Thursday, April 30, 2009

It's almost May, and the skies are turning gray. It was sunny this morning when I hopped on the bus with Sophie, all of the other second graders, and a handful of other chaperons. I'm glad it worked out that I was able to go on this field trip, because I never would have heard the end of it if I'd just gone on Nathan's trip and not hers. This one was a bit closer to home too - a mere half hour away. The second graders, mostly instigated by Sophie, sang loud songs for most of that half hour, including some Christmas ones.

We ended up at a place called Filoli Gardens, which is basically an old English-style country mansion nestled in the hills of the San Francisco peninsula. The gardens are impressive, and we were led through them and out into the forest by a volunteer docent (lots of volunteers - there was one docent for every four kids, and one chaperon for every two kids). He knew his stuff, which is nice because I probably wouldn't have been able to keep my mouth shut if he hadn't. I even picked up a little info along the way myself.

Poor Sophie spent an inordinate amount of time sadly staring at the taxidermied fawn in the nature center, no doubt thinking of the injustice of it all. I tried to explain to her that sometimes animals die of natural causes, but she wasn't buying it. She had this idea that the animals were killed specifically so they could be stuffed and mounted in the museum.

For the most part though, the kids loved it, but before too long we were all back on the bus, headed southward.

Now I'm home, taking advantage of the lull in demands on my time. It won't last of course, but I'm a firm believer in taking a step back and just breathing when I have the chance.

Speaking of relaxing, I've been to a couple of gigs this week, and I've reviewed them on my other blog. Check it out.

Currently listening to: Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh "s/t" cd

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (AEOE) Statewide Spring Conference at Walker Creek Ranch in Petaluma has come and gone. People from all over the state (and even a few from Nevada) were there to participate in the workshops, network, relax, and recharge their batteries with enthusiasm and new ideas. Around 15 staff members from my school went. A bunch of us drove up in the school van, and others took their own vehicles. Several of us, including me, led workshops too, and I even managed to win second place in the photo contest, with a friend and coworker of mine coming in first.

The weekend flew by in a flurry of workshops, speakers, music, dancing, and beautiful surroundings. Grey Foxes were everywhere, and it seemed I saw one every time I walked up the road to our campsite. Overhead, the crisp, blue sky was full of Turkey Vultures, and the rolling, green hills were dotted with deer and interesting rock outcrops. The rock outcrops often supported little groups of people, sometimes with guitars and singing. The workshops were interesting. I went to one on job seeking, one on DIY car repairs, one on sage bundling, and one that taught us some new ways to teach the concept of energy to elementary school kids. This last one incorporated several fun games involving a creative re-imagining of Capture the Flag. The one I taught was about reptiles and how handle them and use them to teach natural science concepts. It went well, I think, with people giving me positive feedback afterwards. I definitely could have used more time though, since I have a lot to say on the subject.

There was music too, with bands playing in the so-called "Boogie Barn" or the dining hall each evening. There was a DJ on Saturday night too, and I found myself dancing until around 2am, hoping that the people climbing into the rafters weren't as inebriated as they looked.

Our staff did a skit for the campfire/talent show portion of the weekend, as did others. Ours was pretty tied in to the theme of the conference (Education Unplugged) while others took some liberties with their interpretations. One of them was almost dada-esque, perhaps taking the word "unplugged" to be synonymous with "unhinged" - it featured a guy in a giant, yellow chicken suit, a nearly nude fire spinner, a tap dancer, a guy with a Kermit the Frog puppet, a host of musicians, and other seemingly random players. I thought it was brilliant!

It was great to be able to be part of such a big assembly of dedicated naturalists and teachers, and wonderful to see old friends and meet new ones. I didn't get much sleep, of course, both because I stayed up way too late and because the sleeping bag I'd taken from the lost and found at work wasn't very warm. I really should buy a new sleeping bag.

