Cumberland Times-News

August 25, 2012

The joy of nature never goes away

Maude McDaniel, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— Note from Maude: In the spring of 1983 I wrote this column, and since then I have seen no reason to change my mind! Only Global Warming can spoil the fun.

How do they manage down in Florida, I wonder. Maybe I’ll feel different about it when the old bones start creaking year ‘round instead of on a monthly basis, but right now I can’t imagine getting along without the changing seasons.

As I write this, the monsoons have ended (for the moment), and the Cumberland Narrows have suddenly reappeared in our window view, green instead of gray and bathed in sunlight. The dogwood and redbud are glorious, the air is warm and smells of lilac, and the birds are insane with parenthood.

It’s the kind of thing that makes me love to live, a feeling that happens every spring and fall and often in between. I couldn’t get along without it.

People often ask  well, someone did once), 1. How I got so interested in nature? and, 2. What good is it anyway? “I wouldn’t miss it if I never saw another bird again,” I seem to recall him saying.

He’s not the only one to feel that way. Daniel Defoe, of Robinson Crusoe fame, called nature “a damp gloomy place where fowls fly about uncooked.” And lots of 20th century city-folks will agree with the 19th century Englishman, Sydney Smith, who said, “In the country I always fear that creation will expire before tea time.”

The perfect answer to such boredom with nature is Thoreau’s: “I had no idea that there was so much going on in Heywood’s meadow.” That was exactly what I found out when I first began looking into the natural world.

I’d grown up in the middle of the city, and then one day I was 30 years old, and I looked at this bird, and I realized I didn’t have the faintest notion what kind of a bird it was. It was brown and familiar-looking, and I said to myself, “Maude, you’re an idiot. You’ve lived in God’s world all this time and you still don’t know your fellow creatures by their first names.”

So I asked somebody and then somebody else, and they didn’t know either. “This is ridiculous,” I thought, so I kept asking around until I finally found someone who knew for sure it was a (brace yourself) house sparrow. Probably the most common bird around, practically a pest, in fact, by some people’s standards, and here I didn’t even know its name. I knew cockroaches better than I knew sparrows.

A whole new world broke open before me — one I’d lived in all my life and still didn’t know a thing about. Suddenly I couldn’t stand realizing such a world existed, without learning more about it — just nosy, I guess. (Except, it’s funny, but I don’t feel that way about, say, calculus, or stock car racing.)

Anyway, I bought a bird book and started to identify the birds I saw every day and to read up on them. Pretty soon I began checking out other books from the library on nature in all its aspects. I never became any great expert. I don’t keep a “life list” of bird identifications, and I still can’t tell a pine tree from a spruce tree. (I cleverly call them all evergreens.)

But I know what Aldous Huxley meant when he said that living in the world without knowing anything about the world we live in is like walking through an art gallery where all the paintings are turned to the wall.

What good is it? Well, for one thing it helped me come up with a better excuse than my bad knee for not washing windows. (Birds don’t fly into dirty ones as easily.) But even more than that, it helps me see the basic steadfastness that underpins life and death. It soothes my nerves, it makes life interesting, and it gets my mind off myself. It does all the work of a psychiatrist for free.

There’s an old Greek myth about a strongman named Antaeus, who gained his strength from contact with the earth. As long as he touched ground, he was invincible. Not until an enemy lifted him up off the ground long enough for the strength to drain out of him was he conquered.

That says it well, but the American Indian, Chief Seattle of the Suquamish tribe said it even better in 1855:” “If all the beasts were gone (and wild nature), man would die from great loneliness of spirit.”

Maude McDaniel is a Cumberland freelance writer. Her column appears on alternate Sundays in the Times-News.