Speeches can be a lot of things. Funny, terrifying, boring, inspiring. A combination of these. Only one have I heard which always makes me think, “if everyone listened to this, we’d live in a kinder, saner society.” That speech is called ‘This is Water’ and was presented at a graduation/ commencement ceremony by author David Foster Wallace.
I’ll admit that I have shared this speech with at least three people and, though I know I could be wrong, I didn’t get the impression that it meant very much to any of them. Wallace’s speech probably won’t mean much to you, either. But, especially if you are feeling hopelessly frustrated, it could mean a lot. It could mean seeing what so far has been missed, and that could be very important. So, I thought that I’d share.
A Google search of ‘Why Nature Matters’ yields many articles. I examined the first ten links that appeared when I googled that phrase, and found web pages that focus on many sentiments that I share, such as the facts that we depend upon and are a part of the natural world, tend to be mentally disconnected from that reality, and therefore are causing damage to ourselves and other living things due to our non-eco-friendly actions such as contributing to climatic change and generally not caring.
Among the action-based websites of the ten that I examined (https://www.wwf.org.uk/why-nature-matters, http://www.everythingconnects.org/), I saw a common model for trying to bring about positive change with respect to humanity’s relationship with the natural world: first, identify specific problems, second, outline efforts being made to combat them, and then, third, ask for monetary or other contributions so that those efforts can continue. Also, I saw the common, and important, listing of facts about the dangers of climate change and how the natural world provides ecosystem services (things that can be utilized by humans), such as clean water and medicines, among many others.
But these important approaches, I believe, cannot succeed alone. A particularly good outline, an article by Kobie Brand on the Nature Conservancy Website (https://global.nature.org/content/why-nature-matters-in-our-new-urban-world), briefly touched upon the ‘spiritual’ importance of the natural world for people, which is somewhat close to what I’d like to discuss in this post. Another Nature Conservancy associated page (https://blog.nature.org/conservancy/2013/01/04/the-heart-of-why-nature-matters/), written by Sarah Hauck, gets closer to what I hope that you take the time to consider with me today, and that is the notion that a part of the reason why the natural world matters because it can help us to understand and find a sense of comfort in life. This idea is rarely discussed as a reason for why Nature matters, and so I want to help begin the conversation, in whatever small way I can.
I decided to write this post because of the time that I spent yesterday in Donaldson’s Woods, a very special place in Indiana, USA. This section of forest within Spring Mill State Park is possibly the best example of climax forest in IN (I use ‘climax forest’ to mean a forest that has been virtually undisturbed by humans or other processes for several hundred years). Almost all of the trees in the eastern United States were cut down when Europeans arrived, so to find an area where the cutting did not happen is very special to me. At places like this, I can feel a sense of being at home that does not occur in the same way elsewhere. I’m going to use the example of my experience in Donaldson’s Woods to convey what can be felt in the natural world.
In Donaldson’s Woods are towering living and dead white oak and tulip trees (and other tree species), as well as massive, decaying trees on the forest floor, all which provide important habitat for wildlife, as well as thought material for any organism that has wondered or will wonder ‘how did I get to be here?’
Thinking about this question, as I sat on the bench where I could see the towering tree in the above picture, I watched leaves fall around me, people walk by me, and a plump pawpaw fruit dangling above me. There were lots of pawpaw trees, many more than I’m used to seeing in the younger, more dense forests that I frequent. I thought back to what a fellow bander at the bird banding demonstration that I took part in earlier in the day had said, which was that land managers sometimes burned the under-story of Donaldson’s Woods in order to, among other reasons, clear the way for plants to grow which would not be able to otherwise. I then found myself wondering if pawpaws grow better in places that are occasionally burned by people who want to simulate fires that naturally occurred before humans began to suppress fire.
When I saw an empty water bottle that someone left on the trail, it reminded me of the sinkholes that are scattered throughout Donaldson’s Woods, as well as the breath-taking caves elsewhere in Spring Mill State Park. I tried to imagine water eroding the holes and caves from limestone. Maybe even the same water that ended up in the bottle. And, I wonder, how long did it take?
A migrating Swainson’s Thrush flew by me, as I sat on the bench, and I began wondering if birds in climax forest’s such as Donaldson’s Woods are in better body condition than birds of the same species that live in younger forests, or in cities, and if climax forests like Donaldson’s Woods offer ideal migratory stopover habitat. I wondered if I could find out.
I actually try my best, these days, not to think such thoughts in the forest during ‘non-work’ time because I like to ‘just be there,’ if I can. But, my point is, there are many questions that can come to mind when one is in the natural world, which can lead one back through eternity. The questions that I experienced while in the ecosystem of Donaldson’s Woods are no different than the question of ‘how did I get here?’ More specifically, I wondered, how did I get to be on a bench as a clothed, human animal in a ‘state park,’ in a ‘country,’ on a planet that is experiencing rapid, destabilizing change, where people still regularly kill each other?
Watching and thinking about interactions in Donaldson’s Woods, it was quite clear that events spanning at least over what we call ‘billions of years’ have lead to me and everything else. This is a time span that we humans cannot envision. It involves many lives like mine that have begun and ended, going all of the way back to before there was land. There have been complex processes that have involved unimaginably large numbers of interactions that have shaped everything I see, and everything I don’t, including the hormones that affect my behavior, the structures that make my body, the decisions about which things I value, the feelings I experience, and the way that I perceive the colors, images, and sounds of things around me.
