The Biologist Who Hated Nature:
A reflection of my relationship with the environment
By: Taylor McClean
Originally written: September 5, 2010
When I think about my lifetime relationship with nature, I realize that ironically, the girl who is now a biology major absolutely despised nature when she was young. I had a very different understanding of nature then – the natural world was scary, those creepy crawly things were out to get me, the hotness of the sun, the saltyness of the ocean, and the stickyness of the sand were only annoyances. I remember being scared to death when I found out there was a snake nearby my swingset – I thought any minute he would lunge out and bite me. When I was planting flowers with my mom, I refused to sit directly on the dirt and screamed when I uncovered an earthworm. I didn’t consider my cat part of nature but as a part of the family, and I thought she was so old already, she must just live forever.
As I got older, nature began to grow on me. When I was about 9, my family went on vacation to Aruba. This is probably the first time I remember not minding the beach so much – I had a nice umbrella to sit under so I wasn’t so hot and the waves were so calm that no water splashed into my eyes. When my dad and I went on my first snorkeling trip, I developed a completely new attitude towards the ocean. Not only was the water as clear as glass and tinted my favorite color of blue, but it contained a totally new world that I had never imagined. The sunken ship we swam around was covered in neon orange and green coral, and schools of silvery fish flashed around us so close I could almost touch them. The underwater world was full of different feelings – a quiet calmness with nothing but the rhythmic sound of my breathing, awe at all the brightly colored organisms, and wonder that was almost fear of the unknown that faded away into a deep navy blue in all directions. This newfound love of the ocean only grew on my next snorkeling trip. While being lectured about the different parts of the island we passed by, something caught my eye, and then somebody else’s eye, and then the instructor’s eye. What I at first thought must be little flying fish jumping out of the water turned out to be dolphins. Our boat changed course to follow them, and we all watched from the front as five or six grey speckled dolphins jumped at the bow, racing us. It is no surprise that after this, I wanted to become a marine biologist.
Over the next few years, my love for the ocean, which was only one part of nature, would spread to include all of nature – not just the beach, but the woods and the mountains. Where before I hated the dirt and bugs of my backyard, I was now running barefoot playing capture the flag with my friends all summer. Not only that, but I was digging in the dirt of my own free will, building a secret clubhouse in the woods of my neighbor’s yard. Around this same time, my family got two new kittens, who by the time I was about 12, were regularly catching and bring us gifts of birds, rabbits, moles, and the occasional snake. You might think these mutilated animals would freak me out even more than earthworms used to, but instead I only felt compassion for them and wanted to do anything I could to make them better. We would place them on a heating pad, provide water, and hope they would make it through the night. When they didn’t, we put them in a shoebox covered in hearts and buried them under a tree. Unsurprisingly, this is probably the root of my compassion for all animals, which would eventually lead me to an internship as a wildlife rehabilitator this past summer.
Before my recent internship, however, I had vertebrate field zoology, which only increased my wonder and respect for the natural world. My favorite part of vertebrate field zoology was the salamander hunt. This wasn’t just the normal trip into the woods during lab, but a night hunt, and not only was it a night hunt, but a humid, pitch black, misty night hunt whose mysteriousness and excitement was added to by our small field of vision, illuminated by a tiny headlamp. As our feet crunched in the gravel and then the pine needles and the crickets and frogs sang louder and louder, I developed a new perspective on the woods. It wasn’t just a boring, plain place with every tree the same, it was a completely different world, especially at night, just like the ocean.
My most significant relationship with nature was, of course, as a wildlife rehabilitation intern for the Sharon Audubon Society in Sharon, Connecticut. Not only was the internship and experience with nature, just living there was an experience of its own. Sharon, Connecticut is only ten minutes from the New York border, has a population of less than three thousand, one main street that was “downtown,” one stoplight, and not even a grocery store. Most of the surrounding land was farmland, forest, or wetland, and it was unbelievingly beautiful. Giant green mountains surrounded the horizon with silver lakes at the bottom, and purple and pink wildflowers trimmed almost every road. I lived with two other people on a nature sanctuary in a converted horse carriage barn, with no cable, no internet, no air-conditioning, and what I missed most – no dishwasher. The lack of modern amenities took some getting used to, but it was worth it to live in such a beautiful place.
As for my internship, I regularly cleaned cages, fed baby birds, tube fed pigeons, and wrapped broken wings and legs. I learned how to handle raptors – birds of prey – and fell in love with the great horned owls. While I was expecting to go to Connecticut and learn how to take care of wildlife, I wasn’t expecting to learn so much about the food chain and the circle of life. Raptors eat meat, and this meat doesn’t come in nice packages like hamburger meat, but in the form of mice, rats, rabbits, pheasants, and baby chicks. When we ran out of mice, we went to our freezer full of donated rabbits and birds. But this meat was as solid as a rock, and if we thawed it, it would be even harder to cut up. So, we sadistically placed them on a table saw, chopped them up, and bagged them. It was so completely wrong that all we could do was laugh in disbelief at what we were doing – but the birds had to eat, and those animals were already dead, so it would be a waste of a valuable source of energy. As I learned, wildlife rehabilitation is not for the squeamish or germophobes or neat freaks. It is a messy job, and you are constantly interacting with nature. While nature is beautiful from a distance, it has its ugly and messy side – things die, and not always in a nice, neat, dignified way. Sometimes animals die for seemingly no reason, sometimes they are killed, like the mice, just to be food for others, and sometimes they die from our own mistakes – an overdose of medicine, a hit by a car. Sometimes the only thing you can do for an animal is to put it down, like the very first bird I had to put down with the help of a coworker. It was a juvenile crow, its left wing broken with the bone jagged and poking out of the skin, impossible to fix, and I buried outside by the back of the building.
My relationship with nature has changed over the years. Where before I saw nature as an annoyance, I now see it as something worth spending a lifetime studying, and something that deserves our respect. The most important lesson I have learned from nature is that it is real – it is not something distant that we can go visit, but something that surrounds us. It is not just a pretty picture, but viscous and harsh with death always nearby. Despite this, however, it is freeing and inspiring – whether it is to see a red tailed hawk that has recovered under your care finally be released, or to swim in the beauty of the ocean.
I have been honest and have observed no dishonesty.
Taylor McClean is also a Senior Biology major at Guilford College, and additionally has minors in Integrated Science and Environmental Studies. Taylor’s research has involved marine mammal stranding and marine conservation, and the extensive study of bacteriophages.