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.

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