Citizen Science at Its Best

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By all accounts Stony Brook’s Purple Martin Project has been a tremendous success. We’ve seen the martin population increase two-fold this year to approximately twenty-eight birds, counting fledglings. Anyone who has walked out to the nest site has no doubt seen the playful swirling of the birds around the nesting boxes or heard their distinctive song which is easily identifiable and always memorable. With a little luck and a lot of persistence, these birds will make the trek back from South America next spring to nest here again and increase the population even more. We are already thinking of adding more gourds in anticipation of their arrival.

The success of this project is no doubt due in part to the new gourd houses we installed (thanks to the generosity of our many donors) and the inspired efforts of our Volunteer Director, Jess Watson, who solicited donations for the gourds and who put together a volunteer team to manage the nest sites. The impetus for the idea, however, came from Madeleine Linck, a retired wildlife technician who came to Stony Brook several years ago when her grand-daughter had a birthday party here.

At the time she had not moved to this area and was managing several martin colonies for Three Rivers Park District in Minnesota. When Madeleine happened to notice our martin house in the field, she saw the potential for a colony at Stony Brook and was excited that Doug, our director, was open to her helping out at a future date. This year that initial dream came to fruition, but it never would have happened without the leadership of someone like Madeleine who had the knowledge and vision and sheer tenacity to see the project through.

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Madeleine is a larger-than-life figure who commands respect immediately without ever saying a word. She rushes into a room with the look of an adventurer who has just came back from an African safari and is late for her next expedition. Her demeanor is reminiscent of accomplished women from the past who pioneered wilderness exploration or natural history studies. She has the decorum and soft-spoken wisdom of a Jane Goodall mixed with the gritty pluck of an Amelia Earhart. This is a woman who will always make her mark.

Madeleine oversaw and mentored an enthusiastic group of volunteers who, to a person, can’t say enough about their experience and, in particular, the leadership and guidance that Madeleine provided. To me, she is the story here. The volunteers cited her enthusiasm, her tremendous knowledge and patience. They touted her willingness to share, her dedication to environmentalism and land protection, her gracious manner and ability to draw upon a wealth of life experiences to illustrate a concept or drive a point home.

Last week I went out with Madeleine and two other volunteers to view the nest site and to understand their process. In simple terms Madeleine explained that “successful nesting gourds and boxes must be managed,” or else they will be subject to disease and predation. House sparrows in this area are particularly problematic and aggressive. They can overtake a nest and drive out the martins, destroying their eggs and attacking their defenseless fledglings.

The group kept very specific records of how many eggs had been laid in each box or gourd, how many had hatched and for how long, disposing of eggs that had not gestated and looking for signs of mite infestation. They also noted which sites had been taken over by house sparrows and, when appropriate, addled any unhatched eggs. When I looked into one of the gourds, I could see as many as six babies huddled around each other to preserve body heat, layered together in what looked like a dark puff pastry or souffle. In another there were five newly hatched babies, featherless and exposed, more gelatinous than distinct. Like everyone, I was amazed to see life so raw and unvarnished.

All the while Madeleine recorded the volunteers’ findings, answered any questions they might have had, and shared relevant anecdotes that were as much informative as charming. Madeleine told me, for example, that the toiletry habits of the birds can be particularly interesting. The parents actually remove the fledglings’ fecal sacs early on, but near the end of the 28 day cycle, she “had seen them actually back up in the nest and poop out the door.” She added, “You don’t want to check the houses at that time because they will sometimes get so excited they come out of the nest too early, not fully prepared to fly.”

When I sat down with Madeleine later, I learned that she had earned her Masters in Biology at Worcester State here in Massachusetts, and had worked for the Three Rivers Park District in Minnesota for nearly 25 years while her husband was teaching at the University of Minnesota. At Worcester State she concentrated her studies on the Blanding’s turtle, an endangered species, and later published the results of her work. She retired to this area because her daughter’s family lives in Foxboro and she can be close to her grand-children there. One grand-daughter in particular seems to share Madeleine’s fascination for birds, keeping a notebook of drawings and having committed to memory many of the birds’ songs.

Madeleine talked freely about the current socio-political climate in which “people may have jobs but may not be able to breathe the air.” She fears that the average person will stand by silently as the EPA is stripped of its authority and those in power demonstrate an increasingly scary disregard for the Earth. She worries that children are raised in front of monitors and tv screens and not in the outdoors, unable to understand their connection to the natural world, its diverse life-forms and shapes. “We’re all connected,” she says, “and our survival may depend on the fact that we don’t throw any of the pieces away.”

She says, in fact, that “if human beings disappeared from the Earth, it might not matter. But if insects disappeared, the whole eco-system would collapse. It would make a huge difference.” That’s how insignificant we are in the scheme of things. Her hope is “to educate, to make a difference, to open little windows.” According to the volunteers who assisted Madeleine, that’s exactly what she did for them. Listening to her, I thought, if citizen science projects are ultimately to succeed and effect worthwhile change, we might look to emulate this one.