In the woods, it is easy to see the forces that control living things, such as the the need to acquire nutrients, to get water, to have shelter, to reproduce. And, when one places themselves upon the same eternal stage as other living things, he/she may begin to acknowledge the ultimate reasons for their emotions, their behaviors, their interactions with people and non-people. In other words, the processes that have led to them become a bit more clear. And, with this in mind, important decisions can be made about how to conduct oneself. The reins of the wild, sometimes destructive, stallion that you are riding finally appear, for you to grab. And, luckily for us, there have been many thousands of scientific studies conducted which can help to elucidate why things are the way they are, as well as many authors, lawmakers, priests, and other desirous sculptors of how people see things, who have also tried to distill our situation into a coherent one. In other words, we don’t have to figure it all out ourselves (but, we do have to decide who we can trust, i.e. who is presenting the facts as they are and who twists them). Many incorrect inferences about how humans relate to the natural world can and have been drawn from natural observation, though there is enough good information available today for everyone with internet access (look for sources that cite their sources) that an understanding of how the natural world works, and how we might fit in, is available.
I believe that learning to sit quietly in the woods, or anywhere, can help one to ultimately feel more at ease than they otherwise would, as a result of being able to see and understand a bit more. In regard to understanding, it is supremely inspiring to me that individuals of our species have helped to compile the collective body of knowledge that we have acquired which describes our situation here on Earth. We’ve been able to gain this scientific understanding simply by observing, hypothesizing, experimenting, concluding, submitting for peer-review, and repeating. By studying the natural world, I feel sure, and by thinking about how things have come to be, we can find a history that is far more accurate than what humans have passed on via oral mythology and then via written language. Histories written by humans are at their best a bit distorted, but informative and useful, and at their worst entirely misleading and often intentionally destructive, with the intent to benefit a few people, or a few selfish human tendencies. By this, I mean to say that there is a lot that we can learn from the ‘history pages’ that exist in the natural world (i.e. the largemouth bass, the fire ants, the amoebas, the chestnut trees) which if studied scientifically possess answers that we cannot acquire via history books written by humans. Further, an understanding of history, I believe, is crucial to feeling at home. Thus, we should cherish our natural history.
And, in Donaldson’s Woods, there is as clear a picture as we can get in Indiana of what the long process of time has led to, as there is an assemblage of interacting organisms which are in an environment that their bodies were created by evolutionary processes to interact with. It is true that species like wolves are missing due to extirpation by humans, and changing climates and pollution affect everywhere, but, that said, it still remains that Donaldson’s Woods is just about the best that a naturalist can get in Indiana. Feeling this, I watched a Wood Thrush ‘tut-tut-tut’ away as Blue Jays were crying, in a way that I’ve seen them do when they’ve found a snake, and which maybe the Wood Thrush has seen before, too. And which Native Americans may have seen occur thousands of years ago, too, in what we now call Donaldson’s Woods. Natural areas like Donaldson’s Woods are sacred ‘ovens,’ I think, where metaphorical ‘bread’ in the form of plants, animals, fungi, and insects still exist and ‘rise’ in a place where we can come to understand something about how they have been ‘baked’ so far, why the ‘taste’ the way they do, and how they might ‘taste’ in the future.
Seeing a Northern Cardinal in the parking lot of my apartment complex, however, is not like seeing a loaf of bread in a sacred oven. You see not much of what led to the bird as it is in the parking lot, given that the species has little history in such an environment. In the parking lot, or in an a forest riddled with invasive species, for that matter, what you see are the conditions that the bird (or reptile, or plant, etc.) is now adapting to, and that its history has pre-disposed it to be adaptable (or not, if the species to which it belongs is present, but slowly disappearing).
Everything, even in Donaldson’s Woods, is constantly changing, and often adapting, to some degree. Upwards of millions of generations of Wood Thrush’s, for example, and all other species, have seen the instruction manuals housed in their cells (DNA) modified by up to billions of years of changing circumstances. If you can’t make it in the environment, then you don’t pass on the instructions housed within you to make offspring that are very similar to you. It needs to become common knowledge that current circumstances in the global environment are challenging many species in such a way that they will disappear sooner than they otherwise would, due to the behavior a particular species on Earth, of which I and all who I can communicate via written words are a part. We are a force of Nature, like anything else, but one which I hope can learn to see, and act in its own best interest by achieving a state of harmony and equilibrium necessary for long-term survival.
The way of feeling and thinking about the natural world that I have described, of acknowledging the evolutionary processes that have led to all that is here on Earth, may cause you to abandon or discover what has been referred to as ‘God.’ But, either way, I feel that paying attention to the natural world is more likely than not cause a person to become more comfortable in their own skin, more accepting of those in other skins, and probably more ‘spiritual.’ So, if you haven’t spent much time observing the natural world, I hope that you give it a try, and realize that, like anything else worth doing, it takes time and practice to feel like you are ‘doing it right.’
I believe that in many ways, we as a species are like a Northern Cardinal in a parking lot. Not exactly suited for the conditions in which we find ourselves. However, there are still natural temples that exist, where we can feel that forces that made us, and where we can escape the screens and societal arrangements that are unlike the conditions which formed us. There is still a natural home for us, even if it is much more rare than it once was.
Gaining a sense of understanding and thus feeling at home is, I believe, perhaps the most important reason that Nature matters. For me, nothing aside from being in and thinking about the natural world has caused me to feel that I am able to understand something about ‘how I got to be here.’ Additionally, nothing else causes me to realize just how fine-tuned myself and most other things are for succeeding in this place, so long as our Earth is not modified extremely (by pollution, etc.). In other words, I can feel at home in the natural world because I can see that that is where I came from, how I was made to be the way that I am. And I can feel inspired to fight for my home. I believe that millions of other people may feel more or less just the same as me, and that billions more would do so if circumstances were such that they were able to spend free time observing the natural world.
