Saturday, May 9, 2009

Learning to Love the Little Things

It’s human nature to get excited about the “charismatic megafauna” around us. Let’s face it: polar bears, elephants and eagles are impressive. But what about the other 99% of life on this planet? Where is the cheering section for sea slugs? Is there a “Hug a Millipede” campaign? What about bladderworts? As a naturalist, many people ask me what my favorite animal is, or they want to know my area of expertise. It’s a difficult question to answer because the more I learn about my fellow beings on this chunk of space debris, the more fascinating I find each to be.

Recently my friend over at Saratoga Woods and Waterways posted a wonderful millipede photo. It wasn’t your common garden variety millipede that measures about an inch long and disappears with a ripple of legs almost as soon as you see it. It was a larger specimen, with pink legs and a lovely pin-striped appearance to its carapace.

We used to have giant African millipedes at the zoo where I worked; they were as big around as your little finger and a good five or so inches long. I’ve seen specimens even larger! To let one crawl across your hand is a sensation unparalleled by any other. Most folks are creeped out by it. A few months after I left the zoo I found myself hiking along the trail above Machu Picchu in Peru, and there in the path was a large millipede. I was very excited and picked it up. I eagerly tried to share it with a pair of young hikers going the other direction. I think they thought there was something wrong with me; not everyone is open to new experiences.

Most recently I’ve been developing a keen interest in insects, especially bees. I’ve even contemplated starting a hive in the my backyard. This would be a shock to anyone who knew me growing up: I was notorious for my fear (terror) of stinging insects and overall dislike of insects in general. Over the years, however, I’ve learned to appreciate them all, and the more I read about them, and the more I watch them in my gardens or the woods or along shorelines, the more interesting they become. Tiger beetles, dung beetles, dragonflies, digger bees – there just isn’t enough time in one life to learn about them all!

Sure, I love bats and snakes, weasels and wildflowers. Even fish and fungi are food for thought. I drift towards nature’s underdogs because “everyone” deserves to be appreciated. We fear, dislike, or simply ignore those things we don’t know or understand. I guess, in the final analysis, my favorites are the underdogs, and I make it a point to try and get others to, at the very least, develop an appreciation for those beings they dislike. But be warned: when you learn something’s true nature, it can become dear to you.

Photo Credit: Large millipede photo by Jackie at Saratoga Woods and Waterways

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.

One Response

  1. Woodswalker says:

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