Unseen but not unappreciated

With the break in the heat and the subsequent opening of windows at my house, I’ve been enjoying the sounds of summer as I drift to sleep. My bedroom window looks out over some woods and that got me thinking about all the systems around us that we don’t notice. 

On the surface, I see woods. Trees, leaves, shrubs, branches, leaf litter and soil. During the day, the view is punctuated by flashes of red and blue and shades of brown as cardinals, blue jays, and the community of songbirds flit from here to there doing their bird thing, endlessly calling and chirping and chattering in a language I don’t understand but which adds depth and auditory color to the scene. 

But there is much more going on in those woods. Trees and plants moving nutrients and water up and down unseen plumbing systems, seeming to stand still but moving so much, quietly turning sunlight into energy and carbon into biomass. They’re helped along by troves of unseen fungi and insects that break old, decaying biomass down into nutrients to further feed the forest. It’s a system, a community, of deeper complexity than any we’ve yet to dream up. 

At night, the mystery deepens, largely because I’m mostly illiterate in terms of insect identification. In the lack of light, the forest scene changes to one of auditory richness unlike any symphony. A million and one voices, chirps, clicks and chatters fill the darkness. The cacophony of cicadas alone is deafening. I try, and fail, to hear one individual through the pulsing melody and revel in the singularity of sound produced by a community of individuals. It’s music, created by nature.  

I listen more and hear a katydid, very close, chirping rhythmically. Chirp chirp chirp. Or ka-ty-did. I strain to hear but can detect no reply. His (hers?) seems to be a lonely existence. But I suspect that’s a failure more of my ears than of katydid relationships. Nearby is a creature that makes a sound like tapping two quarters together. I have no idea what it is, and I wonder what it, like the katydid, is communicating, and why. As I drift to sleep, I make a note to look it up sometime. But by morning my focus turns to work and responsibilities and I forget about the unseen creatures that bring my woods to life at night.

Maybe I’ll look it up eventually. Or maybe I won’t. There’s a sense of wonder to enjoy when you don’t have all the answers or fully understand what makes something tick. Or chirp.

 This forest system, I think in a way, is not unlike some of our less wild systems. Look at Burlington, for instance. On the surface, it’s a little-ish town along a river in what the big city people call flyover country. But look and listen closer and you notice all sorts of things that aren’t obvious at first glance. Music, culture, and a whole bunch of people working tirelessly behind the scenes to make it better. 

Take for instance the parks department and its work at creating a new playground at Dankwardt park. I went to their public input session and saw examples of some of the structures they’re considering. It’s going to be a great thing for this community. 

Or the donors that contribute to things like improved parks and conservation areas so folks that don’t have forests in their backyards can still enjoy the serenades of crickets and katydids.

Or the volunteers that work tirelessly for the myriad of charity organizations that exist here, or who volunteer with conservation departments like mine. People like Jim Steer and Dave and Vicki Philabaum, our volunteer and environmental educators of the year, respectively. Or the folks at the Southeast Iowa Astronomy Club who operate the Witte Observatory at Big Hollow Park. We recently recognized them as our volunteer group of the year. All these volunteers, and many others, go out of their way to make this place better by connecting people with the outdoors or improving the natural world around us in some way. I don’t know what drives them to give so much, but I’m endlessly grateful that they do.

Me with Jim Steer, our Volunteer of the Year

There are little systems working all around us. Sometimes in big, shiny ways, other times just quietly in the background. And like the forest systems that keep the trees green and the summer insects singing, they are critical to the functioning of our communities. 

So as summer begins winding down, take the time to listen to its chorus. Visit a forest and appreciate the unseen systems that keep it thriving. Then upon returning home, take time to appreciate the people and systems that, though they may be hard to identify individually, keep our communities thriving through their collective efforts.