By Tim McGrath
I wonder once in a while if I spend too much time just staring. Not a creepy, stalker kind of staring; but a hey, isn’t that cool? kind of thing when I see something interesting. I’ve found myself at it from kitchen windows, front steps, car windows, backyards, ball games, desolate stretches of beaches; pretty much everywhere. As a teacher, it wasn’t unusual when one of my kids would come up and stand next to me, look at me staring out the window, look out the window, look back at me, shrug their shoulders and walk off. “Mr. McGrath’s staring out the window again,” was something I heard with some regularity. Of course, remembering my role as the teacher, I’d explain I had just spotted a rabbit, hawk, or … something interesting and, then go off on some story related to what I’d just seen. The kids always seemed to appreciate this new bit of information. Or maybe they were just happy with a break in the routine. Whatever it was, I’ve got this thing for observing extraordinary things happening in the ordinary places all around us.
One of my favorite places as a child was on the front steps of my growing up house. In summer, it was wonderful to sit on the front concrete steps that were still warm from the day’s heat, and watch the sun start to set; the sky turning from pinky-orange to deep indigo. Then to hear and see the Nighthawk diving and swooping over the school across the street catching bugs for his last bit of supper before it got too dark. Mom used to look at me when I’d be staring out a window, and in that exasperated tone of hers say, “Those windows could use some washing, not staring out of. Let’s get busy.” Or, “What in the world are you looking at? There’s nothing out there but the front yard! Don’t you have anything better to do than staring out the window? If you can’t find something useful to do, I’ll find something for you.” I suppose it is kind of an odd habit; but guessing it’s probably better than, say, driving around with my mouth hanging open, collecting bellybutton lint, or watching hours of C-Span. At least I’m looking at interesting things.
So, here it is, the beginning of a new year, and once again, here I am with forearms propped up on top of the bottom window pane in the dining room just looking out on the picture that unfolds fresh each day. It really is a lovely scene. From where I’m stationed, I look out on a mixed hardwood forest of ancient red and white oak gnarled by long decades of exposure to the elements. Silent sentinels that will most likely be standing long after I’m gone. One white oak in particular has been home to generations of barred owls, which we’ve affectionately dubbed “the owl tree”. On occasion, we can spot an owlish face glaring at us from the hole bored in its trunk. There’s the ancient, dilapidated bluebird nesting box that’s attracted many families of bluebirds, and also its fair share of tufted titmice, deer mice, and even a flying squirrel. There’s stands of beech and poplar, with the occasional hickory scattered in the mix. Interspersed are towering white pines, and there’s a sparkling creek that runs through the middle of the whole thing. Today the gin-colored water is low, snow and ice crusting its banks. There are places where the ice stretches out over the water, and I can see the water gurgling along underneath the crystalline shelf. It flows along, much as it has done for eons, unfazed by events happening in the world. I have to admit, I have a thing for staring out this window.
I caught myself at it again the other day. I was in the kitchen doing something, when outside the window by the sink, there was a flurry of activity. Not just a flurry, but a cacophony of chaos. I’d just filled the bird feeder, and the chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and woodpeckers were swarming it. As I stood there, I noticed none of them crashed into one another. It was well-orchestrated pandemonium. How‘d they do it? That’s also when I watched one teeny little chickadee sitting on the top, waiting. What was interesting is how he/she was sitting. Obviously cold, it fluffed out its feathers thus trapping the warm air around its diminutive little body. A teensy husk of fluffiness. Amazing. That’s not all, of course. Each of those species by the feeder has their own incredible ways of being. Reminds me that the world outside all our kitchen windows is astounding in so many ways.
And that doesn’t take into account the fascinating planet we live on with all its beauty and mysteries, many yet to be discovered. What about the all the breathtaking things that lie beyond our little blue ball whizzing through the galaxy? I get a kick out of looking at photos of the Milky Way with an arrow pointing to where Earth is with a big “You are here!” showing us our place in the vastness of the cosmos. It’s like a postcard you would send to someone back home when on vacation in Las Vegas.
Did you know that a gram of fertile soil can contain up to one billion bacteria, some of which haven’t been named yet? I learned that long ago in seventh grade science class. We were charged with staking out a one square yard of earth at our houses and be meticulous in observing and recording all the things we observed living in that space. What we thought was just our backyards of grass, dandelions, abandoned plastic army men who’d been cruelly dispatched with a fusillade of Black Cat firecrackers, dog turds, and other muck; in reality, turned out to be this incredible world of microorganisms, fungi, bacteria, and insects. Ever heard of nematodes? Me neither, at least not until then. Some are harmful, and can cause disease and damage to the roots of plants but some are also beneficial. They work together with bacteria to paralyze, kill and eat other harmful parasites. Who would’ve thought these battles were happening right under our noses? So interesting to think of these living things working in harmony to create a thriving and sustainable world almost invisible to us clueless Homo sapiens clumping along. Even as seventh graders, we were astounded by the intricacy of it. It’s a whole world that most of us don’t pay much attention to, yet without it, life on earth wouldn’t function. Amazing, right?
