Nearly everybody appreciates time spent in nature. We associate the natural world with positive things ranging from beauty to health to psychic renewal. In evolutionary terms, our brains and senses are optimized partly for interacting with the natural world, and if nature didn’t move you, you wouldn’t be reading this column.
Sooner or later, most people who enjoy nature take the next step and start trying to understand it as well as appreciate it. The focus of study may take many forms: learning to find and identify wildlife, developing a sense for the rhythm of the seasons, comprehending the habits of animals you intend to hunt, grasping the ecological relationships that determine what wildlife flourishes where. But whatever your emerging interest, you’ll find that learning is a much more active process than enjoying, and accordingly requires a different outlook. Here are six basic rules to help you get better acquainted with the Wild Side.
First, slow down. The natural world operates at its own pace. And in general, since speed demands energy, wildlife moves no faster than it must in order to get the job done. Fast motion, then, causes much more disturbance than slow motion, since it implies urgency, and urgency implies danger. Walk slowly, don’t make fast movements, and spend a lot of your time just sitting and watching what happens. Give things time to happen.
Second, shut up. In my (usually solo) rambles about the Island, I’m often amazed at how noisy humans are while out in nature. An animated conversation carries for hundreds of yards, alerting anything with ears to your presence long before you get there. Keep in mind that wild animals generally have sharper senses than you do, and a much stronger motivation to avoid being detected. If you want to learn, go alone (my preference), or at least go with someone who is interested in learning rather than chatting.
Third, ditch the dog. Don’t get me wrong: I love dogs and consider them excellent outdoor companions. But birds and mammals view them as predators and, therefore, a threat. Dogs also rove (unless they’re leashed, which they usually should be in my opinion), trotting ahead to disturb wildlife before you even get there. Moreover, when you’re with a dog, part (and often most) of your attention goes toward interacting with him or her; being a responsible, engaged dog owner, you’re limiting the attention you can pay to your surroundings. Dogs, then, both reduce the visibility of wildlife and reduce your ability to see it. Separate your dog walks from your nature study.
Fourth, blend in. Many forms of wildlife have color vision or at least the ability to perceive contrasts in color. You stand out unspeakably in a white tee-shirt, so cultivate a taste for earth tones, or even (though I personally find it a bit too military) consider wearing camouflage for nature study.
Fifth, get dirty. Human convenience makes no difference to wildlife, and most of the good stuff that happens in the natural world happens off the beaten track. Cultivate the habits of using less popular trails, or going off the trail entirely; of turning over logs to see what’s under them (put them back afterwards); of kneeling or even lying down to watch what’s happening among the grass blades; of wading in ponds or streams to see what’s there. Be sensible: on some conservation lands, bushwhacking isn’t appropriate, and your goal should always be to minimize your impact. But what is easily observed is just a tiny fraction of what’s actually there, and generally it’s the boring fraction.
And finally, put in the time. Nature defies simple explanations, and there is no shortcut to developing the instincts of a good field observer. Understand that the ability to find rarities comes mainly from knowing the common species inside out. Be at home with the idea that it takes many years to develop a sense of seasonality, an intimate understanding of the habits of even just one species, or an instinctive grasp of what is where in nature.
These rules, of course, simply lay out steps to make nature more approachable and to prepare yourself to engage with it. The process of actual learning about a specific topic involves other skills, such as augmenting your observations through reading, keeping records, sketching or photographing what you see, and making the link between what you see and what a field guide shows you. But until you see something, you can’t study it, and so the most fundamental step to learning about nature is making yourself receptive.
There is no single correct way to interact with nature; any time spent on the Wild Side is good time. But knowing about nature enhances your enjoyment of it. And in order to learn, you have to give yourself the opportunity.