by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II
Serendipity is a great word. It was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole after characters in the fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, who had a gift for finding good things accidentally. Put another way, it is the faculty of making fortunate and unexpected discoveries by accident, according to the dictionary. I like to say that it is being in the right place at the right time. This applies especially to being out in nature because you never know what surprise you will accidentally stumble upon or what discovery you might make. That’s why I call it the “serendipity of nature.” Let me give you some examples.
In June of my sophomore year in college I was asked to do a breeding bird census of the Audubon Center in Greenwich, Connecticut. Since it was an area of about 350 acres, I usually did 20 acres a day. I was out at 4:30 am each morning to hear the first bird songs. Only the male bird sings to stake out his territory, so a singing male means a breeding pair most of the time.
One morning at dawn’s first light, I was standing at my starting post. There was a big log in front of me. Suddenly a Ruffed Grouse, a large pheasant-like bird, flew in and landed on the log and started to “drum.” A grouse makes this drumming noise by beating its wings. The old-timers used to say that it sounded like cranking up a Model T Ford. The drumming sound will carry for a mile, and it is the way a male grouse attracts a female or challenges another male if it gets too near his territory. I had often heard this drumming at a distance, but here was a grouse only three feet in front of me, and I could watch the whole process. The bird obviously did not notice me because of the low dawn light. He kept right on drumming until I finally had to sneeze and he flew away. That experience was indeed serendipity! Nature surprised me that morning.
Two other good examples were when I was leading a Field Ecology field trip at Naropa University and we had stopped by Boulder Creek to observe some ducks. Suddenly a beautiful Peregrine Falcon flew right past us, close up! We could have been there a hundred times and not had that particular opportunity. But just a few minutes later we were walking on the Bobolink Trail off of Baseline Road when we spotted a big raptor sitting on a tree in the distance. We were able to walk right under the tree where this bird was roosting, and it didn’t fly away. It was an adult Prairie Falcon. We looked up at it, and it looked down at us, but it didn’t fly. Then after a while, it dove into the meadow right in front of us, caught a vole and flew away with it. This was exciting for the students to see. Again, we could have been on that trail many times and not seen such a dramatic event.
If you go out into nature enough times, you will also discover its serendipity, because it is always springing surprises on you, such as a beautiful sunset, a flock of honking geese or Sandhill Cranes overhead, an amazing cloud pattern, a hummingbird at a flower, or the lovely autumn color of a nearby tree. Leave your iPods and computer games behind, and turn on all your senses as you go outside and look for nature’s serendipity.
Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check www.thornenature.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (303) 499-3647.