My favorite Oregon wildflowers are called shooting stars, delicate darts whose blossoms with their sharp-pointed anthers and swept-back magenta petals seem to hurtle toward the soft spring earth from their height of six inches or so. These are among the first flowers to appear in our oak woodlands, long before the oaks themselves show any inclination to bud, and they dry up and disappear with the first blast of summer heat. Scattered here and there in brown grass, shooting stars are surprisingly easy to overlook. Once you notice them, however, their intense color and graceful shapes arrest the eye, and suddenly it’s hard to see anything else.
This weekend, I was finally able to get out into the Oregon springtime after several weeks of travel. As an avid birder, I was curious to see what birds had arrived in my absence, but first, I needed to make sure that I hadn’t missed the shooting stars. No; there they were, at the peak of their splendor.
This splendor is intense, but intimate. Shooting stars do not create gaudy displays like the bluebonnets in Texas or poppies in the California foothills. They do not paint whole hillsides with color. You can only perceive them by standing among them, and they are best appreciated from just a few inches away, preferably while you’re lying on your belly in the spring sunshine. I spent a few hours doing just that, lying among the flowers, listening to the ardent trilling of the chorus frogs in the stock pond down the hill and the scissoring calls of hungry swallows streaking over my head. As time passed, it gradually became real to me that I was home again, back in place.
By a marvelous coincidence, this same late-April weekend marked the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower. So, in the middle of the night, I again found myself lying down outside, on my back this time. Again I was looking at shooting stars, but these were miles, not inches, away; astronomical, not botanical. Seemingly utterly different, both kinds of shooting stars had these things in common: they demanded my full attention, they were beautiful, and they were brief.
The trip I had just returned from was a natural history cruise in South America, with me as one of the naturalists. Lying in the dark, waiting for the next shooting star, I had the leisure to reflect on that rather odd role, the official naturalist. What did my tour members expect from me, and did I succeed in providing it? The paying customers expected a high degree of expertise, of course. Indeed, they often assumed an entirely implausible degree of expertise—as if, faced with the staggering and frequently uncatalogued diversity of the Amazon, we could identify every blossom, butterfly and bird call. They also expected not to be bored; professional naturalists need to be entertaining as well as informative. All this was well understood, and I think my colleagues and I successfully met our passengers’ expectations.
But as another meteor flashed across the sky, I saw my role as a naturalist in a different light. Informing and entertaining people are means, not ends—means toward something more fundamental. What do we owe the natural world that sustains us? The response that I encourage is simply gratitude. And the most basic expression of gratitude is to be mindful of the gift: to pay attention.
We all inhabit routines, routines that add up to our lives, but paradoxically take us out of the actual moments we live in. Travel dislocates those routines, and in that dislocation lies a chance to see more clearly. As a naturalist, my goal is to make the most of this opportunity and encourage people to look at some extraordinary natural thing with intensity and focus. Precisely what they choose to see is up to them, but I can help by pointing out the beauty and fascination that surrounds us.
The shooting star streaking across the sky has spent unimaginable eons drifting as a cinder in space. Its visible existence, when it interacts with other matter, lies in that split second of time as it flares across our sky, and then is gone. The shooting stars that flower beneath the oaks come and go each year, each visible only for a few days, and only seen by those who look.
And so, here is the single most important word I ever say as a naturalist. I have spoken this word in response to anteaters in the Amazon and icebergs in Antarctica, and now, inspired by Oregon shooting stars, I offer it to you: "Look!"
This essay first appeared in High Country News.