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Where does one organism end? The art of seeing.

31 May

It began with my father telling me as a child, “If you want to talk to an animal, you have to learn their language.” So I started to learn and talk to animals. In their language. Decades later when I was in undergraduate university struggling through chemistry class, he again helped me to understand. During a phone conversation we discussed chemical bonding, which I was having trouble grasping. Again, “Think like electrons and you will see how they attract and repel. And that will illuminate how weak or strong they are in varying conditions and in relation to their neighbors.” It started to all make sense and I ended up loving chemistry.

When water from spring thaws threatened to invade my cabin where I lived in the woods of Maine, an old-timer on the farm up the road told me to ‘think like water’ and work with it rather than against it. Every spring found me constructing meandering ditches to channel water away from the cabin foundation. It became a game and it was like dancing with old friends (yes, we even had conversations).

Another time, Larry helped me build a dormer onto a loft in the cabin for a spare bedroom. He taught me much about carpentry and literature. (I never did learn why a man with three degrees in English and literature chose to become a carpenter.) While working where the dormer walls integrated with the main roof, I asked how to prevent the roof from leaking. It was déjà vu when he replied, “Think like water and work with it.”

A few years later a local trapper mentored me on tracking animals. By this time I already began infusing into my everyday perception the phenomenology of weather, plants, and soil. The old trapper was like the Dali Llama of animals and birds. The only organism I lacked any ability to ‘think like’ was human beings. Back then I had no interest, nor patience.

It was months before I was ‘allowed’ to look at animal tracks and relate them with a species identification. My first lessons were sitting or standing still, for hours. Silent. Listening. Observing. Letting go of any obtrusive thoughts that might separate me from my surroundings. I learned to meld into the tree I sat against, to become the bush that I stood in, and to move silently. I learned to appreciate silence. Not only in the woods, but also in my own habitat. It was not unusual for me to not see or talk to another human for a week or two.

I could be ‘invisible’.

Trumpet swans and cygnets

I became highly sensitized to the weather. I could smell and feel weather changes long before they arrived. Wind patterns in the upper or lower canopies of trees informed me when storms might be coming in, and where they came from. Animal movements were also predictive.

Birds and  animals began to approach me rather than flush away. In the winter, a mink was a common visitor to the porch of the cabin. It would approach and watch me as ardently as I watched it while sitting on the outdoor steps. At one point, it would come near my feet and groom itself or eat a caught prize.

I learned patience with the changes in the natural world around me, and the creatures that shared my space. I watched their behavior and learned how they interacted with their surroundings. We all learned to inhabit the same space with a mutual respect. They observed me as much as I observed them. And it was a smooth transition to learn how to piece together the stories of their tracks and sign as much as they did the same with me. It was not uncommon for me to spot a deer or badger that had been following me as much as I had been following them.

A quarter of a century later, and many chapters of life changes, I found myself doing the same last week. Every day I drove the cramped little truck down the chunky gravel road to park the truck so that it would not block visitors or other staff on the refuge. Sitting on the tailgate, I removed my regular boots and pulled on the chest waders. The field vest was the last item; heavy, with so many filled pockets it was like a weighted vest, binoculars hanging on my chest. And then wade through the canal waters to go out into a world that few really see. By that, I mean ‘see’.

My focus was surveying vegetation in the marshes and  transition zones from wetland to dryland, even the sagebrush steppe. I searched for plants (other than grasses and sedges) that were emerging, budded, and flowering. The prize was the milkweed species (Asclepias spp.). However, I also searched for plants that might serve as nectar sources for Monarch butterflies. Because of the dearth of data for Monarch butterflies, the milkweeds and nectar sources in SE Oregon, my search was wide open. I decided to document all of the forbs and shrubs that might be candidate nectar sources, as well as any milkweed plants.

Red-winged blackbird.

Over four days I covered a large field accumulating a preliminary database of plant phenology that has been missing from this part of the refuge. However, my time out in the marshes also provided an opportunity to observe a variety of  birds and mammals within their own private lives. I learned many new bird calls, observed birds interact with each other and their interactions with me. Twice I was warned away from specific locations by female northern harriers, probably too close to their nests. Other times, I watched red-winged blackbirds dive bomb the same harriers, one blackbird even riding on the back of a harrier until it was out of range.

One early morning I quietly came upon two young black-tailed bucks as they grazed grass. While I froze in place, they watched me. Our eyes met, and when I blinked, they blinked. I could see them relax, and even when I slowly moved myself several feet away, they were not perturbed.

During these days, I found myself thinking, ‘Think like a butterfly’. Or ‘Think like this plant’, and ‘Think like that/those bird(s).’ As my father and others in my past taught me, I tried to look at their world through their eyes, their noses, their mouths, and their ears. Even their roots and leaves. Our lives and being overlapped.

At times I forgot what species I was. I became a part of the whole system. I found myself adopting their same behavior when a vehicle drove down the gravel refuge road: being still and blending in. Becoming ‘invisible’.

I began to ‘see’ and become a part of them.

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