September 3 marked the Golden Anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act into law by President LBJ. I posted a kick-off essay about a recent trip to a designated wilderness preserve here in Wisconsin for The Bardo Group. Subsequently, members of that blogging community posted essays, videos, poetry and photos on the wilderness theme. Check out the daily posts beginning that week by clicking here. Favorite pieces gleaned from that site include How Wolves Change Rivers, The Carpathians – “Europe’s Only True Wilderness”, and In Wilderness Is the Preservation of the World.
Just after my kick-off essay went online, I headed to northern California to visit my family and explore some of the natural places unique to that area. I felt the presence of my father as I re-visited trails we had walked together and that he had walked after I moved out. A quote that I had read somewhere kept surfacing: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” Baba Dioum included this thought in a speech he made in 1968 In New Delhi, India, to the general assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
My father was a teacher of Math and Science professionally. He taught Religion as a volunteer in the church. He taught me many things, but in his teaching about Nature, he was less didactic and more mystic. He simply wanted to be there and to introduce me to a living thing which he loved…the planet.
Some of the things my father introduced me to:
September 21 is the date marked for the People’s Climate March in New York City. The United Nations Climate Summit is two days later. Please consider what your part may be. What do you hope for our planet? How do you want those hopes represented by our nations’ leaders? How can you contribute to the teaching, the understanding, the loving and the preserving of our mutual home? Thank you for doing your part, whatever that may be.
Internet news gives me a stomach ache. I just feel sick after browsing through photos and videos and stories about cruelty, stupidity, fear, and all kinds of petty, human activity. I really appreciate bloggers and others who post genuine evidence of our more noble capabilities. Although, sometimes this is attributed to “angels among us” or some non-human inspiration. Is kindness not a human trait? Justice? Wisdom? What do we gain by hesitating to credit people for exhibiting these admirable qualities and then splashing our media with all the “awkward” examples we can fit on a screen? Bleh…I just feel like I’ve been gorging on rancid movie popcorn. Humans plugged into more and more machinery, morphing into robo-sapiens, give me the same sour taste.
Please, somebody show me a living mensch! A human being, acting gracefully. Are there so few left? Browsing through my photo file, I realize that only a handful of pictures actually contain people. Is it because I find beauty in nature and form and so rarely in mankind?
Here’s one I did uncover. I took this shot last March. It shows a retired thespian giving a presentation to school kids on the process of making maple sugar one hundred years ago. He’s describing hand made tools, telling the story as if he were remembering his boyhood. He peppers his talk with jokes to make the kids laugh and pay attention. He is a teacher of old ways, engaging with new minds, passing on a respect for trees. He’s not doing it for remuneration or applause, he’s doing it because it’s important to him. And I think he’s a good example. Can you show me others? My stomach will thank you!
Like Kermit says, it’s not easy being green. It’s not easy building green, either. My son has a degree in Construction Management and is interested in green design. He’s having a hard time finding an entry-level job in this field, but it seems like a very useful career in the long run. 7 billion human beings generate a lot of construction; we need to be wiser about how and what and where and when we build because it makes a huge impact on our environment. That’s common sense. What does it look like when that is taken into consideration? It takes time. It takes money. It takes intelligence and skill. So, “forget it” is the conclusion many construction companies take. Fast, cheap and easy…up goes another WalMart with a parking lot the size of an inland lake.
I’ve visited two LEED certified buildings here in Wisconsin. (click on the links to read about their energy-saving and environmentally responsible features) The Schlitz Audubon Nature Center was certified on the Gold level. It houses a pre-school, among other facilities. The Aldo Leopold Legacy Center was certified on the Platinum level. Built where Leopold died while fighting a brush fire, it houses office and meeting spaces, an interpretive hall, an archive, and a workshop organized around a central courtyard. I took some pictures for my son at the Aldo Leopold Center, and this prompt is the perfect opportunity to post them and share!
Steve is working at Old World Wisconsin today, but I’m not. This morning, I had another volunteer stint at the Wehr Nature Center instead. I led three groups of preschoolers on a nature hunt. Each child got a colored pipe cleaner wrapped around his/her wrist, and they kept their eyes peeled for that color on our walk. There were plenty of purple, yellow, white and pink flowers to find.