 

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Seeing into the Gaps

“That the world is old and frayed is no surprise; that the world could ever become new and whole beyond uncertainty was, and is, such a surprise that I find myself referring all subsequent kinds of knowledge to it.”

“The creatures I seek do not want to be seen.”

“I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”

“I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
(Annie Dillard – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

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I have long been preoccupied with seeing, by which I mean not simply sight, but perspective or insight or, on a grand scale, enlightenment. In my writing I return to this theme again and again, I think because I have had moments of seeing and, in some sense, want to confirm them with others and, more generously, hope that I can inspire others to have moments of seeing, too. This last is a result of the teacher in me. I cannot help it.

Along those lines I return as well to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in particular the second chapter, “Seeing,” where Dillard chronicles her life-long efforts to “forget the naturally obvious and construct an artificial obvious” instead. An artificial obvious becomes a way to narrow down things, a technique to cultivate the point of view of an expert in a field, or to imitate the sense of awakening a blind person feels when suddenly his sight is restored.

It may mean, too, the reverse: seeing as a child, or as someone blind, or someone lost, or deprived of any sense but touch. An artificial obvious becomes a means to cast aside expectations and self-consciousness, to let go and lose oneself in the present moment, to see not the fence but the space between the pickets. “Go up into the gaps,” Dillard says. “If you can find them… Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock-more than a maple- a universe.”

Here I’ll dispense with my suggestions for getting into the gaps and focus instead on Marla Cohen’s, Stony Brook’s Education Coordinator. A few months ago Mass Audubon partnered with REI on Black Friday and urged people to “get outside” rather than to roam the malls or troll the internet looking for sales. Marla set up a program of activities that day which received little notice (due to the weather), but which I thought were wonderful nonetheless.

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On various trees and posts around the Stony Brook loop, she tied a series of laminated “leaves” with suggestions written on them, ideas for parents or grandparents to try with kids, or people of any age to try on their own. She paired these “leaves” with a scavenger hunt box left outside the Nature Center which gave people a quest for that day, should they have been up for the challenge. It’s the “leaves,” however, that drew my attention since they might well have been a primer in how to construct an artificial obvious.

For anyone interested, I urge you to try any of these or, even better, to create some of your own. The idea is to engage the senses on a new level, to raise consciousness or, more simply, to encourage dialogue. A trip to Stony Brook, or anywhere outside, even inside your own house, becomes a source of inspiration and story when it leads to “seeing” in a new way:

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Camera – One person in each pair is the camera, and the other person the photographer. Have the “cameras” close their eyes while the photographers set up each photo by walking with them, turning them, or asking them to crouch to face a particular view. When the photographer taps the camera on the head, the camera opens his or her eyes for three seconds to take tin the picture, then closes them and is brought to a new location. Take turns. What was your favorite “photo”? What did you see?

Sneaky Feet – Have one person move up the trail about 10-15 feet, stand with his or her eyes closed and arms out. The rest of the group tries to sneak up close enough to touch that person’s hand without being heard. If the person with his or her eyes closed points at them first, they must freeze. How close can you get?

Colors – How many different colors and shades of colors can you find along the trails? Make a prediction.

Monogram – Try to find something that begins with each of your initials. The items don’t have to be physical; they can be sounds or smells, too.

Sounds – Close your eyes and count on your fingers how many different sounds you hear during one minute. Was it more or less than you expected? Just for fun, see if you can count to 10 without hearing a bird song.

Shapes – Choose a shape: square, circle, dodecahedron… whatever you like. Can you find something that shape? Try a different shape.

Penny Hunt – How many things can you find that will completely fit on a penny? If you don’t have a penny try something else, like your thumbnail.

Last Picture – Before you leave this place, imagine that you have one picture left in your camera. The “camera” is made by framing pointer fingers and thumbs into a square and looking through it. Which “shot” would you choose for your last picture? Share your “picture” with your friends/family.

Meet a Tree – Close your eyes and let your partner lead you up the trail to a tree he or she likes. Explore the tree without opening your eyes. How does it feel? Can you reach all the way around it? When you are finished exploring, have your partner lead you back to the starting point. Can you find your tree? How do you know it’s your tree?

Animal Walk – Have someone choose a particular animal species to walk like and have everyone imitate you. For example, hop like a rabbit, pretend to soar like a hawk, or get as close as the ground as possible to crawl like an ant.

Truth in the present moment

“Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and never will be more divine in the lapse of all the ages.” (Thoreau, Walden)

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Bill Knowlton’s photo is stunning. When I view it, I think of a universe of shimmering waves, some of which coalesce before our eyes as animal or vegetable or human forms, but which ultimately are little more than electrons floating through a space-time continuum. We think in terms of a material world, but all matter is energy. And in this photo it’s as if the mallard swims simultaneously between two realms of particle and wave, its path detectable only by a trail of azure blue refraction. There are no dualities: no life and death, no up and down, no past and present. Only now. All is one quantum consciousness, here visible in the form of heavenly white feathers supporting a head of emerald green and a beak of ancient gold.

