Pursuing the unexpected: A challenge to go beyond the color walk

Pink fireweed in an old burn off the Tanana River. Genetic anamoly, or expression of individuality? July 31, 2012.

I found yellow! At an old burn off the Tanana River. July 2012.

The place outside your house, or down the road, or across the ocean, is full of things you’ve never seen or noticed before.

How do you seek the unknown?

Radiolab recently featured a post on color walks. Color walks are based on the idea that you notice more when you look for all things that are blue, or red, to the exclusion of other distractions.

This is a great starting point for conquering a pandemic my botany teacher warned me about — “plant blindness.”

It’s hard to see a forest for the trees when the trees mean nothing to you. A forest, on the other hand, is a major geographic feature — an impediment or a frontier. A forest on the horizon forces you to find some answers. Are you trying to get to the other side? How will you? How long will it take?

After taking that botany class, the forest changed from a crowd to a conglomerate of friends. I now stop to greet each kind of plant.

What is with this bluebell? July 2012, in the Bonanza Creek LTER.

Still, that’s just a species — we don’t greet humanity as a crowd, usually. But as I get to know each species, the individuality of each plant shines through. Here is a rose bush that’s taller than me. There is an aspen stressed by drought. Over there is a fireweed with cherry-blossom-pink flowers.

You can seek the unexpected, too, if you know the forest well enough. It’s like when you return to your home town after several years, and the first thing you notice isn’t the airport, the park or the church you grew up next to — it’s that new department store. You know what belongs, so your brain puts a spotlight on what doesn’t belong. I find myself asking questions like “Why is that bird vetch here?” “I’ve never seen that mushroom here before.” “Really? Alaska has woodchucks?”

Back to the color walk, and we’ll see how that exercise ties into the boreal forest.

Imagine you weren’t looking for red, yellow, blue or green. Imagine you weren’t even looking for plant species. Imagine you got to the heart of this exercise – blindness of the unknown. What would that look like? Is that plant a fireweed, or because it is pink, is it a different plant entirely?

This exercise takes the focus off your own abilities — encouraging though color walks are — and places the focus on the forest. What does the forest have to teach you? All it takes is the humility to say “I don’t know what this is.”

Raise your hand if you know what this is. Would you glance over it if you didn’t know? I could tell you, but let’s make this an exercise in using Google to figure out what you see outdoors (or you can scroll to the bottom of the post)

Or don’t. Maybe you just need the geographic feature.

If all you see is forest, there isn’t much you can do but drive through it.

(Third picture from the top is a shy, fertile, spore-producing moonwort.)


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