A Year of Observing Closely: The Beginning

It’s time for a new project. Over the last several months, I’ve been pondering what it means to be truly tuned in to the natural world around us. Many of us, even when we’re immersed in nature, don’t truly look at it very closely. It’s easy to take a pleasant stroll through a park or patch of woods, noticing the surrounded greenery and a few individual flowers or trees that stand out, but still missing most of what is going on around you. In the canopies of trees, flocks of chickadees and bushtits forage for insects. Around flowers cluster an amazing diversity of small creatures–bees and beetles, flies and moths. And beneath your feet countless mites, springtails, nematodes, and microscopic organisms flourish.

The vast majority of people, even dedicated hikers and nature lovers, miss the vast majority of this web of life even as they pass through–simply because we haven’t gotten into the habit of looking closely enough. I myself have noticed myself falling into this trap lately, and I have resolved to make a conscious effort to do better. It is for this reason that I’m embarking on the new project mentioned above: over the course of a full year, I plan to take time for at least one session of observing the nature around me, every day that I can. I began yesterday, on this year’s Summer Solstice.

Eventually, the observations I make over this next year will likely form material for a writing project–perhaps even a book. In the meantime, I’ll be posting updates now and then here.

During my first two days of observation, I made visits to two natural areas well within the city limits of Bellingham, WA: the 100 Acre Wood and Sehome Hill. In both places, I got to observe the local natural landscape as it transitions from spring to summer. Many plants–like dull Oregon grape–have finished blooming and are beginning to form fruits that have not yet matured. Others whose flowering time comes later in the season, like ocean spray, have new flower buds getting ready to open. From the canopies of Douglas-fir trees come the high-pitched calls of songbirds foraging in a flock. Birds I heard singing include robins, red-breasted nuthatches, dark-eyed juncos, and a Pacific wren.

One treat came yesterday as I entered the 100 Acre Wood and spotted this interesting fungus on the side of dead alder snag:

I have not yet been able to identify the species–fungi are not my strong suit–but I hope to do so. Close examination revealed the organism felt soft but almost waxy to the touch near its top. The lower part was softer still, and moist. Small insects, including a couple of gnat-like dipterans and a tiny hymenopteran, perched on the fungus, apparently drawn to it for some reason.

It would have been all too easy to walk by this complex living organisms–as dedicated to its own survival as are you or I–without noticing it, or giving it only the briefest of glances. For me, it felt good to stop and really see it. Not only that, but to touch it, observe what other life had drawn near it, and ponder what might be its role in the ecosystem.

I hope to have many more such experiences in months ahead.

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