The Ecosystem Collector
If you look closely at a well-worn pair of field boots, they no doubt show a record of the wild places you most often visited. Nicks, gouges, scrapes, and cuts tell tales of the adventures and landscapes encountered. Muddy lugs, seeds in the laces, wear patterns, inform much about the territory you trod, whether flat, rocky, mucky, weedy, or full of thorns. On a personal level, boots link the wearer with the outdoor settings they traveled through, and allow us to discover intricate and hidden layers of nature. While just sitting in a corner, they can whisper their stories to us through the memories they bring to mind. As a lad, my curiosity compelled me to explore the nature of landscapes. Over a lifetime of wandering, many of my boots entered retirement with rips and flapping soles, but I usually kept them around a while for nostalgia’s sake. A half-dozen worn-out pairs used to sit idle but not forgotten on the basement stairs. They brought warm feelings to mind when I’d grab a working pair, eager to take them afield. Those retired boots reminded me of my connections with nature and landscapes in the way they gave me access to the wonders I had seen. The experiences awakened insights and truths about myself and the human condition. They allowed me to step into wild places far away and to explore aging puddles just down the lane. Rugged footwear got me there and back, and I never would have collected so many ecosystems through my wanderings without them.
How is it that some of us find a soothing peace when surrounded by natural landscapes, while others cannot see the proverbial forests—except for the trees? Some don’t even see the trees, let alone the bark and leaves. Many do not grasp how the forests connect with other realms of nature and the complex rhythms of our planet. And how can some remain unimpressed by the wonders in trunks, stems, buds and twigs?
Then too, I have always felt a soothing calm in the sounds of gurgling streams. There I heard the songs of the river stones, telling tales of ancient flows and events along their banks. They sang of all the wild animals that had come by to drink the cool water, swim in the gentle current and nest among the sedges and rushes. The songs told stories of my childhood exploring small creeks, watching frogs, crayfish, and minnows go about their lives.
Years ago, I had a friend who expressed doubts about the enjoyments obtainable from exploring natural places. He asked me, “Who really needs trees all over the hills and valleys? What would be the problem if most of them did not exist?” He had a college education, a professional position in the financial field, and lived as a productive citizen from dense east coast suburbia.
In response to his question, I began enumerating the ecological values of forests and natural landscapes. But soon I realized it did not matter. Nothing I said lessened his preference for a concrete and steel environment where the incessant blinking of mechanical traffic signals maintained order.
The sentiment prevails for many urban dwellers and rural inhabitants alike. They are content with an occasional visit to the local park. Not everyone, though, considers the smell of mowed grass a satisfying nature experience. In fact, many more people than ever are exploring the great outdoors beyond brick-and-mortar enclaves. Comparisons with the Outdoor Foundation’s annual participation reports show that outdoor participation has continued to grow at record levels. Most Americans ages six and above took part in a recent outdoor activity. And the total number of nature recreation participants recently grew to over one-and- a-half million.
The number of enthusiasts fifty-five years and older has increased over fourteen percent within the last few years compared with younger people. Perhaps an old saw provides an answer—with age, wisdom may come. Seniors seem to know that as the pressures of modern living have increased, nature experiences help them defuse and maintain a sense of well-being.
Non-seniors in general would likely spend just as much time with nature if it were not for their more schedule-laden lives. That more individuals of all ages are heading into the countryside shows a deep attraction humans have for the natural world.
Sometimes, though, I wondered if non-nature lovers like my former colleague might have thought I needed an intervention. They probably would recommend I undertake a twelve-step program to cure my dependency on natural phenomena. Perhaps they felt I should seek help through group therapy with similarly obsessed souls—those with bramble scratch-tracks on their arms, who itched with poison ivy for another nature-fix. One where they longed to bask in the euphoria of a natural endorphin-high in some remote woodsy glen.
Though I didn’t know of any group program with a name like “Ecological Anonymous,” I could imagine myself standing before a crowd, unkempt in muddy hiking boots and tattered field vest. There, at the behest of others, I would search for the magic words of admission that would set me on a fresh path toward a cure from wilderness-addiction. To introduce myself, I might say, “Hello, my name is Joel...and I’m an ecosystem collector.”
Like-minded folks in the audience might nod with understanding. They would know what it was like to gouge their skin with needle punctures from the devil’s walking stick and locust thorns they stumbled into on their last visit to a nearby forest. Perhaps their responses would sound soothing—“We’ve been there too, brother, lost amid prickly thickets.”
Encouraged, I might confess. “I’m an eco-high freak.”
“We all feel your mosquito pains,” they would mutter.
Such encouragement would allow me to continue my confession. “I realize now, ecosystem collecting is a dirty thing to do, sneaking around in muddy places and poking into the private affairs of innocent floral and faunal inhabitants, and then spying on them with a hand lens, binoculars, and plant identification guides.”
Beads of sweat might form on my brow as I admitted to more disturbing behavior. “I’ve hugged trees without their consent...or any regard to their sexual preferences or pronouns.”
The clearing of throats would echo off the stark walls, along with halting whispers.
“I swear, though, it was only to measure their girth and take naked photos for my field investigations— nothing more; I didn’t even publish them on social media for revenge. And my personal relationships with trees meant nothing. Believe me...I did it for science.”
My voice would falter. “Sometimes I...”, then my head bowed—“I...ugh, kidnapped some of nature’s residents as a kid, like fireflies and hellgrammites.” My inner pain would force me to face myself—”And I would...would...,” searching for the right words, hardly able to go on, tears glistening in my eyes. “I held them hostage in glass jars,” I might croak, “...until they died. Or I put pins through their bodies and mounted them on cardboard panels. I made them my personal possessions,” I would wail, acknowledging my guilt as a serial collector.
By now uncomfortable rustlings might spread among the folding chairs. I’d hear shoes scuffle on the hard wooden floor; someone may bend down as though heaving, and another from the back might call out hoarsely, “Me too.”
My head nodded in their direction. “But, as I grew older, I’ve just never been able to stop myself—or hide my enthusiasm for stalking natural habitats beyond my front door.”
I could picture the empathy in their eyes. They knew what it was like to get a big score—connecting with some rare ecosystem experience. The sympathizers in the audience would know what I meant about the rush that could come from immersing yourself in one of nature’s unique corners, or somewhere down rabbit holes filled with unexpected awe.
Those peers would recognize that enlightenment was attainable from occasionally enveloping themselves in a natural setting. Like me, many could appreciate the flow of energy that pulsed through an ecosystem while we stood at its edge or waded into its heart.
From where did this craving for eco-highs come? I sometimes wondered. I wasn’t sure, but I knew a cure wouldn’t come for a long while—I hadn’t hit rock bottom yet, nor did I even really want to change myself.
In time, I learned my eco-high experiences came partly from a deeper understanding of the inner workings of ecosystems from my experiences and career in ecological science. Benefits came from bringing basic knowledge with me into the field about nature and habitats. It could produce a deeper, richer experience than a jog, bike ride, or power hike through the woods. Yet, I preferred to slow-travel the landscapes. Then I could feel more serene from the release of natural hormones and neurotransmitters. These “happy hormones” boost a person’s mood, emotions, and even cognitive function. You can produce them through activities like mild exercise, enjoying a meal with loved ones, meditation, social interaction, and laughing until your sides want to split.
How lucky we are that nature experiences alone can do the same. Combining them with other hormone- inducing activities makes for the ultimate in natural highs—it’s called healthy living and improving your sense of well-being.
Hundreds of studies have shown this, including those involving thousands of people. It takes only about two hours for an average person to get a large enough dose of nature to express a strong sense of well-being from an outdoor experience.
But wait, there’s more. Not only do nature experiences give us positive moods, but they also provide physical benefits. Studies have shown that safely spending time immersed in nature reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, anxiety, and nervous behavior. Wild experiences also enhance immune system function and increase self-esteem. In other studies, researchers in psychiatry found that spending quality time in nature reduced feelings of isolation and social disconnection. I gained all of these at one time or another.
Now we know why so many people find enchantment with nature experiences of all types. Research shows these results are available from many types of green spaces. These include local parks and the countryside, as well as blue spaces like coastlines, lakes, and rivers. And it does not matter that the participants come from different occupations, ethnic groups, income levels, or have chronic illnesses and disabilities. It is easy to lose yourself mentally in a natural setting, even simpler ones. In my own wanderings, I felt my drooping spirits become elevated when I would go afield. It happened whether I walked along a bubbling stream or sat on a log in a brushy meadow watching birds at dawn. Sometimes nothing was more important than going off into the woods and contemplating the frog chorus of a vernal pool.
This sense of connectedness humans feel with other living things is called “biophilia.” It is an instinctual emotional response that developed through natural selection to improve our ability as sentient beings to survive in an indifferent world. Our affiliation with nature is thus a functional adaptation rooted in our DNA. Like many intrinsic traits, though, it is modifiable and can get suppressed in those who spend their lives within cityscapes and indoors.
As our human ancestors spread across the world, they occupied every habitat imaginable. When they discovered enough resources, they called those places home and sought to protect them as territories. Natural selection favored individuals that felt emotionally attached to the environments that provided for their physical needs.
Nature promoted this biophilia connectedness through our sense of contentment when we communed with wild places. People do not need to love their job, their living space or much else. But as humankind evolved, practical living required that we love the natural world in order to survive well within it. Nature always brings humankind back to reality. Millions of edible plants have provided nutrition and medicines for humans since we emerged on the planet’s landscapes. What better evidence of our inherent connections with nature do we need than that?
Our attraction to nature and wild places remains just as functional today, because whether we realize it, our kind still depends on the natural world to sustain our individual lives. Humans would not continue to thrive without access to the plants, animals, and ecosystems that occupy the landscapes and waters of the world.
They are the sources of oxygen, drinking water, food, and materials we use in our homes, our tools, and the means to care for those we love. Even concrete, steel, and plastics originate from natural materials. All raw materials come from nature; we cannot escape them.
The mechanisms that promoted biophilia during human evolution remain in our genome. Science tells us human connections with nature preceded those we had with gods and spirits. As our cognitive minds evolved, so did sentience and our need to make existential sense of the world. Our ancestors, like Homo erectus, began asking “why” questions about their harsh and fearful lives, but it is believed they had limited means to find satisfying answers.
Nature experiences filled their lives, and as sentience evolved, natural selection favored suites of genes that motivated individuals to seek explanations for phenomena and events. Genes that supported spiritual explanations and contentment made our ancestors’ lives easier, more successful. Our “happy hormone” physiology and personality traits evolved along with and supported this genetic association between nature and spirituality.
General spirituality surely is a complex trait influenced by many genes and cultural influences. Organized religious teachings do not necessarily conflict with our inherent need to live in harmony with nature. Many developed from ancient nature worship long before any supreme being may have informed anyone of its omnipotence.
Formalized institutional religions grew as civilization replaced tribal living and individual connections with nature. Spirituality comes in many forms, but they all involve the acceptance of a feeling that something of meaning exists that is greater than oneself, a belief that being human is more than sensory experience.
Such feelings kept bringing me back to wild places where I could never remain just a nature-looker. I needed more than merely standing at the perimeter of inspiring places. I felt compelled to enter them and engage all my senses, listening to their sounds, watching and smelling the processes of life there, touching the soil and rocks, and tasting the air and water. More than that, though, I wanted to know why ecosystems thrived where they did, and what makes them persist.
Like most people, I quick-visited the iconic places too, like the Grand Canyon where crowds ogle for fifteen minutes before heading to the souvenir shop. But when time afforded, I took the slow-travel approach. That meant taking days to explore remote corners of famous and popular places like the national parks of America.
Many people have done as much or more, allowing them to collect such ecosystems and personal memories about their immersive visits. For me, the best were those slower journeys where I melted into the landscape, felt its pulse, and discovered its secrets.
Along the way to such places, I would read the landscape, stopping to examine wild patches away from the tourist routes. My thoughts ran deep where old, covered wagon ruts from pioneers remained in the soils of wide-open prairies. I marveled at ancient bristlecone pine forests in California’s White Mountains that still thrived after nearly five thousand years. In Utah, my imagination pondered once-lush Jurassic landscapes while my finger traced ancient dinosaur tracks etched into a remote desert.
Profundity and inspiration came to me in the Joyce Kilmer old-growth grove in North Carolina. I once found and touched the bark of the world’s tallest tree named Hyperion in a fog-drenched coastal redwood tract. How marvelous, I thought, when I visited General Sherman, the planet’s largest organism, as it towered over lesser sequoias. I wandered through smoking calderas, felt the heat of the lowest place in North America, Death Valley. Sometime later, I chartered a light plane in Alaska and flew within feet of America’s highest point. There, the peak of “Denali”—Mount McKinley—pierced the clouds.
Other roads took me to the summit of Maine’s Cadillac Mountain, where the sun’s rays first reach America each day. I’ve studied sunsets coast to coast and north to south. On Florida’s dunes I monitored sea turtle hatchings, where clutches of them pushed above their sandy nests at night and dashed to the surf as though their lives depended on it, which they did.
In the middle of small brushy fields, I have watched woodcocks perform their beautiful mating sky-dance at dusk, spiraling upward nearly out of sight, then fluttering downward with twittering sounds before landing exactly where they launched.
For weeks I tracked bald eagles to their nests to monitor their young and map their ranges. On a wild barrier island, I watched a flock of wild turkeys with hatchlings wander along the beach, dabbling in the surf. I’ve marveled at networks of winding river channels, remote canyons, tiny flowers in alpine meadows and the diversity of coral reefs.
Odd how my job required me once to travel for days through the mountain hollows of West Virginia to investigate towns flooded by the raging Tug Fork River. Without roads, the only access involved driving a maintenance truck with iron wheels that ran on top of railroad tracks. One day, the route unexpectedly led to a wilderness hilltop where a secluded family brewed sorghum molasses using a mule to grind the stalks. How delicious it tasted later on my breakfast pancakes. It seemed I had stepped into a depression-era landscape where mountain folk survived on old-time skills.
I’ve taken the scenic route on slow trains through the wilderness, sailed on vintage schooners and river boats, and watched rural landscapes float by in a hot-air balloon. Slow-traveled memories linger longest in my mind. They are the nature experiences I like to add most to my personal eco-collection.
Such marvelous natural wonders made me want to enter landscapes as an explorer rather than a tourist...but I ran both ways as often as possible. In either case, I hungered for a more intense natural high. And I liked to season my outdoor excursions with some practical knowledge to experience the most emotional nourishment from nature.
Add in a smidgin of reflective thought, a dose of curiosity, and a pinch of spicy adventure, and tasty facets of nature usually appeared that I never knew existed. I learned early on that nature is abundant with hidden layers of meaning. But uncovering landscape layers requires a good deal of digging, and understanding them comes from keen observation.
Plumb nature’s layers and you can find clues to the eternal existential questions of who, what, where, when, why and how. When we make our own footprints toward the truth of things and find it, we earn the epiphanies that follow about the world, and ourselves. If we are not willing to accept the truths about our inner self, how can we expect others to take our thoughts about anything seriously?
Not everyone has easy access to nature. But satisfying experiences do not always require going very far from home or taking extraordinary steps to find a suitable level of eco-immersion. Ecosystems come in all sizes, including puddles, springs, and tiny lazy creeks. Dallying among even simple ones can produce a sense of peace and gratitude for those willing to pause awhile outdoors.
Those who cannot access outdoor ecosystems can still find blissful nature. Thousands around the world gain eco-highs with daily nature documentaries, books, movies, and videos from wild places all over the planet. These days we can watch hours of live safaris on websites in real-time, observing wild animals and habitats in the wild. The internet is full of drone excursions that allow viewers to fly through natural landscapes. Live webcams for virtually every type of landscape and habitat are available for observing nature.
Or, you could watch life unfold within a small terrarium, an aquarium, geraniums in a window pot, pet behavior, or a patch of backyard flowers. Some people insist on keeping their homes spotless as a chemistry lab, purged of all life except theirs and a few mammal pets. But if you are not among them, you can enjoy a bit of nature inside by watching a benign little jumping spider stalk an ant on a window jamb, as I am doing right now.
No need to rush to the phone and call “Pest-Control 911,” unless you see an invasion developing. If you feel sweaty about it or have heart palpitations seeing insects, then chances are you are not really a nature lover.
Whether engaging nature in the wild or at home, I prefer to include an encounter in my eco-collection if I have actively gained something meaningful from it. This requires interacting through observations and reflection on how the experience relates to other aspects of life and living.
Meaning might include increased knowledge, new insights, inspiration, gratitude, an uplifted mood providing a sense of well-being or adventure. This deeper involvement makes our nature visits worth collecting and turns them into meaningful memories.
With each visit to special places, our subconscious gauges the similarities and differences between them. It finds patterns and makes judgments about the significance of the natural settings investigated. Those of greater significance to us get stored in our long-term memories. We can retrieve them to boost flagging spirits and help us through rough patches in our lives. Additional connections of meaning form with newer nature experiences. If we continue to pay attention, we may find kernels of wisdom about nature, ourselves, and humankind.
More than that, a sense of connection and comprehension may emerge. Epiphanies can clear away confusions the way sunshine evaporates foggy mornings. Such clarity can remind a person how they, too, are an integral part of it all. It can enlighten a troubled mind on how we belong to something much grander, more complex, and wondrous than ourselves, our neighborhood, our worries.
In order to appreciate nature deeply, I found a humble spirit works best, along with a sense of reality as well as compassion. Objectivity can free a mind that is too narrowly focused or emotionally driven. Reason and rational thinking can offer a larger perspective on matters as we search for pathways to wisdom. But when we arrive at a fork in our path to wisdom, both trails need exploring, for wisdom requires a comparison to gain perspective. And perspective can change minds and the world for the better.
Such cognitive expansion regarding nature goes beyond feelings of nature as cute or superficially entertaining. If watching a shooting star does not make you think about your place in the cosmos, then you are not trying hard enough.
Deeper, richer engagements with the outdoors using knowledge and understanding can temper raw passions. Emotionalism without the braking system afforded by a proper dose of reason neglects a million years of advanced human cognition. This ability involves symbolic thinking, language skills, and memory. Keen short-term memory seems to have been the final critical step toward modern cognition in humans. It is only when it fades that we realize its value. Cognitive thinking allows the brain to retrieve, process and hold in mind several chunks of information all at one time to complete a task. This sophisticated type of short-term memory involves the ability to hold something in the mind while one is being distracted by something else. It allows us to invent things, develop sequential steps in a process, find the best solutions, see critical patterns, and change our direction.
We now call it multitasking. And it is crucial for problem solving, strategizing, innovating, and planning. This kind of cognition is challenging for many people today because it requires intentional thinking effort. Lazy thinkers miss out on the more intricate splendors of nature. Most humans embrace routines because they are reliable for delivering familiar results quickly.
It is easier to stick to routine tasks, putting the brain on autopilot, like when you drive your car to work, eat the same food, or take the same walk every day. You think little about the mechanics of the task, letting your subconscious take over.
This is frequently a useful strategy for routines, but wringing higher benefits from wild landscapes and immersive nature experiences requires more. It involves a conscious and deliberative approach involving close observation and contemplation. Richer experiences can come when our cognitive minds become part of the experience.
As important as cognition is to find greater meaning in the natural world, it is unnecessary to worship nature as a religion. Appreciating nature and wilderness landscapes can help unlock spiritual portals within ourselves, but nature is not spiritual itself. Landscapes and climates do not care whether you relate to them like a modern pagan or radical environmentalist. Nature is indifferent and does not dispense favors to supplicants—no matter how loud they wail or engage in rituals.
Begging is useless on the seas of life. It cannot make a storm end, the waves subside or rogue whales leave you alone. Nature always has the helm and we may sometimes avert disaster with our actions. We may alter course to avoid the shoals, and sail faster or slower, but nature allows us the voyage and eventually blows us where we may not wish to go. Yet, without the seas, no journey is possible, whether it involves oceans or life.
Our advanced cognition, however, allows us to speculate and form beliefs about the role of intelligent design. Nature provides the mechanisms, science helps explain them, and spirituality allows us to tolerate nature’s rigors. Beliefs and faith are forms of spirituality that help us deal with such concerns in a brutal world. They are like intuition, insight, and inspiration, in that they do not require cognitive analysis. Nature can awaken our spirituality so we can find wonder, eureka moments, whimsy, and coincidence on the landscapes we visit. The unexpected is most always our trail-mate. As it turned out, I never joined a support group for nature addicts. I preferred getting hooked on chlorophyll-packed meadows, fresh breezes, mossy slopes, canopied forests, and mysterious watery realms. I never became tired of seeking rocky mountain highs and mind-bending experiences in low-lying meadows.
Excursions into landscapes for adding ecosystems to your cognitive collection need not entail complicated tactical journeys to far-off places. There is much to gain from an average backyard, a flowing ditch or weedy lot downtown. A curious mind can lead to an hour watching gulls bicker over crumbs and chum at the docks, or studying a line of ants carrying dinner leftovers from your countertop. Such fascinations are not just for kids, and anyone can explore the ecosystem in the rock pile by the driveway or the brushy border behind the petunia patch.
And once you gain an understanding of simpler ecosystems, other more complex and layered wild places await to make your list. Challenging opportunities exist out there towards the horizon and beyond the pavement. One just needs to step into their landscapes to find them. Make the most of nature opportunities where you find them.
Sometimes when one goes afield, it is enough just to pay attention to what is going on around you. Concentrate and engage your senses—sniff the air, listen for natural sounds, move your eyes over the scene, stopping to focus on anything interesting.
Even things that do not appear important may hold surprising secrets if you watch and wait. Feel benign textures—bark, stalks of grass, dew on leaves, a handful of stream water. Follow the contours of buds and twigs, which are as unique for every species as fingerprints are for people. Field guides can help with identifying types of plants and where they live—even in winter. Learn to walk, focus, and think about the living realm you are traversing.
For better field experiences, take along a larger perspective about where you go. Before embarking, you can view satellite images of a landscape that show how a place fits within the greater region around it. Interrelationships between landforms and ecosystems become apparent on topographic and vegetation cover maps.
A superb source for these is the Ecoregion Maps and their descriptions available from the U.S. EPA’s internet site, or many others that help you locate the ones of interest. They depict the general boundaries of every area of the country at four increasing levels of detail. In my office, I used to keep a wall-sized printed version I would study before going into an unfamiliar landscape. It allowed me to know in advance the kinds of plants, geology, and geographic features to expect before going afield. In the U.S. alone, nearly a thousand different ecoregions fill the most detailed map, and each one is available for collecting—if you can get there and plant your feet in it or wade its waters. Consider basing your list as an eco-collector on these ecoregion categories; it’s a great way to organize them by type and landscapes.
Most of the ecoregions described in this book are based on the EPA’s Level III and IV categories from 1987. Each classification carries a name and number code in the chapters. Level III categories have a whole number, while Level IV carry the same number plus a letter. Representative Level III ecoregions and codes are listed in the Appendix. However, you may decide that Level II or even Level I is suitable for your ecosystem collecting purposes. Full descriptions and maps are available from the EPA’s official website:
Most states and other countries have their own regional descriptions, some based on the EPA classifications. The Counsel for Ecological Cooperation (CEC) has modified those categories and codes. Ecoregions can put the landscapes you visit in an ecological context and should form part of any ecosystem collection toolkit.
With maps and satellite images, you can gain a bird’s-eye view of the landscape you wish to visit. Use them to imagine yourself as a hawk soaring high aloft over a complex of marshes, woods, fields, ponds, and streams. Let your eyes roam over the aerial scene. Details will tell what is going on down below. You may not be interested in spotting a field mouse for breakfast like the hawk, but you will see things in context.
With that larger perspective, along with topographic maps, your view of nature will allow you to understand why things exist where they do. When I am searching for ecosystems to add to my collection, I think of all the physical connections, processes, functional layers, diversity, and curious lives that are going about their business. These hint of the food webs and energy pathways that underlie a landscape.
Once you have grasped the context, it is time to set out and begin your wildscapes ramble. Nothing wrong, though, in just slipping into a benign natural place with little preparation and looking at details. But if you first focus on amoebas, flagellates, and ciliates from under a microscope lens, you aren’t likely to know whether they came from a pond, wetland, stream eddy, or your neighbor’s own gut. From a medical perspective, you may not care. But ecologists and nature lovers want to know because the species involved can tell them about the health of an entire ecosystem. That is why an initial bird’s-eye view is important.
Perhaps you find it difficult to think like a hawk, and if so, then virtually hop into the basket of a hot-air balloon that rises above a city. Close your eyes and picture yourself a few hundred feet high in your wicker perch, drifting through a Piedmont landscape on a sunny afternoon. As you float along with the breeze, country landscapes replace city structures. The air becomes clearer and smells fresher, fewer noises from below reach your basket. More diversity in landforms and terrain appears, and water in ponds and lakes sparkle, streams and rivers dissect the topography, and a myriad of different colors cover ridges and valleys.
You get a similar view from an aircraft, but faster and less satisfying. The balloon lets you slow-travel the landscape. Sweep your eyes over the mosaic of living communities and observe how they connect to each other. Look where their edges meet and you will see transition zones called ecotones. These are hybrid ecosystems, vigorous with mixtures of adjacent habitats. Streams thread between woods and fields, and lead to soggy habitats containing marsh and swamp communities. Your balloon follows gentle slopes and rolling hills that lead to enticing valleys where meadows, pastures and farm fields carpet the landscape in natural hues.
The view from your balloon is like what the hawk sees soaring nearby. Fundamentally, the difference is the meaning the scene offers. The hawk does not recognize beauty, and the meaning it gains stems from its hunting and navigational motivations. As a sentient human, however, floating through the sky does not satisfy any instinctual motivation because nature never designed us for flying or hanging about in high places. So, when we go aloft, many of us feel disoriented and even fearful at first. Soon, though, your mind adapts and becomes free to soar into higher planes of appreciation and cerebral thoughts.
Whether in a balloon basket, aircraft, or high atop a panoramic vista, my heartbeat would quicken. I would feel a sense of wonder and curiosity about the landscapes below. In the balloon. I wanted to be lowered down from the basket and explore the details and niches of the places that caught my attention.
While high among the breezes, I would think of the incalculable number of creatures and plants carrying out their lives on the ground and in the waters below. Everywhere, from the tiniest microbes and plankton to the largest trees and beasts—energy, nutrients, and water undergo processing and transformation.
Earth abounds with life. It is in the biosphere, on the landscapes and in the bucket of muddy water you left by the backdoor for a week. Worlds to explore lie in the humblest of places. How marvelous it is to behold their essence—the inherent beauty, perseverance, and ingenuity nature exudes in finding endless ways to manifest.
While looking down from your floating balloon, marvel that far below, wherever there is a suitable niche, some form of life likely has made a home there. And if we appreciate such qualities in nature, we gain new insights. Eco-explorers may find their own place in those grand cycles and the important roles we all play as integrated inhabitants of the ecoregion where we dwell.
Millions of vibrant, unexplored ecosystems remain in the world, and new habitats pop-up each season. Many of those might exist near your home. Inevitably, they will change, so before they do, why not spend a little time getting to know them better? When you insert yourself into a wild place, even for a short time, and you gain something meaningful from the experience, then your collection of ecosystems will grow. You may become an even more enlightened person by intentionally slow-traveling landscapes, and you are likely to feel good about more things in your life.
Ecosystem collecting can be habit-forming. Once I started tripping through natural landscapes, nature continued to supply me with regular eco-highs. It was exhilarating to stand ankle-deep before a crowd of spring peepers in a wet meadow on a warm April night. Perhaps someday you will find yourself in some place similar, and you may feel sufficiently confident to make your confession. Address it to the audience of frogs, toads, and salamanders attentively listening from the water’s edge. You might start off with, “Hello, I’m [your name], and I’m an ecosystem collector.”