Field Notes Friday 0028: Don’t Take Field Notes

Don’t take field notes ALL the time. Or even photos. It’s vitally important that, sometimes, we just abide with nature. Not every moment needs to be captured. Not every species needs to be documented.

True, I think the world will be a better place when more people take field notes, take notice of the world around them, see how truly enmeshed in nature we are, feel moved by the seasons and care for the dramas that unfold around us on both tiny and epic scales.

But, sometimes… Just sometimes… don’t pull out your pen and paper. Or your camera, or your phone. Just look, and listen, and feel, and smell, and be.

New Mexico

This post is inspired by a recent entry in my personal journal, not my field notebook. Below is the page, and below that is a transcript (because… handwriting!)

Don't always take field notes

Tue, Sep 9, 2014

“I will release my anger and bad thoughts.” That’s the hardest line I added to the Dalai Lama’s quote.

But you know what? I don’t just have to release bad thoughts. Starting with the hike up Capulin Volcano in New Mexico, when Landon begged me to hurry my pace and not take so many pictures, I’ve been thinking about ‘breathe it in, breathe it out,’ ‘let it in, let it out’ ~ let the experience pass through me and away, and what stays is really going to stay, but clinging to each moment – even good ones – only causes more stress. I can’t hold or record each moment, and I’m not fully living when I try.

 

On a lighter note, because I was so camera-crazy on top of Capulin (trying to capture every sweeping vista and intriguing plant), I caught the exact moment when Landon’s patience snapped:

Patience snaps

I think that expression is a good reminder that even perfectly patient people can be taxed by a naturalist’s pace.

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A Conversation About Litter (From a Dream)

The first words I ever said to him were, “Sir, please don’t litter.” The first words he said to me were “F**k you.” And that was the beginning of a beautiful conversation.

litterbug3

I was at a conference for the Environment & Urban Societies. I was sitting in the shade of one of those blue pop-up tents you see hovering over tables and volunteers and vendors at races and festivals. The sun was beating down, albeit at a late afternoon slant, onto the short-clipped grass, outdated concrete plaza fountain, and crowded street around the rows of tents. People from the conference were pressing in to hear the announcement we’d just learned would be made shortly about some detail of the conference. City traffic – cars and pedestrians – added to the throng.

I had thought he was one of those pedestrians, and thought the handful of whatever he had flung to his left, just out of my sight, was wrappers or a Styrofoam to-go box or who knows what. I was sitting there stewing in the heat thinking about – and had been musing all day about – the litter issue: why some cultures in some times seem more likely to litter, what the real threats of litter are, and the impact on humans, wildlife, and the ecosystem. As an interpreter and educator I like to learn, puzzle things out, see patterns, and use education as one way to help reverse problems. Litter had been in my mental microscope for the conference thus far, and my obsession carried through to this brief break before we jumped back into lectures, networking, and expanding our ideas and knowledge. Buoyed and blinded by this obsession, I uncharacteristically spoke a brazen rebuke to a stranger before examining the situation, and that was the source of the strife, and the curse.

After our sweet little exchange, I took a mental split-second to look again. His words hadn’t seemed malicious – just a ‘get off my back’ or ‘give me a break’ tone. For some reason I was in touch with my confidence and compassion enough that I was only momentarily offended and angered, and quickly realized I needed to take a breath and a step backward. It also helped that the crowd wasn’t moving and he wasn’t in a hurry to get out of my presence.

His demeanor wasn’t any more agitated than someone waiting in line, which I took to be a sign of some calm good-naturedness. As he shifted his weight, standing blocked by the crowd, I saw what he had tossed onto the grass was a binder full of papers. Not typical litter. Oops.

He was of average height and weight – taller than me but not imposingly so, slightly stocky with middle-aged roundness around the gut. He had leathery, mottled skin and the overall hoary appearance common among heavy smokers, or maybe someone who used to smoke a lot.

