Wild Neoteny

Annual Wildflower Festival Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Annual Wildflower Festival
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
“Hey, stop the truck!” my wife called from the passenger seat, her nose pressed against the window. I already knew what this was about; she was out the door before the dust had cleared the hood, kneeling in the grass. While she hovered over something newly found with purple petals, I stared out across the high, open meadow of blooming wildflowers, the urge to run surging into my feet. I turned at her exclamation several seconds later, half a football field of colored space between us now. Arms spread wide; grins from ear to ear. In a field of wildflowers, we were kids again.

Scientists call it neoteny, the retention of juvenile features in the adult of a species—basically, the harboring of a playful nature into adulthood. The research into the benefits of play, especially outdoor play, is becoming more replete by the day. In humans, play puts the right hemisphere of the brain into gear, that portion responsible for artistic and creative notions, imagination and insight, and holistic thought. The cerebellum and frontal lobes light up as well, increasing attunement to coordination, executive functioning, and contextual memory development. Neoteny, scientists say, is the key to a species’ adaptability and, therefore, its survival.

Alpine Pond Upper Flowers Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Alpine Pond Upper Flowers
Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Wild neoteny could be the term used to describe the human affinity to explore one’s natural surroundings, to wander off into the hills in search of something new and interesting, to learn the nuance of a place and to gain some intimacy with it—to call it home. We do that, I think, when we go on hikes into the wild hinterlands, catapult ourselves down the turbulent waters of our rivers, or climb the rock faces we stumble upon. It’s an adrenaline rush to be sure, a high on life as they say; but it’s also an act of survival—and of remaining human.

Robin Moore, a professor at North Carolina State University, says “the natural environment is the principle source of sensory stimulation….” “Sensory experiences,” he says, “link [our] exterior world with [our] interior, hidden, affective world.” The outdoor environment is a medium of human connection where, as Moore puts it, the “freedom to explore and play…through the senses…is essential for healthy development….” Dr. Stuart Brown, clinical researcher and founder of The National Institute for Play, behooves us in his Ted Talk on the subject to explore our individual histories of play. If you close your eyes and imagine yourself at play, where are you? The open water, a deep forest, a mountain peak, or maybe a field of wildflowers?

In his national bestseller, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv calls nature a “reset button.” It is the place where we are reminded of ourselves and our purpose. Australian musician Xavier Rudd sings, “Take a stroll to the nearest water’s edge/Remember your place.” It’s often proffered that in a time of industrial expectation and hyper-communication, we need the wild spaces more than ever. There’s some truth to that; but I think I’d go play there anyway, even if it wasn’t to escape the, quote-unquote, “workaday life.” I’m most human when I’m running through a field of blooming wildflowers.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Cedar Breaks, Plan Your Visit, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/event-listing.htm?eventID=68A2C9C9-155D-451F-679007F885E5FA1A

Cedar Breaks National Monument, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cebr/index.htm

Neoteny, Reference Terms, ScienceDaily, https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/neoteny.htm

Josh’s Raven Encounter

Language of Ravens: Ravens in Bryce Canyon National Park
Common Raven (Corvus corax)
Bryce Canyon National Park
Courtesy US National Park Service
And found on Wikipedia

I was three days downriver and hadn’t seen a soul since shoving my canoe away from the boat ramp outside of town. The only sounds accompanying my solitude were the white noise of rapid water and the echoes of thoughts pin-balling around my mind—that is, until the third morning when, stooped over the small, blue roar of my cook stove, I was startled by an unfamiliar sound. It was a dry heave and the snap of a twig to my imagination at first, before I turned on my haunches to face the raven. But when I saw its eyes reflecting my own, set within a Victorian ruffled collar of frosted ebony feathers, the sounds became a gesture, an announcement of the bird’s presence.

At first, it was only the eyes I could track—deep, watery, and of a midnight hue, darker even than the feathery blanket they peered through. I didn’t respond quickly enough, I suppose. The raven blinked first, hopped toward the cold charcoal of last night’s fire and scooped a piece into his beak—not intending to eat it I’m sure; there was no tilting of the head as to swallow it. And after the first unpalatable bit was cast aside, another was scooped and cast in the same fashion. Then another. Four or five times before I realized what the raven wanted—my oatmeal, of course. As I turned back to my stove, there came the sound again, an ‘Urp!’ and a click of the beak.

The languages of birds in general are vastly complex and nuanced. And the language of ravens is supreme among them. In the unassuming journal Psychology Today, Avian Einsteins blogger and bird author John Marzluff dissects the reasons why. “A complex social lifestyle, long lifespan, and songbird brain provide the motive and machinery a raven needs to remain the most eloquent of avian orators,” Marzluff explains. The clucks, trills, haaas, and quorks common among all ravens are, in and of themselves, amazingly contextual and referential, used in varying sequences and settings to convey different meanings. And according to Marzluff, “New, useful, and intriguing noises can be memorized…and imitated as near perfect renditions,” to be “incorporated into a growing and individual repertoire.” This capacity for continued song learning not only makes raven language one of the most complex in the Animal Kingdom, but it also allows them to engage us humans.