I want to stress that such a view of life can be inspired almost anywhere, not just in a climax forest. Many forest types exist via natural progressions, which involve many different species. However, telling the story of climax forests is important to me because of how common they once were, along with the many individuals which used to live in them that no longer have a home. The same could be said of grasslands and wetlands in the mid-western US. I’m sure that these habitat types also have wisdom to provide.
Before I conclude, I want to say that my trip to Donaldson’s Woods caused me to kind of fall in love with a Scottish adventurer named George Donaldson, who lived from 1811 to 1898. While almost literally all of the other landowners in the eastern United States were cutting down their forests, he was in a position that he could and did refuse to do so with respect to what is now called ‘Donaldson’s Woods,’ which he acquired in 1865, where he did not permit any ‘snake to be killed, a butterfly to be caught, or a flower or twig to be broken,’ according to an article by S.E. Perkins III from 1931. He even made a monument in 1866 on his property in remembrance of Alexander Wilson, a man who has been called the ‘Father of American Ornithology’ (see Perkins’ write up about Donaldson and Wilson, here: (https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/wilson/v050n01/p0013-p0017.pdf).
And, because of the actions of George Donaldson, many lives have been positively affected, and many humans have probably felt the all-pervading tickle that acknowledgement of connection to natural processes can cause. It is very refreshing to experience a positive feeling toward someone with ‘Donald,’ in their name. During my time in Donaldson’s Woods, I had many thoughts about the political situation in the United States, and I’ve decided not to provide many of them here for you (because I think almost everyone is sick of hearing about the travesty of US Politics), but I will say that the actions of the President of the United States and his party suggest a sickening disrespect for the natural world and an opposition to George Donaldson’s position, which was to cherish and acknowledge our connection to the natural world. Caring about the environment that we all depend upon should not be partisan issue, and everyone, regardless of political affiliation, should demand that that be the case.
Observing the behaviors of the President of the United States, just like looking at the results of all such elections, serves as a mirror for the people represented by the elected official. If we don’t like what we see, we must be brave enough to speak up and try to bring about the change that we want to see. I see a national consciousness that is confused, and lost, but which could come to feel at home if allowed to be set free from the choker leash of confusion and tyranny.
When I imagine a nation, and a global society, that equates home with Nature and which acknowledges the preciousness of life, I’m emboldened to be a part of the fight to show that Nature matters, and to thus help protect this delicate place that you and I call home.
I experienced a simple, pleasing accident involving a picture (you’ll see below), which inspired this short post about how wonderful accidental occurrences can be. First, I need to set the scene…
Last week I was out in the woods, trying to catch a Song Sparrow. As I’ve been doing a lot recently, for a research project, I was trying to entice a male Song Sparrow to fly into a net that I had put up by playing the song of another male Song Sparrow. Males of this species use song to both attract a female mate and to protect their territories from other males, by advertising their presence. Bird song often says something like, ‘if you are a dude, stay away, I’m tough. If you are a woman, come to me!’ So, when a male Song Sparrow hears an ‘intruding male’ singing (that is actually a recording that I’m broadcasting), often he will rush in, sing a bit, and then fly right into the net that is in the vicinity of where he thinks another male is, as a result of what I imagine might involve blinding fury. Then I quickly take him out of the net (see picture below– usually they are in the net for less than 15 seconds). Next, I take some measurements, and attach color bands to his legs so that I can know who he is when I see him in the field again, after I release him.
It is important to note that you need permits (maybe several) to catch native songbirds like this in the US, and that broadcasting the song of a bird might cause it to use precious energy that could be better used. And misusing energy can be deadly. Point being, I’m not suggesting that you should go out and do what I’ve described. I’m not catching birds just for fun, I’m catching them because the data that I’m collecting for this project has the potential to help people better understand how to co-exist with birds, rather than causing birds to disappear.
So, that day last week, it appears that I met a Song Sparrow that is smarter than me. Or maybe random chance just wasn’t in favor of the bird hitting the net. Anyway, no matter where I put the net, or where I put the speakers, I couldn’t catch him. Multiple times, just over, just under, or right beside the net, he flew. Singing away he was, as I sat there thinking about how many more Song Sparrows I have to catch, and how this one would be doing himself a favor by going into the net already!
But, he didn’t. Just before I was about to take down the net, to stop bothering him if he wouldn’t go in, there was a flash that came out of the woods along the flooded stream to the north and a sparrow was in the net. For a moment, I thought that it could have been my Song Sparrow! But I could tell as I walked up that the bird in the net was too small, and lacked streaks on its breast that a Song Sparrow would have. I saw that it was a Field Sparrow that I had caught, a cute little sparrow with a pink bill.
I quickly took it out of the net and decided to take a picture of the little guy (I checked).
That is the picture that I had intended to take. It is a good picture, I think, kind of like what I had imagined. It shows how that adorable little bird with a pink bill looked in that moment. But I wasn’t blown away after looking at it, because the image isn’t perfectly crisp, the lighting isn’t great, and the angle of the bird isn’t perfect. Also, my fingers aren’t as calloused as they used to be from playing the guitar! Oh, how I wish I played the guitar more… In other words, the picture is adequate, but not amazing, not how it could have been. However, the ‘lower quality’ picture that I took on accident right before I took the one above left me far more satisfied, due to accidental circumstances. Here is that picture (taken as my phone was falling!):
To you, this picture might not seem exceptional. But I think that this picture which I didn’t intend to take, of a bird that I didn’t intend to catch, is special. I’m guessing that my left hand which had the bird in it may have slightly moved as my right hand dropped the phone and grabbed at it. And that slight movement might have caused the Field Sparrow to quickly flap its wings. My fumbling fingers must have hit the screen when the phone was falling and snapped the picture which captured an image of the exquisite, out-stretched wing of the little male, and his sharp claws held by my semi-calloused ones. How unexpected and exciting it was to see what my phone had captured!
