Nature unscripted: often boring, sometimes disappointing, truly wonderful

The Baltimore Sun

BATON ROUGE, La. -- If we need to get more people interested in nature, as a recent national report suggests, then maybe it's time we acknowledge a truth that few observers, even those of us who consider ourselves devoted naturalists, seem willing to admit:

Nature is often very boring.

What I mean to say is that nature can often be boring when measured against our long-standing human desire for compelling narrative and catchy endings - a cultural impulse that drives everything from books to movies to TV shows to video games.

Which is why, one gathers, Mother Nature isn't the most popular girl on the block these days, as evidenced by the latest findings of the Nature Conservancy. In a new study, the conservancy concluded that people across the United States and in other developed nations are spending far less time outdoors than recent generations.

After tracking such benchmarks as camping, fishing, hiking, hunting and visits to national and state parks and forests, the conservancy concluded that the typical drop in these activities since 1981 has been between 18 percent and 25 percent. That grim news has led to numerous calls to engage more of us, especially young people, in the wonders of nature.

But nature's magic, while deep and enduring, is not the kind that promises to pull a rabbit from every hat at any given moment.

Or so I was reminded a few years ago, when my young daughter's elementary school class followed the metamorphosis of some larvae into beetles over the course of several days.

"How are the mealworms doing?" I asked after the first day of her class experiment.

"Doing?" she responded with a heavy sigh. "The mealworms aren't really doing anything."

The time-lapse techniques of television, which can fast-forward a cocoon to a butterfly before the station break, had conditioned my daughter to expect an equally speedy costume change in the glass jar holding her worms. Modern childhood could not prepare her for the glacial pace at which nature so often moves.

The experience reminded me that the nature documentary predated so-called reality TV in its artful editing of the prosaic to promote a daring storyline. On the nature shows, as on popular reality series such as Survivor and Big Brother, we get days distilled to dramatic confrontations between rivals, eventful mating rituals and a passion for score-keeping that would rival the NFL's.

Meanwhile, when kids and grown-ups encounter nature away from a TV screen, they're often surprised - and more than a little disappointed - to discover long, quiet stretches in which the sparrow does not fall prey to the hawk, the fawn does not nuzzle the doe, and the gopher does not, as if reading a Disney synopsis, emerge from its hole for a snapshot.

If we want kids to appreciate nature, we'd do best to provide them with realistic expectations, but also open them to new possibilities, as a trail guide did last year when I took our kindergartner son on a night hike through a local swamp as part of a youth nature program.

"You might see some very big owls," the guide told an expectant group of youngsters, "but then again, you might not see a single one. It all depends on the owls." The lesson here, one often lost on children and adults alike, is that nature isn't an amusement ride of guaranteed spectacles. It operates on its own schedule, answering impulses that usually have little to do with our personal agendas and desires.

On our night hike, we marveled at glow-worms winking in the swamp, tiny lights of a distant city, but we saw no owls. We didn't find what we were looking for, and that's what made the evening so special. After all, if nature were merely an exercise in the expected, it would not have the power to renew and expand our imagination, as it has done since the dawn of time.

To truly savor creation, the next generation must learn that nature doesn't follow the scripts we'd like to write for it, and that its own plot line, despite vast advances in science, remains profoundly inscrutable.

In confronting that mystery, we find humility, which is, after all, the beginning of true wonder.

Danny Heitman is the author of "A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House," which will be published in April. This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

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