It's almost hard to be back home now. I need to hang onto all of that inspiration and forge ahead in some way, but I find myself wishing that I could live on a commune with all of the people who show up to the AEOE conferences, and I'm looking forward to the Fall when my school hosts the Autumn Northern Conference. I'll probably be teaching in a classroom then, but I'll still definitely be involved in the conference.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

We're in the middle of a mini-heatwave right now. The last couple of nights have been T-shirt weather, with attendant mosquitoes. Lots of campers have been complaining of bug bites and making matters worse by madly scratching them. As I slept in the camp office, an incessant buzzing invaded my dreams and I awakened to discover a duo of Carpenter Bees bouncing against the partially open window. It wasn't long before they made it into the room and zeroed in on the lone light bulb, bouncing off the makeshift paper lampshade and pinging off the glass bulb itself. Needless to say, they kept me awake for most of the rest of the night.

I can't turn off the light because it serves as a beacon for kids who wake up in the night and need help. Like I mentioned earlier, the help most often needed this week is with bug bites, although bloody noses seem to be a regular occurrence as well. Not to mention scrapes and homesickness.

I'm gearing up for the AEOE conference this weekend, at which I'll be leading a workshop on working with reptiles in outdoor education. It should be interesting. I'm going to focus in on differing philosophies relating to human interaction with wildlife, and it should make for some lively discussions.

I'm all set to apply for my teaching credential too. I just have to renew my CPR/first aid certificate. There's a way to do that online now!

I've also started dating again, sort of. I mentioned awhile back that I'd met a woman named Terilynn. We went on a few dates but she ended up breaking things off. I don't think it was because of anything I did or didn't do - more about things going on in her life. On our last date, she talked about needing freedom. I kind of know what she means, actually. I'm in a place now where I'd like to make a real connection with the right person, but at the same time I'm in no hurry to make it happen.

We're friends on Facebook now, and we interact virtually, bringing things full circle. We initially met online through one of those online dating sites. It wasn't until relatively recently that I would have even considered investigating online dating, but I got to thinking that it might be a good way to meet people I wouldn't ever meet otherwise. It's also a good way to see how people express themselves in writing, and of knowing in advance if you have enough in common with somebody to pursue things to the next level. That said, right now I'm just looking around and enjoying the possibilities. Spring is, after all, a time of possibilities.

Spring is also a good time to hit the trails and breathe in the scent of all the new growth. I love the way the air smells when the first warm weather hits.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Here's another handful of reptile-related anecdotes. It's fun to revisit these stories, and interesting to note that they're all relatively fresh in my memory, despite the fact that the most recent of them probably occurred when I was only 13 or 14. It's also interesting to note that I can remember specific details of events, but sometimes be years off when trying to recall when the events happened.

A case in point would be the conversation I had with Matt earlier today. He's busy transferring field recordings to digital format, and wondered if I remembered what year we had gone to a friend's wedding in Portland - a trip during which field recording were made. I had, and still have, no idea. I remember the trip well enough, but not what year it occurred.

We're not wired to remember arbitrary numbers on a calendar. We're wired for seasons and events.

That's my thinking, anyway.

Here's the reptile stories:

I can still clearly remember the first time I came across a California King Snake.For some reason, in my mind this snake had become the holy grail of local snakes – probably for no other reason than I hadn’t yet seen one in the wild. It was surprisingly easy to catch.I would soon learn why.At that time, we still depended on bicycles for transportation, so the journey to and from the hills involved a lot of pedaling. Of course, the journey back home was much easier, being that it was all downhill. It was while I was coasting down one of the more significant hills, with the King Snake in one of my hands (we still hadn’t figured out the whole snake bag thing) that I looked down and noticed that the snake was now half again as long as it had been when I caught it. I did a double-take, and probably had a comical look of surprise plastered on my face while doing so. It was on that second take that I noticed that the “new growth” was actually the back end of a Garter Snake being regurgitated by my motion-sick captive.

I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

I’m sure the King Snake would have disagreed with this.

That reminds me of another incident that occurred on the way home from a different excursion into the hills. Since this time the captive was a Northern Pacific Rattlesnake, we had gotten inventive and upgraded our transportation methods.

We put the snake in a paper grocery bag.

I was on a skateboard, being pulled by my friend. Of course, I hit a rock, and the bag went flying. I landed on my back and the bag landed on me, with the open end about a foot from my face. It was one of those moments when everything seemed to freeze. The world narrowed down to include nothing but my face and the flickering tongue of the Rattlesnake, a mere 12 inches away. It probably would have nailed me right on the lips if it had been a little warmer, or if I had moved the wrong body part. As it was, I moved the right body part, bringing my hands up and pressing the bag closed. We laughed it off and kept going.

