Nature walk.

This week, I’m taking a break from the cutting edge science and am going to talk about getting outside to walk in a natural, green setting. 

The Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, VT has a network of trails with some outdoor exhibits, including the planet walk. Starting from The Sun, the planets are laid out along the trail in proportion to their distance from The Sun. Pluto ends up being 1.6 miles away and marks the end of the mostly wooded path, a 3.2 mile round trip.

The sun is visible just behind the fence.
The sun is visible just behind the fence.

I unplugged my headphones, and just walked in the woods, taking some video and photos along the way. It was good to get away from screens (other than my phone’s camera) for the most part and just listen to the alerts of the trail. It’s not all upside as the mosquitoes were out and vicious. The thought that kept crossing my mind was that all the birds I could here weren’t doing their job feasting on them.

It was a really nice day for a walk though. And here I’ll write some thoughts about why it’s good to get outside, good to unplug for a short time at least and experience the green world dominated by plants.

As I walked by each planet, I took a ‘fly by’:

This is the first time I’ve gone on a walk in the woods in a long time. And I think it’s something that I needed to do, even if a few hours in the woods isn’t sufficient to fully get away from civilization.

Markings on The Montshire and Planet Walk Trails.
Markings on The Montshire and Planet Walk Trails.

The trails on the museum grounds are clearly marked. At first, it’s a shared trail, but eventually, the planet walk splits off and breaks out of the museum grounds because it’s so long. The trail winds through the woods with lots of ferns populating the ground under the canopy of trees.

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The thing that struck me most is just how unfamiliar all the plants (animals too, likely), I am simply not familiar with except in the broadest terms. ferns, conifers, flowering/deciduous trees, wild-flowers, is pretty much how far I go. I can sometimes pick out a pine vs. a fir or oak vs. maple, and tell a grass from other plants. Studying one plant intensely in the lab hasn’t really broadened my knowledge of exactly what other species were with me as I walked along.

A wall of green in the background.
A wall of green in the background.

There were several transition points when the forest gave way to more open areas. Some dominated by ferns:

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Some by grasses:

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The ferns seemed equally happy in the shade of the canopy or in that open field. Grasses were only found in fields, or in small clusters along the trail, perhaps hikers track seeds from the field under the canopy. Or perhaps they’re born by animals.

Me and Pluto.
Me and Pluto.

I made it to Pluto and turned around to walk back. I stopped to try to get some close up photos of flowers I spotted along the way, all out in fields, one along the trail:

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2015-05-30 15.18.43 2015-05-30 15.26.04 2015-05-30 15.28.54

I have no idea what any of these flowers are. However, I do appreciate the intricacy of flower color, shape, scent, etc. The flower in the middle above has some purple stripes, but only on one petal. Symmetry is easy to imagine in biology, just create a mirror image. But creating something asymmetric is less intuitive. Of course, with differing hormone gradients and genetic on-off switches, many diverse patterns are possible. If I had to guess why those purple stripes are there, it’s probably to attract pollinators to a specific part of the flower.

It seems crazy that pollination works so well at all, though the evidence that it does is all around. Flowering plants dominate the landscape. Flowers may well be the most successful targeted marketers in history.

Forest canopy viewing platform.
Forest canopy viewing platform.

On my way back, I also had some good ideas about a post I want to write somewhere (maybe a future Quiet Branches post).

My last stop was the Bloodbrook trail, where I sat in a viewing area of where the Bloodbrook creek flows into the Connecticut river.

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It was a good day to be outside and to think and I had fun applying my brain trying to get good video and photography out of my phone. You can tell me if I succeeded or not. It was a good fusion of modern and traditional. I had my phone in my pocket more than out as I walked.

This was an afternoon I could have spent in writing or doing something else indoors, but taking the time outside was probably good for my overall well being. Research does indicate that exposure to plants and nature tends to be healthy for humans.  I even ran into some acquaintances when I was back at the museum and was thus re-connected with humanity after my brief walk in the woods.

I hope anyone reading takes the time to get outside and experience plants. Even if it’s just taking a cup of coffee or tea outside and sitting on a porch.

I’ve started a newsletter for the blog. The first installment is here. You can read and subscribe to follow the fascinating and big world of plant science stories I run across. 


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