It is a physiological truth that we do not see with our eyes; we see with our brains. Images that pass through our lenses are literally projected upside down on the retinas of our eyes just as was done by the lenses of old-time view cameras. Fortunately, soon after birth, our brains learn to flip the images over so that the world makes better sense. It would be rather inconvenient to go around holding your mug of hot coffee upside down. Never mind going up the down escalator. That way leads only to insanity. So, in effect, your brain says, “Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?”
But the phenomenon is more than physiological. We tend to see only what we can recognize and put into context. In Yellowstone, I was watching an elk emerge from the tree line to graze in the meadow. A nearby woman asked, “Are you watching that big brown thing?” She wasn’t nearsighted, as far as I could tell, but she did not “see” an elk because she did not recognize it as an elk.
This applies to a plethora of absolutely common things that we fail to recognize or “see” simply because we do not know their names. Most of us are occasionally unable to see the trees for the forest. In this specific instance, the elk emerged not just from “the tree line” but from a forest of lodgepole pines. If you don’t know their names, trees are just trees. Or big green things. Tree geeks know that lodgepole pines are called that because the Plains Indians used their long, straight trunks to support their teepees. So, this tree has not only a botanical identity but a cultural one as well.
All of this is just a roundabout way of saying that the world is a much more fascinating place if you know what you are looking at. How can you appreciate the cultural significance of a lodgepole pine if you don’t know how the Plains Indians once lived and why it was absolutely vital for them to have portable housing? (I like to think of them as early RVers.)
Now, worldwide there are more than 100 species of pine, of which 36 are native to North America. Each species has a similarly fascinating story to tell. Or, it might be fascinating if you had any reason whatsoever to care. Sticking with the lodgepole, though, you may be aware that, paradoxically, forest fires are essential for its survival. The tightly sealed cones require the intense heat of fire to open them up and scatter the seeds.
In 1988, lightning started the Great Yellowstone Fire that burned almost 800,000 acres, about a third of the entire park. Our family watched the newscasts in horror as places we had visited and loved were overwhelmed by towering walls of flame. The iconic Old Faithful Inn was saved only by heroic efforts and a last-minute shift in the wind. Even so, where most people saw destruction on a massive scale, forest managers foresaw the imminent renewal of the lodgepole forest. The lodgepole is an arboreal phoenix, if you will, that rises from its own ashes.
In 1990, we returned to a radically changed landscape in Yellowstone. Vast groves of standing dead trees in addition to all the downed timber. But also something quite remarkable. Vast gardens of colorful wildflowers thriving in the spaces newly opened to sunlight and millions upon millions of new lodgepole seedlings. At a ranger talk, a visitor wanted to know how they had managed to replant all those trees so quickly. The ranger patiently explained.
Shirley and I have benefited significantly from ranger talks and tours over the years. At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, for instance, we have repeated the 20-mile Ajo Mountain tour several times. The first time, I drove our RV as Shirley read from the guidebook.
The next year we signed up for the guided tour in a park van because the rutted, rocky, washboard road had threatened to vibrate our RV into all of its constituent parts. The tour was led by a professor of geology from Colorado State University who demonstrated that there is a great deal to be learned from looking at plain old rocks. (You know, those big hard things.) What are the characteristics of basin and range topography? How does the Sonoran Desert differ from the Chihuahuan, the Mojave, and the Great Basin? We failed to see all those young volcanoes, cinder cones, basalt flows, and giant craters on our self-guided tour. Of course, we had seen it all before without actually “seeing” any of it. The tour was a real eye-opener, so to speak.
The experience was so enriching that in subsequent years, we signed up for what was nominally the same tour but led by different specialists. The ethno-botanist explained not only the differences among the various cacti but how they and other desert plants were used by the native peoples. The cultural anthropologist pointed out vestiges of ancient Indian diversion dams and the irrigation ditches down in dry stream beds and how Indian boys were sent alone, as a rite of passage, to make salt at the Sea of Cortez and bring it back for their people. An ornithologist explained that Harris’s hawks hunt in packs like wolves, how the Gila woodpecker makes a dry nest in the damp interior of a saguaro cactus, and that the curved-bill thrasher sings multiple songs like its cousin the mockingbird. A photographer tried to teach us to see and compose more effective images and how to make better use of the way the early morning light strikes the mountains creating texture and contrast. An artist passed out pads and colored pencils and had us draw things we saw in the desert on the theory that to draw it clearly you had to look at it more closely. Some of us, indeed, began to see more clearly, but that didn’t necessarily improve our drawing skills.
