If Only We Could Hear The Symphony Of Nature

Exploration Beyond Our Human Senses

Posted on: July 3rd, 2020

Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #12

Rainforests like this one in Costa Rica hold many natural mysteries and stories, but only if you learn to tune in to their magi

I once walked into a rainforest with a friend and his two young kids. It was their first time experiencing this rainforest, and I was excited to show them all of the fantastic creatures that I knew lived and thrived there. I recalled one of my richest “hikes” on a rough trail up the volcano side. A biologist friend and I had decided to enter this seldom-explored forest and set aside the afternoon. In four whole hours of exploration and discovery, we went no farther than 300 feet down the trail. There was so much to see, so many creatures, interactions, plants, and connections that we could not wrench ourselves away. So, this day I had high expectations for this hike, and all four of us set off on our walk into the forest.

Slow down, be quiet, observe and nature will come to you.

I asked them to walk quietly and slowly, so we could see and hear the animals I was sure we’d encounter. They couldn’t do that for more than a few seconds. The kids asked loudly where all the animals were—hmm, probably running, flying, and swinging away through the branches to escape the racket. Then, the kids felt they had to run. I guessed that the earlier 2-hour car ride created a surplus of pent-up energy, and they had to discharge it. And of course, dad joins them, chasing them banshee-like down the trail to the kids’ absolute delight. Pirates of the Rainforest! Goodbye forest creatures, hello the noisiest and scariest species on Earth.

When we returned to the cabins about an hour later, sweaty and finally energy-spent, the kids commented, “Hey, we didn’t see a single animal!” Dad responded, “Oh, but we had a lot of fun!” And I had to agree. They did have fun. And it would probably take an entire week or longer for the wildlife to recover from it. The moral of the story—if there is any to be had—is simply to highlight our accepted disconnect from the rhythms, the sounds, and the pace of the wildlife that lives in the natural landscape. How do we learn to match this pace? How do we dance and move in sync to the rhythms of the forest, or to the sway of the grasslands, or to the flow of a burbling stream? I believe this can be learned, or relearned, as the case may be.

Simple moments like watching a damselfly take flight inches from your face, leave a mark in your psyche.

So, let’s imagine now walking outside into your backyard with a device that interprets and identifies every species around you, from their looks, or their sound, or their smell, taste or texture. Imagine that when your eyes land on one small plant, or on a bird, or an insect, your mind fills up like a scrolling screen with its connections to other species, to the soil, to the air, and to the chemistry of its life. Like the enhanced windshield of a fighter jet, information, graphs, and images appear in your mind’s display and give you a full picture of that pure moment of awareness of another living thing. Its life connects to yours intimately and instantaneously, and becomes yours in knowledge and emotion. This device doesn’t exist right now, although I’m sure there’s someone out there trying to build an app for that. Field guides, photos, books and articles, and the knowledge accumulated from our own studies and others’ experience is the “device” we now have. And it is definitely within reach of anyone that wants to acquire it.

A seal’s curiosity extends to the smells and textures of other mammals like us. Fearlessness of humans in nature is rare these days. Photo by Peter McDougall.

One of the hardest things you can ask a human to do is to sit still. It is quite simple, though. You go out to the yard and find a spot near a clump of flowers, or by your vegetable grow box, or low in the overgrown grass where dandelions and several other “weeds” are flowering. And then, you sit still. Within minutes of not moving, you become an object, a substrate, a perch, or a rock, part of the landscape. Insects and birds will begin to ignore you and come by. They are looking to drink the nectar of flowers and collect their pollen. They are searching for insects to eat, seeds to consume, or a partner to mate with. Some may return to a usual perch to defend its territory. Another just needs a shady spot to rest and get its bearings. The air fills with sounds, colors, and scents undetectable to you but clear as the bright sunlight to them. Some messages spell “food” or “mate” or “danger,” ancient messages that have evolved over millennia to create a natural symphony.

While fresh on your mind, capture your thoughts, observations, and images on paper.

And now you, the still and silent human that can think and interpret and observe, is part of the ensemble, sitting quietly in the middle of the orchestra taking it all in. The data will come later. Eventually, you’ll come up with the name of the species, the meaning of a behavior, solutions to the puzzles, and so on. But that’s just the icing. The experience of being surrounded by wildlife fearlessly doing its thing is a reward like no other.

Go ahead, try it. And then come and tell us all about it.

Carlos L. de la Rosa
Executive Director

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