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On the Joy of Natural Curiosity

You would think that when I am at my river cottage in Northern Michigan I would sit back, close my eyes, and relax.  I have the most comfortable deck chair you can imagine, fitted out with the most sybaritic of cushions, but I keep leaping up to see what is splashing in the river or to examine a flower I have suddenly noticed growing on the bank.

This summer I have read three books, dipping into each as the whim possesses me: The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861, Walter Isaacson’s   Leonardo Da Vinci, and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses.

“How sweet is the perception of a new natural fact! Suggesting what worlds remain to be unveiled,” exclaims Thoreau on April 18, 1852. “That phenomenon of the Andromeda  seen against the sun cheers me exceedingly.

I think that no one ever takes an original or detects a principle, without experiencing an inexpressible, as quite infinite and sane, pleasure, which advertises him of the dignity of that truth he has perceived.”

Leonardo Da Vinci’s “curiosity,” notes Isaacson, “like that of Einstein, often was about phenomena that people over the age of  ten no longer puzzle about.”

Leonardo’s puzzlings are scribbled over 7,200 pages of notebooks that Isaacson deftly organizes by topics. “My favorite gems in his notebooks,” he acknowledges, “are his To-Do lists, which sparkle with curiosity.”

From Leonardo Da Vinci’s To Do Lists:

 “Observe the goose’s foot: if it were always open or always closed the creature would not be able to make any kind of movement.”

“Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary since the water is heaver and thicker than the air?”

“Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.”

“Why is the sky blue?”

“Why can our eyes see only in a straight line?”

“What is yawning?”

I am way over the age of ten, but I retain a ten year old’s curiosity. I am always trying to figure out what is going on in nature – slogging through the wetlands to see what the beaver are up to, chasing up and down the river after sandpipers, or lying flat on my belly trying to figure out what Kimmerer means about the structure of mosses.

And what a joy I feel to see my sixteen year old grandaughter and thirteen year old grandson  bent over their nets and collecting jars, closely examining crawfish, dragonfly nymphs, minnows, and tiny river lampreys – curious as ever about the diverse and fascinating abundance of river life.

There is a lovely swathe of emerald, velvety moss right in front of my cottage that brings joy to our bare feet as we race down to swim in the river. After reading my book on mosses, it has revealed an eternity in itself.

Biologist Kimmerer and her assistant crouch on the forest floor, devising multiple experiments to figure out why Dictanum Flagellare shares space with Tetraphis pellucida  rather than compete with each other, as might ordinarily be expected of different moss species. Is it the wind? Is it slugs, they ask themselves, and create a sticky surface to see what might be crawling around. The answer, after two long summers of mosquitoes, sore backs, and discarded  hypotheses?  Chipmunks!

“Part of the fascination of working with mosses,” writes Kimmerer, “is the chance to see if and when the ecological rules of the large transcend the boundaries of scale and will illuminate the behavior of the smallest beings. It is a search for order, a desire for a glimpse of the threads that hold the world together.” P. 58

All three of the authors I read this summer – a nineteenth century New England naturalist, a Renaissance genius, and a Potawatomi scientist –   focus on minute particulars, tiny details like how a curl of hair resembles a river eddy (Leonardo), the motions a great blue heron’s wings make as it takes off (Thoreau), and the tiny sharp outgrowths that allow dried out moss to conduct raindrops to its ovules (Kimmerer). They possess an intense curiosity, an eye for the details of minute particulars, and a tendency to joy in  nature.

May it be so, and blessed be.

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Overheated Pikas and Leaping Lizards

There is no question that global warming and habitat degradation have led to the decline of natural abundance, and that we human beings are responsible. Under the delusion that we are other than nature, we have given ourselves permission to destroy it.

In a review of Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, Verlyn Klinkenborg finds McCarthy’s hope that encouraging “joy in nature” can meliorate nature’s demise undermined by  anthropocentrism: it ”values nature mostly for what it offers us… as a species, we repeatedly fail to acknowledge the equal and inherent right of all other species to exist, a right implicit in existence itself and in no way subordinate to our own.”

The industrial revolution is a very recent blip in human history; our hunter-gatherer and farming ancestors felt themselves in nature, a part of nature.  They used their considerable brains to adapt elements of nature for their use, but stood in awe and reverence before forces with their own agency that were far beyond human control.

