I, Wonder

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Lake Hawea, NZ

A quick program note: I periodically send e-newsletters to my mailing list, with explorations of personal resilience and big-big-picture musings. My heart is full as I share these missives. Click the subscribe portal labelled “Spaciousness: An Invitation” at the upper right, if you would like to partake. (My gift in return for subscribing is an e-book I compiled of my most uplifting and “spacious” posts.)

Here are some previous e-newsletters, for those not yet on my mailing list.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Here’s a photo of just one of the small things that stopped me in my tracks last week.

Damselfly with iridescent wing on my back door

I left the country for two weeks in April to tour New Zealand, my insane good fortune to have the opportunity to travel through one of most beautiful places in the world.

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Milford Sound. Dolphin at lower left of frame.

(Traveling abroad feels so weirdly privileged and consumerist. I’m so glad I went, but I had mixed feelings about the way we sort of appropriated another country as our playground, with nature as a thing to be snapped up in a photo and taken home. Yes magazine came just after we returned, with a whole issue dedicated to radical travel, summing up all the issues with business-as-usual touring.)

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Rainforest rainbow, Fox Glacier, NZ

Yet I wouldn’t give back the stupefied feeling I had nearly every day, in the presence of these stunning landscapes.

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Sea Lions near Allen’s Beach

Since I’ve been back, I’m cultivating wonder daily. Reminding myself to listen, look, sniff, feel, even taste the world. Especially on my morning outings with Opal the poodle.

Things in nature don’t have to be totally grand or far away to stupefy. This treescape against this Indiana sky is big enough to evoke wonder.

Morning walk, here at home

But in a pinch, any old ant will do. (Not pictured: eye-level ant marching up the tree trunk where I leaned this morning).

Teeny anthill. The littlest creatures can move the earth.

I mostly sit behind a desk, but I love to get up close and personal with the beings that share our world. I recently took part in a bird banding day at Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary, and had a chance to briefly hold and release three different birds. Just a second or two of quivery warmth before opening my hand and watching them sail away into the treetops.

Male indigo bunting. Not my hand (but I did get to do the release.)

Meanwhile here at home, I hear song sparrows trilling every morning, and one sometimes shows himself, toward the tail end of my walk.

Song sparrow preparing to trill

Even while pumping gas, I can find a chickadee taking a dust bath in the dirt of a neglected landscape island.

I believe we all can find wonder wherever we are. We actually contain wonder: Consider the fact that our very cells integrated another coevolving organism. At our core we are symbiotic beings. According to Ed Yong’s book I Contain Multitudes, our mitochondria are descendants of ancient bacteria that became integrated into the type of cells that eventually gave rise to all complex life.

Smallest of all, and most wondrous to contemplate.

Where do you find wonder?

A Biodiversity Birthright

Last week’s Indiana Master Naturalist class has put me into a state a little bit like that dream … the one where you suddenly find a whole section of your house that you didn’t see before. “This was here all this time?”

Since the week-long intensive ended, I’ve been noticing things that previously weren’t on my radar. I’m hearing (sometimes identifying) distinct birdsongs that had largely been a sort of background chitter-chatter. Who knew there were indigo buntings around here? I had never heard of the Kentucky Coffee Tree, which I’ve seen on my walks (if my budding tree ID skills are on target).

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Sunfish. Photo by Sara Long.

On one particular day we saw fish in Lawrence Creek that were simply stunning, and a green frog to boot. Now I’m curious what wonders lie under the surface of the creek I cross every morning on my rambles.

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Green frog. Photo by Sara Long.

It’s common for Hoosiers to agree with people who denigrate our state. We seem to come at the bottom of every list measuring quality of life, particularly when it comes to environmental issues.

But: It turns out that my state is actually pretty fascinating, geographically and ecologically–with incredible (often unsung) biodiversity.

That’s largely because of a thing called the “ecotone.” This is a place where two edges overlap, such as woodlands and wetlands. More species live in these spaces, naturalist Amanda Smith told us.

And Indiana, I learned, is lousy with edges. We have the Great Lakes edge in the north. Eastern Seaboard forests terminate in Indiana. Prairies had their eastern edge in Indiana. And the swamps of the south begin in Indiana.

Finally, we have glacial edges from retreating Ice Age glaciers. (I did learn this fact as a child as the reason for the way Indiana turns hilly south of here.)

I now have a long list of Places to Visit in my Own State. Part of being a naturalist is simply appreciating the natural world. Another part is sharing wonder, to get other people out and appreciating alongside us, so they can have their own epiphanies.

Another part is dirtying up the hands. A host of volunteers and organizations and nature preserves are working to conserve our ecological heritage—to support the coevolving native plants and bugs that form the foundation of life (not to mention beauty). So much habitat has been lost to development. The wilder corridors are so fragmented and invasive species so pervasive that many native species are imperiled.

The good news is that we can be part of habitat restoration in our own places. Our yards can become “our largest national park,” urban tree advocate Holly Jones told us, quoting native plant proponent Doug Tallamy.

Because, as Holly put it, “if you think your life is independent from the black-capped chickadee*, you are wrong.” (These perky little birds are on the decline in many areas.)

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Bumblebee on milkweed. Photo by Sara Long.

“Humans cannot live as the only species on this planet because it is other species that create the ecosystem services essential to us. Every time we force a species to extinction we are encouraging our own demise.”

—Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home 

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Milkweed bug. Photo by Sara Long.

A long time ago, the elderly mother of a friend questioned me about my vegetable garden. “Do you have a lot of BUGS in your garden?” she said, and all but shuddered at the word BUGS. It was sort of comical, but sad too.

Now I want to plant a native garden that will unapologetically attract “bugs” to support the biodiversity that is Indiana’s birthright.

*A classmate just informed me that Black-capped Chickadees are in northern Indiana. South of Lafayette we have Carolina Chickadees.

All photos courtesy of my hugely talented classmate Sara Long. Check her photography website out, or follow her on Instagram at @longacres.