Nature illiteracy

Pine grosbeak? How about just seeing a bird as a bird.


It's the perfect season-opening hike -- a couple of not-too-rigorous miles up the Cedar Creek Trail to a shaded clearing where a waterfall blasts past overhanging rocks. The vertical gain is gradual. Early on, we are rewarded with panoramic views of Goat Peak and its brooding gray ramparts, which define the upper end of Washington state's remote and ethereal Methow Valley. The woods are late-spring lush, the sky a chalk-streaked robin's eggshell, the air gentle and temperate.

I am marveling at these things in my usual vague manner. My more-attentive significant other, Jacqui, is turning her inquisitive eye on the details. Jacqui values specificity and clarity. She is literal; I am metaphorical.

Jacqui stops suddenly and turns to examine a small tree -- or maybe it's a large bush -- that has what I confidently describe as green leaves and multi-petaled white blossoms.

"It's pretty," I say by way of affirmation.

She regards me as if she were a social worker dealing with a pleasant but rather dim adult.

"I want to know what it is," she says.

I'd love to impress her, but I am helpless. When it comes to identifying what I'm looking at in the woods, I am as dumb as a rock. Or a stump. Which puts me on a par, outdoor-IQ-wise, with much of what I encounter on a typical hike.

I don't know the names of most things. I usually recognize only the most ubiquitous and easily identifiable life forms or geological phenomena. A few descriptors have stuck thanks to incessant repetition or singular distinction. (What else, besides a moose, looks like a moose?) Because I know so little, I tend to repeat with annoying certitude the few names I can put to things. ("That is Mount Rainier. There goes a Steller's jay. Isn't that an impatiens plant? Or maybe an azalea?") If there were a 21-question, animal-vegetable-mineral equivalent to the bar exam for hikers, I would have to trade in my sweat-seasoned hiking hat for a dunce cap.

I have no excuse other than failure to engage. I've been hiking and backpacking for more than 40 years, from day trips to extended wilderness treks through all kinds of well-vegetated terrain teeming with untamed critters. I'm an Eagle Scout. (Can they revoke that?) I can read contour maps and navigate by compass. I haven't been lost, injured or rescued. But when I'm deep in the forest, I look around and see trees and bushes and undergrowth. I hear birds. I observe rock formations. Some small airborne insect may bite me. Please don't ask for specifics.

I've tried to learn, but I'm like a kid struggling to tie his laces after growing up with Velcro straps on his shoes. I can usually sort out a fir from a pine from a cedar from a hemlock, an ability required for credible long-term habitation in the Pacific Northwest. You have to know your evergreens, for God's sake. Crafty deciduous lookalikes such as aspens, alders, birches and poplars, on the other hand, mock my inability to make arboreal sense of them.

I haven't entirely given up. Earlier in the day of the Cedar Creek hike, I pulled a field guide to Pacific Northwest birds from a shelf in the small library of the lodge where we were staying. I studied it for about an hour, and like a desperate college freshman cramming for a final exam, I am prepared to offer this summation: There are a hell of a lot of birds out there, and many of them look alike. What's more, there is no such thing as a simple "swallow" or "wren." As for actual observation, birds in the wild are often far away and flying pretty fast. Even a trained ornithologist will confirm this.

In addition to detailed descriptions of distinct features and anatomical peculiarities -- if you can identify a bird by its cloaca, you are way too close -- the field guide offered phonetic approximations of the sounds birds make. Because we are human beings who speak English, bird experts have thoughtfully translated bird chatter into mnemonic devices. I listen hard for "cheesedanish," "peeble-urp" or "beernuts," but it all sounds like "chirp chirp chirp" to me. I am also, it appears, a failed outdoor linguist.

