For all of us who are attempting to live lightly, there must have been a time or even a moment when our relationship with the natural world became an important element in our lives. whether our awareness grew bright through childhood summers in the woods or as an adult when silently shuffling through the season’s first snowfall, somewhere, somehow, the earth spoke to us and we began to understand and appreciate its unparalleled splendor.
My guest is that natural awareness does not come about through one big-ban experience, one sunset blazing across the sky, or one glimpse of autumn’s hues. Instead, it is repeated interactions with little things that may not consciously grab our attention, but manage to lasso our soul.
Conservationist Aldo Leopold’s love for nature was strengthened by his recognition of treasures observed by few. Here is how he described a tiny early spring plant with minute white flowers and round papery seed pods: “He who despairs of spring with downcast eye steps on it. He who searches for spring with his knees in the mud finds it in abundance…Draba asks, and gets, but scant allowance of warmth and comfort; it subsists on the leavings of time and space. Botany books give it two or three lines but never a plate or portrait. Sand too poor and sun too weak for bigger, better blooms are good enough for Draba. After all it is no spring flower, but only a postscript to a hope.
One of the ways outdoor education can be successful in turning people on to nature is when it emphasizes discovering the micro-world of plants and animals which are omnipresent, though unnoticed by most. With our exploration of the micro-world, our senses are put to work, and when you have to work for something there are usually greater rewards than when something is merely given to you.
I am fortunate to live in a place where deer are seen on a daily basis, but they come to me; they are not a challenge to find. They are part of the normal landscape; they are not unexpected. In contrast, one day after a hot five-mile hike, I plunged my head into a small waterfall, only to be surprised by a tiny shrew dancing in and out of its own personal shower. I had spent the day in full view of one of the most magnificent peaks in Norther America — Mount Rainier — yet it was this sight of a thumb-size shrew that rekindled for me our grand passion, not the mountain.
It takes time and effort to peer into small homes. We slow down and become small ourselves when we watch miniscule life forms. Our sense are fully alive when wonderful creatures come into focus. And while we are involved in these activities, a hole appears in the wall which separates us from nature, and we are irresistibly drawn in.
Watch a small child sitting on the grass. Like a frog zeroing in on a fly, the child will focus in on the most tiny objects before her. Most five-year olds still seem to have the instinct of locating little life forms. So perhaps it is after the age of five when we turn our eyes from the sublime to the colossus, from the nearly invisible to the visibly huge.
As we lead visitors down our trails, I believe we need to allow time for immersion in things toe-sized and smaller, for there we will not only find a fragile beauty, but also the makings for a lasting love of our planet. ~