Thursday, June 26, 2014

Bears, Bugs and Field Trips

Bears, Bugs  and Field Trips

Having my hair combed in my sleep was strange, but finding a bear my cosmetician caused me to shout, “Hey!” with enough authority to shy that bear to the nearest tree. My flashlight caught it in an intimate bear-hugging tree embrace. Because bears scare the hell out of me, you’d think I’d stick to the couch, or maybe the desert, not so far. The hair grooming bear left me in peace to complete my night’s sleep on the forest floor and a morning of contemplating what might have been with an economy sized grizzly rather than the small black bear of the Santa Barbara backcountry.

That heighted sense of wilderness isn’t present where large predators have been extirpated. Grizzly bears lived near my home 100 years ago.
Recently I learned Father Junipero Serra abandoned his plan for a Montecito mission as his bishop said there were too many grizzlies. He sited Santa Barbara Mission on its present hill where the brown bear population was lower. Even so, Franciscans were in the bear’s debt for keeping trails of the first Camino Real open between missions. Wide grizzly bodies edging through thorny chaparral provided space for Franciscan priests traveling up and down the coast. Without the bears, priests might have been required to hack their way through the wilderness. That they tolerated close grizzly encounters indicates free trail maintenance made up for the threat.

Being in the food chain without being at the top is a good and humbling experience. It requires more care in our surroundings. I have that experience with rattlesnakes as I can't hear them. Most of time, my reasonable fears are other people; people driving vehicles they can't handle or drive responsibly. Nature and wilderness usually feels safer than driving on the freeway or walking urban streets. A bear or even bear track within sight will focus my attention like nothing else.

Is that a mother bear with cubs hiding somewhere? How far is the bear? Which way is the wind blowing? Can the bear smell me and is it aware I'm here? Is it engaged in something it will continue doing or is it going to take interest in me?

All these questions come to mind when I see a bear, outside a zoo, when I'm not in a vehicle. When a bear ambles into view, I have no remote for changing the channel. I have to deal with the situation here and now.

When leading children for natural history field trips I love to see their reaction to new things they experience. A bug they've never seen before is arresting.

Will it bite? Will it sting?  And then they move to: Does it fly? What does it eat? Are there more? What's it doing?

One little bug can totally derail whatever we were doing and I love it. It might not be a grizzly bear but it brings the focus to here and now. Moving on six legs and sometimes oblivious to everything else, an insect is a pure delight. Cobalt beetles this week were good for a few full
minutes with second graders. That’s eternity in their attention span. Cobalts are a pretty safe bet as a way to focus children’s experience of the outdoors. If I could introduce them to bears as safely it would be even more valuable. I know the boy who kept asking if we would see a bear felt that way.

“No bears. Where do you think they are?” he asked at the end of his trip with a downturned lip.

He wanted to hunt the bear. I told him the reserve has bears and people do see them, but usually not during the day. Everything else paled by comparison. A bear at the zoo is interesting, but the fence, the mote or the cage that separates viewers from animals makes it an extremely different experience from being outdoors where engagement is profoundly heightened. New hairdo anyone?

I share nature with many people on field trips and outings. I want to influence their attitude, positively towards nature and especially wilderness. It’s effective to engage them, whether they're little or big, with firsthand experience. Doing that without judgment is the best I can do. Asking them to reflect on what they experienced and how it relates to nature and wilderness has great promise. If I can hold off describing, and focus engagement, they will understand more in a context that is free and open. Then I am doing a better job.

What excites me about natural history and wilderness are the mysteries.

Where do birds migrate to? How often has the mountain lion stalked me when I didn't know? How old is the groundwater seeping from the rock? What's in the air right now? And where did it come from?

Some questions are easy. The best mysteries have multiple parts that take decades to unwrap. Imagine the migration pattern of the Monarch
butterfly. Before there were electronic communications, before people could follow and before the coordinated effort, butterflies came and went from people's lives as a mystery. Sharing information, people put together what they could of Monarch migration. With concentrated effort the mystery unfolded to reveal the multiple generations required to complete the full migration circuit. What do we know about lichens, the regeneration of valley oaks or future evolution of bobcats?

I get to bring mystery to a person's awareness, and have them wrestle with it. The fifth grade comparative anatomy field trip was such an opportunity. We looked at bones to decide what species they came from and where they fit. Most the students passed bones and made remarks, all moving closer together. They started with simple nonsense, but they found they could come closer to the mark. Asking questions will focus sometimes, but handling materials --bones in this case-- and finding clues or novelty spontaneously is more effective. We all love a good mystery, especially if we think we can solve it and maybe look smart.

I try to slip things past people's resistance and distraction. Distractions are exciting peers, on the move, fear of being wrong, or fear of the threats in the environment, opportunities to amuse and then there’s resistance we all have to something so new we don’t know what to do with it. We ignore it, or put it in a category with something familiar.
Maybe it will take too much work or time to figure out, so we resist the effort. Field trips never have enough time to unravel a big mystery, but they might intrigue someone to think about it later. Maybe they will ask questions, research online, in field books or possibly go outside to find out for themselves. There is a small line between dictating what people should see and slipping something into the agenda so it is their choice to ask the question rather than me priming the pump with monotonous questions.

Yesterday it was, “Mr. Dennis, what’s that eagle doing?”

I missed the bird soaring overhead and that was the lesson right then! I love hearing they have a question. When that happens everything falls into place. We watched as I asked them to tell me the colors they saw. When the bird turned on the thermal edge it’s red tail was revealed and a mystery solved, red tail hawk.

Six kids want to climb the tree. How can I introduce mystery into that?

How big is this tree? How do we measure? What makes the tree stable? Have you seen a root system? What is the tree made of? How much of the tree is made of what you breathe out? When we share gases like carbon dioxide and oxygen with the tree does that mean part of you becomes the tree?

I use a few questions and I hope to elicit theirs before pushing them down my path.

Why is the bark pealing? How’d it get that color? Where are the ants going?

Those were their questions. The answers that come from playing the detective in the investigation stick the longest. I encourage them to look for answers here and now and to think of reasons that fit the information they can find. Leaps of intuition are sometimes required and often resisted.

"Why can't you just tell us?"

When I see boredom or passive resistance I try to have them dig deeper. If they are going to find something interesting it means learning more and figuring out how to dig the details out.  

Nature does not begin across the street or at the end of the city. We are all part of nature and we
protect our health and sanity by protecting wilderness and nature. I don’t need a bear as a prop, but I am still thinking of ways I could safely introduce one into my field trips.

For more natural history photos click by or Twitter @paddledoc

1 comment:

half sane, maybe said...

As usual, nice pictures. You're waxing eloquently on this one. Why not just shoot the bear, squish the bug, and enjoy the field trip. You're working too hard at this field trip thingy.