From there, my train of thought takes me to the shores of the Mississippi, up in Minnesota. The river is relatively narrow there, but it was still a big river to me. Of course, I didn’t really care about the size of the river. What held my attention was the size of the snake slipping swiftly through the tall grass along the bank. I dove for it, and felt my hands close around scaly muscle. When I stood up, I had a five foot Bullsnake in my hands. I held it up to inspect it, and it promptly struck me right in the face, hanging onto my lower lip for a moment before letting go. I was spitting blood for about fifteen minutes after that, but I didn’t care. All of my Minnesotan relatives must have thought I was crazy.

It’s also interesting to note that the Bullsnake holds the record for the largest snake native to North America, surpassing the Indigo Snake. I recently read that somebody in Texas caught a ten footer. I guess it’s good that I didn’t catch a ten foot snake. That probably would have hurt more.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Today, I finished the last bit of schoolwork for the term, and now I can go ahead and apply for my credential.

Before that, I need sleep. Spring Break is only a break for kids.

Monday, April 13, 2009

An unseasonable cold has descended over the valley, or at least over the hills, tonight. Everything is peaceful up at camp, and I had one of those evenings where everything fell into place neatly. The kids are well-behaved, the cabin leaders are experienced, and the talk I gave to the assembled kids was somehow just a bit better than usual. Now, most of the little chores are done, and all I hear is the grumbling of the refrigerator, the ticking clocks, and the clacking of keys as I type. I've got to go check the laundry in a few minutes - I'm washing clothes left behind by last week's kids, and another bag full of clothes that appear to be a bit too sophisticated to belong to 5th or 6th graders. Perhaps they're left over from one of the weekend groups who occasionally rent the site.

I'm feeling the need to rein myself in again. I've been spending carelessly (music again), eating like a teenager, and slacking off on exercise. This kind of thing is almost cyclical. I've got to find away to forge continually ahead, rather than swinging back and forth like a pendulum.

It would be nice to be happy with every aspect of my life at the same time. Or maybe that's an impossibility. I don't know. Perhaps it's happiness that takes away the drive to improve. Sometimes I think that being unhappy can be a positive force for change. In fact, I know it is. When I'm happy, I want to stay right where I am. Doesn't everybody?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

On Friday, I spent around six hours on a bus, heading to and from Columbia State Historic Park on the western flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This is the annual fourth grade field trip, and Nate asked me along to help chaperon. I jumped at the chance for a couple of reasons. The first, and most important, reason is simply that going on the trip meant that I got to spend the day with Nate. Since I don't live with him any more, and since technically he's my ex-stepkid now (technically - emotionally he'll always be my stepson), I don't get as much time to hang out with him. The second reason is simply that it's hard to turn down any opportunity to go to the mountains.

The park if full of replica buildings, as well as some original buildings from the mid-eighteen hundreds. There is an old schoolhouse next to an old graveyard, as well as a downtown area built in the style of the 1850s. The kids (there were about 70 of them) were divided into groups. There was an auction (Nate was his group's treasurer, and like the other treasurers, he had 60 gold Eagles to spend) during which "gold rush" supplies were bought. The whole object of the experience was to have the students work together to make a journey through the park, trading supplies as they went, to successfully get to the gold fields. At the end of the trek, groups were given points for having certain supplies left (food, equipment, etc.), and docked points for having been suckered into buying faulty maps and questionable items (like gold grease). Chaperons weren't allowed to help, although I have a feeling that many of them did. My fellow chaperon helped on one occasion, getting the group back on track (the navigator misread the map), but I managed to keep my mouth shut (which was hard because I'm used to teaching and talking to groups of students). After reaching the end of the trek, students got to pan for gold using buckets of water and dirt (I had envisioned getting to pan in a real creek somewhere, but sadly this wasn't to be). Still, it was great experience for the kids. Even though he wasn't the captain of our group, Nate is a natural leader. He's got an intensity about him too, and his actions are always very decisive. At the end, while waiting for the last group to arrive, we wandered through the cemetery and out into a nearby meadow. We ended up picking up litter as we wandered, and it's good to see Nate do this without being prompted. I'm so glad he's not one of those kids who argues, "but I didn't drop it - it's not mine!", when asked to pick something up.