My raven had given up scattering charcoal chips across the sand and had taken to watching me spoon oatmeal into my mouth as I stared back at him. Sat atop my cooler, hunched against the cold, January wind blowing up the canyon, I must not have been a menacing sight to the raven. Every few seconds, it hopped several inches forward toward me and clicked its beak, just as it had done when we first met. Then came the ‘Urp!’ again.

I would relay this experience several weeks later to a colleague and teacher of avian ecology. “It’s a begging behavior,” he would tell me. I was starting to figure this out for myself that morning—however late. I could tell the raven was getting frustrated with me, my relative intelligence coming into question within those midnight black eyes.

Our eyes kept finding each other. Only then did the ‘Urps’ and clicks stop. I was clearly not the first of its human encounters, but this was the first acquaintance I’d ever formally made with a raven. It was both thrilling and unsettling. I thought of Poe, shuddered, and looked away, back to my breakfast which was finally getting cold. I didn’t look at the raven anymore.

He left in disgust, I think, with a parting scoff. I turned at the gesture’s remarkable humanity, a familiar emotion translated between species. And I swear, as he banked into the river bend, he turned his head to glare back at me with those watery midnight eyes.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US FWS, US NPS
Sound: Courtesy ESA and Popular Culture via YouTube
Text: Josh Boling, 2017, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Sources & Additional Reading

Raven Sounds:

Max Ushakov, A huge raven making weird sounds in front of a crowd at the Tower of London., YouTube.com, July 14 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7jgjovK5lY

ESL and Popular Culture, Raven ~ bird call, YouTube.com, Dec 12, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDv_PlrBg14

Common Raven, Animals, National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/c/common-raven/

Bird Note, How to Tell a Raven From a Crow, Oct 22, 2012, Audubon, http://www.audubon.org/news/how-tell-raven-crow

https://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/raven_intelligence

Ravens, Arches National Park, National Park Service – NPS.gov, Last updated: February 8, 2017, https://www.nps.gov/arch/learn/nature/ravens.htm

Common Raven, Zion National Park, National Park Service – NPS.gov, Last updated: January 31, 2016 https://www.nps.gov/zion/learn/nature/raven.htm

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Raven/sounds” target=”newWindow”>https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Raven/sounds”>https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Raven/sounds
https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Raven/id

https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/common-raven

https://www.audubon.org/news/how-tell-raven-crow

http://www.birdweb.org/birdweb/bird/common_raven

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/c/common-raven/

https://abcbirds.org/bird/common-raven/

http://scienceblogs.com/grrlscientist/2007/04/09/just-how-smart-are-ravens/

https://www.nationalparkstraveler.org/2010/06/creature-feature-common-raven-uncommonly-intelligent-bird5933




Hidden in Plain Sight

Hidden in Plain Sight: Western Sceech Owl Courtesy & Copyright Lou Giddings
Western Sceech Owl
Courtesy & Copyright Lou Giddings

My wife and I paddled our kayak gingerly into the eaves of a limestone cliff, our eyes scanning its face for some sort of concavity or movement where there was none. “I don’t see where she could possibly be,” my wife confessed. She was right. We knew we had found the right rock, soiled as it was with bird refuse, but there was nowhere for the nest to lie it seemed. Just then, on cue, a stirring of movement. Dark triangles rose out of the rock, followed by the lemony-yellow eyes of a mother Western Screech Owl. She climbed slowly from her grotto before exploding out of the rock toward us. A flurry of feathers rocketed toward us. I’m pretty sure I screamed, ducked as the bird soared away over our heads. We backed off a little. Concerned about the integrity of the nest site and our own well-being, we didn’t want to venture too close. When we were finally far enough away for mother’s comfort, she leap-frogged her way back to the cliff-side and disappeared again into the rock.

It’s a wonder she was there at all! Inconspicuous as it is, her placement is nevertheless adjacent to a highly frequented recreational reservoir. As we watched her descend back into her incubation chamber, country music blared from the opposite shore and the joyous yelps of our fellow boaters rang out through the air. To be sure, this wasn’t the first time she had been stirred from her nest; but she must have somehow grown accustomed to human sights and sounds. Otherwise, she wouldn’t choose this same nesting site year after year, as I’d heard she does. My wife and I marveled at her bravery in defying what seemed a too-close proximity to our louder, more aggressively curious species; but the more I thought about it, the peculiarity of her choice faded. This was not the first intimate space we had discovered this spring.

Hidden in Plain Sight: American Dipper Peter Hart, Photographer Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
American Dipper
Peter Hart, Photographer
Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
A couple weeks earlier, as we sat at swift water’s edge, a small charcoal feather-bundle fell out of the sky toward the water near the opposite bank. A Water Ouzel—otherwise known as the American Dipper—had just lit upon a boulder where it commenced its famous bouncing. At once, it lunged at the riffles of water at its feet, torpedoing itself toward whatever invertebrate morsel was to be found in early spring. Having fetched what it was after, the dipper surfaced into full flight. I thought it would have returned to the rock; but instead, it swept itself into the girders of the small bridge spanning the river.

