On the Granularity of Wonder, Memories, and Development as a Naturalist

In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows…Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight…Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836

A truly open mind is fascinated with and open to exploration of many fields.  Nevertheless, the best and easiest way to refine one’s “wonder mechanism,” I’ve discovered, is to grow as a naturalist.  The endless variety and novelty of nature is compelling, not least because of its unparalleled complexity.

The granularity of one’s wonder mechanism is an important determinant of one’s baseline happiness.  It’s also important in the formation of memories; a finer granularity of wonder results in a richer, more positive set of memories throughout a lifetime.

A coarse granularity of wonder is possessed by this man: “I went on the Circuit de la Grande Chartreuse hike today…The first stretch of forest was…just an ordinary forest, not much more interesting than woods back home. The only spectacular thing was a mountain with two or three peaks between which nestled a…green valley…”

That hard-to-please man was me, twelve years ago, journaling about a solo hike in the beautiful Chartreuse mountains of France.  Not knowing anything about the natural history, geology, or archaeology of that region, I could only appreciate superficial, immediately accessible characteristics:  grand vistas, mountains, valleys, forests.  I remember some of the people I met, but I don’t remember which tree, bird, or insect species I saw, nor which types of rock I encountered, nor did I appreciate the significance of ruins I came across in a valley during that hike.  That leaves me with only a shallow impression of that experience.

A finer granularity of wonder is possessed by this man:  “A grass-like mantis was on the floor outside my home today.  I chased it with my finger toward a wall so it wouldn’t be crushed by an unaware passerby.  It didn’t let me touch it; at each near-touch or rare ephemeral touch, it ran forward, at one point flying smoothly up to the wall as if running along an invisible ramp.”

That was also me, journaling this week about an interesting insect species I’d never seen (or noticed) before 2017.  I’ve seen it intermittently all summer long in a space about twenty feet by six feet.

Here’s another recent journal entry:  “I also did see and photograph a wood stork soaring–it soared over the exact area (vast marsh with adjacent picnic park) where I saw the last male painted bunting of the day!  They showed up at the same time, presenting an observational/photographic dilemma.  I’ve never seen a wood stork before, as far as I know; this is a life bird.”

Twelve years ago, I had little interest in that marsh, precisely because I didn’t know much about it.  Not only did I have little interest, I actively wanted to keep my distance because it’s surrounded by oil refineries:

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However, it is here that I first saw a wood stork, a species not easily seen in the US outside of Florida and parts of Louisiana.  I also saw a male painted bunting here recently–another life bird for me.

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Each experience of wonder creates a pleasant memory.  No grand vistas required.  This humble, likely polluted marsh is now elevated in my mind to a new significance.

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One of the better photos I was able to take of this painted bunting.

“A special power of observing and remembering particulars, a special memory for places, allied to a love, a lyrical feeling for nature, is characteristic of this naturalist’s sort of mind.” – Oliver Sacks, Oaxaca Journal, 2002

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Cotinga Trail, Yasuní National Park

For those without a naturalist bent, the lowland tropical jungle–as seen in the photograph I took this summer in Yasuní National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon, above–is a gloomy, menacing, tediously green place.  One does not bask there in breathless views on par with those found in Yosemite, the Canadian Rockies, or similar places with awe-inspiring landscapes.  The biodiversity, however, remains unmatched…for those prepared to appreciate it.

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Golden-mantled tamarins we observed near Napo Wildlife Center. They live in a very small area in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon and are threatened by deforestation.

It may be obvious that preparation increases appreciation, but this is particularly true of nature travel in the neotropics, where the rare is commonplace, the commonplace is rare, and where each bit of background knowledge yields outsized rewards for the observer.

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Masked crimson tanager seen along Lake Anangucocha. This is one of my favorite tanager species.

One of our guides–who has worked as a generalist guide as well as a specialist birding guide in the Amazon, the cloud forests, the Galápagos, and elsewhere in Ecuador–confirmed my suspicion that birders seem to get more out of their Amazon experience than do non-naturalist visitors.  We ended up seeing or hearing 325 bird species total in the Chocó region of northwest Ecuador and Yasuní National Park.  We also saw a tayra, two black caiman, agoutis, several giant river otters, five monkey species (including five common woolly monkeys, which are not common at all), several puma and tapir tracks, and two electric eels.

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Our guides spotted this collared puffbird along the Cotinga Trail!  Puffbirds, being sedentary, are notoriously difficult to notice.

Each of these sightings, for me, is pegged to a wondrous memory, in addition to memories of all the people we interacted with during the trip–our hosts, our guides, our drivers, and everyone else–and to memories of a more standardized nature: landmarks, street scenes, cityscapes, historical buildings, food, etc.

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Ecuador poison frog.  Poison frogs have little to fear, so these tiny amphibians can be seen boldly displaying themselves in the open.
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Scarlet macaw drinking at a clay lick in Yasuní National Park. This is the only bird that flew down to the clay lick during the hour we were there.

“It is similar with Tom Morgan–he remembers, I think, every fern of significance he has ever seen, and not only remembers it, but exactly where it was located.” – Oliver Sacks, Oaxaca Journal, 2002

I still have a long way to go as a naturalist and as a learner in general.  I look forward to learning much more botany, entomology, geology, anthropology, archaeology, and other fields.

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Painted Buntings

Summer is an oppressive season in southeast Texas.  Long days allow heat to build up–it can be nearly ninety degrees Fahrenheit well after sunset–and the humidity doesn’t letup. If northerners are snowbound in winter, we’re sunbound in summer. We visited the Ecuadorean Amazon recently, where it was cool sometimes (cold, even), days were much shorter, wind pollination was refreshingly absent (or rare), and where one stands much less of a chance of being swarmed by mosquitoes than in summertime wildernesses of the temperate zone.

However, despite the unpleasantness of the season, one can still experience the beauty of nature here, as I found out less than two weeks ago when I saw a male painted bunting for the very first time. Ironically, I’ve lived within its breeding range for most of my life but never birded within its habitat during summer.  (Also ironic: I saw it only ten minutes from where I grew up!)

If one rises early enough and travels to its breeding grounds–a shrubby, overgrown prairie with not too few and not too many small- or medium-sized trees–then one might see a male painted bunting in a treetop, head thrown back, singing its lovely song.  It might even fly from treetop to treetop, singing at each location, as did the males I observed–a magical experience!  Here are a couple photos I took of one of them:

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In May, during the tail end of spring migration, I also saw a playful, beautifully green, female painted bunting in a nearby marsh.  I was observing a female indigo bunting when the female painted suddenly appeared and landed on the same stalk of grass, making them both drop down.  The indigo flew off, but the painted remained nearby.  Here’s the quick photo I took of it:

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“[For a naturalist,] the concrete significance of living things in their natural setting is at least as precious as any generalization.” — Alexander F. Skutch, A Naturalist in Costa Rica