I met a kindred spirit on my walk in the woods this morning. I did not actually lay eyes on anybody, but I did encounter someone’s creation: a bright pink swing hanging from a branch in a clearing.
I was off the beaten path: down the abandoned railroad-right-of way-turned nature trail, off onto an old fire road, and then a short path into the woods. My first reactions were surprise, amazement, wonder, delight, and reflection. Surprise at this shocking pink thing in the otherwise muted and natural background of a November woodland; amazement at the actual feat of hanging this thing twenty feet up in a tree- did somebody shimmy up that tree? Or did he or she have the requisite rope-handling and knot-tying knowledge to somehow fashion the loops from the ground, send them aloft, and secure them?
After a momentary flash of a protective attitude- is someone allowed to hang a swing in a conservation area?- I was delighted at the inventiveness the swing represented. I tried to imagine the thought process: somebody walking by a spot repeatedly and then suddenly having the inspiration to fashion a way to be there in a different way.
I am always reflecting on the phenomenon of people interacting with nature. Often we are presented with the default nature walk: visiting an area and observing and identifying all the plants and animals we see. I led a handful of such walks this past year, and I think most participants enjoyed themselves; I know I did. I revel in discovering a new flower or bird; I delight in learning a new fact about the natural world, the interactions of organisms, details of life histories, and the like. But there is another way: to simply be in nature.
The person who fashioned this swing may have no idea that he or she is sailing over a ground cover of striped pipsissewa and wintergreen, barely clearing the low shrubby inkberry, almost touching the sassafras trees, and looking out over a small isolated vegetated wetland bordered with swamp azalea. But this person surely put that swing there for a reason, and that reason had to be grounded in an innate appreciation of the area, of that plant community (and perhaps some birds inhabiting it). This mode of being in nature is just as profound as any other- perhaps more so.
I went on a walk to Hatches Harbor this summer with a visiting friend. We have known each other for decades and have gone on many walks over the years. He has a background in the physical sciences and has an active enquiring mind. But he is absolutely immune to the phenomenon of naming things. So while I agonized over the somewhat subtle difference between a Savannah Sparrow and a Song Sparrow, while I desperately tried to recall the name of that sprawling plant on the edge of the tide line, he blithely walked on, enjoying the day in a different way. I am condemned to be a “namer of things”- I truly believe that knowing the name of something helps one fit it into the larger ecology of an area, and come away the wiser. But I acknowledge that this is not for everyone and it should not be forced on people- especially the young: let them be in nature in their own way and perhaps some will come to my way.
My friend and I came upon a tiny Fowler’s Toad, perhaps a quarter of an inch long. We pondered what it must be like to be so diminutive in a world so large, whether the little thing was even aware of its relative size, or was simply being the predator it was created to be, hunting down some even tinier creature along the way. No names were needed to entertain this drama.
And no names are needed to swing out into the canopy of a Cape Cod woodland, enjoying the sights and smells and general freedom: to swing free, to be in nature.