Striking, too, is the sense of peace, of quiet, of tranquility conveyed in this image. That the mallard could glide through his life with such utter grace and purpose, seemingly unaffected by anything but his being, inspires us to do the same. For all the motion that is apparent here, an impressive aura of silence fills the space, perhaps equivalent to, or a reminder of, the steady movement of the planets and stars. Is it possible that we leave a similar blue plume through the vacuum, the glowing trace of our lives in our wake?

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The sharp contrast in this second image reminds me that the sanctity and beauty of life is more complicated than a smooth glide upon still water. There will be tumult. There will be change. No journey is complete without a struggle. The merganser standing firm upon the nest box entrance knows the course. Her eyes are steady, her feet braced, her cinnamon crest defiant in the wind. Breeding season awaits. Winter still leaves a trace of rime upon the wood frame she now inhabits, the specter of black ice that drove her to leave for open water a mere memory. She knows she will leave again if need be, that she will have to share her space with species who lay unfamiliar eggs. But spring will come with all its promises. There will be fish enough for all and warmth and summer rain.

Note: Photos are courtesy of Bill Knowlton. See more of his images taken at Stony Brook here: http://www.billknowlton.com/Birds/StonyBrook

Romeo Gump’s 2016 Bicycle Adventure

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In some small way we all want to do the impossible, test the limits of our courage and stamina, our intelligence or physical grace, our ability to adapt to changing circumstances or to look failure square in the face. It’s no small wonder that so many people idolize or seek to emulate great athletes or explorers, legendary entertainers or artists, world leaders or creative geniuses, outstanding educators or religious saints. People who change the world or redirect our definition of what’s possible, who inspire us to do the same.

All too often, though, such heroic figures make the impossible seem out of reach, and we settle for complacency or living vicariously through others rather than making our own way. The heroes I admire, however, are more everyday, those who live and give of themselves fully, without pretense or need to take center stage. These are people who live “deliberately,” to use Thoreau’s terminology. People who do “not wish to practice resignation… to live what (is) not life.”

Such everyday heroes raise families, fight illness, risk falling in love, find meaningful work, contribute to their communities, overcome loss. They do not seek accolades. They are not interested in fame. They solve problems. They combat ignorance. They stand up for the helpless. They believe in purpose and the potential for joy, no matter how difficult the circumstances. In the end they desire simply to be or do something beyond themselves and their individual needs. No small task!

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Recently I had the good fortune to meet an individual who has managed to bridge the gap between these two classes of heroes, though he is more the latter than the former, unpretentious and yet bold, open to and appreciative of the support of others, yet determined to fulfill his own self needs. Rob Edwards came to Stony Brook because he had just finished a 6000 mile bike ride and wanted to return to his boyhood home visiting family, friends and reconnecting with the place where he first discovered the allure of the natural world.

Just by chance I engaged him in conversation as he checked into the Nature Center, then met him on the trails later to get more information. His bike ride first took him 2500 miles along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, from Antelope Wells, New Mexico to Roosville, Montana, a route which crisscrosses the Continental Divide. He then rode back to Whitefish, Montana and headed east to Lake Champlain. He rode for 108 days, carrying everything he needed in 4 panniers attached to his bike frame: his shelter, his food and drink, his stove, his sleeping gear, his clothes – a total weight of 75 pounds which he pedaled along the road for about 50 to 70 miles each day.

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He had worked for Terra Nova LLC of Utah, a zipline construction company, but left his job at age 55, looking to make a change. There was “nothing holding him back,” no family, no job, no obligations, and so he set out to realize a life-long dream. His motto: “Never take life for granted.”

I wondered what he had learned along the way. He told me that he discovered he “had more patience than he thought,” adding that “amazing things happen if you have patience.” You see things, the sites, scenery in whole new ways. You discover the ease of Nature and “get away from the noise we hear in our everyday lives.”

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He also talked about the “remarkable” people he met on his journey, one couple in particular who were riding their bikes from Fairbanks, Alaska to the tip of South America. He cited his family, his friends, the many strangers he was grateful to have developed relationships with. Specifically he wanted to thank his Mom “for her independence,” Dirk Heffelfinger (the childhood friend who introduced him to Stony Brook) “for his friendship,” Angie Domenegat “for her perspective,” and Margaret Morris “for her guidance.” Even the tone with which he spoke of these people revealed a basic truth to me about heroic quests: there’s always a support system for which we have to give thanks.

Dirk Heffelfinger, in particular, was the man Rob came back to this area to visit. “He introduced me to another world,” Rob told me. “He opened my eyes to an entirely different perspective.” We’d go out fishing at Stony Brook and he could spot a snake a hundred feet away and pounce on it, then serve it up for me with his bare hands. Rob was spell-bound and learned to love Nature in those early years. And now, “Whether it be the immensity of the Grand Canyon or a small pond in Borderland State Park, the environment offers amazing rewards” for him every day. From here, Rob was headed out the door for a couple days of exploration in the Quabbin Reservoir area, by “Subie Outback, bike and foot,” he told me, in his own inimitable way.

