The Essence of Nature

Maple leaf viburnum

I’ve been around the ecological and proverbial block a few times. In fact so many times that I occasionally feel dizzy. This constant orbiting of ecosystems, plant communities, and natural processes is never tiring, but I do sometimes wonder why I never seem to learn it all. For starters I’m not that smart. By that I mean, as a human I have severe inadequacies. Our loss of instinct is a monstrous handicap. Putting that aside, and that is no easy matter, I have realized that I often spin my wheels in the mud; not going anywhere. Perhaps I’m  trying too hard and getting no results.

I have come to the conclusion that “understanding” the natural world is nearly impossible given my human impediments. My most potent talent seems to be the power of observation. Noticing something doesn’t take smarts but it does require good reporting skills. That is if anyone else is to benefit from that which I have noticed.

Indian cucumber

The natural world in its present state is the result of four and a half billion years of evolution. Where we are now is the result of countless and random successes and failures. As the planet has changed, new life forms have zig-zagged through the evolutionary process with only one goal; survival. That we can stand here today to observe, record, and process information with rational thought is beyond astounding. There are really no words to describe this never ending transformation of the natural world.

Oh sure, with modern genetics we can study, at least in part, the evolutionary path of all that is living. And we can better understand any living organism by doing so. We have a more difficult time understanding the essence of our planet. The complex and intra-dependent nature of every single element on Earth may be beyond the scientific method. Many aboriginal cultures understood the “thread” that connected everything on this planet. The energy that pulls us all together; water, animal, plant, mineral, and the atmosphere. “Completely unscientific” some would say. To which I would respond “only because science has not yet taken us there!’ Food for thought, if nothing more.

Canada mayflower community

Recently I was studying a small stand of Canada mayflowers in the forest. I got on my and knees and looked at it as close as I could. I tried different angles. I lied on my belly and examined the plant community profile. I stood over it for a better look of its overall form. I bent the stem of an individual plant and examined the underneath of the flower. I touched the stem and flower to understand its texture. I smelled the plant. I captured the plant’s image with a camera. I wrote some notes in my “Rite in the Rain” yellow notebook. And I still could not, in any way, reproduce the essence of this natural wonder. Of course, the same could be said of any encounter with a plant, animal, rock, or even a breath of air. Human perception is somewhat limited to our five physical senses within our western way of thinking. We never really experience the entirety of what we observe.

Single canada mayflower

I am a lover of our domestic canine partners. I have spent countless hours with my hounds in the woods. They do not possess my intellectual capacities, although it would be a huge mistake to even think we understood how they process information. They have talents and capabilities that we can only dream of. My bloodhounds smell in some sort of strange rendition of olfactory technicolor. There scent capabilities are thousands of times more powerful than that of any human. They literally “see” the world through their powerful ability to smell. And more impressive is they still have powerful instincts; the ability to know something without having learned it. They process what they experience primarily not through any intellectual part of their brain but with the full power of instinctual awareness. They have “knowledge” instantly after a good snort of a track. This is a wonderful world that I will never experience. What my hounds know about the wilds without thinking is far more than I will ever learn from books, experiential learning in the field, or any other instructional device available to me.

And speaking of our canine friends, many years ago I was in the woods with a friend from the city. I had let my dogs loose and they found a track to follow. They bayed loudly and quickly disappeared out of site. My friend stopped and said something that I thought was kind of funny.

“That’s a really stupid behavior that hounds have!”

“How so?” I inquired.

“They can’t possibly expect to catch anything when they are barking loudly and notifying the animal they are chasing exactly where they are!”  he exclaimed indignantly.

“And yet they still do it!” I retorted.

“Yes, its stupid!” he shot back.

“Have you wondered why they do it?” I asked.

“Why would I, its stupid!” he replied

“They do it because it does work. If it didn’t work they would have lost this behavior eons ago.”

“How could it work?” he wondered, now realizing I had him on the ropes.

“One possible explanation is that the constant baying disorients the animal they are chasing. It adds a level of stress that it can’t adjust too. Stress tires an animal and helps it to make poor decisions. Hounds can out run almost any animal in the forest over the long haul. They can run day and night without stopping. Perhaps evolution has provided that they bay because it is a very effective tool!”

He thought about this, just shaking his head. It was difficult for him to imagine that this behavior which intellectually seemed so ineffective to him was, in fact, a brilliant evolutionary strategy.

There is more out there, in the natural world, than meets the eye, or any of our other senses.

And what do we know about how a tree in the forest (or any other plant in their natural environment) experiences the world? Many humans assume that plants do not experience life in a “significant” way. It is true that they don’t have brains. They don’t think in the way that animals do. They don’t have a verbal language. And they certainly aren’t mobile. But it would be a nearly unforgivable error to not give them credit for what we do not know about them. Trees live longer than humans, survive the harshest of weather that nature can throw their way, move (by wind spread seed and utilizing seed spreading animals) when the climate becomes intolerable, communicate using pheromomes for reproduction and other survival issues, and orient themselves to the sun to produce food for themselves. All superior adaptations for a “unintelligent” plant species.

