So the other day, around 9:30 in the morning, after finishing my first and shorter job of the day, I found out that the rest of my day had suddenly been canceled, and that I was free. Taking advantage of my underemployment, I lit out for the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, over in Fort Myers. I was two thirds of the way there anyway. Sadly, I did not have my camera, even my binoculars, as I had not really planned on any such trip; so I had to make do with the monocular that I found in the woods a few years ago. I hate the thing, causes eye strain, but I always have it in my truck, just in case I need it. Ah, the first world problems of the modern wildlife watcher, eh?
I will be back there, though, to take some pictures for you all to enjoy. In fact, I'm pretty sure the slough (pronounced "slew") is my favorite place in Florida so far. I walked their boardwalk trail of a bit over a mile, moving very slow. I loved the way the cypress trees actually met in a canopy, it felt a lot like being back home in the shadowy hardwoods of Michigan. What a forest should be like, in my mind. Not that I was really comparing, because, this is a subtropical cypress swamp, not a temperate forest. The point is there I was in mostly shade, with the filtered sunlight dappling its way through from a very clear sky, and this felt good to my soul, if I may put it so.
The wildlife, according to this one guy I talked to, was very sparse, with far fewer birds and such out and about than usual. It was late morning, and cold for Florida, in the 50s and windy. But I still saw three small alligators, plenty of birds and turtles, and one close encounter with a grey squirrel. He was running down the boardwalk railing toward me, and came within a few feet of me and the above-mentioned guy. He surely saw us, as he kept running towards us, then back, dithering back and forth before finally going around on the muddy ground.
And that gets me to what I wanted to write about today. This wild animal, if only a common squirrel, only came so close because we were so quiet. I mean, we were sort of tuned in to the stillness of the forest, so we didn't immediately scare him off. This is in contrast to the other people out there that morning; quite a few at that.
It is simply amazing to me how people are when they visit parks, preserves, and nature in general. They act like they're walking around in a shopping mall, they make no adjustment in their demeanor at all. Their footfalls are so loud and heavy, or else shuffling, their gestures and motions sharp and broad, their voices ring out among the trees. Some of them even walk with their heads down, going viewing station to viewing station, I presume. Meanwhile they're missing everything, mostly from scaring it away. Then they have the nerve to complain about never seeing any wildlife!
The guy I mentioned above, he was one of the exceptions; him and his wife. They had some serious looking cameras and seemed to know what they were doing out there; they walked as soundlessly and slowly as I did, stood still a lot, and spoke to me in whispers. My kind of people. For myself, I can't help but be this way. I get out there in the trees, breathing the air, and instantly start quieting down. My motions become slower, steadier. My feet find the ground softly. My mind clears of the usual mental clutter. When I must speak, I do so quietly. It feels almost a sacrilege to speak loudly in nature, where everything is so quiet. And I don't have to think about these things, it just happens, until, within a few minutes, I'm entrained with the world around me, moving into its larger rhythm.
Standing still helps immensely. I think most people who "never see anything" when they go out in the woods must believe that they simply aren't where the wildlife is, and if they could just cover more ground, they'd find it. Quite the contrary! The world is so freaking alive that it would boggle most people's minds, even my own I'm sure, if they'd only stop moving so damn much. I'm better than many, but still a city kid by birth, a civilized man, and I know I have a long way to go to that aboriginal quietude of body and mind.
Check out the book What the Robin Knows, which goes into detail about how birds sound alarms, are tuned in to the different creatures in their world, how they flee perceived threats, and basic insight into ecosystem communities. The author states that it may take up to 40 minutes for threat levels to fall back to a background level, and it may take the neighborhood residents getting to know you as well; that is, over several visits. One thing I liked best about this book, by the way, is that it reminded me that the animals I see around my yard, live there. I mean, that blue jay, that squirrel, that hawk, is the same one I see every day, they are individuals, my neighbors. They're watching me as they watch each other, and they know the area better than I do. Their lives depend on it as mine doesn't, you see.
And of course the same is true in the woods. You walk into a forest (or anywhere), and the animals there don't know you, may not really know what to make of you. You aren't one of the locals, all of whom they know. So someone calls an alarm and everyone hides until you go off somewhere else. You are a foreign element. The least you can do is to at least move in forest ways, so you at least seem to belong a little bit. Maybe they'll be a bit less frightened and a little more curious about you, or at least indifferent.
And I can vouch for that, by the way, having thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, and only seeing, by and large, what I spooked into flight, from chipmunks and grouse to bears and moose. Hiking is great, and I highly recommend it, but the rewards of hiking lie in areas other than wildlife viewing. It's just too motion-oriented, too much hustle.