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When I reflect upon my conversation with Rob, I’m struck by a few basic revelations. One is that there is something about Stony Brook that attracts people who are “finding their way.” I can’t tell you how many visitors I speak to who have a similar story, though not so dramatic or compelling as Rob’s. I think nature sanctuaries are important spaces. They provide solace and inspiration. They provide mirrors into which beholders can take the measure of themselves, again to paraphrase Thoreau.

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I think, too, that we do not always see how making a life, developing a self, connecting to others and making sense of the place we hold in the universe is a challenge equivalent to any of the heroic quests we see on the screen or read about in our various texts. Ultimately we all must come to grips with what it means to be human and whether there’s any way for us to appreciate or understand how we came to be in the vast emptiness of space.

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Finally, I think it’s good to be reminded that there are people like Rob who are capable of extraordinary things. I think it’s the teacher in me, but I have always maintained that we can do anything we set out minds to if we are patient and are willing to fight through the setbacks that always come our way. We create our own lives. Reality is, in some ways, mere pedagogy: an idea we can learn to create.

 

 

 

Marla through the Looking Glass

I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle! (Alice in Wonderland)

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“Oh, good, my slime molds are here! I’ll have to find out how to feed them so we can watch them move in two weeks when there aren’t any outside when I need them. I think I need oatmeal for the slime mold. What was I just doing? Oh, taking pictures. But right now I have to go spray the millipedes or get some compost from the pile so they stay moist. They don’t really have a brain, only ganglia, so someone has to watch over them… Knock Knock. Who’s There? Canoe! Canoe Who? Canoe come out and play with me today?”

I swear, it’s like falling down a rabbit hole. Who else would talk like this, let alone get excited about slime molds?! Welcome to the inspired, sometimes wild and crazy, splendidly creative, at times ingenious, always one step short of being disorganized world of Marla Cohen: our camp director, our education coordinator, our resident crisis manager and teacher, house cleaner, chef, and whatever else has to be done to keep Stony Brook alive.

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Her sense of humor is often droll and sarcastic, or just plain silly. Her dress is casual to say the least, suitable for mucking ponds or hiking the Appalachian Trail or running off to the circus, frequently accentuated by flashy wands, tie-dyed shirts, sparkling tiaras, duck calls, glasses, and a fistful of keys. She leaves a trail of paper and detritus behind her, covering any desk or open space with lesson plans, posters, coffee cups, half-eaten bagels, markers and pens. There’s literally no end to her territory or space.

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With this remarkably successful camp season winding down, I find myself reflecting upon how it all works. Parents and kids praise it, send thankyou letters complete with drawings and gifts in appreciation. Campers become CITs and CITs become counselors, and counselors come back to visit even when they’ve moved on. I hear the shouts of joy, the meaningful silences, the soothing reassurances, the chatter and laughter, and behind it all is Marla Cohen.

Much like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, she believes “in as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” and then somehow summons the energy to do it again the very next day. The kids love her, her staff adores her, and anyone who deals with her respects her uncanny creativity and knowledge base, as well as her unparalleled work ethic and commitment to Mass Audubon’s goals.

Her counselors’ comments say it all:

“Her teaching style is unbelievable. The stories. The facts. All the information that just spews forth from her mouth is incredible…”

“You can be struggling to communicate with kids for ten minutes and she comes by and says two simple words and they immediately understand…”

“She knows where everything is, and where and when you need it, before you do…”

“She’s extraordinarily supportive, the best boss ever. Enthusiastic and goofy… She has a jello mold for a brain. That says it all!”

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“She’s so helpful. When I have difficulty thinking of things to do with the kids, she’s the first one to step forward with a ton of ideas… She spouts forth hilarious things and strange thoughts indiscriminately, and is full of surprises. Anyone who doesn’t know her would think she’s odd or strange… But she’s always thinking about the kids, making sure everyone is doing what needs to be done to make their experience a good one.”

The fact is that behind the crazy costumes, the silly knock knock jokes, the chaotic jungle of an office, and the constant muttering to herself there resides an incredibly disciplined and talented teacher who has inspired thousands of kids over the last 20 odd years. No one gives more of herself to her job. No one is more attentive to the details or cares more about the results. No one is more capable of being 3 places at once than she.

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More than the Camp Director, she is the heart and soul of Stony Brook, over-seeing, developing and informing everything from our local school, scout and birthday programs, to our special events like the Fall Fair and Amphibians after Dark. She produces the curriculum, writes the skits, fashions the costumes, organizes and designs the activities and crafts behind everything we do.