False Solomons seal

Perhaps people are just too myopic. I often wonder if our inability to see the world through nonhuman experience isn’t our most significant limitation. Even when interacting with other humans we often only see the world through just our own eyes. How restrictive is that?

There’s something to be said for osmosis. Plants use osmosis to absorb energy, water, and make food. If we humans absorbed the natural energy around us, assimilated it into our way of thinking, and used that information to understand our planet we would all be a lot better off. If we cleared our minds, just sat still devoid of intellectual processes, would it possible to just let some of the natural world bleed into our brains?  A new found respect for all of the living and nonliving entities of our Earth might become more apparent. To my way of thinking becoming “one” with our foundation and environment is essential to human survival.

Thinking back, when I held that Canada mayflower in my hand and looked into the depths of this living miracle, that is the moment I should have recorded. The feeling that it conveyed. The weight of the mystery that this plant held. The essence of experiencing the mayflower in my hand.

And now that moment is gone.

Woodland starflower

This article is dedicated to Dorothy Grimes, the mother of a good friend, a faithful reader of www.wildramblings.com and someone who I think will fully understand what I’ve written here. A very happy 90th birthday to a dedicated reader.  Thanks Dorothy!

Written for www.wildramblings.com in May 2012.

  • http://www.landingoncloudywater.blogspot.com/ Emily B

    Bill,

    This is a fantastic post, one that has me thinking on (I’m trying!) multiple levels. This quote–”Human perception is somewhat limited to our five physical senses within our western way of thinking. We never really experience the entirety of what we observe”–stood out to me particularly. I think it’s so true, and it makes me want to go outside and try a new kind of walk. I do my best at being attuned to the natural world, but what am I missing? How else could I experience, say, the wind? There’s all kinds of writing potential here, actually. Thanks for the insights!

  • Wild_Bill

     Hi Emily,

    If you have ever learned to meditate I would suggest going to a wild place you already know, one that you already love and have a feeling for, and try to find your center in a spot that feels “right”.  After about 30 minutes of quiet take a walk on a trail or in an area that you have walked many times.  With an open mind and expecting to see new things you will experience the area in a different way.  You might be pleasantly surprised.  I’ve been trying this for years and have just started doing it again.  It is an amazing technique for me. 

    The wind is a different realm.  On a windy day find a nice quiet (but windy) place where you can be alone.  Imagine you are the winged parachute seed of a dandelion.  Relax, close your eyes, and let it take you where it may. 

    Good luck!

    Bill

  • http://montucky.wordpress.com/ Montucky

    Excellent post, Bill! I think about this quite often, and I’ve noticed that the Indians here have an entirely different relationship with the natural world than those who came over on a boat. They have little or none of the arrogant attitude of being the “Lords of nature” or of controlling it or “managing” it, rather of understanding and relating to it. In this regard I clearly feel closer to the tribes than to those who inhabit the cities. Like your hounds, perhaps the indigenous people have very deep and very accurate instincts that have been elsewhere sacrificed in the name of “progress”.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     A good part of my heritage is from Native American stock (Abenaki, Cherokee).  Some part of those cultural attitudes towards nature was (likely unintentionally) passed down through the generations.  My grandfather Lattrell was the first to tell me that trees had feelings.  At the time (about 7 years old) I thought he was a bit odd.  Of course, now I know he was right!

    The difference between European and Native American cultures has to do with domain.  European (Christian) cultures believes man has province over the remaining natural world.  In their belief humans were created in God’s image and therefore ruled over the rest of the planet.  Native Americans (and many other aboriginal cultures) believes humans are part of the natural life cycle and respects our planet for its bounties.  I, for one, choose to live my life within the bounds of respect for Gaia and all that it gives us.

  • Out on the prairie

    This made me think of a lady who asked why I was so excited at looking at weeds. I asked if she had seen a few of my recent favorites and she retorted they all looked the same. When we look deep at our world we begin to really understand the beauty and reverence of all around us. I have spent a lifetime building my awareness and always am seeing and learning more.I continue to share my experiences and hope someone will also see the beauty as I have found in this lovely planet.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     You certainly do a wonderful job of spreading your philosophy on your blog at Out on a Prairie.  I always look forward to seeing what you find interesting.  You have a discerning eye when it comes to that which is naturally beautiful.  Thank you for sharing your views with us, both by commenting on wildramblings and on your own blog.

  • http://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com/ Steve Schwartzman

    Here’s something that has happened to me many times: if I go walking and return along the same trail, I’ll see something on the return portion that was there on the outward-bound portion but that I never noticed, even if it was out in plain sight.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Perspective and aspect is significant when it comes to observation.  Observation is the sum of awareness, emotion, and point of view. This exact thing, seeing something previously unnoticed on the same trail, happens to me quite a bit. 

