The sign at the head of the trail said "nature trail." This is what we told my 4-year-old daughter, to which she replied 'Daddy, what's nature?"
Perhaps it shouldn't have been a hard question, but it was. What is nature? How do you answer that? Is it trees, flowers, birds and bugs? Is it forests and otters and bears? Is it dirt and ponds and creeks?
More importantly, what isn't nature? Even the high-tech computer I am typing this on, which has no recognizable natural materials on it, originated in nature. Plastics are made from oil, which is the remains of ancient plants and animals. Computer chips, at their most basic, are made of rocks.
Fringed Polygala is one plant you may see on a wildflower hike this spring.
My answer was not one that I was proud of, but hopefully it was the intent of the person who put up the sign. "Nature is, well, everything," I stammered. "It's the trees and creeks and flowers and salamanders. It's all the things we see while we are outside."
I decided not to go into the mental swamp of my mind and pull out examples of how computers and phones and toys all come from nature too.
The biggest problem with a nature trail is the vastness conveyed by those two simple words. Nature is the landscape and everything in it. A trail is a path. There is something about a path that draws people along it. Perhaps it is the search for the next view or the never-ending hunt for the exciting thing that may be waiting around the next bend. For whatever reason, nature trails are often traveled at top speed. There is no argument that this exercise is good for you, but there is something missing in a high-speed hike.
High-speed hikes turn nature into a landscape instead of an endless series of tiny lives that are waiting to be explored. The trees, flowers, ferns, insects, birds and other animals blur into the landscape. It's an easy thing to do. Unless something is big and showy, it may be hard to notice at top speed.
One way to slow down is to find an interest in something outside. Stop and look at the flowers. Don't bother getting on your knees in the mud to smell them, but stop and look at how many different flowers there are out there. A slower walk may reveal 20 or 30 different wildflowers in less than a mile.
Wildflowers are a good thing to pay attention to because they are still. You can pause and admire them at your leisure and need only be out in the right place at the right time to see them. Birds, on the other hand, madly dash from branch to branch high in the tree, where they quickly disappear from view, leaving new birders frustrated that they can't figure out what that blur in the treetops was.
Wildflower identification is easier. All you need is a book and some time to quietly look through the book. The plant will not disappear while you are there and you can take all the time in the world to identify it. If you can't figure it out, it's not hard to snap a photo or two that can be used to identify later. There are hundreds of flowers around to keep you busy and amused throughout the seasons.
To help you figure out where to find flowers, how to identify them and how to take stunning photos of them, Audubon is offering a series of programs this spring.
The first program is the annual Mother's Day wildflower hike on Mother's Day from 2-4 p.m. (That's May 13 if you haven't got it on your radar yet.) The hike is at Audubon's Bentley Sanctuary. Bentley is a small wildflower sanctuary located on Bentley Avenue just north of Fluvanna Avenue. The program is $5 for members, $7 for non-members, and free for kids 12 and under. Moms with kids are half-price. The program is led by Jack Gulvin, Chautauqua Institution's summer naturalist, who always manages to find amazing flowers.
The next Audubon wildflower program will be at Chautauqua Institution on May 26 to kick off the Chautauqua in June series. I have passed dozens of wildflowers in the wilder parts of the Institution while taking children on walks there. This three-hour program from 9 a.m. to noon will go into how to use a field guide and which one will work best for you before meandering through the wilds of the institution in search of wildflowers. Register for this class online through tourchautauqua.com or through Audubon's website. The program costs $10 for members and $12 for non-members.
Finally, for those of you who yearn to take beautiful photographs of wildflowers, I will be teaming up with photographer Sandra Rothenburg on June 16 from 9-11 a.m. at Anders Run near Irvine, Pa. This old growth forest has some of the most amazing displays of wildflowers in the region. It's one of my favorite places to hike and hunt for new plants. I'll help you find and identify some plants you may never have seen before and Sandra will show you new ways of looking at them through your camera lens. This program also costs $10 for members and $12 for non-members.
Wildflowers are all around us, quietly making the world a more beautiful and fruitful place. Take advantage of some of these programs to discover how many plants are out there that you haven't seen, learn a new skill, and see some nature on the nature trail that you may have walked right past before.
Jeff Tome is senior naturalist at the Audubon Center and Sanctuary. He has been involved in surveying Audubon's wildflowers and has used wildflowers and other native plants throughout his yard. For more information on Audubon and its programs, go to jamestownauubon.org or visit. Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, a quarter-mile east of Route 62 between Jamestown and Warren.