Wednesday, February 17, 2016


If ever I were to sojourn in nature and not wonder, not revel in the mysteries hidden by daylight, overridden by my intrusive presence, I fear I would no longer value my experience there. For it is the integral fondness for such intoxicating musings that I have come to realize to forebode and upkeep a fervent outdoor passion and adventurous spirit.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    However, naturally, the inquisitive, scientific minds of humans, and the wonder that pours from the heart of nature into our own, raises a great contradiction. Science, both as published field work, popular concepts, and the citizen science today so easily conducted, slowly chips away at the unknown, replacing raw wonder, then, with known, factual truths. Scientific tools, like trail cameras, scuba gear, and fishfinders, enable us to explore the natural world beyond our human limitations, comfortably. Mystery dissolves.

    Before the advent of popular science, natural mystery ran deep in local lore and culture. “Monsters” were regular literary characters. Indeed, many place names are colorful results.

    Virginia folk lore recounts the naming of Dragon Run, one of the Chesapeake Bay Area’s more ecologically significant ecosystems, as occurring more than two centuries ago. A man was spending the afternoon fishing from his canoe among the cypress knees of the peaceful coastal swamp, when a winged beast, spewing a devilish, raucous warning, tore through the understory on a chariot, erupting thunder and lightning. Knowing he had seen a dragon—a manifestation of the devil—the man was so startled, it’s recorded, that he paddled furiously to shore and was found dead in his bed the following morning.

    This literary account of an airborne, thunderous chariot brings to mind the emotions associated with an unforeseen flushing of a grouse or bobwhite. My experience with coastal swamp dragons, however, suggests the identity of one of the many heron species native to Virginia’s Coastal Plains, and the rasps they shout through the swamps.

    Nevertheless, the legend persisted, and still does in the toponym. For in that day, the existence of dragons had not yet been discounted.

    One of my own experiences brought about a similar emotion. I arrived to an empty home one late night in mid-February, after dark. Before I could open the front door, a blood-curdling scream erupted from just inside the treeline at the edge of the back yard—the likes of which I would have assigned a vengeful spirit or a witch, had I been born in the 17th century. After banishing the image of a frightened little girl from my mind, I recognized its source as a bobcat in heat.

    For the same reason that outdoorspeople today relish in the mystery of nature, it was once feared by those who faced its overwhelming uncertainty every day. Thankfully, we have, in this day and age, come into understanding of the natural world, and overcome the fearfulness that led to violent reactions against several apex predators, and the irresponsible utilization of available resources.

    So what has been lost? Largely, personal discovery and the novelty of unanticipated encounters, I might offer.

    To celebrate discovery and ponder this idea, I sacrificed the comfort of indoors for the foreign moods of a nocturnal forest one fall night. A large moon shed light on my experiment. I brought a light, albeit just a backup, in case of an emergency. Nothing else burdened me, as I took a seat against an ancient oak tree in a creekbottom as the last slivers of daylight burned out.

    Watching darkness fall is a dramatic experience. Light recedes from optical interpretation, until a certain level of darkness is achieved, at which point there is no more light to be lost, and the eyes have adjusted to brave the situation. The world is quiet, and then, by imperceptible degrees, it’s not.

    On this particular night, the moon rose early. A few moments passed after base darkness was achieved, and then moonlight began to wax the woods, enlivening a neighborhood of slender shadows.

    Soon almost inaudible clues gave away bulges emerging in the tops of several trees. Moments passed, and they began to descend, as shadows. Many more moments passed, and there was a community of bulges riffling through the leaves adjacent to the creek, occasionally bumping into one another and hissing. Raccoons, I gathered.

    A form I can only attribute to a fox amble by, keeping out of the commotion, tight to the foot of a ridge, apparently unaware of my presence.

    In my eyes, Eden danced in the moonlight.

    And in this, I was romanced. I came to realize that, in nature, the more you come to know, the less, you realize, you really know. Mystery and wonder persist, and only in chasing the desire to know, do we come to appreciate what we have.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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