American Dipper Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling
American Dipper
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling
I waited for what I thought was a polite enough amount of time before investigating the scene. As I peered into the dim shadows beneath the bridge, my eyes adjusted to two others blinking back at me from the rounded doorway of a mossy, gourd-like dipper nest. “Why here?” I wondered aloud. The bird had taken offense to the question and took its immediate leave of my presence. This was the second dipper nest I’d found within a few miles’ stretch of river—the mark of a healthy and robust riparian zone, and perhaps also indicative of a healthy human/nature relationship. The other, too, neighbored a well-travelled recreational space.

It seems heroic at first glance, the wild ones enduring our somewhat rude domesticity; but perhaps it’s a complement. They’re comfortable enough to hide in plain sight.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US FWS
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Western Screech Owl (images & sounds), AllAboutBirds.org, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Western_Screech-Owl/

American Dipper (images & sounds), AllAboutBirds.org, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Dipper/sounds

Wilderglyphs

A Tree Wilderglyphs Josh Boling WildUtah032618
A Tree Wilderglyphs
Courtesy & © Josh Boling
Glyph: a word that might evoke images in the mind of ancient Egyptian pictures recounting the trials and triumphs of pharaohs and their people; or Native American rock art meaningfully pecked into a sandstone wall, directing desert travelers toward water. There are others, too, all around us, hiding in plain sight. They are perhaps less noticed because they are not made by humans, but instead by the elements and the wilds. I call them wilderglyphs.

Wilderglyphs come in all shapes, patterns, colors, and forms- as varied as the consortium of elemental forces and ingredients that created them. They’re easy to spot as well because the wilderglyph hunter need only look for artworks created by the happenstances of nature. I once found a particularly interesting evergreen snag while backpacking in the Sierras. It reminded me of a demon with its glaring, fire-scarred, knot-hole eyes and menacing dreads of burnt and broken branches. Like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, this wilderglyph told a story of its place- a fiery moment in time captured temporarily in the flesh of the once-living.

Ice Patterns Wilderglyphs Josh Boling WildUtah032618
Ice Pattern Wilderglyph
Courtesy & © Josh Boling
My favorite that I’ve found was also the most fleeting. Searching through the snowy and isolated redrock of Canyonlands National Park for a rumored set of Anasazi ruins, I happened upon a shallow ice puddle tucked under a ledge of sandstone. The ice was something like I had never seen before- patterned with concentric rings similar to those of a tree stump. At first, I thought maybe something had fallen into the once-liquid puddle of water (a pebble perhaps), rippling its loosed energy outward at the exact moment the puddle froze; but, more likely the shallow puddle froze rapidly and contracted radially as temperatures continued to plummet, leaving concentric fractures in the ice face. I left the curious thing behind for maybe an hour to continue my search; when I returned, both the ice and its mysterious message had melted away.

There are more than just stories written into wilderglyphs, though. There is a certain science to them that, if known, can be useful to finding one’s way within the less familiar places we visit.
While descending a slot canyon, one of our party slid his hand along the water-worn wall and then back the other way. “Hey!” came his cry of discovery. He had found that, in one direction (downstream), the wall was smooth and unadorned with blemishes; but, in the other direction (upstream), the sandstone wall was as rough and coarse as sandpaper, providing us with a subtle and very general orientation of the area’s watershed. If lost in the canyons of southern Utah, one could at least know, even in the dark, in which direction he or she might find a larger, main drainage and possibly a way out.

In his celebrated book, Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass, the acclaimed orienteer and aviator Harold Gatty references many such wilderglyphs as navigatory resources. In one chapter, he discusses the useful “signpost ant” and its “compass anthills.” “When their mounds are built in open ground,” Gatty says, “they are oriented most accurately to the southeast, so much so that the native humans of the area often use them to pick up bearings when they are lost in a fog or away from home.” Perhaps more applicable to the Utah traveler are Gatty’s discussions of wind and sand. The orientation of sand dunes and the wind-blown ripples across their faces can divulge direction as readily as a compass if the direction of a prevailing wind is known.

The beauty of wilderglyphs are in their conspicuous subtlety. They are a reminder to us that despite the somewhat chaotic progress of human civilization, the Earth and its faculties persevere readily discernible to those who are able and willing to look.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling
Text: Josh Boling, 2017

Sources & Additional Reading

Dasgupta, Shreya, The 15 most amazing landscapes and rock formations, BBC, Feb 5, 2015,
http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150205-the-15-most-amazing-landforms

vibills, 11 Natural Geological Formations That Are Absolutely Too Weird To Be Real, Buzzfeed, Jan 1, 2014,
https://www.buzzfeed.com/vibills/11-natural-geological-formations-that-are-absolute-hfde

Wierd Google Earth, Archives for Natural formations, WeirdGoogleEarth.com, http://www.weirdgoogleearth.com/category/natural-formations/