As a former Girl Scout whose “camping” expeditions were in a cabin with a kitchen and an indoor bathroom, I have no illusions of being rugged. Yet I love nature and will gladly step on mossy rocks to cross a stream or bend down to more closely examine and photograph snakes.
Ever since I was a child, I have gone on guided ambles through our local parks, learning about birds, wildflowers, trees, bugs, reptiles and edible plants. I should be an expert on Pennsylvania’s flora and fauna, but my memory fades quickly and I am left with scraps of information that are incomplete and, therefore, useless. (“When a tree has symmetrical branches, that means it’s … um … never mind.”)
I might not be able to identify that mushroom or remember which bird song is ringing from the treetop, but nature has taught me a lot. Two guided nature walks in recent weeks reminded me just how much.
The first hike reminded me of the value of patience. This walk was in the evening at Beechwood Farms — a hunt for Spring Peepers, the tiny frogs that make their first appearance in early spring. The small group of us — mostly adults — stood by the pond in the cool dusk, waiting for some sign of frog activity.
As the light gradually dimmed, we began to hear the Spring Peepers sing in powerful high-pitched beeps, with an occasional telephone-like trill thrown in. Many of us stood quietly by the edge of the pond, listening and trying to pinpoint from where in the tall grass the peeps were coming.
A woman and I smiled at each other as we listened silently to the din surrounding us. With raised eyebrows, we pointed and gestured to each other about where we thought a frog could be hiding. Nearby, another woman excitedly whispered that she had found one, and the naturalist and a few of us hurried over. The naturalist crouched to scoop up the frog in her hand and we marveled at how tiny it was — about as big as a nickel — and how cute. It felt satisfying to have met the goal of finding the somewhat elusive creatures.
I often have difficulty locating items in our human world. I am well-practiced at hunting for things like my checkbook or that vital scrap of paper I just had in my hand yesterday.
However, I find that, in nature, I don’t feel that same frustration if the group doesn’t spot the indigo bunting or if the trillium aren’t in bloom yet. The uncertainty of success makes the search more suspenseful and the rewards of discovery more exciting.
On an owl hike last fall, about 30 of us walked in the darkness along Beechwood Farms’ trails playing recordings of owl calls in the hopes of seeing one. After more than an hour, we had nearly given up when a screech owl flew by for a few seconds. Adults gasped with delight and, chins pointed toward the sky, followed its flight. That one five-second sighting gave everyone a story to tell.
The excitement of discovery continued on my other recent hike in Frick Park, where two naturalists led me and two other adults on a two-hour reptile and amphibian search. The walk was charmingly low-tech, with field guides and illustrated posters as our references. The frog on the poster stood more like a cat than a frog, with four rather straight legs, but that added to the appeal. Oddly, considering my old-fashioned ways, I was the only one who employed any kind of technology, and that was just to use my phone as a camera.
Surrounded by trees sprayed with a mist of bright green buds, we crouched by a stream, peering beneath rocks for salamanders. “I found a snake!” one of the other hikers cried like an excited child. He brought the squirming garter snake over for the rest of us to see. Once the snake was released, we continued our salamander quest.
I suddenly realized how relaxed I felt. My mind, usually racing with what I have to do, what I haven’t done and what I should be doing, was focused only on finding a small amphibian under a rock. People walking by on the trail noticed our intent searching and stopped to ask what we were doing.
“There’s one!” a man in our group exclaimed, and he and one of the naturalists clambered on the wet stones in squatting positions to catch the salamander. Everyone, including the passersby, were intrigued and delighted with the tiny black being. Another successful hunt.
Nature walks are one of the most relaxing activities I do. They have the unique ability to be both calming and exciting. It’s nice to get away from the human noise that surrounds us and hear the sounds our ancestors heard. It’s also refreshing to be aware of a world outside my cluttered mind — a world that is amazingly complex and beautiful.
One more very important lesson that nature has taught me is that we humans are not always the boss, a fact of which we were continually reminded during this past long, frigid winter. Those of us who couldn’t escape had to endure.
But, just like finding the Spring Peepers, owls and salamanders, the reward of this lovely spring is all the more thrilling. I plan to spend as much of it as I can discovering more lessons among the treasures.
Laura Lind is a music teacher living in Squirrel Hill (firstname.lastname@example.org).