Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Monday, January 5, 2015

Kissing Fishes

In May 2014, I began my dream job, educating the public about nature.  As a Nature Guide, I was given a fantastic week of training, then given the freedom to design the programs I would present.  On being shown to my "office"(I use the term loosely, since it also doubled as a maintenance room and employee locker room, though I was told I was lucky to have a work space at all) I spent a day looking through the programs other Nature Guides had presented before me, and panic set in.  I knew nothing!  What was I thinking, believing I could educate the public in the natural sciences?  So I did what I always do in stressful situations, which also happens to be a part of my job requirement; I went alone into the woods.

It was there, exploring the natural areas in which I would be working, that I found my balance again.  I saw a deer with twin fawns, their leaps and bounds awkward while the doe gracefully glided over fallen trees.  I knew she was teaching them by showing them.  I saw a snake (eeeeek!) sunning itself on the boat launch, realizing I would have to get used to seeing snakes, and not hyperventilating.  I saw turtles, birds I could not identify (add "birding" to the list of things I need to learn), and trees natural to the area; red pine, black cherry, cottonwood, hickory, elm, and countless ash trees on the ground, their majestic trunks felled by a tiny invasive bug.  I began to count how many things I did know, things I learned by being in nature, not in a classroom.  An idea began to form about how I would present my programs.

I returned to my office for additional research, and I realized my idea was not original.  There is a wealth of information available about guided nature programs, written by people who feel exactly the same way I do.

As the summer schedule commenced, it quickly became obvious I was on the right track.  I was initially amazed by the amount of science the kids in my groups knew.  Some kids even added facts to my presentation, which delighted me.  As the days continued, the realization hit me that I had learned all the same things in elementary school, many years ago.  I had just forgotten it all until recent years when I started spending more time outdoors.

It is very important in my job to be knowledgeable.  But so many of the kids I interact with are already pretty knowledgable, so I refined my focus to two challenges.  The first is to present them with relevant information that goes a little beyond what they are taught in school.  I was researching a program about owls, knowing these kids would know the basics; owls are raptors, owls can't move their eyes, owls can move their head 270ยบ, owls glide through the air soundlessly, and they are nocturnal.  They eat their prey, then regurgitate the parts they can't digest.  Then I came across an interesting tidbit, checked a few other sources for validation, and made up a story to tell the kids while we walked in the woods at night, calling for owls.

The story is about a family a black crows who torment a sleeping owl all day.  The owl is their predator, so they bully the owl all day, diving through the air and pecking and screeching, disturbing the owl's sleep.  I never knew that crows did this.  Then one day, I was in my own back yard, splitting wood, when a commotion caught my eye.  I looked up, and sure enough, an owl was swooping through the air above me with a flock of crows in hot pursuit, pecking at him while he sought refuge in a hollow tree.  I was enthralled!  Maybe I have seen this before, but I didn't know what exactly I was seeing.  How thrilling it was to watch this phenomenon of nature and truly understand it.

Therein lies my biggest challenge as a Nature Guide.  How do I find a way to help these kids remember what they learn?  We all learned about the animals and the environment, the rocks, the trees.  As we grew older, our interests became narrower, and at some point we forget everything else. I want to be a part of creating a generation of kids who don't forget nature.  The challenge became one of connecting kids with nature, of creating a strong enough connection that they continue to seek time outdoors even as they grow into adults.

For me, seeing the crows chasing the owl created a connection.  This is the kind of thing you can't plan, you can't incorporate it into an educational program.  So I sought the help of experts, like Michael Caduto and Joseph Cornell, and my favorite, Jon Young and his book about Coyote Mentoring.  These people are a few of the pioneers of connecting people with nature, and their books have helped me guide my programs toward a more enriching experience.

I had to learn how to use a child's natural curiosity with whatever was at hand.  On one particularly beautiful Saturday morning, I took a group of kids fishing.  Most were squeamish about baiting the hook, or touching their catch.  Then one young girl caught a nice Bluegill, and before throwing it back, she kissed it.  The other kids squealed, but I threw some enthusiasm into the situation and explained that real fishermen kiss their fish before they throw it back.  I then told a story about an old man who would kiss a small fish, then throw it back in the hope that when the fish got bigger, he would catch it again and eat it.  The kiss was a sign of respect for the nourishment the fish would someday provide.  Pretty soon I had 30 kids begging to kiss a fish.

It was a nice segue into a discussion of food chains, which was unplanned but beneficial.  More importantly, the kids connected to the fish, and understood the role it plays.  They kissed a fish!

My job is awesome.  I learn more from it than I teach, and together with a group of kids, teenagers, even adults, we explore and discover and connect with our natural world.  If those experiences stay with them as they have stayed with me, more people will care about life, balance, and all living things.   In even the smallest of ways, I did a good thing.
Now that winter is firmly upon us and I am not leading groups of people through the woods, I am spending my time researching even more information and finding fun new ways to present programs.  If you are a parent, or an aunt or uncle, grandparent, here's a fun winter fact:  If you see the kids eating snow, fill a glass with the snow and bring it inside to melt.  If there are tiny black dots in the melted snow, tell the kids they've been eating snow fleas, which are a good source of protein!  (Then tell them to stop eating snow!)

Happy winter, happy exploring, and try to get outside today!