If you’re a WRFI student meandering down Horseshoe Canyon and it happens to be both Easter and April Fool’s Day, consider yourself lucky. We departed our sandstone haven of a campsite and headed down the canyon that special holiday morning, eager to explore more of the canyon’s wonders. As we walked I pondered my reading from earlier that week. Practicing natural history was something I had never heard of prior to reading Thomas Fleischner’s essay “Natural History and the Spiral of Offering.” Becoming a natural historian requires “intentional focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more than human world.” I was too caught up in trying to implement Fleischner’s idea into my hike to suspect any Easter of April Fool’s affiliated mischief from my instructors.
WRFI instructors Dave and Ryan have been helping us practice natural history by creating activities centered around one of eight principles of natural history. The principles include attentiveness, reciprocity, expression, vision, accuracy, humility, affirmation, and gratitude. The activities have undoubtedly been the most pleasant school assignments I’ve ever been given. One day our group sat silently at the head of Horseshoe Canyon as Dave instructed us to focus on just one of our senses for several minutes to teach us attentiveness. We listened to the chirps of the canyon wren. We felt the damp sand grind between our sore toes. We smelled the stagnant pool of water littered with juniper berries and pine needles. We saw the Earth hold us like tiny fish in an enormous bowl. So, yeah, natural history assignments don’t suck.
We continued to descend the canyon and my mind wandered from natural history to Easter eggs and family. My family spends Easter in the wild, and while I was stoked to be with WRFI, I was missing the Deimling Easter egg hunt. My stomach sadly growled at the thought of my sister ripping into Cadbury Eggs while I crunched on more stale granola.
Dave and Ryan stopped us at the bottom of a draw to give us our natural history activity of the day, focusing on the principle of receptivity. We were to walk up the draw and stop every 20-ish steps to do part of a yoga sun salutation, involving sweeping our hands high to the sky and down to the earth. I slowly cruised up the draw and did everything I could to be receptive, not once thinking anything suspicious of the activity. You can imagine I was quite taken aback hearing another student scream they found a chocolate egg.
A scale large enough to measure my stoke upon realizing I had been tricked into going on an Easter egg hunt does not exist. Picture hiking through the desert for days, where both water and chocolate are extremely scarce, only to find candy in a prickly pear cactus! Discovering a juniper tree decorated in Hershey’s reminded me of a hunt my parents would set up. I was ecstatic.
Of the eight principles of natural history, three were particularly relevant to our surprise hunt, with attentiveness being the most obvious. If someone else didn’t yell that they found candy, it’s likely I would have made it up the draw completely unaware that I was flanked by treats. Realizing how unattentive I had been made me wonder what else I had missed during the course. How many wildflowers have been ignored in my pathway? How many lizards have darted across my toes while I wasn’t looking? How many shooting stars have been shielded by the shelter of my sleeping bag? I don’t want to miss candy in the desert, but I especially don’t want to miss these special natural phenomenons.
A second principle the hunt helped me embody was our word of the day, receptivity. To be clear, I did not conclude that if you successfully practice natural history the land will offer you processed sugar. The meditative portion of the hunt helped me receive endless opportunities to connect with the land. I receive astonishment from watching incandescent sandstone pierce the crystal blue sky. I receive a sense of caution from pricking my finger on a petite barrel cactus. I receive clarity from looking at the fragile ecosystem as a whole and remember why I am a WRFI student and environmental studies major.
Above all else, the hunt brought me gratitude. Grateful to be guided through this land by two instructors who care about us enough to get up early and hide candy in desert crevices. Grateful we hiked for six days without seeing a trace of civilization. Grateful to be spending my semester covered in dirt, sleeping on red rock, happy as can be.
There may not be any more surprise Easter egg hunts around the corner, but the lessons of natural history will remain with me. I am preparing to wander the Dirty Devil Canyon with Fleischner’s principles in mind. I will pay attention to the varieties of lichen brightly splattering the rocks. I will reciprocate the good the land does for me by leaving no trace as I travel. I will sing wildly and off-key with my friends to express the joy I feel in canyon country. I will visualize my place in this ecosystem once I’ve left it, thinking about how I can defend it. I will embody accuracy by filling my brain with the knowledge of others, not diluting my experience with my opinion alone. I will be humble under the grandeur of the cliff faces. I will affirm my ability to survive with my pack full of resources by marveling at the coyotes surviving on next to nothing. I will forever and always be grateful for my time taking in the Colorado Plateau.