Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Natural History Field Work: Value of Repetition

It seems that in today’s world, most of us are focused on achieving goals, which in and of itself is not a bad thing. Goals are good; goals are important. But in the world of nature study and outdoor appreciation this goal-oriented mindset can get in the way of the bigger picture. More and more I see Park visitors who are only interested in bagging peaks, and not just any peak, but the highest peak, or adding a certain bird to their life lists. Once these items are checked off their lists, they forget about it and move on. I submit for your consideration that there are times when we should slow down while reaching some of these goals, and stop to smell the roses along the way.

Although I work in the Adirondack Park, admittedly the largest park in the continental US, the bit of the Park that is my work place is fairly small. We have three short trails, a total of about 3.5 miles. After ten years of walking these trails, one might think that they would get boring. How much more can there be to see? In truth, if I take the time to really look, each time I walk the trails I am liable to see something new. Last week, for example, I “discovered” a native bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) I’d never seen before.

Earlier this spring, I visited the Ice Meadows along the Hudson River, a habitat I’d heard about for years. In theory, I could check this off my life list of interesting places to visit and move on to the next, but yesterday, on a whim, I stopped by again. It was a beautiful sunny day and the river beckoned. Not only did I add another new plant to my life list (sticky tofieldia – Triantha glutinosa), but I also watched a baby sandpiper scoot over the rocks and swim across a pool, all the while peeping like crazy as it tried to catch up to its mother.

Seasons change, and with them the natural world changes. What is here today may not be here three weeks from now. It may be replaced by something new. This doesn’t even take into account serendipitous events, like the porcupine I saw a couple weeks ago trundling down a stretch of road I drive twice a week. I know the odds are I will never see it again, but every time I drive by now, I look for that animal. Who knows what interesting encounter I may have next?

Revisiting sites gives the nature enthusiast a chance to really get to know them. I have a couple friends who visit the same natural areas time and time again, and not only do they learn something new each time they visit, but they also have phenomenal records of what is living and growing at each one over the course of a year.

I have written in the past about the value of picking a spot outside to call your own and visiting it every day, rain or shine, night or day. At first, it will seem interesting, because it is all shiny and new, but before long it may become tedious. After a while, it will seem really boring, so much so that you may decide to not come again, at least for a while. But it is now, when you find it most dull, that you finally open your proverbial eyes, for your mind is reaching for something new. And it is at this point that you see it: the tuft of hair clinging to the side of a tree, or the tiny trail going through the vegetation, so small it must have been left by a tiny rodent. Maybe your ears pick up a new sound – like the day I heard the voles singing. It is like you have suddenly been given the key to an alternate universe – you have been invited in.

But you’ll only get this invitation when you have invested the time to visit a place (or places) repeatedly. Once you have given yourself to a spot, it is ready to yield its secrets to you. This is probably one of the greatest gifts in the world, one that money cannot buy. And in this crazy fast-paced world where everything is measured in sound bytes and abbreviated text, it is a wonderful thing to slow down and just be. When you do, the wealth of the world is yours.

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Ellen Rathbone

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.

4 Responses

  1. Woodswalker says:

Wait, before you go,

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