A Cape Cod Notebook 10/14/08

listenSeeing Nature

Originally aired 10/16/07

By Robert Finch

Sometimes, following a Cape Cod Notebook broadcast in which I describe a particular place or animal, someone will say to me, "Is such-and-such the pond you were talking about?" or "I think I know that fox den you found" Nine times out of ten they're wrong, not even in the right town. But it pleases me when I hear these comments, not because I've tricked these listeners, but because in another sense they were right: they did find what I did, just in their own town, and with their own set of eyes.

It's true, I am usually less than specific when describing particular locations in these broadcasts, but it's not because I hoard them as "professional secrets." There are two other reasons, one of which is voluntary and the other is not. Today, and especially here on the Cape and Islands, everyone who val ues nature and wildlife must be of two minds regarding his or her natural "finds." On one hand, there's the normal, healthy impulse to share, to make known to others what has given us insight and joy. But eve n as that impulse wells up inside us, something grabs us by the shoulder and warns, "Better left alone and unknown than appreciated to death." We remember the fates of many national parks and the foot- trampled summits of popular mountains, and we realize that our dunes and tern colonies and herring runs are even more vulnerable to affection in great numbers.

An acquaintance of mine warned me once about identifying things too closely by telling me about two peregrine falcons that were seen in Falmouth many years ago. A picture of the pair appeared in a loc al paper. The tree was apparently recognized, and the next day both birds were found beneath it, shotgunned.

So, specific identification has its dangers, but even if it didn't, I still think it's a mistake to place too much emphasis on a particular place or experience. Nature never repeats herself. Each place, each d ay, wears a different aspect and has something different to tell each of us, so that even if a listener does find the same pond or fox den I describe in a program, the experience will be different. Our knowled ge or experience of a place depends on an infinite number of things, including what we think we already know about it, our state of mind and body, the time of day or year, the conditions of sky or wind. Go down to a town landing or a beach on a wintry day and try to imagine the sun-soaked bodies, the hot sand, and the popping, running life of summer.

The most important factor in what we see, or don't see in nature is our expectations. If these are cheap and easy, then we can count on being disappointed and will probably drift back gratefully to "nature shows" on television, which are more exciting and dependable. On the other hand, if we have acquainted ourselves with a place but don't think we know it; if we have learned enough facts to ga in entrance, but not enough to draw a curtain of certainty over what we might encounter there; if we ha ve cocked our ears, but do not require what we hear to have a human sound or meaning; and finally, if w e seek confrontation rather than confirmation, so that even the chancest meeting with a wren or a patc h of sea-lavender can risk our most cherished conceptions of the world - then we might see something.