On our spring naturalist retreat, we identified many organisms found in Iowa’s southern Loess Hills. We also did yoga, wrote essays, made art, took pictures, and composed haiku to the mating calls of tree frogs. When I invited a friend to attend our next naturalist retreat, she laughed and asked: “Can I at least leave my boots on?”
Funny how that keeps coming up. True, it sounds like we are “naturists,” the devoted nudists for whom clothing is a barrier to the natural world, to each other, and self-awareness. Naturalists, in my school of thought, seek a different kind of awareness, one that requires another form of nakedness. Nonetheless, the confusion seems to be common. Just a few weeks ago I attended an art opening by Paula Wilson, an artist from New Mexico and an avid member of our school when her travels allow. She introduced me as her naturalist friend to some patrons, who later asked her: “How does he make a living taking his clothes off in the woods?”
Paula told me about this the next morning while on a last-minute hike, along with our colleague Robert Smith, before catching a flight to her next gallery show. A round of jokes ensued about men our age with big bellies and hairy backs going naked in the woods and sasquatch sightings. Paula, a petite desert flower, good and kind, did not join in. When the jokes ran out, it was my delight to tell her a story that took place in those very woods, by the pond where we stood.
Early one cool spring morning, we had so much gear that I uncustomarily loaded up an ATV with buckets, nets, seines, extra clothes, and all manner of rubber boots and waders for our tree frog tadpole survey. My friends would follow on foot. Our goal was to identify and document the tadpoles of three hylid species found at our site. These are tree frogs and kin, distinguished by a suction pad and an extra joint on each toe. Many are small and some are tiny. Four species are found in Iowa’s Loess Hills: Blanchard’s cricket frog (Acris blanchardi), Cope’s gray tree frog (Hyla chrysoscelis), eastern gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor), and boreal chorus frog, (Pseudacris maculata).
Mating tree frogs are bashful; they abruptly stop singing at any movement that could mean danger. As I drove through the woods toward the first pond, I killed the motor as soon as I might hear them. Leaning back in my seat below the basswood-oak-hickory canopy, the songs of boreal chorus frogs washed over me. I heard depth and resonance in this chorus; in concert, they are enchanting.
Male tree frogs create sonic overtones far beyond their octaves, golden-green orbs of sex and music. I can’t imagine what the females are hearing. The first humans to hear these songs lived wild, exposed, and tuned-in. I want to listen as they listened, to hear what they heard. But we do not live in their world of skin. Our big and fancy postmodern human brains, wrapped in book smarts and flannel and sadly scant in wild mother wit, deafen us to all but a faint mumble of what they really have to say. But still I listen deeply, naked as I am.
Paula politely endured my herpetological and philosophical tangents while Robert had wandered off. I continued my story:
After a few minutes of listening to the chorus frog chorus, I started the engine and drove to the first pond. I unloaded the gear, then drove toward another pond, much bigger, to drag a hidden canoe to the water. As I neared my destination, I was met not by a boreal chorus but by a band of webelos. (At this point in the story I stopped to explain to Paula that a webelos is the transitional stage between a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout, like a tadpole with legs.) They watched me intently as I passed. After setting the canoe in the pond, I began my return trip to gather my naturalists (surely having sampled the first pond by now) and fetch the gear. The watchful webelos had not wavered.
As I drove again by the encampment, I was hailed by the webelos leader, no doubt a father. I turned off the engine and greeted him. The webelos remained at a safe distance, save for one by his side. The leader spoke softly, as though raising a delicate matter: “Are those other people coming down here? Can you give us a few minutes to break camp?” I assured him that we would be no bother and that we would be working at the far end of the pond. He spoke even more softly, as though very uncomfortable: “Will you be keeping your clothes on?”
It took me a moment to clear the incredulous frog from my throat. I assured him that my colleagues and I would remain fully clothed. He now seemed suspicious and informed me that he had taken the webelos on an early hike and had come upon a female member of my group frolicking naked through the woods. At this point, the face of the attending webelos brightened, as did the faces of those who had crept hopefully close.
I again assured the adult leader that our research protocols do not include nude science and that the naked woman is not a member of our group and probably doesn’t know what poison ivy looks like. Leaving the relieved pack leader and some disappointed boys, I drove off to resume my duties. When I reunited with my group at the first pond, I found them still wearing layers of flannel and rubber, covered in mud, and crouched over buckets of tadpoles, all present and accounted for. I never did see the naked woman and her naked frolicking. But perhaps she was on to something, despite the rashes and bites.
Paula liked my story as we dallied by the pond. But she had a plane to catch, so we hiked up and out of the ravine to resume our lives, unnatural lives that include moving by powers beyond our bodies and wearing skins not of our own. As we fossil-fueled ourselves back to the city and plucked ticks and burs off our industrial fabrics, we discussed the similarities between nature lovers and nudists, naturalists and naturists, and the underlying truth. A deep encounter with the natural world requires stripping away expectations and assumptions, ego and greed, and exposing ourselves to primal nature as it was and still is. No matter what we are wearing or not wearing, nature is found in the raw.