When I was 21, I took a tour of Belize and Guatemala in rickety bus with 14 random strangers who would have been great characters for a Broadway play. There was the lady who thought she’d been bitten by a vampire bat and ran off to find a local shaman. There was the British Imperialist magazine writer who who wanted to buy a pig and stake it out so we could attract a jaguar. There was the tour guide who abandoned us so he could rescue a tapir from a well. Oh, and let’s not forget the matronly lady with the inescapable grinding voice who complained about every single thing.
But there was this couple—a friendly couple. The man had powers. He could find animals. Anywhere. He could find a speck on a hillside and it would be a toucan. His skill was almost magical. I craved it. Years later, I found his magic was a hunter skill that comes from practice, year after year. Experienced birders have it. Now, I have it, too. Someone can say, “See that warbler?” And I can often find that bird without any additional directions in about two seconds, 60 feet up in a distant tree.
I can barely remember what it was like not to be able to separate the layered calls of forest birds and identify them. It seems strange to remember a time when I didn’t know the insects, the plants, the ecological layers, and how to snap to see the slightest animal movement at the corner of my eyes. My husband and I have led rain forest tours to Panama and helped others who felt just like I once did—like they’ll never see that animal everyone else is seeing. Yet this skill comes with time and practice.
Another thing that comes with time and this particular career is an absurd amount of information about the natural world. At first, I had knowledge because I wrote so many books about biomes, endangered species, and environmental issues. (Okay, so I also have a biology degree from Duke.) Back then, before google, I dug through academic libraries for much of my information about taiga, tundra, acid rain, global warming, and the like. Yes, the book stuff migrated to my brain. Before that, I’d written dozens upon dozens of articles for encyclopedias, conservation newsletters, and geography texts while working at National Wildlife Federation and the National Geographic Society.
Yet what came later was the slow, personal accumulation of nature experiences. I’d marvel to see the route of roots, the decay of leaves, the neon flashes of squid, the hatching of sea turtles. Often I’d think: So it really is this way! It really works like they say. Because I had already read about, and often written about, that ecological unfolding.
The seeds for my book Trout Are Made of Trees were planted in an ecology class at Duke. The professor discussed the leaves and the algae and fungi on the leaves as peanut butter on crackers. Lots of aquatic larvae go for the peanut butter even more than the crackers. What can I say? Food metaphors stick with me. Yet it was personal experience cleaning out the skimmer in our water garden 20 years later that got me thinking about aquatic larvae again. Then, one day, the leaf/stream connection was simmering as I stood looking at the stream. The words, “Trout Are Made of Trees” came to mind and I could feel the voice of the book coming over me.
What I write about, I live and breathe. Or, should I say, my husband and I live and breathe. He works at home. We stop our work and look at and discuss squirrels or birds or opossums or deer or plants or seeds about 20 times a day. That adds up over the years. Even the years when he was working outside of the home, he’d come back to a full report of home wildlife happenings and he’d have plant knowledge to share as an ecological consultant and director of a native plant nursery. And then there is the daily reading of science magazines and watching of science programs and listening to science on the radio.
In case you are wondering who I was on that bus in Belize—that could-have-been-a Broadway play bus—I’ll just say I’m not above reproach. I am the gullible, adventuresome 21-year old who all alone went with three strangers (not on the tour) for a spontaneous private tour of hidden, off track rooms with jaguar etchings in the temples of Tikal in Guatemala Yes, I am the one who trekked through the jungle with these strangers who did not speak my language as the sun set and insects glowed on trees and search parties combed the forest to find me. Sorry, fellow travelers. I can only say I’ve learned a couple of things since then.