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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.