Sunday, September 2, 2012

Just Be

Today I went to NATL on the University of Florida campus. For those of you who don't know the place, NATL (Natural Area Teaching Lab) is an outdoor environmental education laboratory for "teaching students and the public about ecology and biodiversity" right on the UF campus. It's located behind the Performing Arts Center and the Natural History Museum, and is near campus buildings, sports facilities and busy city roads. NATL is a little gem in the middle of town. There are 4 types of habitat represented in NATL--upland pine, hammock, old-field succession, and wetlands. There is so much diversity in this little parcel, and I try to visit as often as I can. Every time I go to NATL I find something new and exciting. It's an excellent location for wildflowers, butterflies, insects and spiders. I've seen some great birds there, and recently there have been deer reported. I didn't see deer today, but I did see hoof marks!

NATL has a very special place in my heart because this is where I found my calling and love for natural history and environmental education. Many years ago, I responded to an ad in the Gainesville Sun. The Florida Museum of Natural History was seeking Docent Naturalists to lead children in outdoor nature programs. I didn't have a background in nature education, but somehow this seemed like a perfect description of what I wanted to do. The nature programs were taught in NATL and over time I became very familiar with it. We taught hundreds of school children and summer campers about insects, trees, habitats and other aspects of the natural world. I was a docent naturalist with the Museum for many years and loved it. This morphed into many more years working professionally as an environmental educator at the Museum and at Morningside Nature Center. Along the way, I learned that I am fascinated by the natural world and want to know as much about it as I can. Through work and my time as a volunteer, I learned more about the natural history of Florida.  I took classes and became a Florida Master Naturalist. I began to take photographs to record what I saw and to help me learn. And I found that I love to share what I've learned. So I keep returning to NATL because it fuels my jets. Every time I visit, I come home tired, sweaty, bug bitten (today it was fire ants), and full to the brim with wonder and excitement for what I've seen that day.

I arrived at the boardwalk of SEEP (the Stormwater Ecological Enhancement Project--a retention basin project that represents the wetlands portion of NATL) at about 9am. I didn't know what I'd see today. It was a little too early to see many butterflies, so I kept walking until I was on the boardwalk over the deeper water. We've had a lot of rain in the last 2 months, and the wetlands are full of water and insect life. As I looked around, it became clear that today's theme would be dragonflies! Dragonflies of every size, shape and color whizzed around me. Some stopped and perched on grass stems plants sticking out of the water. Others, like the Common Green Darners, patrolled back and forth. There was a lot of mating going on, too, and pairs of joined dragonflies would zoom by, dip into the water, and fly off again. Often the pairs were chased off by the territorial Darners. It was all moving so fast that I could hardly see it, let alone focus the camera. But I decided that my goal for today would be to get a photo of a dragonfly hovering. I also wanted to catch a photo of one of the mating pairs in mid air or dipping in the water. They were everywhere, how hard could it be?

Roseate Skimmer Perching

As it turns out, it was really hard. I stood for 15-20 minutes, tracking and missing whizzing dragonflies. After a while my head started to hurt. It was hot and sunny. I was so frustrated. Every time I aimed, it was too late. They are so fast! Then I got an idea. I'd sit on the edge of the boardwalk, focus on one spot in the water and just keep the camera aimed there and would snap anything that flew into my frame. I snapped a lot, but nothing was working. The dragonflies were everywhere and I had zero pictures. Just then, after watching my spot through the viewfinder for 10 minutes, I realized that all along there had been smaller dragonflies buzzing and hovering 3 inches from my head and arms. They zoomed all around me. It was almost as if they were teasing. I could feel the wind of their wings on my arms. It was then that I had a revelation. I was never going to capture a photo of a dragonfly by hunting it. Dragonflies move fast. They are the hunters. That's how they work. The little dragonflies were sending me a message. I had to be open to what was around me, and not try to determine ahead of time what I wanted to happen. As hard as I might try, I cannot control nature. If I go out with the intention that I will achieve a certain outcome, in this case, catch dragonflies in mid air, I'm going to be disappointed and will also miss all the wonderful things going on around me. I realized that I would get the best pictures by being open to the opportunities as they arose, not by forcing a situation. After this realization, I felt more relaxed and happy. I looked up and saw a tiny turtle slip into the water. I looked over the pond a saw a Tiger Swallowtail in the Pickerel Weed.  Instead of feeling pressure and disappointment, I saw opportunities. 

Isn't this just the way of life? When we can give up that need to control, and instead just accept what comes, things are always so much better. This is also a good lesson in being present. By focusing so much on where I wanted to end up, I was neglecting what was right in front of me.

Tiger Swallowtail in the Pickerel Weeds

I walked back on the boardwalk with new eyes and passed another arm of the wetland buzzing with dragonflies. And these ones stayed put. I took lots of the pictures I'd been struggling so hard to catch only moments before. I'd just happened on them. I turned my head and saw a hawk sitting in the trees. Butterflies, frogs and bugs in the bushes. Red tailed hawks overhead. And just up the walkway I saw a Florida Mud Turtle trotting down the trail. All I had to do was be in the moment, and everything came together. Another lesson from the earth.

Mating Common Green Darners

Hawk in the Bushes
Giant Swallowtail
Green Treefrog
Mating Delta Flower Scarab Beetles
Red Tailed Hawks
Florida Mud Turtle


  1. I love what you've put together here and am thankful the river provided a chance to meet and spend time with you and Art.

  2. Thanks, Todd! I am pretty new to gmail and the blog business, so forgive me if I already responded. I really appreciate your kind words. The feeling is mutual--Art and I enjoyed and getting to know you, too. I hope we can see you again next time we're out that way.