Reading Nature

I haven’t blogged much lately. One reason is that I’m (slowly) enjoying The Path Between the Seas by David McCollough, about the Panama Canal.

My other reason is that I’ve had so many opportunities to be out of doors! My back yard, the campus where I work, the Forsythe Wildlife Refuge, other parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and, to top it off, Vermont! What a summer!

So I have been observing nature directly. It has been suggested that nature can be “read” like a text. So what have I been seeing/reading? A few observations… 

My experiences in nature are often linear. I walk on paths – one path at a time. I can’t walk on two paths – if I come to a fork, I must decide where to go next. I would describe myself as a “linear thinker”, so this linear experience of nature is comfortable for me. Sometimes, as at the Forsythe Refuge, I’m in a car. Again, linear. Again, for me, comfortable. 

My “reading” of nature is often technologically enhanced. Who would watch birds without binoculars? I also use them to look at insects or the bark of trees. I haven’t used a microscope lately, but I remember fondly my 6th grade teacher, who showed us what was going on (live!) in a drop of pond water. Thank you, Mr. Costello!

And consider the almost universal adoption of cell phones and digital cameras! When we go bug hunting at night, a quick snapshot of some tiny, tiny insect can be blown up by a factor of ten, and the creature is promptly identified down to subspecies detail. If its identity is NOT clear, the picture is forwarded to a website for examination by experts. Learning has become easier.

Much of my “reading” of nature takes place in a social setting. Sitting around a “black” light waiting to see what insects will fly in is a pleasantly gregarious night time activity, kind of like a campfire. (Usually the setup consists of several lights and a white sheet, and there are variations that include “bait” to attract insects. The bait formulations often include alcohol or rotten fruit.) We chat and drink beer. Then suddenly a big moth or strange beetle arrives, and it’s all about science for a few minutes. Occasionally, an insect is collected for research, but most are admired, photographed and allowed to continue their business. This can go on for hours, until we get tired and goofy and try to communicate with the local owl population, imitating their calls. 

Another scientific/social way to “read” nature is to participate in a bioblitz, an event at which scientists get together to study the living organisms in a particular area. At a “full scale” bioblitz, there’s an effort to have complete coverage, a scientist for each category of organisms that might turn up, plants as well as animals. That is a big, complicated endeavor and it doesn’t happen very often. I think the last one I attended was in Connecticut in 2009. But I went to two small, insect oriented events this summer. See http://www.nps.gov/vafo/naturescience/bioblitz.htm The national park at Valley Forge was studied by scientists from Drexel University and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

What makes a bioblitz “social”? It’s the curiosity! At one bioblitz, the officials actually fired a starting gun to signal the beginning of the 24-hour event. The large team of invited experts scurried off. Not being a biologist, I lounged around the “headquarters” area, wondering what would happen. Twenty minutes later, the first scientist returned, with a big basket of mushrooms and funguses. But wait! In the gills of one mushroom was a tiny insect. It was carefully passed along to the correct specialist, and the day’s excitement began. No matter what you brought in, someone found it exciting! Slugs and leafhoppers generated as much interest as birds and cute, small mammals. 

Sometimes people ask if a studious approach to nature makes it less “mysterious” or less beautiful. Not to me! Nature is still full of surprises. The more you look, the more you see. Often I’m outdoors in the company of people who observe much more closely than I do. When I settle down to their meandering pace, I find out how much there is to look at. 

My best surprise in recent months was a migration of dragonflies. A river of dragonflies! Every few yards, another dragonfly, all traveling in the same direction. I don’t know how wide the river of dragonflies was, or how long it persisted, but I was thrilled to see this unexpected behavior.

Another fine surprise was a foot long snapping turtle crossing the sidewalk near the lake at Richard Stockton College (New Jersey). This snapper was black and wet and weedy, and had an attitude! Every part showing outside of its shell looked like pure muscle – legs, tail, neck… Instead of dragging along on it’s abdomen, this character came up on its legs and moved strode briskly. I kept out of its way, hastily taking a few pictures before it slid into the lake. 

I’m still reading books of course, but for now, I will read nature whenever I get the chance.

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