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Below the Surface


Bill McGuire
The foundation of my interest in nature and outdoor pursuits formed in early childhood. l can glimpse portions of it through memories of my father’s steadying hand as I stepped into a boat the first time, swimming in a creek to the hum of cicadas and the satisfaction of finally outsmarting a squirrel and bringing it home for dinner. In the beginning I focused on the object of attention, such as a rabbit as it sprinted for a briar patch, and not so much about where the rabbit came from or where it was going or how it connected with other wildlife.

Things changed one spring day as I fished a small stream. I moved above a riffle and cast into a deep and promising pool. My eyes were on the bobber but the sun was just right, the water crystal, and a world previously overlooked came into view. I saw scatterings of rooted plants and others drifting about, snails, a turtle hugging the gravel, suckers suspended motionless off the bottom, clouds of minnows and sunfish peacefully ignoring the bait I offered. It was a moment in which the sum total of what I saw connected in a way that exceeded my previous understanding. For the first time I looked below the surface and saw that a stream was more than the source of fish I was trying to catch. I marveled at the aquatic community and wanted to know more.

That was the beginning of my serious interest in the natural world and my effort to look deeper than what attracted my immediate attention. There were many more fishing, hunting, hiking and other outdoor trips. I didn’t always see connections as dramatically as in that stream, but I eventually had similar realizations with forests, prairies and other natural communities. Neither did I know the drive to understand would lead to formal education and what has been a most gratifying 34-year career with the Conservation Department.

I now know that there are distinct plant and animal communities within each stream, prairie and forest and that these fit within larger natural systems (ecosystems) like pieces in a puzzle. I also learned that efforts to improve fish, forest and wildlife resources are most successful when done in concert with the habitat suited to the site and natural system in which the land is located. Whether simply interested in knowing more about the natural world or in managing a farm or other land, a good step is to learn about the appropriate natural system and apply that knowledge to the plants and animals found there. For an overview of Missouri’s ecoregions, see the October 2005 issue of the Conservationist or go online.

I still find wonder in nature, haven’t stopped learning and hope the door stays open the rest of my life. It isn’t necessary to pursue a conservation career to appreciate and enjoy the web of life in the Missouri outdoors. All it takes is opportunity and the willingness to look with a patient and observant eye. If you do that, then I’m confident that interest will draw you deeper.

- Bill McGuire, private land services division chief

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