So many things in the natural world are truly astonishing. How in the world do Monarch butterflies find their way back and forth from North America to southwest Mexico each year? Their brains are the size of a head of a pin, for heaven’s sake. Or hummingbirds? Had a hummingbird feeder in front of that kitchen window of ours, and without fail, sometime mid-May there would be a male ruby throated hummingbird hovering in front of the window waiting for me to put the feeder out. Was it the same one each year? Who knows, but the fact it was waiting for me to get with program and get that feeder out made me wonder.
I also just found out that the night of this past September 1st there were 557 million birds migrating all around the country. Wisconsin alone had over 48 million migrating that night. They caught all this on weather radar which appears as massive moving clouds on their screens.
I’m not much of a birder, but have always wondered how migratory birds know what to do. How in the world do they know not only where to go, but how to find their way there? Scientists studying these things have said they use earth’s magnetic field as a sort of birdy radar - birdar. It’s also believed they combine this with the positions of the sun and moon to help them navigate. What’s got me scratching my head, though, is why do those birds that are the long-distance migrators – the ones that travel from North America to Central or South America – why do they bother coming back north in the spring? Wouldn’t it just be easier to stay right there in the tropics? Another one of those mysteries that have bird experts hypothesizing about the how and why of the whole operation.
It’s been interesting to see how in the last few years there’s been an uptick in people learning to keep honeybees. Growing up in a family of blueberry farmers, I had ample opportunity to see how these fascinating little insects live and survive. Each spring we brought in several large truckloads of hives to pollinate the blossoms. Without them, our crop would have been meager, at best. I had the opportunity to learn that there’s a very regimented hierarchy of roles that exist in the hive, without which the hive would collapse. But none is more important than the queen. She lives for about one-two years, and in that time, she can lay anywhere from 1,500 - 3,000 eggs per day. That’s more than her body weight each day. But heaven help her if she stops producing. Some of the other worker bees will surround her, and create a mass of bees known as a murderball. They actually suffocate her, or cause her to overheat; then it's curtains for the old gal. Out the front door she goes, then on to the next queen. These guys aren’t fooling around. It’s awe inspiring to realize that these little insects are responsible for allowing us to have the incredible variety of foods we eat. And they’re just a small part in this giant system of interconnected things.
When you think about it, our natural world contains an almost infinite number of amazing things from plants to animals, insects, and the unseen world of microorganisms. That doesn’t even take into account the physical forces that unify the entire universe: gravitational force, weak nuclear force, electromagnetic force, and strong nuclear force: the entire world of particle physics. Mostly incomprehensible, yet absolutely essential to keep everything working together.
The natural world isn’t the only thing that’s incredible. We humans are fascinating in our own right. The complexities of our bodies and minds, the way we learn, how we grasp languages, music, art, our creativity, our emotions, how we organize into social groups are simply mind blowing when you consider it. The ways entire civilizations rise, thrive and fall is remarkable. I’ve often wondered how the ancient Egyptians and Mayans engineered and built the pyramids only using what we’d call very rudimentary technology. And those structures, still standing, leave us scratching our heads, wondering, how’d they do that?
When we’re not cooking up ways to destroy each other and the world around us, there’s a significant number of pretty amazing things that we humans have created and accomplished, in addition to all the ancient architecture those that came long before us imagined. Here’s a few inventions I’ve come across that have, arguably, changed the world, mostly for the better: The wheel; the printing press; vaccines (in spite of what some might think); electricity; light bulb; internal combustion engine; automobile; airplane; telephone; radio; television; the internet; the computer. It’s hard to imagine what life would be like without, say, electricity. Or for us denizens of the twenty first century, the computer and internet.
Makes me wonder what comes next.
So, as I leap into this new year, I think I’ll keep on staring, keep on wondering, keep on looking out on all the amazing things right there in front of me.
“To be more childlike, you don’t have to give up being an adult. The fully integrated person is capable of being both an adult and a child simultaneously. Recapture the childlike feelings of wide-eyed excitement, spontaneous appreciation, cutting loose, and being full of awe and wonder at this magnificent universe.” – Wayne Dyer, author
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