It is disappointing to note that over the last 20 years, the number of people visiting our National Parks has dropped more than 20%. While this is probably good for the ecosystems within the parks (not the park systems that needs the revenue), it shows an alarming trend in how people connect (or don't) with nature. That's 20 less people out of a hundred who have never experienced the hot, mysterious Everglades, or the cool, majestic Tetons. Not to be too cynical...but I'm guessing trips to Disneyland and Las Vegas have gone up in that same time frame.
Even those who do venture into the wilds of national, state or local parks probably do so more for the exercise, family time, or quick getaways from their routine, then for natural exploration or spiritual experience. Often people just hurry down paths, talking to one another along the way, moving towards a particular destination. While training to become a naturalist, I spent many hours on guided hikes learning to identify birds, wildflowers, and other creatures. But when the day came to lead my own hikes, I added (or subtracted?) something I thought the other trips lacked...time to sit in one place and let nature just come to us.
I practiced this art the other weekend at Prairie Pond Woods...sitting at the edge of the pond, sitting on a log up in the woods, sitting out in the open under a billion stars. And at each place...a jewel of wonder was brought to me.
It takes 10 minutes for our eyes to fully adjust to the darkness of night, so just stepping outside for a minute to view the stars isn't enough. It took that long for me...from not being able to even see the steps on the porch...to finally seeing that up against the black hills surrounding me, the number of fireflies equaled the number of stars, like a reflection of the sky in a dark pool of water.
The woods yielded many jewels while sitting...and spinning...as I heard this over there and that up there. At one point, I watched an ovenbird ("more often heard than seen," says the field guide), passing food to its fledgling close by. While trying to follow a hooded warbler with my binoculars, as it darted from a high to low branch, I spotted a small shrew scampering along the leaf litter. Things I would have missed completely had I been just passing through.
Later, I moved up to the ridge and sat on a log, still trying to catch a good glimpse of the hooded warbler I kept hearing. After a few minutes of just taking it all in, I heard a rustle behind me on the edge of the steep ravine. Turning around, I watched two speckled fawns stop in their tracks, just as they either caught sight or wind of me. I stared at them. They stared at me. Every now and then, they would move a bit closer, still staring and wondering if I was friend or foe. Finally, they settled into browsing no more than 10 feet away! I kept wondering if the mother might come up over the ridge and charge me, but we three coexisted for several brief moments together until, believe it or not, a hooded warbler landed on a small sapling next to one of the fawns. Both fawns curiously watched the bird as he flitted about for several seconds in the understory. I must admit it was quite adorable, and for a moment I wished hard that the barrier of fear that exists between humans and animals was finally gone. Then, after flicking a few too many bugs away from my face, the fawns probably decided I was a bit unpredictable and turned to walk down the slope.
These experiences are not that far out of reach, it just takes, like all art, practice and patience. So, this summer and fall, I hope you will get out there more often than maybe you did last year. Next time you're out in a park, your own backyard, or at Prairie Pond Woods, take time to sit, observe, and take it all in. When you're tempted to get up and leave, resist. Stay just 10 minutes longer...I think you'll be glad you did.