My little brother and I spent our happiest childhood years on my grandparents’ pre-revolutionary farm. I remember my grandmother perching us on my grandfather’s oak desk (as toddlers) so we could watch robins and chickadees in one of the 300 plus year old sugar maples or oak trees that shaded the house during hot summer days … trees that we later climbed and lived in, spending our daylight hours with the birds. Bluebirds raised their broods in the bird houses my dad and grandfather built and posted on the ten-acre field just beyond the old farmhouse. Apple, Pear, and Cherry trees thrived in the open landscape. In the spring fragrant blossoms took my breath away; bees sipped nectar from every flower. We took to the woods with flashlights to watch the wood frogs and peepers singing at night. In the fall my brother and I would collect golden apples (as we dodged dining wasps) that my grandmother then baked into pies.
Set free to explore the woods, swamps, and brooks all year round, my brother and I were naturalists long before we had any awareness of the term. When setting off for the woods as soon as we were old enough, we trailed cardboard boxes behind us. These containers held our lunches, and the bird, reptile, mammal, insect guides that we could read for fun, or use as a reference for new discoveries.
Neither of us would have said it then but we were in love with dogs, birds, brooks, trees, skunk cabbage, marsh marigolds, salamanders, newts, frogs, butterflies, fireflies, deer – all animals/plants/trees that we could befriend. Virtually every living being we encountered captured our attention. Because we were situated in the country interacting with wildlife was a daily experience. It never occurred to either of us why deer, woodchucks, weasels, and foxes (to mention a few) let us approach them without fear, often following us around.
Nothing changed as we grew older. The forest was our home – our safe place. A place of perpetual wonder. For me it still is.
As an adult educator I taught Natural Sciences/ Ecology at the university level (among other things) but after fifteen years I became disillusioned. It seemed to me that the entire focus was on acquiring and classifying information. Where was the wonder I continued to experience? Something was wrong but I didn’t know what it was.
I was already a published nature writer who always wrote from personal experience/perspective when it finally occurred to me that feeling, ‘falling in love with nature’ was not included as part of the academic agenda. Why? Because academic learning does not allow a researcher to develop a relationship with whoever one might be studying while observing. Naming and classification are the primary ways we use to learn about our subject (always the ‘other’ – an it). We call attachment behavior anthropomorphizing – attributing human characteristics to the wild creatures and plants we encounter. Materialistic/mechanistic science, our current paradigm, criticizes/ostracizes any scientist or researcher that dares to interject feeling into any academic discussion. Plato’s Mind over Matter lives on. We privilege ‘facts’ that don’t even exist like the famous one about objectivity. (Niels Bohr demolished that myth more than 100 years ago). Today’s facts are too often tomorrow’s mistakes! The current theory suggests that we live in an evolving universe.
In Natural Sciences we create theories and try to prove them while accruing masses of information. If we can’t quantify it, it’s not good science… A good example is bird migration… we have many theories, have tagged, killed, and dismembered many birds in the name of science but we still have not solved the mystery of how birds find home even when young ones have never been there before. The usual explanations offered include use of the sun moon and stars for navigation, the use of magnetic fields, or attributing ‘genetic programming’ to bird behavior when we can’t find any other explanation. All probably contribute, but the point I’m making here is that we still don’t know how birds manage to return to their summer or winter homes when migrating, or as in the case of homing pigeons, manage to cross oceans to reach their lofts (see sheldrake.org recent release on homing pigeons).
Although we are finally acknowledging that birds can feel after having lost 3 billion birds, no one other than Sheldrake (that I know of) has posited the obvious – that birds may return to their homes because they are attached to them (I can imagine the screams/outrage – heresy – burn her at the stake).
What happens when we fall in love is that we create a relationship or bond to the being in question be whether it be bird, animal, or tree. Awareness or consciousness seeps in opening a door to communication. We are already related through our DNA (differences are minimal when one attends to the big picture). When we start observing, asking questions, developing feelings, and sometimes identifying with an animal, a tree, or bird that being may respond in unusual ways.
Last year it was the hemlocks that began the conversation. I simply followed the nudges I was receiving. I made a conscious effort to become a receiver, a person who listens as she observes…I am keenly aware that other species have lives of their own with purposes that may be quite different from mine. Thus, communication occurs most effectively when I quiet my mind and open my heart…I am NOT suggesting that this tree was talking to me, at least in the usual way. However, trees did respond singly and as part of their community, and because I was attentive, insights followed. Most seem to bubble up from my body and this makes good sense because our feelings, senses, intuition etc. reside in our bodies. It’s at this point that my mind attempts to untangle the meaning(s) behind what I am sensing…body and mind – we need both.
There is one more point I need to make. When this kind of communication occurs it carries a grounded sense of truth – a kind of inner knowing that’s impossible to articulate. Like a stone sinking into my pelvis, my root connection to earth creates a resonance with the whole of nature throughout my body.
No doubt my experiences will be considered absurd by many. And yet, ironically, the reason the earth is in crisis is primarily because humans have forgotten how to perceive or listen to the messages our planet has been trying to give us as species after species go extinct. Apparently, few are aware that humans may be next. Earth is our source and context – our home. No small point here.
I am not suggesting that education isn’t important if one is going to make most disciplines, including science, a career choice. However, it is critical from my point of view to include in one’s education learning how to be present to the experience of being with a frog, or weasel, because this is when a person can also develop an emotional attachment to that being.
‘Falling in love’ allows us to see, sense feel intuit in ways that defy explanation as I just tried to explain using my experience with hemlocks as an example. Perhaps learning to listen is the most important skill of all.
Unfortunately, the dominant culture continues to privilege mind over body, intellect over senses. ‘Trust the experts’ or take a course and become a ‘master’ something – you fill in the blank. Or maybe like me you accrue degrees. What we need to remember is that learning is a life – time process. I believe I am learning this lesson well, because the more skilled I become as a naturalist, the more obvious it is to me that I will always be a beginner.
In closing I hope that I have demonstrated through this personal narrative that education is not enough when it comes to learning about the complexity that is Nature (inside or outside academia). We learn the most by integrating our thinking with our senses. We educate ourselves to learn more about some other non – human being but…
WE SAVE WHAT WE LOVE.