Learning About the Natural World With Virtual Tools
I took a long walk in the woods the other day. Just me and the dog on a cool spring day when low skies gave up a rain that stained the trees black and made their young leaves glow. We went off-trail and deep into the marrow of the forest where no one wanders. What we found was all that matters.
Bright orange newts crawled across the leaf litter and yellow slugs oozed past ferns poking from great mossy tangles of fallen limb and trunk. We startled an owl out of an ancient maple. Its wings pulsed the air while the dog sniffed at bear scat in a patch of trillium. A whispering wind bore the calls of tree frogs and warblers. On a lost pond pocked by raindrops, a pair of nesting ducks took wing as a heron floated overheard. And with every step, rich brown earth smells crackled and called underfoot, filling each moment with sweet pine and vigor.
This is it, I thought. This is what it's all about. Right here, right now, in these woods is the one truth at the end of all days: that the Earth is a realm so filled with the wonder of fully-ripened magic that to see in it anything but the celestial is to not have seen it at all.
It's good to remind ourselves of this occasionally and to pause to remember what exactly it is we're fighting for. But dropping it all for a walk in the woods is not the easiest thing to do. Sometimes we have to seek our inspiration where it's simplest to find, and last week I found two web sites that do a grand job feeding the nature muse.
The first is called the Map of Life. Using Google Maps as its base, this living field guide to the whole of the natural world lets you look up any spot on the globe to see everything that lives there, find out exactly what's been spotted where, and add your own sightings to the mix. Start playing and a variety of mapping tools from overlays to color coded markers give rise to endless fascination as patterns emerge and hidden worlds reveal themselves
Right now it's a tad clunky—it took me a whole lot of random clicking to figure out how everything worked and I never did master it—but this is a beta test, a digital first draft that knows it's not perfect. There are, for example, just 25,000 species covered out of the hundreds of thousands scientists hope to eventually include, and the site is a currently a little short on species details and unnecessarily long on science-speak.
But you can see where it's all going. Mobile apps are on the way, and if the navigational bumps can be ironed out and the database can grow and include species photos and facts, this will rapidly turn into the only nature guide you'll ever need.
If Map of Life is all about knowing the often invisible worlds around us, then Project Noah is about seeing them, and I'll confess I had more fun with this user-based experience. The concept is simple: Using a smartphone app, users snap and GPS-tag pictures of the wildlife they encounter then upload those photos to create an ongoing survey of global nature.
Don't know what you've seen? The community will help you identify it. Want to do more? There are projects for teachers, students, and everyone else that track and study individual species. You can start your own project, too, and seek assistance from other Noah members. And by connecting us to outside research efforts documenting ecosystems all over the world, the site even lets citizen scientists help conserve Earth's biodiversity. What results is a huge database of all kinds of amazing creatures and spectacular life forms. You will not believe the pictures. Over 215,000 marvelous shots together paint a compelling living portrait of a very special place called Earth. Just be warned… it's easy to get hooked!
Neither of these impressive sites should be accepted as substitutes for getting out into nature and recharging your spiritual batteries with the real thing. But when you can't get there from here and you need a quick fix, these virtual walks in the woods will do the trick. They're quick to remind us why the miracles of nature will always be worth whatever it takes to save them and why destroying these priceless treasures in the name of lesser things is among the very darkest of all crimes.