The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

What to do if you lose your compass

I sometimes go for a week or more without getting into the woods, then I go there and remember why I was feeling so badly about not.

I was able to visit my dry vernal pool Monday. Sure enough, a few of the recent rain clouds passed over and made it a pool with water in it. I shot a few minutes of underwater video and there clearly were multiple somethings, looking like translucent polliwogs, swimming around in there. Really tiny, but a few got to the correct focal distance and I could see their bulbous heads and skinny tails trailing behind like pieces of thread in need of a pair of scissors.

I also got a few pictures of cicadas. I’m used to listening to the constant loud thrum, but I discovered the little rascals make another, lighter, sound when they launch into flight –a distinct vibrato purr, not the low rumble of a contented cat but higher-pitched, like the rubber band-powered propeller of child’s balsawood airplane. I want to get more of that, too.

What would be fun would be to see the larva come out of the ground and get photos of it becoming the winged creature with the bright red eyes, like a pair of firefighter’s cab-mounted bubblegum machines, flying, seemingly unerringly, to land on a tree trunk or branch.

I say “seemingly” because I watched them fly in straight paths until they happened upon a branch, and wondered whether they selected the landing spot or ran into it.

I favor traveling trails that are not straight, and there are plenty of those out where I wander. Often, I start on a path well marked by previous passersby but at some point, I just want to know what’s “over there,” where lots of people have not gone before. That’s how to find, for instance, sunbathing snakes (though I occasionally have found them on foot-worn trails, as well) and huge anthills at the end of an often long parade of the little critters.

A marvel to me is how those little folks can spread out through the forest in search of groceries and, having found a good source, muster thousands of their cohort in a straight line to the food and back to the nest. Unlike the flying cicadas, the ants do it on purpose.

To be lost one must be ignorant of three things: You must be unaware of where you started, where you are, and where you want to be. If you know any one of those things, you are not lost.

I nearly always know where I began my trek, and I always know where I would like to end it. It’s that part in the middle, the “where am I,” that sometimes gives me pause – for instance, when I have been following a particular mountaintop, and lost sight of it, only to regain the elusive peak and discover it moved to a place it should not have been.

“Now, how’d you get over there,” I would ask.

The mountain would remain mum, which is odd because I often have heard laughter, sometimes in chorus, making light of my well-challenged prowess at straight-line travel.

After too many experiences with misplaced mountains, I struck upon a plan. I would scoop up several ants from around my home and carry them in a pill bottle with a secure cover. When I get to a point the location of which I am uncertain, I release the ants and follow them home.

Millions of ants have never led me wrong.

I hope you enjoyed the walk. Thanks for coming along. Now please join the conversation, and please share with your friends and fellow conservationists.


  1. Wow! Your tip for using ants to find your way back home is genius, and one that only a true nature lover and studious observer could possibly know.

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