Speaking of my Natchez friend Karen, this week she applied for the Bronze Level of our Worm-eaten Leaf Award, for which she qualified by submitting a list of at least 33 plants and animals she had identified in her own neighborhood. You can admire her list at http://www.backyardnature.net/awards/b-ms-001.htm.

I'm gratified that Karen writes that when she was obliged to scrutinize organisms closely enough to identify them it was "like seeing things for the first time." She was amazed that not only are so many details of organisms interesting, mysterious and beautiful, but also that such details exist in the first place. How many of us have really looked closely at the elaborate venation in a mosquito's wing, or the precise manner by which a stamen's anther opens to release its pollen? Identifying organisms causes us to focus on such details, and we are enriched and enlarged in the process.

Karen remarked that probably people going through the identification process for the first time like she is actually get more of a kick from what they see than experts who deal with these things daily. I agree that usually that's the way it happens, but I think it's important to know that there are very satisfying levels of appreciation beyond that of the first-time acquaintance.

In fact, nature study is like paying attention to music, in that there are different levels of appreciation, and that ever more refinement is needed to accomplish those levels. Moreover, each level of appreciation can be as intense and pleasurable as any other.

For example, any child can enjoy music with a hot beat and titillating lyrics, and the great masses of people don't grow beyond that stage, asking no more of the world of music. Yet, some individuals who have inherited fine sensibilities, or who have worked hard to sharpen their senses, can enjoy subtle tonal modulations, the interplay of subsidiary melodies, artful variations on themes, etc. Yet another level of music appreciation becomes available when one can visualize the history of music and thus recognize how any particular piece of music relates to that evolutionary history.

In a similar way, the first steps into nature study can be pleasurable to anyone able to enjoy splashes of color and intricate designs in unexpected places. Yet, as with music, higher levels of appreciation exist.

Analogous to music's tonal modulations, subsidiary melodies and variations on themes, are nature's mosaic of interdependent ecosystems, the species living in those ecosystems, and the manner by which all living things are related. A Hairy Woodpecker and a Downy Woodpecker are variations on a woodpecker theme. The forest in which they live is a symphony. Nature itself, like inspired music, is the Creator's actual blossoming.

Life on Earth has a history just as music has, and what an insight to see birds as little more than small, feathered dinosaurs. What a kick to one's notion as to what it means to be human when we finally see the significance of the fact that human embryos while developing inside the mother's womb have gill slits like our fish ancestors and later possess a tail.

There's a level of appreciation beyond even these, available to both music and nature lovers -- in fact, to lovers of all kinds. That pleasure becomes available when at last we realize that music, nature and everything else in the Universe are one thing, the Universal Creative Force knowing Herself.

There's an even more exquisite pleasure available to those who consciously struggle to assist the Universal Creative Force to know Herself by being as sensitive to the rest of the creation as possible. It can be like being a tone in a fugue fully aware that it is a tone, and that it is needed where it is, as it is, as part of that full symphony..