Archive for the ‘Experience’ Category

Beyond a Collection of Facts

By Clare Crosby


I spent my childhood hosting acorn cap tea parties for fairies, scurrying on calloused feet to collect eggs from the chicken coop, and reenacting Little House on The Prairie in the meadow behind my house, just east of Austin, TX. I did not suffer from “Nature Deficit Disorder.”

But as I grew, my interests shifted. I traded the meadow for well-manicured athletic fields and our old pond for swimming pools. My interest in my Central Texas natural surroundings paused around 8 years old. I never figured out what species of oak provided teacups for my parties, only that the caps were nicely proportioned for fairies. Neither did I learn what type of moss my fairies used for seat cushions, only that it opened into minute stars under sprinkled water.

I’m embarrassed now, as a naturalist, to admit that I don’t know even some of the most common species of my home state. This lack of knowledge, however, offers opportunity when I return to Texas from Vermont, the home of my formal ecological education. As I walk old trails and come across a familiar (yet unknown) tree, my inclination is to turn to field guides or a trusted expert to tell me what to call it, who eats it, and what it might reveal about the soil beneath it. In Vermont, I have had a string of wonderful professors and peers to teach me about the natural world, assisted, of course, by an ever-growing library of field guides. I hope to be so lucky again in Texas.

This time around, however, I am resisting my urge to immediately consult the experts. I am allowing myself to make a few discoveries.

So today I went for a walk not with my field guides, but with a pair of scissors and my mom, who admires nature through eyes much more artistic than my own. We collected a few specimens, returned to our kitchen table, and settled in with our pencils, watercolors, and tea. I chose specimens that were familiar from childhood memories, but not known to me as a naturalist.

I watched my mom lovingly render each thorn on a briar that had caused me many childhood tears. My old hatred melted into fascination, then respect. Inspired, I shifted my focus to the specimens before me.

I found that Texas mountain laurel—whose “hot beans,” my brothers knew, heat up enough when rubbed on rough stone to induce shrieks from little sisters—holds its leaves into late December. The terminal leaflet, at least in the sample I selected, lists to one side. The woody, wrinkled seedpods are difficult to open before their time and the beans within, fire engine red in my memory, can also be nearly black.


As I sketched a species of elm, whose name I do not know, but which grew in the front yard of my childhood home, I noted that the bases of the small leaves are not dramatically asymmetrical like the Vermont species of elm. The delicate twigs of a sapling bend substantially at each minuscule leaf bud. Both the green and yellow leaves are sandpapery. The largest brown patches appeared confined by the leaves’ venation.

Perhaps I could have learned most of this from a book, a class, or a friend. I would have missed some details, though, along with an opportunity for connection.

Often as a naturalist I have learned only the characteristics that will allow me to distinguish one plant from others. This is, of course, useful. However, we protect what we care about and we care more when we have some sense of ownership or a personal connection beyond a collection of facts. So today, with my mom, I wanted to get to know my childhood acquaintances more intimately, moving past the strictly functional. I wanted to find companions for my fairy teacups and warm eggs. While it may not be a skill to add to my resume, I know that this afternoon spent sketching with my mom has made me a more inspired steward of the world around me.

In addition to being a Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning student, Clare Crosby is a connoisseur of board games. 

Natural Sounds

By Joanne Garton

Jellyfish2I remained still underneath a swirling aquatic world. Corals of brilliant blue and pink mixed with fish of bold black and yellow. Water of crystal clarity ebbed and flowed towards gorgeously blond sand. Sea anemone wavered and I watched, transfixed, as the bulging eyes of a massively prehistoric stingray reflected the wonder of it all.

As the sea swelled, forty violins soared to a grandiose peak. As a wave smashed on the rocky shore, cymbals crashed and drums bellowed. And as the wave dissipated, a bassoon emerged from lonesome depths where a barrier shark swam far from the colorful critters near the sun’s dancing rays.

It took three wave and cymbal crashes before I realized that this music of the sea had been choreographed with Hollywood precision. As a tourist in the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, I was listening to the soundtrack of nature, piped in through the invisibly scattered speakers that followed my trail and amplified my mood. Those soaring chords and delightful suspensions latched onto my wonder and awe, building my anticipation and enhanced my excitement when the belugas breeched or the sea lions wrestled.

But was this a bad thing? The music kept me focused, adding drama to the already dramatic, while drowning out the hoards of young families that mixed in with my own. Carefully arranged and built to sell, this supposed music of nature sets the mood that inspires us to linger a while, more so than perhaps, these days, silence can.

Of course, real nature is not silent. Winds sweep, critters cluck, wolves howl and woodpeckers tap. So do other animals hear music in nature? What about insects, reptiles, or microbes? What do they hear?

Welcome to the biophony, the organic orchestra that makes up the ambient sound of every habitat. Although humans easily relate to the patterned twirls of songbirds and the rhythmic ballads of humpback whales, the idea that music can be created by the mixed timbres and frequencies of any species is largely foreign. The further supposition that the animals themselves may perceive music out of these sounds is a beautiful yet untestable hypothesis. Unless there exists a test for tranquility, which I’m sure is plausible.

The Tlingit and Inuit have listened for millennia to the soundscape of whales in the ocean through the hulls of their boats. As a landlubber and tourist most unlike these seafaring people, I’ll rely on carefully placed chord suspensions to steer my way through the aquarium and cue my emotions. Regardless of what it sounds like on the other side of the glass, I did find some sort of tranquility gazing at the octopus as it peeled its way across the tank to the rumble of lumbering cellos and distant timpanis. Many days later, as an emotionally wrought symphony played over the radio, my three-year-old son said, “That’s the music from the aquarium.” Whether it was from the real sea or the orchestrated one, I knew that the music had cemented the experience.

With help from: The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music by Gray et. al., in Science, January 5, 2001, and Music without Borders by Susan Milius in Science News, April 15, 2000.

 Joanne Garton is an Ecological Planning student who knows quite a lot about music and very little about sea anemone.