As you may know, my blog is entitled, ‘Thoughts of a Naturalist.’ A worthy question, which I’ve never discussed here, is: “what is a ‘naturalist’?” For many of us, the word carries much meaning and perhaps even is a big part of our identity. Nature-lovers, philosophers, environmentalists, and ecologists all likely tend to use the word at least a little differently. If you have an opinion that you’d like to share about what being a ‘naturalist’ means to you, please share your thoughts as a comment. I’m curious how my views, which I’ll share below, relate to yours.
I think that it is probably fair to say that I’ve been a naturalist—at least a budding one—since I was in high school, even though I don’t remember using the word then. At that time, I began going out to natural areas with the primary goals of paying attention and learning. I remember walking through a nature preserve near to my house teaching myself to identify trees, which was perhaps inspired by mother’s and grandmothers’ interest in flowers. My naturalism probably started even earlier, when my grandfathers got me ‘hooked’ on fishing.
During those many fishing trips, I learned to patiently sit outside and to pay close attention to my surroundings. I thought about where fish were likely to be, when they were likely to be there, and what they would want to eat. Not only did I get exposed to an incredible diversity of life—including aquatic vegetation, several fish species, and a variety of other animals—but I also learned to be comfortable outside. And to be there alone.
My definition, part 1: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world with the main goals of paying attention, feeling, and learning.
A naturalist could be defined simply as ‘someone who studies natural history.’ This includes amateurs of all skill levels. The term ‘natural history’, like ‘naturalist,’ has a variety of meanings. Here is website—which I think is worth checking out especially for naturalists looking for a sense of community—where people explain what natural history means to them. As I see it, natural history is the story of a landscape, including its living and non-living parts. The timeframe of that story could be a day, a season, a year, or many years. For example, by noting when you see the first monarch butterfly each year, you are on the path to learning something about that animal. Just like by observing what plants the monarch caterpillar eats, you learn something. Before you know it, you are thinking about how the butterfly depends on the landscape, how the landscape depends on the butterfly, the long history they have together, and how changing the landscape could cause the butterfly to disappear and then cause the landscape to change further.
An ‘ecologist’ is also a word to indicate someone who studies relationships between living things and their environment. However, in my experience, this term tends to be used to indicate someone who does so professionally. Not all ecologists, however, are naturalists. Not in my opinion, at least. I think that the best ecologists tend to be naturalists (though not necessarily vice versa). It is possible to be an ecologist who doesn’t spend considerable time in the natural world and who doesn’t even want to. An ecologist’s work could be done solely in a lab and/or on a computer and not require any trips to the field (i.e., the forest, the prairie, the river, etc.). Results generated from such ‘field-less’ investigations can be valuable, especially if they are cautiously interpreted and cause field work for further examination. If ecologists do go to the field for work, their trips likely pertain to formal data collection in some way.
As a naturalist-ecologist, I cherish the times I get to go to the field for my ecology work. I do my best to observe a wide variety of phenomena. The birds singing, the plants flowering, mammal tracks in the snow, the way a river is flooding, etc. However, when in the field for research, I have a job to do and generally cannot sit and take it all in for two hours or so like I otherwise might. I have 5 radio-tagged birds to track (for example), a field assistant to coordinate with, and a manuscript to write based on the data that we collect. In other words, I’m out there primarily to take something (data) rather than to feel something. I get the impression that there are some ecologists who only ever go to the field to take. I don’t consider those people to be naturalists.
My definition, part 2: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world without the primary goal of taking something.