And that element of accidental, pleasant surprise seems to me a great gift, as it provides a brief escape from the terrible dilute-er of pleasure that is a mind which expects too much of an event that it has had time to anticipate. Time for anticipation, I’ve found, can cause disappointment after discovering what actually happens if what happens doesn’t live up to what one hoped would happen. Had I been trying to take a picture of a Field Sparrow’s wing out-stretched, and not held in an out-stretched position by me, I probably would have been less happy with this picture. But I wasn’t trying for what happened, and so I can cherish the unexpected result.
When a phone drops, say, and captures a unique perspective that one’s mind didn’t have the chance to expect and in a way destroy, the result can be very pleasing, due to the pleasantness of surprise. When it comes to discovering books, relationships, nature trails, etc., for me, at least, a pleasant accident is almost always better than a planned occurrence. And so, while I try not to expect extravagantly of what I see coming, I excitedly stumble and fumble along, knowing that what I can’t see is coming, too.
Note: You may enjoy listening to the natural sounds that I recorded at Congaree National Park during the eclipse while reading this post (see link to YouTube below). Detail and the sounds that I note in the caption will be best heard wearing headphones.
Once in a while, circumstance carves a groove in the path of one’s life which takes them to a unique moment, where cycles far larger than those of working, eating, worrying, and sleeping are made clearly visible. And then, the common, daily cycles of a life just might become richer. Don’t believe me? Read on!
The ‘Great American Eclipse’ happened to exactly coincide with my furlough from Florida (where I’ve been working as a field biologist). So, embracing what seemed like serendipity, I decided to take myself to a portion of the narrow band (about 70 miles wide) that diagonally ran from Oregon to South Carolina, where ‘total darkness’ would occur. South Carolina seemed the best option for me. After consulting a map of the state, I discovered an obscure, tiny square on the map: Congaree National Park. A little research confirmed that Congaree would likely be a place where I could find solitude, accompanied by a unique natural setting, and thus became my destination.
Careful to allow plenty of time for travel, I woke up on August 21st, well before dawn, to beat the ‘eclipse traffic,’ which I would learn that evening is a very real phenomenon near the band of ‘total darkness.’ Quietly, I left the campground full of sleeping people along the Georgia coast, where I too had slept (I couldn’t find any camping sites in South Carolina, due to the eclipse), and drove to Congaree National Park. By 8:30 AM, I was pulling my trusty, old jeep Cherokee into the road that led into the national park, where I was thrilled to see familiar, deciduous tree species that aren’t present where I had been in Florida.
“Eclipse parking?” a uniformed man with a radio asked. “Third parking lot, on the right.”
I pulled into one of the last parking spots available, and walked through the towering pines to the visitor center, where a crowd of about thirty people waited. Many more were milling about between the parking lots and the visitor center, which was impressive due to the fact that the eclipse wouldn’t occur for six more hours. A huge spider web, constructed about 15 feet above the ground, quickly became far more popular than I’ve ever been (not complaining, just observing!). In a few minutes, I saw at least five people take a picture of it. After the short wait, I ‘poured’ into the visitor center with the crowd, to get eclipse glasses and information from the friendly and knowledgeable staff. Incidentally, I forgot my phone on a bench in my haste to find the coveted glasses. I was in the visitor center for over fifteen minutes without that darned thing, though apparently eclipse-goers that day weren’t inclined to be thieves. For which, I suppose, I’m thankful!
Visitors to this visitor center will learn that Congaree National Park is a particularly special place not only because it is one of the most biodiverse places in the United States, but because it protects the largest area of bottomland, old growth forest that remains in the country. The vast majority of forests in the United States have been cut within the last 500 years, but not 11,000 acres of forest in Congaree National Park. Since my early teenage years, I’ve enjoyed seeking out these small reminders of what much of the landscape used to be like. Thus, being in such a forest as it more or less suddenly became shrouded in darkness was an exhilarating prospect for me.
There were other reasons for my excitement, too. Such a rapid transition into darkness offers the unique opportunity to listen to noisy wildlife such as birds and insects in entirely novel conditions. Given that the behavior of these animals and others are directly influenced by light levels, one might expect them to display unusual behaviors for a mid-afternoon day. Would the animals behave as if it were night? Would those creatures that go ‘bump’ in the night come out? I didn’t know, but was excited to find out. Because I possessed recording equipment which I use to record bird vocalizations, I had decided to record the sounds of the forest during the eclipse.
It was also exciting to be in Ivory-billed Woodpecker habitat. Unfortunately, that exceptionally striking and large species is probably extinct, due to habitat destruction. Because I had been extensively researching what has been written about that species while in Florida (which was probably its stronghold), I was thrilled to be in exactly the type of now very rare habitat that it used to call home: ancient, bottom-land forest. To see the large trees that it required for roosting and nesting offered a special opportunity for fueling imagination, at least. Of course, I’d keep my binoculars and recording equipment handy (in case Ivory-billeds aren’t really extinct!).
And so, I excitedly walked on the boardwalk which lead through the bottom-land forest. Sporadically placed, towering trees such as sweetgum, bald cypress, and swamp chestnut oak offered awesome views of natural architecture. The largest red elm that I have ever seen stood beside the boardwalk, a reminder of what was relatively common before Dutch elm Disease made such a sight rare.
Far more people than I would generally expect to see in a ‘swamp forest’ (which usually conjures thoughts of mosquitoes) were on the boardwalk, an interesting effect of the eclipse. Soon, though, I had walked far enough that I didn’t see anyone at all. For a half-hour, I hung out beside a massive tree which had fallen and uprooted multiple trees with it, bringing with its roots a greater area of soil than I had previously seen in other forests.