The other group finally made it, and then we went into the downtown area. I bought ice cream and coffee (some for right then, and some for later). Nate bought a strange little multi-use tool at the blacksmith's shop. Then, it was back on the bus for the three hour ride home. It passed quickly of course, but then again there is always something to do when one is properly prepared for the journey.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Banana Slugs are kid magnets. The fact that they're bright yellow sort of makes them pop out from their surroundings (unless they're in amongst fallen Bay Laurel leaves) and their glacial pace makes them easy to catch. Nobody ever has to chase a slug. All you have to do is lean down and pick it up.

As a child, I picked up pretty much every Banana Slug I came across. I didn't care that my mom or dad had to spend a half an hour getting the slime off my hands each time I picked one up, and I didn't even stop to think about what effect my enthusiastic handling might have on the slugs.

They were just so cool and yellow.

As an adult, I leave them be, except to occasionally photograph them. I did once lick one, just to see if the mild poison in their slime would indeed numb my lips and tongue like I'd heard it would. It did, and not being able to properly feel my lips and tongue was kind of irritating for a couple of days.

I don't let kids touch them either. Apparently, the oils in human skin are bad for the slugs. Not to mention bacteria and whatnot.

At camp, we sing song about them, and an anatomically incorrect cartoon version of them graces our T-shirts. You'd figure a science camp would remember to make sure that the slugs' eyes were actually at the ends of the eye-stalks where they belong. But no - they're on the body of the slug, with the stalks reduced to some sort of yellow antennae. Go figure.

Monday, April 06, 2009

I finally caved in and got a new camera. It's another point-and-shoot; a Canon Powershot A100 IS. One of these days I'll get an SLR camera, but that's going to have to wait until I can justify the expense. One of the advantages of having a cheaper camera is that I'm not afraid to take it hiking with me. I can still get some pretty decent shots with this kind of camera. I got a pleasant surprise when I got it too. They threw in a free photo printer. Sure, I had to pay up front for it, but I get 100% of the cash back in the form of a rebate. Nice.

As I get older, I continue to be thankful for cameras. Sometimes I forget things that happened last month, or even last week. I think it's because the older we get, the more memories we hold. It's all in there somewhere, but crammed in like like little bits of paper in an overstuffed filing system. It's hard to locate things sometimes.

As children, our filing systems are relatively bare of detritus. Everything in there is important and easily accessible. Strangely enough, those childhood memories tend to rise to the top of the pile in our mental filing systems. I can remember certain moments from childhood more clearly than I can remember yesterday. In fact, some of those childhood moments seem to grow in importance over the years. They continue to resonate in a way that's all out of proportion with their initial impact.

The first Rattlesnake I ever saw was a big one. Like most Northern Pacific rattlesnakes, it had a banded tail, making it superficially resemble a Kingsnake. As a sixth or seventh grader, I had already developed a predator's eye, instinctively honing in on visual cues in my environment. Because of this, and based on its banded pattern, I was halfway to grabbing the huge Rattlesnake before thought kicked in and a little voice in my head said, "hey idiot! It has a rattle!" I backed off, and so did my friends who had also been running towards it. We watched it slowly crawl into the undergrowth until it had disappeared from view.

It was soon afterwards that we caught our first Rattlesnake. It was inside a drainage pipe in the spillway up at Steven's Creek Reservoir. I can't remember how we got it out of the pipe, or how we got it to crawl into the old beer can we'd found, but the end result was a trio of pre-teen boys walking around with a baby Rattlesnake inside a beer can. We took it home, and my friend tried in vain to convince his mom that it was a Gopher snake. She didn't buy it of course, and made him release the snake.

There were other, similar incidents as well. Quite a lot of them, actually. I'll save those stories for another day. Now that I'm writing them down, I'm realizing that the stories tend to bleed together after all of these years, and I can't remember which beginnings and ends fit together. The memories I have are often like mental snapshots. I can remember moments, but the context is sometimes hazy. I guess it's a good thing I'm starting to write them down.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

When I was young, my parents enrolled me in various summer day camps and nature camps in the hills above Cupertino. Some were at Linda Vista park, and some were at McClellan Ranch park. For some reason, one of my clearest memories of my time at Linda Vista park was finding an unopened can of beer. I'm not sure where the camp leaders were at the time, but a bunch of us opened the beer and it geysered out. We all leaned forward to drink from this sudden fountain of alcohol, enjoying the warm taste of the illicit beverage. It's kind of ironic that I loved the taste of beer then, but hated it by the time I was old enough to drink it legally.

