Monday, October 19, 2009

Chapter October

When you're a naturalist, it's more than the comings and goings of American Robins that keep you tuned to the phenological calendar. The seasonal progression is not unlike a story told and retold each year. Months are like chapters of a book with various plots and subplots, chained together in such a way that you're reluctant to miss a day, even when you already know how the story goes. There's great joy when something happens exactly as it's supposed to, but also when nature's entertaining surprises occur. Should you miss a day, subtle clues keep the storyline intact, and with enough seasonal observations under your belt, it's easy to pick up right where you left off.

October's theme is departure. From flocks Sandhill Cranes circling above to Milkweed pods releasing seeds that float over the prairie, every event happening now lays groundwork for plot details in future chapters. What is the Woolly Bear Caterpiller's story? Where are Fox Sparrows headed? Whether an Isabella metamorphosis, or a change in body chemistry that hones a song that will fill the quiet of a March woods, nature's patterns of change are a wonderful story to behold. Marcus Aurelius said, "Observe always that everything is the result of change, and get used to thinking that there is nothing nature loves so well as to change existing forms and to make new ones like them." A stroll through a prairie, at any time of the year, will speak volumes to this sentiment.

But why do this? Doesn't it get boring watching pretty much the same thing year after year? Well, no! I see nature's observers as both teachers and students. I have teachers, and I also have students. I don't think I'll ever know as much about wildflowers as Sylvia Marek, though she never tires of being my teacher. And she loves it whenever I point out topological differences in various "little brown jobs." There's a whole other dimension to the story; not just getting others hooked, but reciprocity of knowledge and education. Here's an excerpt from an email I recently received from a friend:

How's it going Mike? I am sincerely missing our birding encounters on the trail. I cannot tell you how much I learned and appreciated being out with you and the gang. It was always a pleasure. How is migration up in Wisconsin? I am starting to learn my fall warblers this season with another graduate student here in Indiana. They are tricky! It is so much fun, though, learning the calls, signs, behavior, and overall gestalt of the birds, and how that changes throughout the seasons. Anyhow, I just wanted to thank you for really instilling that passion in me.

I guess it isn't enough to be a mere observer. It's turning to the person on your right, or left, and stating with an undiluted sense of joy and inquisitiveness, "Did you just see that?"

"If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas."

-- George Bernard Shaw

All images © 2009 Mike McDowell


  1. Nice autumnal essay - well said. There are so many interesting things to see if we only stop and look. Thanks for sharing.