For those who are not hikers, it can seem like quite a boring activity. After all, it is essentially just walking. One foot after another after another. It just happens to be on dirt with trees nearby rather than on pavement with buildings nearby. It’s pretty for awhile, especially if it features beautiful overlooks or amazing rock formations or a waterfall. But once you’ve seen those once, what is there to see?
The answer? Every little thing.
Wyatt and I are slow hikers. It’s not because we aren’t in good shape – we’re both healthy
20-somethings who work outdoors for a living. It’s because we stop constantly. We identify trees and try to learn what habitats we usually spot them in. In the spring, we admire the wildflowers and try to recall the names of ones we’ve learned in previous years and look up ones that are unfamiliar to us. We turn over logs to find salamanders and insects of every shape and size. We listen to birdsong and try to get eyes on the jewel-like warblers flitting in the treetops.
Soon, you don’t just feel like you’re visiting the forest. You feel like you’re part of the landscape. You know which plants are tasty and which are
poison. You know exactly what bird is making that little chip note, and when you see it hop into a bush with a fat caterpillar in its beak you know it has a nest nearby. When you see a wasp with an especially long stinger, you know it’s headed to a tree to lay its eggs. The inner workings of ecosystems seem to open before your eyes, and every hike becomes an exciting opportunity to observe something familiar and learn something new.
My goal in life is to help preserve these ecosystems. Wyatt’s is to educate people about them. These two missions are integral to each other – we can’t preserve wildlife if no one knows or cares about it, and no one can know or care about wildlife that no longer exists in the world. Ignorance about nature is more widespread than I, a country kid who spent her afternoons in the woods, would have ever guessed. I overheard a girl ask if Indiana University put the minnows and crayfish she was looking at in the creek that flows through campus. One naturalist I talked to had someone ask if nature could exist without humans. It’s hard to impress the importance of nature upon people who know little or nothing about it.
My challenge to people who care about nature is to learn more about nature. Next time you’re on a hike, use a field guide to find out what that bird song you hear every day is. Read a little about what kind of habitat that bird likes, where it breeds in the summer and where it goes in the winter. And next time you’re hiking with someone and hear it, point it out. See what knowledge they might have to share with you. You’ll be surprised how quickly you become more familiar with the world around you, and if you’re willing to share that knowledge, others will become more educated as well. Noticing all the little things might slow you down, but it might also give you a more satisfying hiking experience and give wildlife a better chance to thrive.