Joy in nature is central to my life, so much so that the loss of natural abundance lowers my spirits considerably. Take, for example, the Pika, a small furry mammal that Joseph Stewart   mourns has gone entirely extinct north of Lake Tahoe due to global warming. “Pikas are adapted for the cold, with high metabolisms and thick fur covering them from the bottoms of their feet to the insides of their ears…..These same adaptations that allow them to survive during the wintertime also make them very vulnerable to overheating in the summertime.”  Spending too much time underground, trying to cool over during hot weather, they don’t to get enough to eat and so they fail to reproduce.

Such accounts leave me fearful that, as the climate shifts beyond the capacity of species to tolerate warmer habitats,  everything will go extinct, including ourselves. But what about adaption? What if  a Pika or two were born less furry than the others? These might give birth to offspring that could survive hotter temperature than their neighbors. Or, do Pika have the capacity for migration to cooler areas?

Isn’t evolutionary adaption much too slow? We know that plants and animals can evolve to tolerate new conditions, but is global warming hastening along too swiftly to allow for significant mutation?

Well, consider the case of the Italian Wall Lizard, once native to balmy Tuscany, which have escaped pet stores and adapted to New York City for the past 50 years. These “sprinters in evolutionary change,” writes Jim Dwyer, seem to have found warm enough lairs to survive;  they are spreading north along the Hudson River and Northeast into Connecticut.  Not to mention House Finches, which also escaped from pet stores in the twentieth century and are widely abundant; what is more, they have evolved new kinds of beaks to deal with seeds typically found in bird feeders.

On a visit to an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, I learned that tropical climates exhibit the greatest species diversity of all other ecosystems. As the earth heats up, won’t species proliferate in the warmer climate?

I live in hope.

 

Rabbit Nests

Now comes that time of year, midsummer approaching, when my sights turn from Niebuhrian incongruities, the capitalism/commons paradox and even my favorite poems to what pops up in front of my eyes, to startle and amaze, from the world of nature .

I wanted to grow in my whole back lawn, which, I learned, was illegal.  I could, however, “landscape” a “wild flower meadow” in part of my yard, so demarked a crescent with a little green wire fence and now all kinds of things are growing there – gill-over-the-ground, little blue heal-all blossoms, and delicately fluffy pink daisies among the timothy grasses:

And also, startlingly, rabbits.

A rabbit or two has always appeared on my lawn in the summer dusk, nibbling quietly. But when my “wild flower meadow” was all grown in a rabbit left the shelter of the back copse to wriggle out a shallow patch in it, all of the way down to the dirt:

This really piqued my curiosity, so I had recourse to that all-time great compendium of nature lore, our friend Google.

What I learned is that a cottontail rabbit likes to make an oval nest in the meadow grass. I thought maybe she laid eggs there but – silly me – of course that’s where she has her babies. My house being in a much lawned-over suburb, she must have found the sudden appearance of my genuine meadow entrancing, but, as it turned out, too exposed to human beings.

The mother rabbit doesn’t stay in the nest with her babies but leaves them alone all day and night, only nursing at dawn and dusk to protect them from predators. Instead, she weaves a lid composed of grasses and her own soft belly fur and places it over her litter for camouflage and warmth.

My own rabbit never used her meadow nest, probably sensing my entranced presence on my porch, far too near for comfort.  A couple of weeks later however,  I found this interwoven lid near the undergrowth at the back of my yard:

My back yard rabbits are our common Eastern Cottontail variety, but there has always been something quite uncommon – even magic –  about rabbits to the human mind. I thought mine would lay eggs because her nesting reminded me of the giant rabbit Goddess Eostre, from whom Easter derives its name, and she is only one of the March Hares and Moon Rabbits, sacred receptacles for our awe and wonder at nature, down through the ages.

 

 

October

The Prairie Fellowship, a beloved Unitarian community that provided me in anchor in my peripatetic years, used to spend a weekend every October in the Wisconsin Dells. One year I was asked to read autumn poems out of doors and so, on a warm-enough sunny morning, I sat under the forest canopy all ablaze in gold and crimson to await any participants who might come.

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HOW I BECAME A CITIZEN SCIENTIST, AND YOU CAN TOO

Review of Sharman Apt Russell, Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World

I started keeping bird lists in 1947 when my school’s Audubon Club suggested we list birds and describe their behavior. This was New York City, and I had lots of fun observing pigeons and English sparrows. Then, one wondrous day.  we were taken to Central Park to see the spring migration. Tanagers and goldfinch, hermit thrush and grosbeaks and warblers of every kind tumbled all around us. I was hooked for life.

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