As I sat here, only two pairs of people walked by. One of the pairs included a man serenading who was seemingly his girlfriend by singing, ‘blinded by the light.’ It was not far to walk, however, before I had entirely escaped other eclipse-seekers. When I reached the Oak Ridge Trail, several miles from the visitor center, no other person was to be seen. Despite all of the three parking lots being full, and, as I’d later learn, the driveway being lined with parked cars, I had found the total solitude that I had been looking for. Now, I needed to find a break in the trees.
The trail that I walked on was narrow and would have been easy to lose were it not for the many blazes on the trees. I found myself annoyingly worried that I wouldn’t be able to make it back to my vehicle before the third period of darkness during the day (dusk). This mostly irrational worrying, I convinced myself, was a function of too much stress which recently had caused me to generally over-analyze and thus miss out on the current moment far too often. Which is exactly why I had wanted to be alone in a place like Congaree National Park. Like a friend of mine who is a musician says, going to natural environments offers a chance to ‘re-tune.’ And so, I walked on, reminding myself to be, ‘here and now.’
The ‘forests’ (for a frog) of cypress knees that I saw, appendages that probably help the trees avoid ‘drowning,’ are a great reminder of the ancient nature of the place that I was in, full of parts that have adapted to succeed in an environment that is prone to flooding.
As I walked along, I heard a harsh sound which I didn’t recognize. As a birder, I’m always listening to and identifying sounds that are unfamiliar. Before long, I saw the source of the noise: a group of wild boars. These creatures are not native to Congaree, and can wreak havoc while ransacking the forest floor, searching for food. For a while I observed them, then moved on, knowing that ancient, natural cycles of the forest at Congaree have been disrupted by the presence of such animals. New cycles, with time, will form. But the adjustment period can be painful for an ecologist to watch.
It was about 12:30 PM when I had lunch on a bridge leading over a wide, cypress-bordered, stagnant creek. Just over two hours until the eclipse, and I hadn’t seen an ideal spot to view the sky from for well over an hour. I’d been hoping that there would be more openings in the canopy, and began to feel a bit foolish that I had ventured so far into the forest, where I just might miss the eclipse due to a closed canopy. However, I remained calm, glad to be where I was at.
I walked on, the trail bent, and I found myself looking at a huge loblolly pine, a tree that, appropriately, is adapted for surviving in wet conditions. While admiring the tree, I noticed that another pine nearly as big had fallen about twenty yards to the south of the one that still stood. And when this tree had fallen, it had ripped a hole in the canopy that had not only allowed light to reach the ground and nurture young plants, but also created a perfect opening through which the sun was shining. I had found my spot in the wilderness!
I excitedly put on my eclipse glasses, and saw that a tiny sliver of the sun was covered by the moon. I had about an hour and a half to kill before total darkness descended. So, I picked a quiet place to sit, set up my recording equipment in preparation for the eclipse and, like I often do, listened away some time.
By 2:10 PM, just over a half an hour before total darkness, the sun was about half covered by the moon, though still appeared bright like normal without the shield of eclipse glasses. By 2:30, about 80% of the sun was covered, and still there seemed to be a normal amount of light without the glasses. At 2:36, 5 minutes before ‘total darkness’ was to begin, I began recording. Hear the whole recording here:
NOTE ABOUT MY RECORDING. Here is an overview of some sounds that I identified: A cicada chorus occurs mostly throughout; from 2:18 to 2:24 a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (a bird) calls; at 2:36 the first Barred Owl begins calling; from 4:33 to 4:43 several Barred Owls begin ‘caterwauling’; more Barred Owls call at 5:40 (just after total darkness began); nearby crickets begin at 5:48 and ‘chirp’ off and on unil about 7:30; mysterious knocking at 7:06; airplane at 8:20; distant owls call at minute 9; crows call beginning at 10:40 (just after it has gotten light again); I walk up to the recorder at 13:08. Maybe you can identify sounds that I couldn’t. If you can, please let me know!!
I walked away from recording equipment and eagerly settled in at my spot in the wilderness, waiting for the sudden onset of darkness. With the eclipse glasses, I could see that only a tiny sliver of the sun remained uncovered, though until 2:40, 1 minute before total darkness, the sun still was too bright for me to look at without glasses—a reminder of how powerful the sun is relative to our ability as viewers to take in that power.
Gradually, something like early dusk descended, as the cicadas droned. And then, nearly like as the result of a light switch being pushed down, I found myself in what seemed the equivalent of a night during a bright full moon, except that the ‘moon’ was black with a very narrow ring around the circumference. The below picture doesn’t show that effect, due I suppose to the difference in how the camera and my eye collects light.
Just before ‘total darkness’
The Barred Owls soon began to call, and during past eclipses at the very spot where I sat, I knew that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers might have felt a start of fear and gone to roost due to the sudden darkness. But like the unavoidable cycle of the moving celestial bodies, human beings came along and cut down most of the forests and thus caused Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers, as well as many other products of millions/billions of years of ‘creation’ to disappear forever. And as I sat there in the primeval forested darkness, listening to crickets stridulating (rubbing together wings, i.e. ‘chirping’), I felt very content to be doing my best to help protect the species that are still around, which not unlike eclipses can help anyone who pays attention to see the incredible process that they and what they are observing are a part of. And as I reveled in this process, ‘dawn’ quickly emerged and gradually disappeared. Once again, I was in the afternoon.
And so, I retrieved my recording equipment, excited to find out what I had recorded, hiked back to my vehicle, and resumed the long drive toward home, where my journey had begun and where I regularly return to (not quite as regularly as the moons revolution around Earth, unfortunately).