The little guy with light blue was a bit sad faced until I told him there was lots of that color to be found, but he’d have to look way up high. The clouds had dispersed after a night of thunderstorms, and the sky was a beautiful blue, just like the boy’s eyes. Orange was the most surprising color of all. The first group saw a pair of Baltimore orioles chasing each other. I had seen their teardrop-shaped nest on an earlier walk. The second group saw a butterfly with orange and black wings, probably not a monarch or a viceroy yet, more likely a Red Admiral. With the third group, I wasn’t able to spot either of those things, but then a discarded orange peel caught my eye. Maybe not as exciting, but it was orange. Red came in dark maroon, the prairie trillium and red maple buds. I heard a cardinal but didn’t see him. Black and brown was the mud beneath our feet, the tree trunks and black walnuts. Also the logs in the middle of the lake.
Some of those dark bumps are actually painted turtles. They wear many colors, but they were too far away to see. And of course, green…green….green in every shade, every where, overhead, underfoot, and even under water.
It’s so much fun to get down on a three-year old’s level and go exploring. The world is a wonderful place! Enjoy it today!
I completed another training session at the Wehr Nature Center today. We learned about different habitats from a kindergarten perspective. Food, Water, Shelter and Space contribute to the supportive habitat that living organisms need. We talk about the animals and birds who live in the Wetland, Woodland, and Grassland areas surrounding the nature center. The kids meet the live animals that live in the building and then go out on the trails to explore. I have so much to learn! I don’t have any problem imagining the curiosity of the young and the excitement of discovery. Here’s a sample of what I found today:
Scilla siberica scattered all along the wooded trails by the pond.
The wetland wildlife is really interesting to me. There are beavers and muskrats and mink around, but they don’t pose for pictures very often. We see their tracks and traces and homes, though. The turtles do sometimes pose nicely. They keep their distance by staying in the pond, so they don’t rush away as readily.
Yesterday, when I didn’t have my camera, we found a baby turtle in the stream bed. It was only the size of a silver dollar. Today, though, I found a biggie. The snapping turtle. This mud monster has very powerful jaws. No teeth, but it is reputed to be able to snap a broom handle in half.
Unfortunately, my camera is just the point and shoot kind with a standard zoom lens. The snapping turtle looked like a boulder out there on the log, with a painted turtle a respectful distance away. I looked through my binoculars to convince myself that yes, that was a turtle, with its front legs and head down in the water, keeping its shell balanced.
Kids get a thrill from anything with an “Ewwww!” factor, and skunk cabbage provides the right stuff. It looks weird, and it stinks. I broke off a leaf and passed it around. It’s more earthy and green veggie-smelling than actual skunk spray, but it is reminiscent of that unforgettable odor.
I had the most fun today with our American Toad, whom we call Savannah. She has two special tricks: she walks and she eats. Well, a toad doesn’t hop; it kind of waddles. And Savannah is FAT. She also puffs herself out to look more threatening. Her movement is just comical to me. She doesn’t see very well, so she has to eat food that is moving. We feed her live crickets. I didn’t get a photo of her today, but I did get down on the floor on my belly to watch her, like a 4-year old would. That picture is in my mind instead.
If I could have another life, I would choose to be David Attenborough. The Nature Neighborhoods he got to explore absolutely overwhelm me. I am in awe of a common toad, and he’s paddling around with platypuses! Comparisons don’t matter, actually. Everything is spectacular when you pay attention.
I went back to school today at the Wehr Nature Center for volunteer teacher training, and I finally figured out how the moon’s phases and eclipses are produced. It took a hands-on experiment with a classroom of adults to finally get the concept across. There was a bare light-bulb illuminated on a stand. We all stood around in a circle, facing it. Then we were each handed a four-inch Styrofoam ball on a stick. This represented the moon. We were the earth. Placing the ball in front of us at arm’s length to block out the light from the bulb, we got the concept of a solar eclipse. Moving the ball slightly so that the shadow no longer fell on our faces symbolizes the new moon. Taking the “mooncicle” in an orbit to our left, we watched the crescent of light appear and grow larger until it reached the quarter moon position at a 90 degree angle. Then, we circled it around until we were between the “moon” and the “sun”. Our shadow cast on the moon is a lunar eclipse. Eclipses don’t happen every month, because the moon’s orbit isn’t in synch like that. Crescent on the left is waxing, crescent on the right is waning . Got it. Then our naturalist asked us, “Does the moon rotate?” Um. Well, there’s a dark side of the moon that we never see, so….no? Wrong. If the moon didn’t rotate, we’d see the dark side eventually. Because the moon rotates just once every month, we always see its face. Huh? It wasn’t until two volunteers did a “do-Si-doe” maneuver and then an earth-facing cycle that I realized that the moon rotates in order to always face the earth. Ah, the light dawns!!