As we troop back down the Cedar Creek trail, I hear the creek thrashing through its gorge. I challenge myself to come up with a literary description. It's like a jet engine's roar, I decide -- and then realize that the analogy is not only lame but also backwards. Creeks came first. Jet engines possibly sound like something in nature, not the other way around. Without scientific specifics, I'm stuck with tautologies: Creeks sound like creeks. Trees look like trees. Rocks feel like rocks. Mountains are -- well, mountains. Birds flit and soar and swoop and beeble like birds. This is, by and large, how I know things.

I'm OK with that.

Don Nelson is a writer and editor who lives in Seattle.

Nature illiteracy
Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey
Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey
Jun 09, 2010 10:14 AM
What a great piece! Thank you for writing it, Don. I, like Jacqui, tend to be on the other end of the spectrum. I value the outdoors simply for being the outdoors but also value the "clarity" that comes with attempting to understand the complexities of the natural environment - including things like genus and species names, natural histories, evolutionary adaptations, behaviors, interactions with other species, etc.

But there's also something to be said for simply "being" a part of nature as opposed to trying to "understand" it. And your post was a good reminder for me that sometimes I just need to simply enjoy "being" rather than attempting to dissect it into its respective parts in an attempt to understand it. Sometimes just "being" is reason enough...

Twitter @JeremiahOsGo
Nature illiteracy
Robert Sivinski
Robert Sivinski
Jun 15, 2010 09:39 PM
A writer should learn at least enough to verify his similes. How would you know that the sky looked like "a chalk-steaked robin's eggshell" if you could not identify a robin or had not seen its eggs? So much better to be "happy as a lark" than "dumb as a post", but how could you without hearing the glorious scale of a meadow lark's notes in a verdant summer grassland and not have made the effort to learn how to identity and name the performer. Anyone with a smidgen of curiosity will find ample and exciting rewards in natural history schalrship. Rocks are not just rocks. Humans would have never made it to the stone age with such an attitude.

"In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught." (Baba Dioum, 1968.)
Enjoy the experience
Jun 19, 2010 10:35 AM
This is refreshing. As a wildlife biologist my job, which I love, requires me to be able to identify the smallest signs of the animals I study. I enjoy being able to look at a track and know which foot of which animal made it, and even the most likely gender and age of the individual. I can pick out the places where that animal is likely to rest and den and hunt.

When I was in school, I excelled at learning to identify all the local animals, birds, and plants. Since then I've lost much of that knowledge that I don't use for my job, and when I'm in the woods I have no desire to be able to put everything I see in the woods in its own box. Does knowing the name of that beautiful peak on the horizon change it's beauty or the reward of attaining the summit and the amazing view? Is it more important to spend my time trying to find the name of the bird that flew by in a book or should I watch it as it goes about its life and enjoy its presence? Does it make the experience of seeing a grizzly sow frolic with her cubs in a berry field more rewarding if I know whether she's related to a panda or not?

Classifying the natural world is a way of imposing our humanity on the non-human world. No other animal cares what family or genus a berry belongs to - it cares about it's edibility. To them trees are homes, plants are food, and other animals are either predators, prey, home stealers, or not important.

Being in nature should be about fitting into a system (as opposed to controlling it). Watching the animals that visit a lake at dawn, feeling the wind and sun on a summit, smelling the trees and dust on the trail, hearing a stream bubble along, tasting a wild berry, these things are all more important to me than classifying my surroundings. My time on the trail or in the woods is a sort of moving meditation. If I can quiet the clutter and buzz in my head for an hour or a week I am a much better person when I come home.