    It often makes me wonder what I miss!

  • http://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com/ Steve Schwartzman

     Yes, I often wonder that same thing!

  • http://shoreacres.wordpress.com/ shoreacres

    I rarely say anything about religion on the blogs, but your comment about Christianity teaching that humans are meant to rule over the planet really struck me. Much of what passes for Christian belief is a perversion of traditional Biblical teaching.  I’ll grant you there are plenty of folks out there insisting that God’s given his blessing to their agendae. They’re in the newspapers all the time, and some of them are insufferable. But some of them have wandered a little far afield.

    When it comes to the natural world – the whole of creation – the word stewardship is key for Christians. Biblically, it’s assumed that the steward owns nothing. His only task is to take what has been given into his care and look after it responsibly. Being good stewards of creation can include everything from fighting pollution to nurturing endangered species. It assumes a respect for the natural world, and an acknowledgement that the grasses of the fields and the birds of the air have as much right to be here as we do.

    OK – better put my soap box away! It just saddens me that the Church gets such a bad rap. After all – it was a bunch of Episcopalians who dedicated themselves to the preservation of Nash Prairie, and a collection of church youth groups who spent a month planting marsh grasses this spring. If the church could help more people become good stewards of creation, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world!

    Love your post.  Boredom’s just a symptom of our insensitivity to the world around us.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     All wonderful points and I fully understand that Christianity takes many forms.  It sounds like your point of view is in harmony with mine. 

    At this juncture in history it is my complete and utter belief that human kind has to put all of our energy into changing our behavior so that the planet can go on with us, rather than without us.  It is as simple as that.

    Thanks, I always love your comments. 

  • http://gardenpath.wordpress.com/ Sandy

    A thoughtful post, Bill. Having come late, I see that my views have been already been expressed by the others. I agree with Montucky–native americans seem to have the best relationship with the earth. It is one I try to follow. Maybe it is my Cherokee blood!  

    I have been up north, where I rain into hoards of blackflies, but that didn’t stop me from clicking away with my camera.  I will hopefully post something tomorrow. Have a great weekend!

  • http://everyday-adventurer.blogspot.com/ Ratty

    I always thought that all other things in nature had its own unique intelligence. Some are just so alien to us humans that we can never comprehend it.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     I think we can comprehend it if we really listen and observe.  As humans developed language and intelligence we lost instinct.  Somewhere in the deep recesses of our brains and being there is a skill set to be tapped that allows us to communicate with all that is natural.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     I think all aboriginal cultures, those who were directly connected and dependent with the earth on a daily basis, have a deep understanding for our planet and her ways.  Still, there is room for all of us to clear our minds and adopt a new way of looking at the natural world. 

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     I think all aboriginal cultures, those who were directly connected and dependent with the earth on a daily basis, have a deep understanding for our planet and her ways.  Still, there is room for all of us to clear our minds and adopt a new way of looking at the natural world. 

  • Teresa Evangeline

    I’ve read this three times, in three days. It’s Such a good post. I am attempting to  become more in tune with the natural world. I would love to be able to “read” it in a way that’s similar to those who still inhabit it, both flora and fauna. I swear the plants talk to me.  And Buddy and I have worked out a great way of communicating that sometimes seems very telepathic. I’m sure you’ve experienced this, as well. I find the natural world comforting.

  • http://www.landingoncloudywater.blogspot.com/ Emily B

    I tried what you suggested, Bill. It’s amazing how LOUD a quiet patch of wood can actually be, so full of song. Thanks for the tip. :)

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     If we spend enough time in the natural world, and we really make an effort and pay attention, I think becoming “one” with our environment is very possible.  One of my tools is watching my hounds.  They have a lot to convey to me if I only pay attention.  I’m often introduced to new information through their perceptions. 

    Overcoming our cultural barriers, that tend to separate us from the natural world, is a life long process.  The important part is to enjoy the process.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     If we spend enough time in the natural world, and we really make an effort and pay attention, I think becoming “one” with our environment is very possible.  One of my tools is watching my hounds.  They have a lot to convey to me if I only pay attention.  I’m often introduced to new information through their perceptions. 

    Overcoming our cultural barriers, that tend to separate us from the natural world, is a life long process.  The important part is to enjoy the process.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Wonderful.  This is the first step.  Try again when you have the time, eventually we want to get to a point where you only feel what is around you, no noise, nothing visual, no olfactory responses, just feeling.

  • Guy

    Hi Bill
    I loved this post especially the line, And what do we know about how a tree in the forest (or any other plant in their natural environment) experiences the world? I had not really thought about this before but you can bet I will now. I will be looking at the aspen at the cabin differently after this.
    Guy

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Thanks Guy!  Seeing the world from a different perspective is rewarding.  Difficult for sure, but it sure is fascinating and challenging! 

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