Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about our species’ relationship to the natural world. These musings have been brought on not only by my own impairment and inability to spend as much time in the field as I would like, but also by the current political climate in the U.S. Recent Executive Branch appointments and policy announcements make me fear that we, as a country, are going to be even more removed from the natural world than we currently are. This will have dire long-term consequences for all of us. Much has been made lately of federal cuts to spending on science and environmental protection. I am not qualified to address the economic aspects of cuts, but can speak to what I feel will be their effect on quality of life.
For several generations now, humans have become increasingly separated from the natural world around them. We live in cities surrounded by concrete and steel, most of us don’t grow or kill our own food, and we tend to view the natural world as “other,” differing from us in some fundamental way. Even among people who spend much of their leisure time outdoors, many at least occasionally view nature as something to be conquered–by climbing the highest peak, hiking the longest trail, visiting the deepest part of the ocean, or surfing the biggest wave. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with testing your skills and challenging yourself to perform at the highest level possible. I do that all the time, by trying to learn the names and biology of the organisms I encounter in the wild. But if that’s what you’re doing every time you venture outdoors then you are missing out on something.
Sometimes you need to just be.
One of my graduate advisors, Todd Newberry, used to tell students when we went into the field to “get your face down where your feet are.” It was a simple phrase to remind students that none of the interesting stuff going on in the intertidal occurs at human eye level. And even things that you can see while standing up are very different when you observe them from the level at which they experience the world. For example, can you identify this very common and conspicuous animal from the intertidal at Natural Bridges?
The observation skills that Todd taught us were the kind that reward patience and a certain ability to lose oneself in time. “Glance-and-go” was something that he taught us to despise as both lazy and weak, a mindset to be tolerated for a short time in rookies but completely unacceptable for anyone aspiring to the Varsity team. The true rewards of observation in the field come when you spend real time with the organisms, learning enough about them to imagine what their lives are like, and appreciating them for what they are instead of disregarding them for not being more like us.
In my experience there is something transcendent about simply being in nature. And I don’t mean temporarily occupying a bit of space that happens to be out-of-doors. I mean the act of immersing yourself, mentally as well as physically, in the natural world. I mean, instead of using your time outdoors to get from point A to point B or achieving some tangible goal such as bagging your limit or adding to your life list of species seen, stopping for a while and just being. Slowing down and stepping back from the frenzy of modern human life, even for a few minutes, allows you to notice things that ordinarily don’t catch your attention. Even seeing this happen second-hand is a lot of fun. One of the best things about taking students out in the field is hearing them exclaim, “I never noticed that before!”
I have to admit, though, that it’s not always easy to do this. Not everyone gets–or even wants–to make the Varsity team. Many people don’t have time in their busy lives to spend hours in the field every so often; certainly most don’t have the luxury of a job that requires spending time outdoors like I do. And of course there are those who just aren’t interested. That’s fine, too. After all, I’m not at all interested in the stock market, soccer, or stamp-collecting.
Now, back to that picture above. I bet that from this view, as you would see them from eye-level, you’d be able to made a good guess.
These are the famous owl limpets, Lottia gigantea. They are the largest limpets on our coast, and are notable not only for their size (up to 10 cm long) but also for some rather extraordinary behavior. These large individuals, which occupy suspiciously blank areas of the mid-intertidal at Natural Bridges, are all females. The limpets are very territorial: when immersed at high tide they will cruise over the area that they monopolize and push or scrape off any interlopers such as other limpets, barnacles, or newly settled larvae.
See those zig-zaggy marks no the rock in the photo above? The owl limpet is also a farmer. As she’s patrolling her territory she uses her radula to scrape off the film of algae that grows on the rock. It takes a while for the algal film to develop, so the limpet restricts her grazing to one area at a time. She is, in effect, manipulating her environment to produce food. When humans do this we call it agriculture. Why not use the same term when a snail does it?
These Lottia farms are exactly the kind of thing that people overlook, and even stand in, without noticing that they are there. In the intertidal, as in many natural places, you don’t really see what’s going on until you slow down, let yourself just be, and get your face down where your feet are. You might be surprised at how much you can see.