I know if I can eat the berries. I don't need to know their common and scientific name or what other plants they're related to or which animals eat them or how their seeds are dispersed or the aspect, slope, soil type, and canopy cover they need to thrive. If you need that to enjoy nature, that's fine, but don't tell me I'm missing something. I'll be enjoying my berries and napping in the sun while you're examining them with your hand lens and looking them up in the field guide. Maybe I'll even see that rare bird you've been dieing to add to your life list while you're reading about the berry bush.
Nature illiteracy
John Smith
John Smith
Aug 02, 2010 12:47 AM
I enjoy finding out about the animals and plants and geology I come across on my hikes, as knowing more helps me understand nature and the forces that shaped it. But mystery has its value as well. I'll never forget the astonishment expressed by a ranger at Shenandoah National Park when he told me I wouldn't see much because of the fog and I told him how excited I was; I had to explain that the views would be so much better when the fog eventually parted a bit, revealing selectively what it had hidden so completely. And I didn't need to know the species of every plant and animal I came across in 1984 on a 55-mile backpack in Colorado to have nature's freshness infused in every fiber of my being so deeply that I must return there every summer to rediscover it. I'm leaving next week from the trappings of California's sprawl to the freedom of Colorado's wilderness, and I'm taking this delightful story -- and it's supportive comments -- with me as a reminder to let nature reveal itself to me at its own pace. Thank you for this gift.
Nature illiteracy
Geoffrey Rogers
Geoffrey Rogers
Sep 17, 2010 11:53 AM
I'm a bit behind in getting to my HCN and only found this recently. Since no one spoke up for traditional thought, I felt compelled to comment but on two entirely different things: Don and Jaqui's relationship and comments made by a wildlife biologist signing as Jessica. Hopefully, someone will still read it. The essays that run in HCN are sometimes iconoclastic to my way of thinking and this is certainly one example. I'm fine with Don Nelson's form of naturalism. I perceive him to be sort of a "broad-spectrum" naturalist and can see that he and the outdoors are on good terms with each other. If he made Eagle Scout he has the Nature merit badge, and since he's over 40, he probably knows more than he's letting on to anyway. However, the attitude of his significant other, Jacqui, is confusing. I don't understand if she knows more or less about "names" than he does. A comment on this would have helped traditional thinkers like me grasp a bit more meaning from the piece. Don, with all due respect, I see profound differences between you and Jacqui and wonder how this relationship continues in the face of such differences. If Jacqui is indeed more curious she should get a field guide, learn the names, and then tell you. If she already knows this stuff but wants to play rather unkind games with you, well...

I'm a wildlife biologist for a private consulting firm, Audubon and other group's field trip leader, and consider myself to be an outdoor professional. I would be content imparting knowledge to Don or anyone else even if they don't retain it, which is usually the case. There would be no breakdown in communication between Don and me over his not knowing a name. In fact, I'm impressed that he would take time to observe and describe a plant, as he did in the article. I would look at what he's describing and if I know what it is, tell him so. Otherwise, as a person with a passionate love for learning more about the outdoors, I would take notes and look it up when I got home. Don and I would be cool with each other. Sadly, a person who commenting (Jessica) reports that her chosen (we assume) profession is wildlife biology but she sees little if any need for taxonomic analysis since she has "lost much of that knowledge that I don't use for my job..." One wonders if she made this plain to her employer when she interviewed for the job (my first employer tested me on this very thing). Funny, I'll bet I'm older than she is and still remember what I learned in my youth--this is when things are imprinted and frequently last a lifetime if nothing is done to affect memory, such as drugs, alcohol, etc.

As biologists we are expected to know both species and natural processes that involve those species--this is how we preserve them in the face of our own species' expansion. How can not paying attention to taxonomy be helpful in accomplishing this? Unfortunately, there is a mindset growing in our natural resource schools that emphasizes general processes over taxonomy. Issues of the latter are frequently left to highly-motivated amateurs and considered irrelevant across much of academia. In contrast to Jessica, I'm thrilled when I find a new (to me) plant or make a personal discovery on animal behavior. Of course, I need to know "names," or how to find the names to take this process anywhere. Classifying things does not "impose humanity." It helps humanity understand, preserve, and generally get along with non-humanity. Indeed, the other attitude is comparable to a doctor saying he likes people but does not see any point in learning names of body parts, diseases, or anything else subjectively essential to human health.