But it was at McClellan Ranch park the I found my first wild snakes. I think I was by myself when I found them. The park was actually a farm of sorts, with a big garden area and possibly some livestock. It was bordered on one side by a creek. It was near the creek, under a flat piece of rock (or possibly a board) that I found the two Ringneck snakes, coiled together like an ornate, reptilian ring. I don't think I'd ever seen something so beautiful, although I wouldn't have used those words at the time. For me, it was like suddenly discovering treasure in a place where I'd expected only dirt. I don't think I knew what Ringneck snakes were at the time, but that didn't stop me from quickly capturing them. Being a kid, I took them home and set up a cage for them. I didn't care that I was taking them away from their home, and I was only dimly aware of concepts like ecology and wilderness ethics. I was a collector. When I saw something cool, I collected it. This is healthy childhood behavior. It's how children learn. It's how we build our interests.

I can't remember what eventually happened to the snakes, but I have a memory of losing a Ringneck snake in the neighbor's lawn. It just wormed its way into the grass and disappeared.

As an adult, I don't let the kids I'm in charge of take animals out of the wilderness, but I can understand why kids want to catch things. Part of the reason, I think, is that we tend to define who we are by what we surround ourselves with. I spent a lot of time surrounding myself with animals I found under rocks, dinosaur models, horror novels, and other related items. This set me apart from many of my contemporaries and gave me a feeling of individuality, of uniqueness. I'm not sure how much of this external definition of self is induced by modern society - by advertising and the like - and how much is simply human nature. Geez. I'm getting more philosophical than I set out to be here... As a species, we started out as hunter gatherers. Maybe it's in our nature to gather. The only difference is now that companies engage in advertising to convince us to gather their products and not those of their competetors.

Whatever the cause of my desire to gather reptiles, I eventually realized that it wasn't okay to take animals from their homes. I remember running into a reptile photographer at a BAARs meeting (that would be the Bay Area Amphibian and Reptile Society) who put it this way: "You don't have to feed or clean the cages of photos." I think this is what first got me to thinking about what I was doing, and this despite the fact that he hadn't actually addressed the ethics of taking animals from their homes. I arrived at that conclusion by myself. That conclusion being that all species have a right to exist in their own habitats. As an adult, I've dedicated a lot of time to bringing this message to children. Catching reptiles is only a small part of the picture, of course. Development companies have a much greater impact on the lives and well-being of wild animals than a handful of junior collectors ever will. They don't take animals from their habitats, but instead rip the habitat out from under the animals, like a big organic rug, leaving behind city streets and new buildings. I've seen what has happened to most of the reptile hunting places I frequented as a child. Most of them are now under foundations or asphalt. Sure, the parks are still there, but a lot of the inbetween places have vanished.

So now, as an adult, I always have my camera with me. Right now I'm between cameras though. The outdoors is hard on cameras, and I find that I have to buy a new one every couple of years. I haven't yet bought a truly good camera, instead focusing (pun intended, as always) on mid-range point and shoot cameras. This way, I'm not afraid to get down there in the dirt and get the interesting shots of animals doing what they do. I also still catch reptiles, usually so I can get good close-ups. The difference is that I put them down again after I'm done. I also let kids touch, and sometimes hold, the reptiles I catch. I know there are other naturalists out there who don't allow this, but I think I have a good rationale. Kids need to get up close and personal with the wilderness and the wild animals that inhabit it - that's how they make connections. These are the kinds of experiences that inspire people to care about nature. It worked for me, and I know I'm not unique in this respect. Of course, it's always important to constantly model respect, and to talk about how to interact with these animals in a way that is safe for both humans and their temporary captives.