I know that millions of people experienced the same eclipse that I did, and that many may have felt something entirely different than me. I am sure, though, that I speak for many when I say that experiencing a total solar eclipse can be a reminder that physical laws guide both the swirling matter of minds and moons, and are a great opportunity for us humans to acknowledge the process of which we are but a part. Such an experience might remind us that the path of human bodies like the path of planets is apparently set, in other words predictable if enough information could be acquired (which luckily doesn’t seem possible). And we can be reminded to accept and respect the cycles that others must experience, while embracing and boldly making the most of our own cycle. We can be like our moon on its journey around the Earth, determined and steady whether revered and respected or, perhaps more commonly, totally ignored. In other words, a sense of acceptance and unity can be experienced by thinking about how things actually are, and by immersing ourselves in the natural flow of events as best we can rather than pretending that we are separate. I’m not sure if this is a common view, but suspect that in some sense nearly everyone feels something like what I’ve described. I hope that my articulation might help whoever reads this to better understand what they already know.
So, long story short, I was lucky enough to be reminded of the incredible process that we are all a part of on the 21st of August, 2017, and try to daily remind myself that every moment, not just during eclipses, but during moments of cruel rejection, dull indifference, relentless boredom, and rare success, are but a brush stroke in a mysterious and mostly incomprehensible, metaphorical painting. And, like our sun, Earth, and moon are on their paths, we’ll get to where we are going and will never know what the ‘painting’ is. But on the way, we can enjoy and embrace our personal path, and may even positively affect the flow of events here on Earth. How wonderful.
Anyone who has read my writing on this website knows that I spend a lot of time observing birds. I’ve learned that there is much which can be learned from studying the behaviors of birds (and other organisms) which can be applied not only to wildlife conservation efforts, but also to my daily activities as a part of human society. Yes, sometimes I do leave bird society! In fact, I’m confident that if people more closely observed animal behavior and related such behaviors to their own, then human society would be in far less danger of unraveling, possibly explosively, due to our actions.
Take territoriality, for instance. Some birds defend territories, some don’t. I’ve spent a lot of time observing Blue Jays, and Florida Scrub-jays. If I were to walk into a patch of forest where I knew Blue Jays existed and played a recording of Blue Jay flight calls (calls that they utter when they are flying, possibly to stay in contact with a mate, siblings, or offspring—depending on the time of year), I likely wouldn’t attract resident Blue Jays who are ‘looking for a fight,’ who wish to drive away ‘intruders.’ In other words, Blue Jays aren’t territorial.
Florida Scrub-jays, however, will station a member of their group on the tallest available perch, which offers an unimpeded view over a territory up to 50 acres in size, which is usually covered by short scrub oaks. Especially just prior to the breeding season and when acorns are on the trees in the fall, if that sentinel scrub-jay sees, or hears, a nearby scrub-jay within its territory that is not a part of its family, one could say that ‘all Hell breaks loose.’ That is, the sentinel jay will begin calling and will fly ‘aggressively’ toward the ‘intruder’ (me with playing a recording) or the actual intruder, with a flight consisting of undulating dips (not unlike the routes of some roller coasters). Its family members will follow in a similar way, and the intruders will likely be chased away. Very rarely, there may actually be a fight, which involves locking feet together, and pecking at one another while on the ground.
Here is a link to a video which contains a recording that I captured when Florida Scrub-jays were acting territorial:
Point being, two closely related species can have very different ways of behaving in similar circumstances. Why might that be? The difference in the tendency to behave in a certain way is due to differing past circumstances that the ancestors of these species encountered. Scrub in Florida has historically been basically a series of small islands surrounded by a sea of other habitat types (this situation is getting worse, due to human-caused habitat destruction, hence the necessity of translocation). So, the scrub-jay ancestors of current scrub-jays found themselves in a situation which required them to aggressively defend pieces of land where scrub existed. Those that did not do this probably did not pass on as many genes (which directly influence behavior; aggressive scrub-jays tend to make aggressive scrub-jays) and thus those that were territorial prevailed. Alternatively, the ancestors of Blue Jays inherited and came to depend upon a much wider range of habitats, covering a much larger area than the scrub which Florida Scrub-jays depend upon (most of the eastern United States, currently). In fact, because Blue Jays are so good at using a variety of forested habitats, I even have seen them in older scrub, beside scrub-jays. And so, it seems, because there is a lot of their required habitat available, and therefore all of those things which habitat provides directly or indirectly (food, shelter, mates), Blue Jays are not generally inclined to be territorial.
In other words, both Blue Jays and Florida Scrub-jays, like all other living things, are products of their environment. They behave the way that they do because of circumstance. As the sound waves produced by the call of an unfamiliar scrub-jay are perceived by the sentinel bird, hormones are released which cause a territorial response by that sentinel scrub-jay, along with his/her family. And maybe, I speculate, they experience feelings that we could recognize as they take their undulating path toward the ‘enemy.’ Alternatively, the Blue Jays in the tall forest less than fifty meters away watch a ‘stranger’ jay fly by, without so much as an internal ripple of indignation.
Remarkably, circumstance has allowed most human beings to possess the capability of understanding such processes. For one who does in fact understand them, the world can become a much more intelligible and tolerable place. Even, maybe, an infinitely wonderful place. Reasons for the behaviors of friends, neighbors, family, and ‘enemies’ can thus become clearer (though usually remain murky, at best, due to so many factors being involved). And for me, at least, with even a small degree of understanding comes a profound appreciation for the good things that people do. Compassionate, altruistic, and loving behaviors can be identified and cherished if one pays attention. A kind act in the supermarket: ‘you only have two things, go ahead.’ A call, ‘out of the blue,’ from a friend who you haven’t heard from in years. A kind, thoughtful conversation with a stranger. A commitment to not part till death.