Even as I write this a woman comes by with a plush, stuffed animal frog for her. “I know Marla will have a use for it,” she says. “I won it at a carnival, and the first thing I thought of was to give it to her.” She can turn trash into treasure, straw into gold. Every object has a story; every moment is a teachable one. And everyone who takes the time to know her understands this basic truth: Marla Cohen loves children, loves teaching them about the natural world and seeing their minds spring to life.

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“Don, what do you think: poisonous flowers in the creamer?”

She’ll do that to you. Just when you think everything makes sense and you are about to complete a task, she’ll stand in front of your desk and say something that catches you off-guard alters reality as you’ve come to know it. There’s really no one like her. At Stony Brook we are fortunate, indeed.

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”
“Come, we shall have some fun now!” thought Alice. “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles. — I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.
“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare.
“Exactly so,” said Alice.
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”
(Alice in Wonderland)

The Old Eternal

DSCF7799Forget the clouds!
It’s the blue
Lapis lazuli sky
That seems to float endlessly into space
Filling black holes and dark matter
With dancing birch and swaying pines,
Variegated dragonflies and Baltimore Orioles
Feeding their young, reveling in the warmth
That stays

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Forget the barricades
That forbid entry
To sun-bleached deck and rails
Their dips and sways
Sweet ribbons of rough-hewn grace,
Lightly lifting the soul

 

Forget juice and June
No sultry romance along city streets
Back alleys or sidewalk cafes
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No black tie dinners or dress-up lace.
Nothing
But insects humming blindly,
Song birds thrilling
To the breezes down from Canada

 

Water lilies frothing in the heat
Blossoming uncontrollably across the pond,
White lips cradling yellow bursts of gold
On floating hearts of deep moss green

 

DSCF7808Forget the sodden news, the self-serving politics,
The mindless acts of terror and violence,
The fears of ordinary people
Trying to make a life!

Here there is only the moment

When bullfrogs croak to wake us
And we take our waking slow
DSCF7804The faint smell of blossoms drifting
Into the shifting wind.

 

Green is the new gold
Blue is the old eternal
June is a reminder to bear witness
To our role as Nature’s eyes.

Into the Wild: a few thoughts about H is for Hawk

 

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H Is for Hawk
, Helen Macdonald’s best seller, has been in the back of my mind for about two months now when I finished reading it. I hesitate to recommend it since it seems suitable for a very small audience, and yet its appeal has been fairly universal, its acclaim unquestioned. It’s a quirky book, one part memoir, one part training manual, and one part psychological analysis of T.H. White, the writer of such books as Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King.

The book arises out of the need for Macdonald to come to grips with the death of her father: her pain of loss, her bitterness toward the fact of mortality, her confusion about a direction in life, her need for love, for purpose. Almost as if to avoid addressing these issues, she takes on the challenge of adopting and training a goshawk, which she names Mabel, in the ancient art of falconry. Over time Mabel becomes a powerful force of nature, capable of seeking out prey with such precision and grace and, yes, brutality, as to inspire awe in those of us who are merely human.

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Ironically, on the journey to satisfy her blood lust, to fulfill her role as predator, Mabel ends up helping Macdonald appreciate the value and beauty of Nature’s rules, to understand better the complex relationship between life and death, and to respect the responsibility and distinct virtue of being human. Through memory and tradition and, indeed, consciousness, we make associations, we see connections, we fashion lives that have meaning and structure worlds without end.

Macdonald’s foray into the life and writings of T.H. White may seem offhand and even off-putting at times, especially since so much is made of his confused sexual identity and his parents’ abuse, but it’s her re-reading of White’s The Goshawk that ultimately propels her on her own journey. In her determination not to make the same mistakes White makes in training his goshawk, she becomes obsessed to do things right, to win Mable over, to make her father proud.

In the end, whether by her own occasional failings, sheer exhaustion, or the passage of time, she becomes much more forgiving of White and able to see in his writing an attempt to triumph over a failed life. In effect, she sees something of herself in White, and in Mable, and revels in the opportunity she is given to make sense of it all. In effect, she realizes that with her father’s death “she “was in ruins” and in need of rebuilding herself. The book, then, becomes the story of her becoming a hawk, which is everything she thought she wanted to be: “solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.”

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She discovers, of course, that what she needed was just the opposite. And so, like the Wart in The Sword in the Stone, she takes on the guise of an animal to learn first-hand what it means to be human. What begins as an impulse to escape the world, however, to flee to the wild, to cleave to the earth and let “’nature in her green, tranquil woods heal and soothe all afflictions,’” (John Muir) ends with a recognition that doing so was “a beguiling but dangerous lie.” She learns that “hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

In her words,

Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there – rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world. In my time with Mabel I’ve learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.

More to the point, Macdonald learns to re-connect with people, to give of herself, to embrace the pain of being human as part of what makes life worthwhile.

