Since I was a child I was crazy about, and always felt at home deep in nature. My happiest memories are out in the woods on a walk, or wading in the reeds at the edge of the lake watching the leopard frogs leap, sometimes spying a doe quietly watching me, or watching minnows swim by my feet as I walked along the shore.I know every inch of the acres of my mother’s property back home in Northern Wisconsin. I know every toadstool, bed of moss, insect, tree and plant.
I recall my mother and grandfather teaching me about all of nature around me, one lesson at a time. I learned about the eye of the Walleye and how it glowed like moonstone when light reflected off it. We were delighted if we came across the slow, quiet black and sky blue spotted salamanders dozing underneath a patch of wet leaves. We watched the phoebe build her nest, feed her young, and saw the babies fledge. We were not allowed to touch or bother her nest, even after they hatched. We had respect for the small Mayflies that lived on the wing for only a day, after their time in the water. We were always dazzled at the delicate and unearthly beauty of the larger-than-life Luna Moth.
We watched as dragonfly nymphs crawled out of the lake on a magical day they all seemed to know about. We watched as they broke the white ‘string’ on the back of their nymph skin. Over a few hours they would unfold their long sleek bodies out of that teeny tiny outfit. They would pump fluids into their wings before they flew away, much like a butterfly does. Often we would gather these discarded skins and scare other kids with them, as they resemble big, fat spiders. The clue to an already hatched (empty) dragonfly husk was the telltale white string.
Grampa showed us toads, and how, as a defensive move they would pee on you if you picked one up. In my family, all toads are called toads Grampa Toads. He taught us the difference between toads and frogs. Toads looked like the earth with pebbles on their back, and usually have very dry skin. Frogs were wet and found in the water, unless they were those tiny golden/brown wood frogs. Leopard frogs were the olympic swimmers and jumpers of the bunch leaving green frogs, and pickerel frogs in their wake.
My mother would often show us how to softly approach the rare orchid the Pink Lady Slipper, careful not to destroy the surrounding area. Oddly, in Minnesota there is something in the soil the Lady Slipper loves as it is the state plant! In Wisconsin it is very rare, even protected. We knew these plants were to be admired and then left alone.
Even my time in Manhattan I was able to find and bond with nature in the Ramble of Central Park, or strolling down the public gardens of Riverside Park. I was lucky enough to rent a small garden plot up by a horse stables near Central Park. I volunteered my time on Cathedral Row, complete with wandering peacocks, helping maintain the vast rose gardens there. I fed the birds on my 3rd floor apartment in the flower box, much to the utter dismay of my cranky New York landlord.
Unfortunately as a young woman, I did not have the nerve to follow my bliss. I wanted to be a marine biologist. I loved studying the behavior of animals in their natural environment. I loved every living thing. I lived and breathed it. But my interests were also in the arts. Upon deciding to get a degree, my father was deceased, and my mother’s second husband had also passed away. He was the love of her life, and she was floundering in her grief. I had no idea how to help her heal other than be a good daughter.
Thus, I felt I had no direction from the outside. I kept waffling on what I wanted to get a degree in, or do for the rest of my life, at what I felt was the decrepit age of 27. I knew to get a degree in marine biology I might have to get out of my hometown and go to the end of the world—California! I could not imagine doing that in my wildest, wildest dreams. Such a gentle homebody I was. So I stuck it out at home going to college majoring in graphic design in the cold terrain at the head of Lake Superior.
It has been a source of some personal angst over the years that I didn’t take the bull by the horns and get my degree in biology—my true heart’s’ desire. How different my life would have been! Where would it have taken me? Why was I such a wallflower and so delicate that I could not imagine it, much less make it happen? This brings me to the thought: If we could be born knowing exactly what we wanted out of life, and with the wherewithal to make it happen, that would sound ideal but it’s not how this planet works. You have to do your own evolving. You have to stretch and grow beyond what you think you are capable of. Things get in your way to help you evolve and grow. Those things are called challenges, and they help forge your own personal nature. Otherwise how would the learning and growing happen?
It was after the recent bulldozer incident that I knew what my lifetime profession should have been, and is in fact, what I am at my core today. I have finally arrived—in fact I have always been—a naturalist! A person interested in all things natural be it plant, animal, behaviors, ecosystem, or environment. I am now and have forever been a student of—and steward to—Mother Earth. No college degree needed.