Thursday, April 29, 2021

Nature Nerd

Among some of my friends, I have a reputation for being a bit of a nature nerd. In winter, I scan ski trails for animal tracks from the chairlift. I can’t travel a back road without peering at tree hollows and fields to see what animals might be hiding or foraging there. On walks through the woods, I’m easily distracted by wildflowers, weird lichen, and scat.

So it was a joy last week to wander a swath of forest with my colleagues from the nonprofit organization where I work, whose mission is, in part, to foster an understanding of and appreciation for the natural wonders of forests. It was a happy gathering of nature nerds – made even more so, perhaps, by the cool spring sunshine and because this was the first time we’d all been together in over a year.

As children, we have with an innate sense of curiosity about the world around us. Why is the sky blue? Where did that word come from? How do birds fly? What do worms eat? Why do stars sparkle? I remember being inundated by Whats and Whys and Hows when my kids were little. And then, at some point, that curiosity – at least for many of us – subsides as we become more occupied with school and jobs and sports and social activities.

For me, this curiosity waned for a while, but returned well into adulthood. I think it was sparked when my children started asking so many questions, inspiring me to seek at least some of the answers. My now teenaged and almost-teenaged children still ask questions, if not so frequently. But when it comes to the natural world, I’m the one who drives them nuts, asking questions and stopping to take photos of both familiar and unknown discoveries. No matter how many birds I learn to identify, how many wildflowers I can name, or how many intriguing animal habits I read about or observe, there is always so much more to learn.

Years ago, I attended a nature writing conference in northern Vermont, where I joined the early morning birding walks. I knew next to nothing about birds, couldn’t identify much more than a chickadee and a robin. One morning I was walking along a dirt road with the program director, Dave, when the guide pointed out some species I no longer recall. I said something like, “That little thing?” Dave chuckled and suggested I might try to seem a bit more impressed if I found myself near more serious birders.

Now, when I see a bird in the yard I can’t identify, I zoom in as far as my little camera will allow and snap a photo so I can compare it to my field guides and check the Cornell Lab’s incredible All About Birds website. If I’m still stuck, I send the photo to my Northern Woodlands colleague Dan, who will tell me if I’m guessing correctly or, if not, what important features I’ve missed on the path to bird ID.

Gradually, the number of birds I can identify – by sight or song – has grown, though I’m still no birding expert. (I think I will forever be befuddled by woodpeckers.)

Some of what I’ve learned – about birds and bugs and flowers and mammals and trees – is through personal observation and education. Other things I’ve picked up through researching some story or another that I’m writing. Much of it I’ve gleaned from reading and editing the work of writers who are introducing me – and many other readers – to aspects of the world around us I’d never known, or even thought to wonder about.

During our walk last week, we meandered among oak and ash and hemlock trees, past rock ledges where bobcats and porcupines and turkey vultures and many other creatures roam. We found myriad wildflowers scattered across the forest floor, tucked into crevices or growing tall through the leaf litter. Wood ducks took flight from a vernal pool as we neared, and we heard a yellow-bellied sapsucker rat-a-tat-tatting at a tree – and found lots of places where sapsuckers had tapped rows of perfect, tiny holes into bark.

On this walk, I was not the only one stopping and stooping to inspect scat or snap photographs of familiar flowers – or of unfamiliar ones to look up later. And often, when I had a question, someone else in our little posse knew the answer. It was a pleasant way to spend part of the day – fostering our own understanding of and appreciation for the natural world. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's April 29, 2021 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

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