All this, however, does little to express the impact of the book, the power of its prose, or the beauty of its depiction of the natural world. Macdonald is so intimately involved with Mabel that we come to see with her eyes, to pay attention to details that ordinarily we’d miss. Consider this passage as an example:

The world she lives in is not mine. Life is faster for her; time runs slower. Her eyes can follow the wingbeats of a bee as easily as ours follow the wingbeats of a bird… This hawk can see colours I cannot, right into the ultraviolet spectrum. She can see polarized light, too, watch thermals of warm air rise, roil and spill into clouds, and trace, too, the magnetic lines of force that stretch across the earth. The light falling into her deep black pupils is registered with such frightening precision that she can see with fierce clarity things I can’t possibly resolve from the generalised blur… I’m standing there, my sorry human eyes overwhelmed by light and detail, while the hawk watches everything with the greedy intensity of a child filling in a colouring book, scribbling joyously, blocking in colour, making the pages its own.

Whether describing Mable preening, the training process itself, the rigors of the hunt, or the lush forests and fields of England, Macdonald combines magic with ministry. For me, the strength of the book lies in its glorious detail. The goshawk becomes for Macdonald a kind of shaman who is able to “cross borders that humans cannot,” a messenger between this world and the next, a bridge between the human and natural worlds. At a time when more than ever we seek to remake Nature in our own image, shape it according to our needs, take for granted its endless bounty, this is a book you might want to read.

Whether age 4 or 50, a learning tree

DSCF7757copyJust this last week I decided to observe Jessica Watson’s “We Are Nature” class for 2.5 – 5-year-olds. I had been thinking about how we approach teaching young children at Stony Brook, how kids best learn, what we can do to encourage their curiosity and life-long learning skills. Of course my own grand-children spurred on some of this reflection, but two articles in The Atlantic online were my principal impetus: Educating an Original Thinker, by Jessica Lahey, and The Power of Thinking Like a Preschooler, by Lauren Cassani Davis. Both are well worth reading.

DSCF7775copyLahey’s article is essentially an interview with Wharton professor Adam Grant whose new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, examines how unorthodox thinking changes society. She discusses the tension between order and control in a teacher-centered classroom and the spontaneity of student-led inquiry focusing on problem-based learning. Too much freedom and kids can suffer “choice paralysis.” Too much structure and discipline and “kids don’t learn to think for themselves.”

DSCF7749copyNeedless to say, Grant argues for a blend of both pedagogical approaches with an emphasis on giving kids responsibility for their own learning. This comes in a variety of ways: for example, in developing their own ways of teaching a lesson learned and presenting it in small groups; exploring a variety of solutions to problems; offering students a chance to reinterpret something they think they know by presenting competing viewpoints; asking them to investigate why something fails or does not work and how that failure can be beneficial. Grant emphasizes values over rules and points to such concepts as a respect for difference and the joy of meaningful work that makes a difference in people’s lives.

DSCF7751copyDavis’s article is an interview, as well, in this case with Erika Christakis, a child-development specialist from Yale, whose book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups, examines the “academic takeover” of pre-school education in this country and the lack of “understanding children’s needs and inner lives.” Christakis argues that we “under-estimate kids’ intelligence,” don’t understand “how profound children’s thoughts are,” and often “don’t give them enough time to engage in something.” She points to the value of “spontaneous, meaningful conversation” between adults and children, the importance of open-ended toys that can be used “to represent things symbolically,” the power of fantasy play, the need to ask open-ended questions that encourage dialogue. Like Grant, she advocates “inquiry-driven” education whereby children acquire content rather than simply get it spoon-fed.

DSCF7779copyChristakis cites the importance of developing a cognitive approach to learning that involves “observation, questioning, exploration, (and) reflection.” In essence she says that we need to equip young people of all ages with basic skills like “how to have a conversation, how to listen to other people, how to… express yourself, how to observe and then explore and then reflect on what you’ve explored.” These, she says, become life-long skills for all of us, whether age 4 or 50.

DSCF7776copyWhat excited me about these two articles, however, was not so much the content per se as it was seeing that content validated by Jessica Watson’s class. From the very beginning she declared her central values (“I love to pretend”; “I love to use my imagination”; “I love to be silly”) and invited the children to  explore with her “what it means to be a bird” and to discover “how birds use their beaks as tools to eat.” She encouraged them to talk, to ask questions, to move from one investigation table to the next and then to share what they had learned. The goal: to figure out what tool (eye dropper, chop sticks, scissors, spoon, sieve) worked best to collect the pretend food (ants, worms, algae, nectar, meat represented by such things as rice, packaging peanuts, fruit loops and model clay).

DSCF7764copyThe kids were intent upon their tasks, enthusiastically sharing their insights, responding to Jessica’s praise, volunteering to help, asking questions freely. They seemed to relish the tactile nature of their learning, to see it as an opportunity to play. They helped one another find answers, waited patiently for their turn. Rarely did they get side-tracked, and when they did Jessica invited them back into the conversation smoothly. One boy simply wanted to manipulate the eye dropper and the “nectar” over and over again, as if fascinated by the process. But his reluctance was not a problem. He was given free rein to go his own way, but was brought back into the group when it came to working on the craft which everyone else chose and he knew he’d enjoy.