I’m not saying that those who go to the field to hunt, fish, take pictures, or formally collect data aren’t naturalists. Most naturalists, I’d guess, actively do or have done at least one of these things (I think that going fishing taught me to be a naturalist; when I fish again it will be as a naturalist). My point is that partaking in these activities alone shouldn’t indicate that someone is a naturalist. Some of the best naturalists are certainly hunters, for example, given the necessity in many cases of paying close attention to the natural world and being quiet (which I think generally go together). But there are also hunters who simply want to drink beer and shoot at things and pay little attention to their natural surroundings. Similar to naturalist-hunters, there are some ecologists who carefully observe and reverently experience the natural world while taking careful measurements so that we can better understand and conserve it. There are also ecologists, though (a small minority, it seems), whose primary goal is to collect data that will corroborate a pre-defined story that they want to tell in a scientific journal to advance their careers and perhaps feed their egos. Don’t get me wrong – I think ecology is a great profession that tends to produce solid and useful knowledge. I just wanted to point out that the process of taking, even in ecology, can come at the cost of experiencing and some people may want only to take.
My best moments in the field don’t tend to be when I’m collecting data. Rather, they usually occur when I can go out there to just sit and think about what is going on around me and to better understand what has led to what I see. Those thoughts and natural observations actually could help me with ecological research later, and probably are required for the best ecology to be done, but that’s not why I go seek the natural world on Sunday mornings. My weekly trips to the field are mainly to nourish what some would call my ‘spirit.’ I go there to feel connected to a location—often achieved by purposefully not thinking—and to understand how I fit into a larger place. Sometimes I get distracted and don’t pay attention to my environment or begin focusing on what I can take. But at my best, when I’m out there, I’m a naturalist.
My complete definition of a naturalist: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world with the main goals of paying attention, feeling, and/or learning without the primary goal of taking something.
This summer, I was lucky enough to get to spend some time at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Ohio. It is a beautiful place that I’d hightly recommend as a destination for anyone who appreciates wildlife.
During one of my visits, I noticed that an adult Trumpeter Swan caring for cygnets looked like it had something around its neck. Not sure what it was, I had a closer look with my binoculars. This is what I saw:
Because I’ve banded hundreds of birds (put tiny metal rings around their feet), I knew when I saw this neck collar that a researcher had put it there to improve our knowledge of this species. By reporting where marked birds are detected, we can learn about how long their species live and where they go. So, I noted the collar number and then went to this website. From there, I reported the number I read on the collar, which identified the bird. I also reported when and where my observation occurred. Doing so only took a couple minutes, but provided information that could help to better understand, and so protect, this amazing species.
I thought I’d share this experience in case you didn’t know that you can help out birds by reporting the numbers on bands, neck collars, or other markings on birds that you observe.
Not only will you help to conserve birds by reporting such observations, but you’ll also get a certificate from the US Geological Survey which includes information about when and where the bird was marked. Another Trumpeter Swan I saw this summer was marked as a cygnet 16 years ago!! I sighted that bird about 6.5 miles from where it was marked.
I just submitted the collar number of the marked swan that I shared pictures of in this post. I can’t wait to find out when and where it was marked!
An article that I wrote about the Grand Kankakee Marsh and efforts to bring it back was recently published by Earth Island Journal, so I thought I’d share the link. The marsh was once the largest inland wetland in the U.S., but growing up in northern Indiana I mainly just saw agricultural fields where it had been.
Here is a map of the vicinity where the marsh occurred, and where it could be brought back:
While I was completing a marsh habitat survey where a King Rail that I’ve been tracking had been hanging out, I noticed a large snake swimming across the water nearby. It was easy to catch up to. I identified the snake as an Eastern Fox Snake (herpetologists, feel free to correct me!). Regardless of what it is called, I think the snake and the way it moved through the water is beautiful. So, I thought I’d share. Here is the video:
I recently had a scientific article published which attempts to begin answering the question ‘Does where birds overwinter affect how they sing?’
I was asked by the editor of the journal to write an accompanying blog post about the article. For any who are interested, click here to read that blog post. You can also find the scientific article from that post.
That is what I remember someone telling me. I’ll not ‘name names,’ but will say that the person who said this to me, coincidentally, had the name of an animal species in his/her last name. I didn’t see the resemblance.