Then we did an experiment that proved to me that learning about astronomy from a 2-dimensional textbook was not helpful! We partnered up. One person got a 4-inch ball for the earth. One got a pom-pom sized ball for the moon. We were asked to hold those objects at the distance we figured would represent a scale model of the actual distance the moon is away from the earth. I eye-balled it at about 12 inches. That’s what I remember from illustrations and posters. We were then handed a piece of string that had been measure to the real scale. I took my end and began walking. I ended up 10 feet away. In order to put that scale into a textbook, the dot for the moon would be too small for most kids to see.
Here’s another little blip of information that I discovered. During the month of August, my birth month, the predominant constellation visible in the southern sky is called Aquila. Aquila means “eagle” and according to mythology, he was a pet of Jupiter and did many tasks for him (like continually attacking Prometheus while he was bound to a mountain side). There is also a character in the Bible named Aquila. He was the husband of Priscilla. I wonder if my parents were aware of this ancient coincidence when they named their August girl Priscilla?
I could barely wait to get home and tell Steve what I learned. I love school!
Last night we watched Werner Herzog’s film “Grizzly Man”, an amazing documentary featuring Timothy Treadwell’s video footage of grizzly bears in Alaska. He spent 13 summers among them, mostly alone, and eventually he and his girlfriend were attacked and eaten by one. This man was quite a character — often childlike, flamboyant, furious, arrogant, gentle, fearless and completely whacked. At the core, though, he seemed to be straining toward a connection he deeply valued. He wanted to bond with the bears, he may have even imagined he could become a bear. It approximates a desperately unrequited love. His affection for them (and for the foxes that follow him around and play with him like puppies) is palpable, although sometimes articulated in a corny, self-help guru fashion. “Thank you, Mr. Chocolate, for being my friend…” Okay, Fred Rogers he’s not; more like Richard Simmons. It’s kinda weird. But, still, he loves them; he would rather die with them than be anywhere else. The pristine wilderness shots convey the aching beauty of the ideal. The close ups reveal more reality: flies cover the lens and buzz around the speaker without ceasing. Then there’s the inherent danger. Treadwell is aware of the risks he’s taking; he talks about them quite theatrically to the camera, but they do not seem important.
Is he nuts? Is he an idealist? Is he wrong? Is he inspiring? What do we tell our kids about such passions?
I led 4 small groups of Boy Scouts on nature hikes this morning. They were earning their Webelos Naturalist merit badge. I had one directive: teach them about decomposers, producers, and consumers. I added a goal of my own — introduce the Four As: awareness, appreciation, attitude, action. For 10-year-olds, I thought this might fly. I suppose I secretly hoped to see some of that childlike enthusiasm, the wonder and joy that can be ignited by spending a half hour on the trail. Well, there weren’t many ‘Eureka!’ moments. I forgot that boys can get more interested in hitting things with sticks and calling each other names than looking at mushrooms and picking up litter. ‘Awareness’ to them meant “look out for things that could hurt you” instead of “look out for everything because the world is awesome!” I think I may have impressed some of them by leading them to a decomposing deer carcass. That may have provoked a “Cool!” from a few. I wish I could do a one-on-one hike, take more time to slow down and eliminate some of the group social pressures, but these kids come with a program, so I only get one shot with a group of 8 for 30 minutes. I wish I had taken more time to do this with my own 4 kids.
How do we bond with nature? Will we ever fit in? Are our brains just too big to allow us play nicely in the sandbox with the rest of the world? Will we always be too distracted, too confused, too technological, too exploitative, too manipulative, too dominant, or too tasty? I have to admit that to survive for 13 summers in Alaska among grizzlies is probably about the best record on that front. Jane Goodall’s 45 years spent among chimpanzees is another monolithic example. Will there be anyone like that in this next generation? I can only hope…and volunteer to take as many as I can out on the trails.