However, the fact that many humans and non-humans constantly behave mindlessly and destructively is also painfully apparent. This is, of course, through no fault of their own, as hard as that is for anyone to initially admit. A co-worker goes out of their way to make you look like a fool, and cause you pain. A spouse cheats. A relative holds an unreasonable, destructive grudge. A dog bites, a snake strikes, a Blue Jay watches as a scrub-jay chases. An egocentric, ignorant president or dictator impetuously orders a nuclear strike.
The simple fact is that we as human beings are in an extraordinarily precarious position. The environment upon which we and our family (including non-human life on Earth) depend upon is being altered due to selfish acts which are not always easy to identify. Territorial impulses cause people in one country to hate people in another country. We possess the capacity to destroy life on Earth with our technologies, and seem to be on the track to doing so. We are constantly bombarded by information which lessens our ability to focus upon the real issues that threaten us. Many of our leaders are no more conscious of the causes for their actions than a scrub-jay is, and far less admirable. These leaders possess the capability to, and seem intent to, destroy life by selfishly exploiting natural resources and those who depend upon them. They might gravely and tirelessly prepare for hurricanes which scientific projections suggest will radically and negatively alter the lives of their voters within a few days, ‘because we must prepare for the worst,’ but ignore related, long-term climatic projections which suggest a threat of far greater magnitude and severity, simply because doing so will not get them re-elected. These leaders behave in a way that is dictated by voters. An ignorant electorate will yield politicians who behave ignorantly, even if they aren’t actually ignorant. Selfish actors, it seems, are never in short-supply. It is obvious that they will destroy life as we know it if we allow them to.
And so, I’m doing my best by writing this to provide to you with some information that I have been lucky enough to happen upon, due to circumstance. When you see a bird, or another type of animal, I hope that you will take the time to watch the way that it behaves and wonder why it behaves the way that it does. What about the way that it behaves might have helped its ancestors to survive? Examining life in such a way may cause you to be inclined to examine your own behaviors. And I’m sure that you have already, but maybe not using the ‘lens’ that I have suggested that you use to observe a bird, which has been influenced by the same types of historical pressures as you. Does the hawk eat the sparrow because it’s evil? No. It does so because that is how its ancestors behaved to survive. Do you, when no one is looking, do something which might, for no good reason, hurt the feelings of, or prospects for, someone else, because you are evil? No! More than likely, you, like the hawk, are behaving in a way which helped your ancestors spread their genes. Luckily, though, you possess the ability to be conscious of your actions and thus modify your behavior. What impulses do you have which might have helped your ancestors to survive, which may in fact be harmful to you, your family, and/or the rest of life on Earth? Taking the time to think about this simple question is very important. Not only can an honest answer to this question allow us to lead happier lives, but it just might allow us as a species to avoid self-destruction.
Luckily, there are many, many people who in fact are aware of much or all of what I have written in this post. They may be among those who have devoted their lives to developing technologies which lessen our environmental impact, like solar-powered vehicles. They may be educated activists who attempt to bring public attention to pressing social justice and/or environmental issues. They may even be politicians who must carefully mince words in order to be re-elected, so that they can do some genuine good. Or, more likely, they are plumbers, secretaries, high school teachers, and other important members of society, who we meet and interact with every day. There is a lot of reason for hope and optimism, but only if human consciousness can outpace a terrifying unconsciousness that seems to be leading toward global catastrophe. These are dangerous times, which require that the majority of us be awake. Indifference will result in disaster, to a degree which we simply cannot accurately predict.
I want you to know that I understand the reasons for sensationalism, which some people might characterize this post as being caused by. It is true that an author might sell more books if he/she convinces readers that they have written about an important issue. A news network might describe a situation as being far more dire than it is, to get more viewers. This happens. I can assure you, though, that the primary cause for me writing this post is that when I woke up this morning, I felt inspired to attempt to spread some information which might help to protect the experience of life on Earth, which I’m fascinated by. The cause for that feeling this morning was certainly affected by my exposure to others, in the past, who have concluded similarly. My hope is that maybe I can affect readers similarly.
And so, I encourage you to pay attention/care, and to the best of your ability speak out against things that you believe to be wrong, organize effective means of causing change, vote responsibly, and generally act in a way which might preserve this wonderful place for our descendants. Our behavior will have a profound impact on them.
Nick Drake was an acoustic guitar player who made his music in the late 1960s and early 70s. He lived a short life, and relatively few people discovered his music while he was alive (considerably more have discovered him since his death). In this song, which is one of my favorites by him, he seems to suggest that birds are creatures that think, and not only think, but think deeply (and experience consciousness):
Here are the words that I am referring to, in regard to avian philosophizing:
Bird flew by
And wondered, wondered why
She was wise enough to stay up in the sky
From there she could wonder
For the reason
What’s the point of a year
Or a season
‘Wisdom’ is attributed to this bird that is flying in the sky, and she even has existential thoughts. As someone who has spent years studying birds, and ‘wondering why’ about many things, I’ll admit that I doubt that any bird wonders ‘what is the point of a year or a season?’ But maybe they will someday… The lyrics in this song seem to ‘anthropomorphize,’ which is to attribute uniquely human characteristics to non-human animals. I feel fairly sure that Nick Drake didn’t think that birds actually wonder like the bird in the song does, as art does not need to represent reality. However, the song stimulated some thoughts in me that I’ll share with you.
No human can know for sure what a bird does or does not think, though for anyone who pays close attention to birds and other animals, it is obvious, based upon their behaviors, that at least some species do in fact think (imagine your dog or cat). Take a look at this short video showing a bird who modifies a tool that did not originally work, in order to gain access to a food item:
That bird, in my opinion, was obviously thinking, and possibly in a way that I could relate to—I think that the bird knows that it is something (and is therefore a self-aware something) that wants food.
