The 100% Natural Solution
Delighting in the elemental and elegant things of nature is a privilege of membership in the human race.
My first reaction was awe. I stopped my work to lean against the elephantine base of a tropical rainforest tree and wipe the grit and sweat from my forehead. And then I saw them. With the grim determination of the Allied invasion force breaching the beach at Normandy, a swarm of tiny seed ticks was advancing over my right shoe, across the dunes of my puckered white sock, and up the fortification of my pant leg.
“Hey!” I said indignantly. “What the heck am I doing here?”
The answer, of course, was that I had volunteered. The place was Barro Colorado Island, a 15-square-kilometer sanctuary on Gatun Lake in Panama, which technically is part of the Panama Canal passage. I was there in 1985 as an Earthwatch Volunteer taking part in an ongoing conservation study whose purpose was to help preserve the world’s tropical rainforests. One thing I learned on this hot, sweaty, itchy, flagrant, tick-infested adventure was that nature can inspire the human soul even when the soul’s human body is outrageously uncomfortable.
I had come to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Barro Colorado Island along with six other Earthwatchers to help researcher Stephen Hubbell, also known as “The Mad Mapper,” continue a project called “The Structure and Dynamics of a Tropical Rainforest; Implications for Conservation and Management.” In 1980 Hubbell and his team had created the world’s largest forest study plot on the island by surveying a half-square-kilometer section of moist tropical forest on the island. Then his group tagged, mapped, and recorded pertinent data on every tree of a certain trunk centimeter, thus placing some 238,000 trees under long-term observation. What Earthwatch was helping Hubbell do was perform a regular census of the plot. The ultimate object was to create an invaluable management guide for the world’s quickly disappearing rainforests.
On Barro Colorado Island wildlife runs wild in spite of humans. The island represents nature uninhibited. That, indeed, is its value to science and the reason researchers from around the world flock here to observe what nature does when left to its own devices. Our role as Earthwatchers was to supply the basic grunt work of surveying Hubbell’s plot and ultimately helping him discover exactly how tropical moist forests work. That goal required a long-term, ongoing examination of the protected forest plot. Each of the 1,250, 20-foot-by-20-foot quadrants in the entire plot had to be revisited periodically, and every tree had to be remapped, re-measured for tree-trunk growth, and re-quantified for its physical condition.
One day, as The Mad Mapper showed me around, I heard the far-off baying of what sounded like a pack of hunting dogs. “What do you use those hounds for?” I asked Hubbell.
“Those aren’t hounds,” he chuckled. “Those are howlers.”
Howlers are garrulous monkeys that could be heard most of the time on the island. Legend has it that they howl when it rains, when competitors approach, or even in response to low-flying aircraft. I saw howlers answer particularly violent gusts of wind by throwing back their heads and yowling with all the gusto of a soprano belting out a Puccini aria at the Met.
The station itself was an observation post where passing animals of every kind could be watched and admired. At night katydids the size of electric harmonicas and wildly colored insects gathered at black lights set up for the amusement of observers. In the mango trees outside the dining hall, spider monkeys and coatimundis spent each evening feasting on ripe fruit. All day long, noisy gangs of parrots raced across the station clearing. And the occasional guan — a turkey-like game bird — fluttered across the station’s makeshift campus looking for all the world like a disheveled commuter chasing a bus.
In the evening The Lab’s pet tapir, Alice, a morphological cross between a rhino and a horse, would lumber in from the forest for dinner. Alice, all 350 pounds of her, had been following the same feeding routine for almost nine years. She would go to the kitchen door, stick her long, flexible snout in the hatch used for serving breakfast, and blatantly beg for her supper. Then she would waddle contentedly behind the cook as he carried a blue washtub full of scraps to a cement feeding platform.
One night, after a hard day in the forest surveying The Mad Mapper’s trees, several Earthwatchers sat outside The Lab and lounged in the entrance clearing to the island, which afforded a magnificent vista overlooking Gatun Lake. Far below us, a dirty looking tanker was plowing through the channel buoys marking the route of the Panama Canal. Several volunteers were sharing a ceremonial bottle of Bactine for insect bites. Others were downing Panamanian beer. One volunteer spotted a black-and-white owl adjacent to the clearing and consulted his birding field guide.
“Can often be found beside the entrance clearing to Barro Colorado Island,” he read out loud from the guide’s narrative on the species.
Truer words and more precise territorial data were never written.
In retrospect, I now understand that there was a more thoughtful answer to my initial panicky question when confronted by those seed ticks. What the heck was I doing here? In essence, all of us Earthwatchers were there answering the S.O.S. sent out on behalf of rainforests everywhere as they quickly disappear in a shower of wood chips, saw dust and human greed. But just as importantly, I was taking advantage of my not-so-exclusive membership privilege as part of the human race to learn more about the complex, richly textured, miraculous world we are lucky enough to inhabit.
Communing with nature has never failed to raise my consciousness, inject me with a dose of pure joy, or fill me with a reverent and profound adoration of life on earth. Where would I be without this deep wellspring of spiritual inspiration? Nature stimulates both my sanity and my spirituality.
And so it happened that, after two weeks on Barro Colorado Island, a myriad of tick encounters, a score of chigger bites, one case of athlete’s foot, two second-degree sunburns, and 24 changes of sweaty clothes, I found myself transformed by the majesty, tragedy, mystery, and travesty of the wondrous natural world that represents our ultimate responsibility to preserve, and our ultimate shame to waste. I also realized that each patch of nature I stumble upon is not only my own piece of Eden, but also a potential slice of Paradise Lost.
I have been fortunate enough to go adventuring over five decades in some of Earth’s most exhilarating and magnificent natural spots, and yet I have barely touched the multitude of mindboggling natural phenomena all over the world. One truth I have learned from all this natural beauty is that the infinite “nowness” of nature is everywhere. As health-meditation guru Jon Kabat-Zinn put it, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
Now I take a different approach. Instead of chasing nature in my seven-league boots by rambling all over the world, I worship nature in my own back yard. I have finally learned that the awesome eternity of the rainforest is also in residence anyplace I go.
Hence, I look for revelations every time I walk in the meadows of my native Amherst, Massachusetts, or go for a ramble through its Walden-like woods, or run the nearby Robert Frost Trail. Every living creature or natural object or elemental force or universal law I observe is yet another symptom of divine intervention in my life and reminds of a line from the film Field of Dreams: “There comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place, and the universe opens itself up for a few seconds to show you what’s possible.”
By venturing into nature, any moment can also become an encounter with the miraculous.
Charles Creekmore has written for numerous national publications, including the New York Times Syndicate, Psychology Today, Travel & Leisure, National Wildlife, Islands, Runner’s World, and AARP. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.