Some of the earliest and fondest memories of my childhood involve nature: making dandelion necklaces with my mother, climbing to the highest branches of my backyard tree and jumping into freshly raked piles of leaves – just to name a few. Back then my relationship with nature was staged through the lens of my child-like wonder. On account of this, my younger self was more curious about and more enthused by the natural world that surrounded me; certainly the small joys of nature were held nearer and dearer to my heart than they are now. I’m not sure exactly when my perception of the little wonders in nature changed, nor am I sure if it happened slowly or all at once. I can only say for sure that things did indeed change – dandelions became weeds to be ripped out, trees were no longer meant for climbing and the leaves became a chore to be raked and bagged away at the first signs of fall.
However, (with great delight) I feel that I regained that sense of wonder during my recent trip to the Aleza Lake Research Forest. Tasked by my professors to pay close attention to the seemingly insignificant, I started to notice the small things that the natural space had to offer. Through this act of mindful observation, my view of the environment around me began to change. The weeds I once ripped out of the garden became treasured finds that were tucked away in my sling-bag for later examination. The trees I would’ve normally passed by without a second glance became a source for art. The quietness of my surroundings instilled in me a sense of calm and relaxation unlike any that can be felt in an urban setting. I’m ashamed to say that it has been far too long since I have spent any prolonged time in nature. On account of this, I had forgotten the therapeutic properties that being in the wilderness offered. Not only was the experience eye-opening and a good way to bond with my classmates and professors, but ultimately it was fun.
As time passed my knowledge of the space deepened as did my perception. Slowly, I began to ask questions and in turn my profs were only too happy to share their wealth of knowledge with me. The varying positions of lichens on the trees began to fascinate me, some were at the base of trees and others were much higher up – Dr. Egger would later inform me this was due to a need for optimal moisture levels. Furthermore, as I observed workers bees collecting pollen, I was informed that only female bees are workers. Additionally, the ways in which slight changes in elevation drastically affected the biota fostered more pondering – perhaps the downhill flow of water was the factor or a difference in the concentration of nutrient-rich soil. The overall impact of the experience would not have been the same without the company of my professors and classmates, who were all much more knowledgeable than I.
Through the practice of natural history, described by Thomas L. Fleischner as the “the process by which we fall in love with the world,” I have felt my sense of wonder return to me. And perhaps on some small level, this child-like wonder, this wholly appreciative way of viewing the natural world (down to the tiniest insects and the most seemingly insignificant blades of grass) is what ultimately unites all natural historians. It can also be said then, that the practice of natural history remains not solely for the Darwins or the Attenboroughs of the world, but for any who have presently, or have lost and wish to regain, a sense of wonder.
So, the next time you find yourself out in nature I urge you to stop and take pause. Look at the number of petals on a flower and appreciate the millions of years of evolution it took for that organism to be where it is today. Observe the first snowfall and ponder at the uniqueness of each ice crystal and its role in the “complex meteorological system that affects our entire planet”… and voilà! You’re well on your way to practicing natural history.