It has long been assumed by many animal behaviorists that animals (including human beings) are, as Thomas Huxley coined, ‘automata,’ which is a machine that is driven exclusively by forces (genetics, past and current environmental conditions) that it cannot control. This assumption appears to be true, so far as I can see, except that I do not understand how consciousness (the ability to be self-aware) fits into the equation, an uncertainty which could undermine the validity of the assumption. In fact, consciousness is in my opinion the most inspiring, dependable (if I’m thinking, it’s there), and greatest mystery that I have encountered. I will be thinking about it for as long as I am conscious. Consciousness could be (and some people say definitely is) just another natural process that we have no control over. However, it is fascinating to me that self-awareness does not seem to be necessary, and yet it does exist. By ‘not necessary,’ I mean from an evolutionary perspective, as it does seem entirely possible that molecular machines which we call organisms could be assembled which reproduce and survive based entirely on stereotyped responses (a stereotyped response is a reaction that requires no thought, and happens automatically in response to a certain stimulus). Such a thoughtless creature is the sort of identity-less, stereotyped machine that many people, it seems to me, assume that non-human animals (which aren’t their pets) are. But I don’t think that that is, in many cases, true! I believe that it feels a certain way to be, say, a moose, or a bat. I also think that at least some vertebrates (animals with a backbone), including mammals and birds, experience some kind of consciousness, as it seems extraordinarily narrow-minded to assume that human beings are the only conscious animal on planet Earth. I find this thought of consciousness in other animals to be liberating!
Why liberating? Well, I occasionally find myself falling into a Dustin-centric trap. That is, I find myself assuming that the way I see things is simply the way it is. By thinking so, inescapable doom and gloom, for example, can become the definition in my mind of our universe on a given day when that is, in fact, ridiculous. It helps to remind myself that thousands of other organisms (there are at least 40,000 other organisms on Earth that are so similar to us that they also have a backbone) are experiencing (to some degree) the same Earth in an entirely different way than I am, in a way that I could not even comprehend. It is a relief to know that the universe isn’t about me. Colors, scents, fields (like magnetic), and other external stimuli that I cannot detect shape the lives, and probably thoughts, of the other animals that we as humans share this planet with. How different would it be to be a conscious dolphin than a conscious human? I cannot imagine!
Some animals, apparently, think because an animal that can think is often better off from an evolutionary perspective than an animal that cannot think (except, for example, when climate-changing technology, including nuclear weapons, are developed in conjunction with selfish, ignorant users). One passes on more genes with the aid of intelligence, and intelligence (the ability to use information) has apparently led to consciousness in some animals. Birds in the family Corvidae (crows, ravens, magpies, and jays) have been compared to primates (humans are primates) in regard to their advanced intelligence.1 It seems hard to believe that Corvids possess the intelligence that they do without also having some level of consciousness, and harder to believe that chimpanzees, which share about 99.7% of their expressed DNA with human beings, are not conscious.
When a bird flies by, it is nice to remind myself that my thoughts cannot be definitely known by it, just as its thoughts cannot be definitely known by me. It is estimated that there are 100 billion stars in our average-sized galaxy, and near each might be the potential for thinking organisms, possibly similar to us. Further, there are an estimated 10 trillion galaxies in our universe, and maybe an infinite number of other universes, all of which could be brimming with conscious beings. About 95% of the matter/energy in our universe is, at the moment, entirely indescribable to the scientists who have tried to study it. In other words, it is a mystery. I cannot help but wondering how this so-called ‘dark’ matter/energy relates to consciousness, and how it might affect the ‘automata-like’ nature of living organisms, possibly providing a sort of ‘freedom’ that many brain scientists insist, I think prematurely, is an illusion. Further, the matter that we consist of, at a very small level (quantum-scale, i.e. atoms, electrons, etc.), interacts in a way that scientists can somewhat describe, but don’t understand, which may impede our ultimate understanding of how consciousness works, given that matter apparently creates ‘mind’ and we are unsure why matter interacts as it does. Maybe someone in our galaxy has already figured out the answers to these questions…
Speaking of thinking-things in other places (planets, solar systems, galaxies, universes, etc.), they would probably be able to understand my thoughts far less than the bird that flies by can. Actually, I think, I wouldn’t even be recognized as a thinking thing by such distantly-related thinkers, somewhat like most people assume that plants have no level of intelligence (a notion which some scientists are currently challenging). If the ‘multi-verse’ (infinite universes) that some scientists think exist combines to create, say, a brain of an organism that thinks, that organism would probably understand its thoughts about as much as I do my own (and might appreciate the mystery). This is an important reminder, for me at least, to appreciate the awesomeness of reality, which can be enriched if one considers the many different ways of seeing the same world by co-inhabitants. Such knowledge helps me to remember to interact kindly with other people who believe slightly different things than I do (that’s the most difference that there can really be between human beliefs, in the ‘big picture’). It also reminds me how similar we humans are, and how we need to come together, embrace our unity, expand our consciousness, and do our best to avoid destroying our chance at life. Such destruction, I think, will happen sooner rather than later if we pretend that the universe is as we want it to be rather than as it is, if we choose ignorance rather than knowledge. The ability to be conscious is an incredible opportunity that we have, and I think that we should all ‘look’ while we can, so that others here can see, too.
Ultimately, I think, a bird flying by has approximately as much of a chance of really understanding consciousness, or whether or not there is more than one universe, as I do. But it sure is fun to think while being conscious, and I feel comfort knowing that I am not alone in doing that.
Emery, N. J. The Mentality of Crows: Convergent Evolution of Intelligence in Corvids and Apes. Science306, 1903–1907 (2004).