Several years ago, I was traveling for work and stayed the night at a state park in West Virginia. As I was checking into the hotel room I noticed a sign indicating the next day’s park activities: 7:30 AM nature walk with naturalist Bob. That caught my attention.
I asked the desk clerk, “What is the nature walk, with naturalist Bob?”
“He’s one of our naturalists, I imagine it’ll be mostly be a bird walk,” the clerk replied.
I’ll be honest, at this point in my life I did not even know that a nat·u·ral·ist is “an expert in or student of natural history.” I thought to myself, sure, why wouldn’t I want to go on a walk with a guy named Bob who is a naturalist? Bright and early the next morning I was ready to meet Bob. It was raining a bit so Bob and I were the only two souls brave enough to go on the walk. A few hundred yards into our walk the rain stopped and the awesome began.
As soon as the rain stopped Bob the naturalist walked out into the trees with an earnest look on his face. Then he started pointing as he spoke. “Robin, Robin, 50 yards to the south. Cowbird. Straight ahead, Scarlet Tanager.” He started moving forward deeper into the woods. I wasn’t sure if Bob was crazy, but I was definitely enticed. After only a few yards he stopped and listened again, “Scarlet Tanager for sure.” Then he lifted up his binoculars for a few seconds, “That tree straight ahead 12 o’clock, three quarters of the way up the tree on a little branch. Do you see it?” I, of course, did not see it. I needed quite a bit a help from Bob the naturalist to see the Scarlet Tanager. He was of course happy to help.
An hour later we had seen or heard a Tufted Titmouse, Cardinals, Robins and a half dozen other birds. I was amazed that he could do that. How he could identify different bird calls from so far away? How he trained his eyes and ears to listen and see birds? He was equally adept at identifying trees flowers and other plants and animals. He had mad skills I didn’t even know existed.
Since that time, I have not become an excellent birder. I have been on a few other walks and joined the Audubon Society. One of my new favorite films is “The Big Year” (which I highly recommend). I don’t have the time I would like or expertise to identify birds. But now when I walk in the woods I can hear the different calls even though I cannot identify them. I now take my spy glass and occasionally find a bird or two. More importantly, I’m learning, again, the value of learning, the joy of curiosity.
How is it that I lived for 40 years and didn’t consider how cool the birds were? How could I walk through parks and wooded areas and never care about the trees and plants? I guess I’ve been too busy, too distracted, too underwhelmed by the complexity of everything. I want to know more about the things I don’t know. I want to never stop learning and seeing new things.
Ten years ago, I went skiing with my oldest daughter. As we were riding on the lift she had her head leaned back looking into the clouds. She pointed at a cloud and said “cumulonimbus.” She pointed at another and said “cumulus.” I asked (teasing) if she wanted to be a meteorologist as a profession. She said no. I asked her why she cared about the clouds. She shrugged “I don’t know. We learned about them at school.” There on the chair lift I learned a life lesson and shared it with her. “You don’t have to want to be a meteorologist to like clouds,” I said. “Learning stuff is cool. It enhances your life. Here we are skiing and enjoying the day. Knowing about the clouds makes it more enjoyable. Thinking about the physics of the lift, knowing about the trees and mountains all adds to the experience of the day.” There is value and joy from learning things that goes beyond occupational or financial rewards. The older I get, the more I want to learn.
The more I know the more I know how much I don’t know. I was recently with the same daughter and her husband in Paris. Spending time in some of the world’s great museums. I found myself frustrated by my lack of art understanding. Knowing I liked this more than that but not knowing why. So here I am wanting to know more about birds, art, clouds, architecture and everything else. For no other reason than to enhance my life–to give more meaning to my experiences, to live more abundantly and deliberately.
I live close to Walden Pond. I go often, especially when people come to visit. When there I always read this quote by Thoreau:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…” (Walden, 1854).
So, thanks Bob the naturalist and everybody else for helping me see, learn and understand how much there is to see learn and understand.