DSCF7784copyLater, after drawing some final conclusions and celebrating their discoveries, Jessica moved them outside where they had a chance to run. First they closed their eyes to listen for sounds and talked about what they heard. Then they moved down the trail to observe beaver cuttings and a goose feeding in the stream. As if on cue, the goose illustrated perfectly the virtue of a bill that strains duck weed from the water, much as the kids had just discovered inside. Then on the way back Jessica asked each child individually what animal he or she wanted to pretend to be, and the whole group ran (or flew) down the path imitating the various choices.

DSCF7787copyThinking back to the articles I had read, I could see the virtue of learning in this way. There was structure and a clear cognitive pathway to be followed, but there was flexibility and opportunity for the children to take the lead, to share their stories, to move at different speeds and to find their own way. This is what we strive for at Stony Brook and why I encourage parents and grandparents to enroll their children in our programming. We foster growth and responsibility. We see obstacles as opportunities. We believe in process and life-long learning. And we see work as a kind of play.

To Be about Play…

 

 

blog7After reading one of my recent blogs, my wife reminded me that Stony Brook is more than the serious reflections on life and death that I often fall prey to. She is absolutely right. In fact, as I listen to the whoops and hollers of the camp kids outside and watch them running through the field with their counselors in chase (who look like throw-backs from the days of Huckleberry Finn with their straw hats and cut-off jeans), I have to smile.

blog4Stony Brook is a place of self-discovery and exploration. It’s a place to take a leisurely walk or to witness Nature unfolding before our eyes. It’s a place of color and light, winding trails and breezes on the water. A retreat from routine, a source of comfort or solace, or better yet inspiration. But perhaps more importantly our campers remind us, it’s a place to run, to shout, to sing and occasionally to dance. I hear our Discoverers singing now before they leave for home: “Good bye, friends. Good bye friends. We had fun today, yeh!” There’s a clear sense of camaraderie here, of friendships being made, of trust and security, of stories in the making.

campblog2One grand-mother comes to pick up and, unsolicited, says to Marla, our camp director, “You do such a good job here. My grand-children love it. They come home excited every day… They’re safe. They’re well cared for. And they have so much fun. Thank you.”

blog3We should be thanking her. We love to hear the children’s voices, their whispers, their shouts of glory, their teasing, their giggling, their occasional outbursts. They remind us to be about play. To be about time. To be about no boundaries, no judgment, no fears. This is a place where pressures and expectations vanish, where time slows down. Where it’s acceptable to jump in puddles and throw your head back to catch the rain. Whether child or adult.

blog8Daily routine takes a back seat here to pretend Beluga whales and home-made boats that carry record amounts of pennies. Kids run through imaginary air-dryers to get warm. They clamor to get three men into a boat while their counselor barks out commands. Then they all sing: “Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream.” Yes, life is a dream, of the most precious kind.

blog5The noise is deafening, and I love it. Children are restorative. They remind us how large the world is, how full of surprises, how much we as adults have lost, and how wide open our eyes must be to find it beneath our feet.

blog6

“In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” Meet Barbara Kimball

 

BarbEverything you need to know about Barbara Kimball can be summed up in the story of her 87th birthday celebration last fall. As she does every year since her husband Everett died in 2005, Barbara went up to Baxter State Park with her middle son Cliffy to camp out in the open air. On this occasion, however, perhaps because of the unusually colorful foliage that September, all the lean-tos in the park had been taken up by other visitors, so Barbara and Cliff were forced to sleep in a tent.

Of course, she had an old tent in her basement that she could dust off for just such an occasion. Using it was a compromise, though, because when Barbara goes camping she “always wants to sleep in the open, under the stars.” And on this particular weekend, especially that first night, the sky was clear and brilliant, the stars on full display. “Billions of them!” she told me. When she and Cliff walked down to the beach, they were treated to “the Milky Way stretching from one horizon to the next,” in a stunning stream of light that made this birthday the most memorable she has had in years.

“Eighty-seven years old and sleeping under the stars!” I thought to myself, as Barbara sat down with me to talk. “This truly is a remarkable woman.” I’ve been fortunate to meet many wonderful people in my brief tenure at Stony Brook these past eight or nine years, but Barbara is unique. Her husband, whom she thinks about every day and whom she misses terribly, has died. She has lost two sisters to heart attacks, has had breast cancer and recovered from it, now has bone cancer and is being treated with powerful pain-killing drugs. But still she is able to say, “I’ve had one hell of a life!”