The downside to repeating a tour, though, is that sooner or later you will hit a dud. It is just the risk you take because of the seasonal nature of ranger employment. Sensible people prefer not to work in the Everglades in the summer when the mosquito population is high and serpents of various malignity are more active. Or in Glacier National Park when the snow is way up to here and the temperature is way down there. So quite a few rangers, being sensible people, take off-season positions in more desirable locations. Some rangers, though, have permanent positions that require them to hang around regardless of temporary unpleasantness. Those rangers tell us they actually like the conditions we think of as unpleasant. But we have never believed them.
Each season, therefore, brings an influx of newbie rangers who, though generally bright, are required to learn all kinds of things in a great hurry so they can respond to touristy questions. The most frequently asked in any park is “Where are the restrooms?” Some questions are more challenging. “How do you tell a staghorn from a buckhorn cholla?” Some are just impossible. “Where do you keep all the bison at night? Why don’t you move the animal crossing signs so the animals will cross in places more convenient for viewing? How long does it take for a deer to grow into an elk and then become a moose? What time does Old Faithful go off?” (That last question was asked at Grand Canyon, about 850 miles from Old Faithful.)
Your teachers probably encouraged youthful curiosity by asserting that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Your teachers were just being kind. In the lounge, they actually love to laugh with each other about the questions they get in class. “If the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, what is the speed of dark?” But I digress.
Shirley and I tend to sympathize with young rangers because they usually make up with enthusiasm what they lack in experience. The brighter ones will confess that they just arrived from Someother National Park and are not yet up to speed. Perhaps someone in the crowd knows what that bird is. Someone always does.
As with the Ajo Mountain tour, we have taken the half-day tour to Quitobaquito Springs more than once. The first time, the park van took the dirt road that parallels Mexico Rt. 2 just a few yards across the border fence. We heard about its special features that help deter the use of vehicles by the drug cartels. Our guide pointed out the different kinds of cactus, a hawk sitting on a nest in a saguaro, and how plants adapt to the salt flats through which we passed.
At the springs, there was extensive discussion of the importance of the oasis dating back 16,000 years as a vital outpost on the Old Salt Trail used by Indians and the Devil’s Highway used by the Spanish since Fr. Eusebio Kino in 1698. Then, after the Gadsden Purchase, how a trading post was established by Americans who dammed the spring to create a pond and planted an orchard of pomegranate and fig trees. The orchard is still there today though quite overgrown. You would never see it unless it were pointed out.
We were introduced to the salt-tolerant pup fish in the spring-fed stream and the endangered mud turtles in the pond. Our guide drew attention to evidence that the resident owl had recently been hunting. She identified some nutrient-rich wolfberries along the trail so we sampled a few. She assigned the names of actual Spanish and American pioneers to tour members and gave us scripts to read out loud explaining their roles in the history of Quito so that we could begin to see things through their eyes. Then we climbed the hill to the historic cemetery to visit the graves of some of the characters we had portrayed.
Shirley and I were so impressed by the whole experience that we invited friends from Phoenix to join us on a repeat of the tour. It is a 45-minute ride on a bumpy, rutted dirt road to the spring. The newly assigned guide did not see anything worth mentioning along the way. At the spring, we walked around the pond where some coots were paddling about in the reeds. Nothing to say about the construction of the pond, the ancient willow sacred to the Native Americans, or the trading post in the oasis, or the orchard nourished by the spring, or the people who had used the Salt Trail or Devil’s Highway.
Even though we had not heard or done much, our guide lamented that there was “not enough time” to climb the hill to the cemetery before leaving. Probably because he did not know who is buried there or why they mattered. A classic instance of not yet up-to-speed. Major disappointment for those of us who knew the unrealized potential. Still, if you didn’t know what you could have been seeing, you probably didn’t miss having it pointed out to you.
A totally opposite experience just occurred to me. We had signed up for a spring wildflower tour. But spring was late and the wildflowers didn’t get the memo informing them they were expected to attend. Our guide insisted we should go anyway so she could point out where flowers were likely to be when they finally chose to show up. Thus, we went to “see” things that were not actually there yet. We felt sorry for the person assigned to lead the tour. Now, we might have just said, “No thanks, perhaps we’ll come back in a couple weeks.” But Midwesterners are often encumbered by excessive civility.
Even when a tour fails to meet all of our expectations, Shirley and I are usually willing to settle for spectacular scenery, amazing encounters with wildlife, and weather that is typically preferable to what the folks back home are experiencing. The way we see things, it is all just a walk in the park.
LeMoyne Mercer is the travel editor for Healthy Living News. There is limited space here for LeMoyne’s photos. You might want to see more at anotherwalkinthepark.blogspot.com. Please leave comments on the site. ❦