Outside: The Realm of Possibility

There’s so much to appreciate in the world, and so much of it is connected by astounding natural processes and relationships. I find within myself a need to witness and understand all of it that I can and and to share as much as possible with whoever is interested. I’ll be doing so in this space with the possibly eccentric, sometimes informed, hopefully never preachy perspective of an amateur naturalist in DC’s Maryland suburbs.

At this point it’s tempting to let this devolve into a nature fanboy’s list of Amazing Nature Facts. I think I’ll let it devolve instead into an ego-trip down memory lane. I’ve loved and respected nature for as long as I can remember (and I do mean that literally). Many of my first memories – including most of the good ones – involve nature or at least being outdoors. Whether it was fishing with my Dad or my Pap-Pap, camping with the family, or scouring the countryside for new tenants for my bug box, I was usually at my happiest experiencing wildlife. Trips to zoos, aquariums, or even farms were some of the best things that could happen to little-kid-me. Unless there were cows. As a small child I was paralyzingly terrified of cows.

I certainly had a “poke it and see” approach to nature as a child – scientific in its way, but perhaps not so ethics-conscious. Every animal I saw I wanted to know what it was, why it was there, and how I could interact with it. The appreciation of plants, fungi, and other forms of life took longer to develop. I assume this is because a) they don’t move (mostly) and b) I didn’t feel quite the same kinship to them. It’s harder to relate to things that don’t sense or respond to your presence and actions.

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I used to take my bug box with me on all of our family vacations. This was a simple construct: wood frame wrapped with porch screen and a door that latched. In down time I would happily collect bugs around our campsite and provide them with grass, rocks, bark and so forth. One of my proudest moments in this hobby was capturing a praying mantis while on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It wasn’t until much later that the implications of this find were revealed to me. At my parents’ insistence I would always release any remaining insects before the trip home. This time I either didn’t notice or didn’t recognize the pulpy mass on the back wall of the box. Fast-forward to late the following Spring. One morning our back porch, shed, and patio were awash in tiny mantises. My kid-brain didn’t put it together right then, but that summer I watched the brood thin out and the individuals fill out. Eventually I would capture one of the adults and run to my Golden Guide on insects to learn about it. Wait! There were two species of praying mantis listed. This one looked a bit more like the Carolina mantis, but we were a little outside the colored area on the map. I assumed I was making a mistake. That is, until I saw the photos of the egg sacs, whose differences were much more pronounced. Something about the long, skinny, loaf-of-bread look to the picture on the Carolina page tugged at my memory. The bug box! Sure enough, the pulpy mass had been the egg sac of a Carolina mantis, and it now had dozens of tiny holes in it. For years I would continue to find Carolina mantises, but only in the area immediately around my home. I had introduced an island population of predators. I didn’t know all those terms then, but when I learned them I realized I had given myself an early object lesson in unintended consequences and nature’s delicate balance. I think that since that time the range of the Carolina mantis has naturally expanded well beyond where I live, and perhaps it already had then… but the lesson was nonetheless important.

When I was six or seven, we went to Disney World. My most vivid memories of the trip are of feeding semi-tame squirrels from my hand at the campground, watching alligators from a respectful distance, finding a sand dollar on a side trip to Daytona Beach, and catching an anole. I was that kind of kid.dsc04533-smallI do also remember getting signatures from Ninja Turtles and singing the “Duck Tales” theme while waiting in line for some ride or other, but the point remains. So, back to the important part. I had been keeping anoles as pets, so I decided to keep this one too. Apparently I had a propensity for catching pregnant animals, because she laid a pair of tiny white eggs when we got home. They hatched into two of the most adorable things I’d ever seen. The mother promptly ate one of them. The other my parents were able to separate with a mason jar. We fed it gnats and tiny pieces of fruit for a while, but the little guy didn’t last long. My folks used this teachable moment to explain the challenges of managing wild animals in captivity (and also some of the grim realities of survival).

I think my favorite childhood nature memory happened right in front of my parents’ house, though. I was a tween sitting idly in the front yard watching cars go by. After several speedsters in a row, I noticed a brown lump of something on the yellow line. I walked out to it and discovered that it was a sparrow. I couldn’t tell for sure if it was alive, but it seemed to be quivering. I gently picked it up and got out of the road, still worried the poor thing might be in the throes of death. A moment later it stood up on my cupped hands. It took a second to get its bearings, shuffling about a bit. Then it tilted its head at me quizzically and took to wing. I couldn’t believe a creature could go from so lifeless to fully vibrant in such a short time. I don’t delude myself that there was any real bond of understanding between bird and child, but I sure did feel good about myself.

Of course I have some less than pleasant memories of nature as well: my first bee sting, being pooped on by birds, the occasional ill-timed storm, being pulled under by ocean surf. Do anything often enough and for long enough and you’ll find some bad results mixed in. Even these experiences, though, enhanced my respect for the natural world. They served as reminders of the complexities of living systems rather than warnings to stay inside. Besides, over any significant length of time the good has always far outweighed the bad.

The thread of naturalism has continued into my adult life. My choice of spouse, where I live, the hobbies I pursue, the places I vacation, the media I consume… all of it is bound together by this thread. I don’t always manage to live harmoniously with the ecosystem, but I try very hard to consider how best to do so most of the time. In my writing I will highlight the successes but I will make no conscious effort to hide the failures.

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That’s all for now. If you’d like to know more about what you might see here in the future, check out my bio. You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (but not Snapchat, you kids with your new-fangled technology).

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