A Naturalist Voice

By Jeff Cantrell 

The Nose Knows Stories of the Trail

My driveway is a long one. Although it is gravel, and I may be slow to mow the vegetation rambling along the middle, I consider it a good, clear path to walk. The country driveway is an easy addition to other nature trails on my farm ranging from brush-hogged thoroughfares to footpaths in the woods, savanna and warm-season grass plots.

When it comes to natural history of “all things wild,” I’m a lifelong learner. Like so many folks who love the outdoors, I’m relentlessly investigating nature. I could say it is like learning a new language…one word at a time. The avid naturalist is honestly capitalizing on not one, but scores of natural languages. The happenings in nature resemble the complexity of cultures coming together along my driveway or any nature trail. 

There is a culture for the blue jay, the bobcat, the white oak, etc. So the life-long learner aspiration I mentioned keeps any naturalist in a discovery holding pattern. Hopefully, we possess a fresh outlook that goes beyond the designated season, being aware within the days and moments of our walks, hunts, floats and campsites. Part of this learning journey is simply taking in the surroundings and taking note of how they sound, look, smell and, in some cases, feel. The person not comfortable outside will most likely rely heavily on only the visual. However, to really help understand the messages abounding in the landscape, one must focus on some lesser-used abilities we may take for granted.

Our sense of smell is always “on” (depending on a healthy olfactory system, of course). It is a direct sense making an immediate response. When we smell a striped skunk or false aloe blossom, we have an immediate response. Chances are, we squint in response to one odor, and beam with the other fragrance contact. Those of us who work with kids can tell you usually young children like all smells until they are told which ones are good and bad. I share the experiences of crunched leaves, nut meats, fruits and flowers all the time on the trail to participants, and I have to be careful not to give them any preconceived notions. To the human, I think scents can build on the experiences. If you don’t know how to recognize the autumn tang of sycamore leaves or broken spicebush twigs, you are in for a treat. To the animal, recognizing aromas could play in the game of survival.

I watch the responses of one or both of my dogs when we walk the driveway. I’m humble enough to know they are reading the languages of nature and the landscape from a different perspective than I do. I’m reserved enough to observe and learn from them.

Birds are vocal for gathering, to sound an alarm, attract a mate and set up territory. Missouri mammals commonly spin their language of dialogue with scent. My dogs will pick up on this. The “conversation” can be within the same type of animals or communication between several species with a variety of information. The smells may travel by air or stay stationary where the substance was rubbed, secreted or placed. Many mammals of large litters are born blind and rely on smell to find a nipple for nourishment. Centuries ago, herdsmen knew an orphaned calf or lamb had a better chance of being adopted if it smelled like its potential mother’s offspring. The smell would trigger the mothering instincts. We easily understand a familiar scent triggering an action or memory. The aroma of sweet potato casseroles, coarse black pepper in steamy turkey gravy, or a spice mix melody for a pumpkin pie may distinguish or favor one Thanksgiving meal item from another. So share the thoughts of our senses this season of meals, wild harvest and public lands to be thankful among friends and family.

November is a perfect time to take in a new trail. Three of my favorite areas include Big Sugar State Park, Glade Top and Roaring River State Park. I hope to see you outside, and my pup, McKeag, will sniff you with his tail wagging as we greet you. Pura vida. – Jeff