P1010924“I do what I can do with what I have,” she told me quite matter-of-factly. “What will be will be. I can’t worry about death. Whenever it comes it comes… Why dwell on it. If I get to the point where I can’t do something, then I’ll stop.” But stop she never does. This woman is fearless. Two years ago, for example, she went on a week-long MA Audubon birding tour of Big Bend National Park in 115 degree heat! After the recent blizzard, she was one of the first to join our Spontaneous Snowshoe tour of Stony Brook’s grounds. In a few weeks she will hike some of the trails around the Quabbin Reservoir with Doug Williams, Stony Brook’s Director. She’s thrilled to get back there, even though she knows there will be times when everyone will have to wait for her and there will be places where she’ll have to go the long way around so that she won’t slip or fall.

I asked her whether she had ever climbed Mt. Katahdin on one of her trips to Baxter State Park, and she recalled doing so several times with her husband when she was younger. She and Everett generally took the Hunt trail up the mountain (same as Thoreau in 1846) with its spectacular views of forests, waterfalls, rock staircases and boulder scrambles. “I love the elements,” she said smiling, “always have.”

Then she recounted to me how as a child she had to go outside in the middle of the hurricane of ’38. “The wind was howling,” she told me, but “I felt perfectly comfortable, even though we could have been blown over backwards at any moment.” She paused, and then added, “That was the first time I ever saw a man cry. The roof blew off his whole chicken coop, destroyed it, and he couldn’t do anything to stop it. And there was nothing I could do to help.”

DSC_8279I asked her why she does these hikes, what it is about birding and being outside that draws her. “You just don’t realize that people in their ‘80s are still very much alive,” she chided me. “Birding, these trips, they bring you out into the woods… I feel at home out there.” I love the colors of the birds and the fact that you can draw them out from hiding if you’re patient or feed them, she told me. “But I’d be just as happy if it were deer or coyote or fox or moose that I could see,” she was quick to add. “They all give me a thrill.”

She insisted being outside in Nature is “not a spiritual thing.” It’s more about feeling connected. “Every time I drive into Baxter State Park and I see Traveler Mountain I remember the view from the top with all these little mirrors around it reflecting the light off the lakes, and I feel like I’m where I belong.”

I wondered how she had met her husband, whether he loved to climb birch trees when he was younger, just as she had, whether he, too, tried to “make them sway, get them to bend to the ground.” Her eyes glistened when I asked about him. “He was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she replied almost before I had finished my question. “Just before he died, he called me into the bedroom and said, ‘I can’t stand up.’ Those were the last words he ever spoke to me… I botched up his whole funeral,” she confided. I doubted that she had ever botched up anything in her life. I told her I thought that when he couldn’t stand up, she did for him, and that she continues to stand with him every day.

We talked for two hours, about how much has been lost from the time she grew up, how kids are unable to have conversations any more, how no one walks any place, how everyone is in too much of a hurry, how kids are too protected, not allowed to roam the woods or their back yards waiting to be called in. She told me that she learned to fly a plane when she was a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol, that she has worked at everything from an assistant treasurer at the local bank to a clerk at the Selectman’s Office, never having applied for a job, always having been asked by someone who knew and trusted her.

I wanted to know when she first started coming to Stony Brook. She thought it was about 20-25 years ago. The Sanctuary was sponsoring a trip to Cape Cod, “Kestrel Weekend,” she remembered, and when we got there “everywhere we went we saw Kestrels in the trees.” A woman named Sarah was the Education Coordinator or the lead naturalist back then, she recalled. “I couldn’t go anywhere without learning something from her,” she told me. She was hooked. Now, whether it’s Jack Lash or Doug Williams or her good friend Mona Tighe, she continues to gravitate to those who are willing to share what they know.

DSC_8304I felt the need to share what I knew as well. I told Barbara that she came to mind when recently I read Marilynne Robinson’s book Gilead, which tells the story of the Reverend John Ames who, in his old age, is dying from a heart condition and wants to tell his seven year old son what he will never be able to know about him (or learn from him) before he dies. In effect, I told Barbara, what he tries to convey is the beauty of the world, the grace that allows one to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

It is that same gift, I am convinced, which makes Barbara so special. The feeling of being home that she talks about is the state of grace to which we all aspire. It’s not a religious thing. It’s a feeling of belonging, of being tied to something universal, something that never dies. More plainly, it’s the ability to live in the present moment where time past and time future somehow meet.

P1010866Barbara is an inspiration. She’s curious, generous, thoughtful and the first to help. She’s adventurous and child-like, full of energy and enthusiasm for whatever comes her way, able to derive satisfaction and delight from the simplest pleasures. She’s tough as nails, but gracious and unassuming, uncomplaining and apologetic to a fault. In her capacity as a volunteer at Stony Brook, she’s done everything from clean out weeds and spruce up gardens to lead school groups on tours of the wetlands. She’s stuffed envelopes, served as a guide on Big Night, staffed ticket and membership tables at the Fair. Her energy is contagious, her laugh deep and sincere. Her spirit and heart are indomitable, her eyes bright with the recognition that life is a gift for which there is no accounting.

A few relevant lines from Marilynne Robinson’s Gildead:

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

“There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us.”

“The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light…It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within that great general light of existence.”

“Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”