The air was cool and crisp on a recent morning when I had an extra hour with nothing on the schedule: no meetings, no chores, no anything. I took that time to go for a seed nature hike to see what there was to see. My swift walk carried me past fields and forests until a sudden splashing in a pond ahead of me stopped me in my tracks.
Four sleek heads undulated across the surface of the water, totally at home. It was a River Otter sort of morning. Trying to rush and sneak at the same time, I ran-walked-scuttled up the trail to peek around the corner of a tree to watch. The four otters were joined by a fifth, and they disappeared under the water next to a nearby island.
Quietly, I slipped up the trail to sit, wait and watch. This was done without scuttling or sneaking. It was a quiet, slow walk followed by motionless sitting. With patience, the otters would return. Well, in my personal fantasy of the morning, if I was patient, they would come out and swim all around.
In the meantime, a Great Blue Heron spooked out of a nearby creek with an ungainly “Squork!” and flew off on heavy wingbeats. A pair of Bald Eagles watched from the trees at my motionless form before flying off across the pond. Moments later, a small flock of ducks flew over, obviously worried that they looked too much like a tasty snack to the eagles who had just flown over them.
While my eyes were on the sky, the otters swam steadily out in front of me. They dove for fish, occasionally catching a small one, with their tails sticking in their air as they went down. The world was silent, with just me and the quiet splashes of the otters.
These quiet moments are among the most powerful for me. Watching otters is a form of meditation for me, a time when only that moment matters. Stress and worries disappear as the only thing that matters is the intrinsic fascination of watching otters on the hunt.
It’s not just otters. That kind of moment can arrive from watching deer or squirrels or butterflies. There is something about watching another living thing that brings me to a place where nothing else matters. Edward O. Wilson, a famous biologist, called this biophilia. Biophilia is a connection humans have to other living things.
New research shows that people are healthier when they spend more time outside. Nature can help people relax, lower their blood pressure, destress, lower depression and do all sorts of wonderful things. Research is great, but I am a bit of a skeptic. It is hard for me to believe in something unless I experience it first-hand.
I have to say though, that otter time really helped my day, leaving me a happier, more focused person. Of course, the same thing happened when I saw a moth on my Thanksgiving hike.
There are trails all around the area, a surprising number kept in shape by the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy. I can’t guarantee otters or other wildlife, but you never know what you will find. Sometimes, just wandering out and looking is all it takes to make the day a little bit better.
Jeff Tome is a Senior Naturalist for Programs and Exhibits at the Jamestown Audubon Society and a longtime CWC volunteer and former board director. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or www.facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.