By Katie Finch, Senior Nature Educator

How many times in a summer have you said something like, “There’s so much to do. The summer is too short. I’m so busy.”? I find myself saying that a lot recently, yet my idea of summer is that it is easy-going, has fewer scheduled activities, and more time to float in a pool reading a book. What I think summer should be is still tied to the rhythm of the school year. Summer is a break. In summer you have more control over what you do and when you do it.

My summers have not been that way for a long time. For those working in an outdoor field, summer is a busy time. We are the ones that host, teach, or stage the events that other people do in the summer. And when we are off, there’s all the other activities that take advantage of the warm weather.

This summer, the rush has me feeling a bit out of sorts. It is too busy for comfort. I thought a little dose of nature would help. I decided to get up early one morning, sit quietly, and watch the world wake up. For a short time, I thought I would, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.” Or find some calm in embracing the idea shared by Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu. “Nature doesn’t hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

With coffee in hand, I sat on my back deck to watch and listen. I thought of patience when I spotted a newly planted hemlock tree. It is so short that it needs a wooden stake to mark its location so we don’t accidentally mow it over. It will grow, but slowly. I may not be living in this house – or living at all – when it reaches anywhere close to its full height to shade the very place I’m sitting now. It doesn’t rush. It doesn’t hurry.  

Photo by Marvin Smith

But the more I look, the more I see a different, faster pace. The corn in the neighbor’s field appears visible taller every time I look at it.  And I swear, if I watched long enough, I’d see the zucchini in my garden grow. If I don’t check every day, I’ll be overrun with arm-long zucchini. These plants are hustling.
As the rising sun warms and illuminates the earth, the hummingbirds come to the feeders for their morning meal. I think there’s a convincing case for hummingbirds to be featured in the dictionary as an example of the word “hurry”, especially as they compete for a spot at the feeder, They zoom, dart, chatter, and chase. Sometimes they are faster than my eyes can track.

The Eastern Bluebirds that found the nest box in my yard are rushing. They built a nest, laid eggs, and fed their young enough insects to grow to their full size in under 2 months. They started investigating the nest box in early May. Now, in July, they are out there somewhere in the neighborhood, guiding their young through the rest of what they need to know before winter.

The hemlock can be patient. It may have 200 years or more to grow. But others? They are right to rush. In our region, so many of the plants and animals have an incredibly short time to reproduce, grow, and prepare in between winters.

While I think summer should be a relaxing, slow-moving season, it is the complete opposite for so many other creatures. Summer is a time of abundance. And it is an abundance that gets passed on. There is an abundance of sunshine to fuel plant growth. Because of all that growth, there’s a lot of food. Leaves, shoots, flowers, and seeds are food for the plant eaters, that becomes food for meat eaters, all who become food for decomposers eventually.

When my coffee mug was empty, I started thinking about my day and what I must accomplish. I need to remember to gather Black Cherry leaves to feed the Cecropia Moth caterpillars we are raising at Audubon Community Nature Center. These insects spend the majority of the year wrapped up in their cocoon. Only when trees are fully leafed out in late spring do the moths emerge to mate and lay eggs. When the caterpillars hatch, they have one purpose: to eat and grow. They grow from an egg the size of a pencil tip to a caterpillar larger than my thumb in around 2 months. They then return to the stillness of the cocoon to wait for this time of abundance to come around again.

The cycle of a bird’s life is tied to the insects emerging, for that is what they feed their young. The cycle of a caterpillar’s life is tied to the cycle of the trees, whose leaves they eat. And the trees cycles are tied to four seasons we experience in our region. Perhaps, rather than taking my cue from the school year, a system I am no longer a full participant in, I can take my cue from the plants and creatures around me. Maybe summer can be rushed because it is full of an abundance of good things. And winter can be a time of rest and recovery.   

What I really needed was a break and a change in perspective. Those are also some of the wonderful things that nature offers.  The world around us is complicated and contradictory. It can be two opposing ideas at the same time. It just depends of how you look at it. Nature is gross and beautiful. It is complex, yet sometimes so simple. And, yes, taking the long view, nature can be patient and unhurried. But just watch and listen in the summer and see how busy so much of life really is.