Tufted Titmouse. Photo: ©Janet Haas

By Patrick J. Doran, Director of Conservation, The Nature Conservancy Michigan/Great Lakes

A couple of years back I read “Consequential Strangers” by Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman that I frequently recall in my experiences with nature.

The book argues that there are consequential strangers in everyone’s life that impact us in unknown ways.  The authors refer to “the power of people that don’t seem to matter, but do…”.

For me, I think about the power of nature that doesn’t seem to matter, but does.

There exist those places, or combinations of places and times, that appear inconsequential but have a profound influence on who you are and how you experience the world.

I am a bit of a birder and studied birds throughout graduate school.  But an interest in birds, and birding, and more broadly, ecology and conservation did not come to me at some magical moment in my late teens or early 20s.

Rather, when I look back at my childhood, I believe certain moments catalyzed my interest and curiosity.

I can remember certain interactions that are stuck in my memory clear as day.  These are moments that in themselves no one would have ever classified as consequential.

At the time, they didn’t seem to matter.  But, eventually, they did.

My mom had birdfeeders back when I was a kid.  I’m not sure how many folks fed the birds back in the 1970s, but she did.

As you could have guessed, I was the one who had to tromp down to the garage, pull on my snow boots and lug the bag of birdseed out to the side yard to fill the feeders.  I used to sit on the top of the couch looking out the window.

One day an incredibly mysterious bird showed up.  I ran to grab my mom and we dug through an old beat up Peterson’s bird guide to identify this bird as the not-so-mysterious Tufted Titmouse.

The very inconsequential Tufted Titmouse.  One individual, one moment, a regular back yard in regular Ohio, and a very common bird.

But an interaction that had consequences.

This simple event taught me so much – the excitement of discovery, a bit of taxonomy, the art of observation.

We studied the field marks – the tuft atop the bird’s head, blue-grey coloring with a white belly and reddish-orange sides.   And good ‘ol Peterson didn’t let us down.

I still have a check mark next to the Peterson’s description of that bird.

I grew up in a small town in northeast Ohio.  While we lived right in town, our house sat on 27 wooded acres boardered to the south by Conneaut Creek.  I spent many minutes and hours and days wandering around in these woods.

Time that most would agree was indeed consequential to my upbringing.  But within those formative times, there were many seemingly small moments.

One still in my memory was my first sighting of a Belted Kingfisher.  Again, nothing rare, but an odd-looking bird nonetheless.

One bird, one moment, one spot, but what did that one individual leave me with?

The interaction of a species and its habitat – it was tied to that creek and needed to perch in spots with a clear line of sight; a sense of wildness – this was not a bird I saw in my front yard; its call – a long rattle that to this day still makes me turn my head every time I hear it.  One moment, one bird, one spot, but many lessons.

Seemingly inconsequential, but yet it remains with me to this day.

Looking back to those days leaves one more stuck in my mind.  The first time I saw a Great Blue Heron.  On the same creek, but closer to to the confluence with Lake Erie.  We were fishing on a boat and rounded a corner to startle the great blue heron into flight.

It lifted off, crooked neck, graceful and almost pre-historic to my young eyes.  I had never seen a creature quite like it.

Great Blue Heron: Photo: ©Kent Mason
Great Blue Heron: Photo: ©Kent Mason

These experiences make me wonder about the nature that I’ve never met.  And they make me curious about the consequential nature that will influence my children.

Last summer, my family had the pleasure of visiting Isle Royale National Park.  Very consequential, even though some might think otherwise.

Grand wilderness, remote, wolves & moose, and the amazing power of Lake Superior.  But surrounded by all this grandeur, my little 9-year-old wonder girl, Carly, had her most consequential moment spending a quiet hour playing on the rocks along the shore.

With the immense Lake Superior gently lapping on the rocks, Carly took delight in the sticks and rocks and moss and puddles and a small slug.

Of all the moments we experienced in the backcountry of Isle Royal, she remembers the slug most clearly.  Consequential indeed.

I can’t predict; my parents couldn’t have predicted.  They probably don’t even have the faintest recollection of the stories I relayed above.  But the one thing that I do know is that nature has provided the experience.

And this is why I work for nature.  I want to make sure that opportunities to explore the natural world are available to all people to learn these simple life lessons – observation, reflection, wonder, patience.

I want to make sure that our children take advantage of these opportunities.  They can be right out your backdoor, regardless of where you live.

Opinions expressed on Conservancy Talk and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conservancy

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Comments

  1. Beautiful article!

  2. My 7-year-old nephew is coming to visit next week. You have inspired me to do what I can to get him interested, even briefly, in the wonderful birds visiting our yard. So I pulled out a branch, meant for the woodpile, that had woodpecker holes of various sizes, and have set it aside to show him (along with a Peterson’s and maybe a Sibley’s open to woodpeckers). Thanks for the reminder that some loves start so young and last a lifetime.

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