A Familiar Path, a New Perspective

I once heard someone say that if you really want to appreciate a piece of music, you should listen to just one instrument. By focusing on that one part you can begin to pick out the intricacies of the music and better understand and appreciate the whole song.

I found the same to be true of nature while walking in the woods last weekend. As part of an assignment for Nicki Cagle’s Wildlife Surveys class, I went out to practice identifying birds. Though I walked a trail I’ve taken many times, I developed a new appreciation for its beauty and diversity by focusing on the birds.

Sandy Creek trail

The trail is a long skinny loop that borders a long skinny pond, with Sandy Creek Park at one end.  The trail takes about 20 minutes to walk, but this time it took me almost two hours because I kept stopping to listen to the birds, find them in my binoculars, or leave the path to get a better look.

In my previous walks along the trail I always took the birds for granted – they were just part of the nature soundscape that I always enjoyed.  But today I realized that the birds are part of a rich and layered tapestry of biodiversity that is this patch of forest.


It reminds me of an incredible piece of artwork I saw in the Columbus Museum of Art. It was a collage with 13 poster-sized panels. When you looked at them all together you saw the Statue of Liberty. But when you got up close, you saw that within each panel there were all these smaller scenes of people working and doing different things. Then when you put your nose right up to the glass, you saw that each person and object in those scenes was made up of tiny cut up pieces of one dollar bills, layered and patterned to create intricate designs. So what you saw depended on the scale.

liberty installation
A detail in “Liberty” by Mark Wagner.

Nature is the same way – there are worlds at each scale. Walking through the forest before I had always noticed the squirrels rustling in the fallen leaves, the turtles sunning themselves on the logs in the pond, the birds twittering overhead. But if you focus in on just one of those things, you’ll notice that the birds are making all kinds of different sounds and doing all kinds of different things. There are Red-bellied Woodpeckers drilling into tree trunks, Great Blue Herons swooping low over the water, Barred Owls sitting silently in trees,  Carolina Chickadees flitting from branch to branch, and White-throated Sparrows hopping around in bushes and leaves. Suddenly there aren’t just birds – there is a world of birds.

So the next time you listen to a song or go for a walk or look at a piece of art, focus on just one small piece. You may find that what you observe is much more complex than you first imagined.