I draw the line at wild mammals. We watch those from a distance. Reptiles and amphibians are good animals to interact with because of their relatively primitive brains (less stress for the animal - in fact, some lizards will crawl right onto a person and bask there) and lower likelihood of having communicable diseases (reptiles can carry salmonella, but you're much more likely to get this from improperly cooked chicken).

It's Spring right now, and I'm looking forward to getting out on the trails with a new camera. The reptiles I capture today and the photos I post online might inspire somebody somewhere to make more of a difference. Who knows?

Friday, April 03, 2009

I killed a rabbit once.

I didn't intend to kill it. Far from it. I just wanted to get a closer look at it.

We were in a field, my friends and I. Two sides of the field were bordered by fences, and two sides by roads. The grass was high and full of secret places. We probably went to the field to look for lizards and toads. I can't remember exactly. I can't even remember how old we were. Maybe 10, or maybe a bit younger.

Suddenly a rabbit appeared there in the waving grass, all wild eyed and alert. We gave chase immediately. I don't know exactly what we were thinking, or if indeed we were thinking at all. Maybe it was more instinct - the instinct of the hunter. Look! Small animal! Small animal run! Me chase it and catch it!

We didn't catch it. It darted back and forth for awhile, looking for an escape route. We closed in and it shot away.

Into the road.

The meaty sound of the impact stopped us in our tracks. We watched as the rabbit was flung back towards us. We hovered over its still, bloodied form as its fluids leaked into the gutter. I still remember the unseeing eyes and the redness of its ruined body. Another perfect creature reduced to meat.

I think encounters like this colored my subsequent interactions with wildlife, and my approach to life in general. I know that nothing is forever. Beauty fades. Tragedy happens. Plans don't always come to fruition. It's part of life. We learn much more about ourselves from these unforeseen moments than we do from the times when things go as planned.

Of course, that doesn't mean we have to like these moments. Like it or not though, they are part of what make us who we are.

The field was killed sometime later. It was ripped away by a different kind of pursuit - the eternal quest for profit. The waving grass gave way to the fixed ugliness of condominiums. Every other living thing in that field perished, and I'm willing to bet none of the deaths meant as much to the perpetrators as that one rabbit's death meant to me.

It is sometimes said that one death is a tragedy, but many are a statistic. Perhaps when the number of deaths is great, it is too overwhelming to deal with in any sort of human way. More likely though, the people responsible didn't view it as a tragedy at all. They viewed it as a necessity.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

I finally got to see the end results of all the research and planning that my adoptive students put into their projects today. All six groups presented their Powerpoint projects to the class, while their classmates took notes. Tomorrow, the students will be tested on what they learned from the presentations.

Today though, I was impressed by the skills and teamwork the students exhibited. Some groups figured out how to make their projects visually interesting, one group used music, and many students who had not previously worked well together managed to form a united front today. Now that's progress. Sure, there were still a few random misspellings and other glitches, but for the most part, I was very happy with the results.

I think the students really thrived on the hands-on element of this project. I gave them a lot of leeway with the creation of their presentations, and I think all of the groups figured out some interesting things all on their own. I wish all classroom work could be like this.

Currently listening to the sublime melancholy of Eleni Karaindrou "Dust of Time"

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

One of my biggest fears in life is appearing foolish when I'm trying to appear otherwise. Because of this, I often act silly on purpose, just so I can have more control over the process. I may have some control-freak tendencies as well, although they're not directed at other people - just at myself. It's one of the reasons I don't drink or take any other mind-altering substances. I also stress out when I'm running late, but not when other people fail to show up on time (unless their failure to show up on time makes me late too).

This is just a convoluted way of saying, "happy April Fool's Day!" Now, get out there and do something foolish!

The first animal I saw today (if you discount the late night deer and bats) was a foolish one. As I was driving back down the hill from camp, I saw a coyote lingering by the side of the road, looking put out that cars were driving by and interrupting whatever it had been doing. Coyote, of course, plays the part of Trickster in many Native American myths. More often than not, Coyote's tricks backfire, revealing him to be somewhat of a fool. It never seems to stop him though. Coyote is consistent, if nothing else.

I watched his image dwindle to nothing in my rear-view mirror, feeling glad that I got to share a fraction of my morning with another creature who knows how to take control of his foolishness. It was a good way to start the day. Especially this day.

Currently listening to: Bernardo Devlin "Agio"