out in nature."