The Quiet Symphony of the Forest
The forest floor moves when you become very still. It rustles, bubbles, creeps, scratches, and pops. These are the sounds of ants crawling, centipedes sneaking, plants springing upright, and water pushing through the dirt. The baseline dynamic range of this tiny symphony is such a pianissimo that the slightest breeze covers it. But in the woods this quiet crackle of energy is constant. You just have to listen for it to find some amazing small things in the woods!
Many people think of creatures in nature as large, soft animals such as deer, bears, rabbits, bobcats, mountain lions, and other documentary-worthy stars. Certain conservationists call these animals collectively the “charismatic megafauna.” They capture humans’ imaginations and get to become animated characters and plush stuffed animals. But when you sit still and focus your attention on a smaller plane of existence you will find that the real action is measured in millimeters.
Hidden in Plain Sight
I have spent many chilly mornings sitting in a tree stand with an arrow nocked in my bow waiting for one of the aforementioned charismatic megafauna to come striding by, all majestic and antlered and nearly as big as I am. On one of those occasions I marveled at the human ingenuity required to create the aluminum and steel device that hoisted me fifteen feet above the forest floor with a safety harness cradling my body and the latest camouflage pattern cloaking me scientifically (and expensively) from my yet-to-be-seen prey. And then I noticed a flicker of movement on the tree trunk a few inches from my face.
As I watched, a mottled gray jumping spider no larger than one of the letters on this page darted out from a crack in the bark. It was perfectly suited for its environment. Its color and texture matched the tree bark so perfectly that it seemed to disappear when it paused. Two large front eyes provided binocular depth perception for leaping and hunting. Six more small eyes around its head alerted it to movement of both potential predators and prey. The tiny hairs on its foot pads provided friction on a nearly molecular level. It walked in any orientation and defied gravity with ease.
An Efficient Hunter
The spider paused for a moment, then pounced on a hapless insect with such speed that it might have teleported instantaneously. Claws grasped the insect and fangs delivered venom. It hunted with an efficacy that I could only dream of with my clumsy bow and arrow. A minute later the spider successfully devoured a second meal with the same cunning agility.
All my discipline to rise before dawn, the strength I mustered to pack in my climbing tree stand, the human culture of invention that transformed my own kind from prehistoric rock-throwing tiger meals to masters of the ballistic science of high-powered hunting rifles and the peak of the world’s food pyramid all amounted to nothing in the face of this tiny tree ninja. It moved with a grace I will never experience. It hunted more successfully than any two-legged forest ape such as myself. And all this drama played out in a few square inches of oak bark.
Try It For Yourself
When you have the opportunity to visit a natural place I hope you are blessed to spot a big, beautiful animal like an eagle or an elk or a dolphin. But I also encourage you to sit quietly for a few minutes until you can hear and feel the landscape vibrate and twitch with life. Follow the sounds of a beetle in the leaves and try to catch a glimpse of it struggling to survive against all odds.
Turn over a rock. Perhaps underneath there is a network of bacteria or fungi amazingly drawing sustenance from dead wood particles. These unassuming tentacles are performing the alchemy of converting it to living soil. Get curious! Learn how those mycorrhizal networks slip between the very cells of some plant roots. They provide the forest’s megaflora with nutrition and chemical communication from their neighbors. Big things can be exciting, but the small things in the woods are truly magical.