I often do, however, see resemblances, kind of like that person did when looking at me (I’ll admit that like an ostrich I am tall, have a long nose, and cannot fly). I’ve had the opportunity over the last eight years or so that I’ve seriously been studying birds to see many people who study not only birds, but many other animals species. I’ll be the first to admit that some people bear an uncanny resemblance to the organisms that they study.
Yes, I’ve seen frog-people and mice-people, even moose-people. Not usually, but sometimes.
The resemblances that I see, though, usually go beyond attributes such as body-type, facial features, etc. Generally, when I watch the way that people move through the world, I think that their behaviors more closely resemble the organism that they focus their studies on than does their physical appearance (with some notable exceptions that I won’t elaborate on).
In a herpetologist, I’ve seen the calm, zen-like demeanor of a salamander. In an ornithologist, I’ve seen the indifference of a sleepy owl.
It could be that people are hard-wired to see similarities between any two things placed nearby (physically or mentally), and that in fact people don’t tend to behave more like what they study or associate with than would randomly paired people and animals. My gut, however, tells me that this isn’t totally true.
I’m convinced that if one watches anything for long enough, to some degree that thing becomes a part of their mental process and affects everything about them, even if they do not realize it. This is a simultaneously beautiful and depressing realization, especially when one considers the things we all see and wish we didn’t, and also that which some people must see every day and cannot escape.
I feel very lucky to be able to watch birds. And if I do, in fact, become a bit more bold or inquisitive after spending years watching Blue Jays, or even more secretive like a marsh bird, that’s OK by me.
I know that some people probably consciously choose to act the opposite of what they watch, and that most people likely don’t actually behave like what they study or associate with.
To me, though, a world where I think that I might see the intelligent poise, or even ruthlessness, of a wolf in someone is far more interesting, and usually inspiring, than a world without wild and natural influences.
Let’s do our best do maintain the diversity of wildlife, and behaviors in people, that remain. Even if we don’t see the effects of our conservation efforts, others may see the effects, perhaps even when they look at us.
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.
When I was walking to our urban study site, hoping to catch a pesky Song Sparrow before sunrise, I heard what struck me as an unidentifiable sound. I can identify most natural sounds that I hear, but this one had me stumped. A shrill, persistent, screaming-type sound had me wondering if some tropical bird of a species unfamiliar to me had been blown north by a hurricane to Indiana, where it was complaining about a lack of friends in its new environs – or about some other injustice. This didn’t seem likely, but I needed to know what the sound was, regardless.
It was clear that the sound was coming from a spruce tree next to the city street that I was walking on, so I took a few moments to peer into the dark. And this is what I saw (pay close attention at second 40):
I know that I’ve heard raccoons calling before, but never quite like this little guy/gal was. I’m not sure if at the end of the video he/she was scolding me for not lending a hand, thanking me for moral support, or assuring me, ‘I meant to fall, you know’, but I am sure that I’ll never forget what a young raccoon hanging on a branch (apparently terrified) sounds like! The deer and rabbit which were standing directly behind me when I was filming this (unbeknownst to me at the time), who were as far as I can tell possibly interested in the wails, too, may not forget what a stressed out raccoon sounds like, either. In the natural world, it certainly pays to listen to your neighbors, who might warn you of danger. Who knows, they might also warn you which branches to avoid…
P.S. The title of this post is in reference to a great song by the Beatles. If you don’t know it, then maybe you should change that!
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.
My friend, Tori, had a great idea, which is to provide a platform for conservationists (and anyone can be one!) to share their stories.
Here she states her goal:
“I want to give faces to the conservationists of the world. Their stories, their situations, the sacrifices they make to do this work, and the rewards of it. It’s not a revolutionary notion by any stretch, but we need to be part of the global conversation on environmentalism. We, as biologists, need to know our worth. We need to contribute to the wildlife blogs of the world, the authors and journalists shedding light on the work of scientists working to better the natural systems of the planet. Everyone can be a conservationist. I want to knit together a picture of what that means and could mean in the future. We need to engage with each other to enthrall others.
I sent her a story about one of my most memorable field experiences (which involves wolves near Yellowstone!). That story can be found here: