One of my favorite photographs is the one of a young chimpanzee reaching out to touch Jane Goodall’s face. This photograph was taken many months after Jane has started quietly and patiently observing the chimpanzees. Eventually her patience paid off and the chimps felt safe enough to make contact. I love the idea of being so close to nature that nature wants to touch you back.
Last month I had a wildlife encounter of the entomological kind. I was in Spruce Woods Provincial Park to observe the insect pollinators of the rare Hairy Prairie Clover (Dalea villosa) plant. Like Jane, I found that that the best way to ensure good observations was to simply sit down, keep still and shut up. Movement, especially sudden ones, and noise frightens the insects away. Fortunately for me it doesn’t take months for insects to become accustomed to you. After a few minutes of sitting still all sorts of marvelous insects the like of which I’ve never seen before were swarming over the plants.
As it turns out I wasn’t the only creature interested in observing strange animals. I was the subject of much curiosity by my backbone-challenged subjects. A long-legged wasp investigated my camera bag. Then, a shiny copper bug landed on my hand and probed me with its proboscis. A grasshopper jumped on my shoe and began delicately nibbling one of my laces. A large cicada landed on my hip with a loud thump to check me out. But the most thrilling moment was when a beautiful black butterfly landed on my wrist and started licking me to get the salts in my sweat. It tickled and I giggled. Then I sobered and got a bit teary: this lovely creature trusted me enough to make contact so that it could obtain something it needed to survive.
Read any scientific paper and you are presented with cold, hard facts and stoic observations. Emotions do not belong in scientific journals. Conclusions are restricted to what the data can tell you. Scientists are trained to do this but it gives the public a distorted perception of what we are really like. I don’t know any field biologists that don’t love nature, and haven’t been deeply and profoundly moved by what they’ve seen. Jane Goodall learned something a long time ago: just as the animals being observed are changed by their experience, so is the observer. In observing nature, you grow to love it and are compelled to help save it because you see the truth of our reality: we are all connected, and in losing a species we lose a part of ourselves.