But what tipped the balance in favor of another exchange was that he had looked back at me, too, not angrily, and at the same time we realized we were wearing the same shirt from the conference. Then we seemed to both recognize each other from, of all things, a choir rehearsal associated with the conference. (Yes, some musically-inclined soul had the idea that music was a good venue to share environmental messages, and thankfully had the conducting and composing expertise to make it happen. So this was the second Environment & Urban Societies conference that had had a volunteer choir, and we were both in it.)

That little bit of commonality emboldened me to say, “I’m sorry. I really thought you were littering–” but before I finished he waved me off and in a gruff voice said, “Forget it.”

“I work at a nature preserve,” I pressed on, “so I’m so used to dealing with…” Words failed me – should I say ‘litter’ again? In the same conversation – the second or third sentence I was saying to the guy? I gestured vaguely at what I’d thought was his trash, which I’d realized was a binder, and now it was dawning on me that the binder was probably the music from rehearsal. Yeesh, did I feel unobservant and gun-shy about jumping to conclusions.

But he was unfazed by my fumbling and said, ‘Hey, I know. I tell crapheads to pick up their shit all the time. And it’s not even my job – I don’t work for an environmental place.” He paused, perhaps calculating the value of continuing our exchange, or the intensity of whatever he was feeling at the time, weighing whether he wanted to say more. He seemed to unwind slightly as he looked around and continued, “I’m tired of people who treat everywhere like it’s a trashcan, like the earth is one big trash can.”

He was indicating the space around us but I could tell his mental reach with that gesture encompassed the globe, maybe even the space around the globe, where thousands of pounds of our human-made satellite debris orbits even now… and maybe it included companies who leave trails of trash and environmental damage like they own the earth – the whole earth – or worse, like no one owns it, so no one inherits it, and it has no inherent value.

I’d been nodding as he spoke as a conciliatory gesture and to show my support for the sentiment. I even said something lame like, “Yeah, totally” just to be sure he knew I felt we were on the same side.

I figured it was time to wrap up this exchange with this middle-aged stranger on a positive note. “Well, I didn’t realize you were with the conference,” I began, but again he spoke over me in that gravelly voice which probably served him well in the bass section.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean jack. I’ve seen people in there walking in with Styrofoam cups, or throwing away those stupid-ass plastic water bottles. Throwing them away. At an environmental thing. People are clueless. Even when they care. So just being in this conference–” he shrugged and shook his head– “people just don’t know.”

It’s hard to pinopoint the mental calculus involved in any human exchange. Below the level of consciousness, we evaluate all sorts of factors: the value of our interaction with the person, his or her honesty or intentions, subtle cues about health and attractiveness or repulsion, thoughts of other things to do, social fears and morés and consequences. Somewhere in this brief exchange, I decided I liked the guy. And I dared to engage.

“Even if they do know,” I continued for us both, “you’re never sure if they care at all. There are too many people who know, on some level, that littering is bad and they just don’t care. Or it’s an inconvenience to have to deal with it, and they don’t want to be inconvenienced.”

I figured I’d prattled too much for a typical stranger exchange, but he hadn’t lost interest; on the contrary, he seemed to be digging in.

He answered, “Yeah. Ethics can be inconvenient. Look, I’m an atheist, and people think that means I have no ethics, but that’s not true, that’s not what it means. I have strong morals and they’re based on observation and trying to make things better. And I observe that humans make a lot of stuff worse. It’s just what we do – it’s natural, not intentional.” He took a deep ragged breath like he was sucking air through a cigarette, like this way of thinking made him tired and wired at the same time. “We’ve never had to change our behavior before, because up until now we couldn’t have much impact on the globe. There were too few of us, we didn’t have the technology then. Now, we have to totally re-steer our species to do what’s NOT natural, to do what’s NOT convenient, so we don’t ruin what we’ve got.”

I had noticed other people standing around were starting to get interested, to turn toward us subtly and lean in slightly. I was happy to see this could potentially blossom into a philosophical conversation among new acquaintances.

A woman standing near the man chimed in sardonically, “Like, we have to act like our future depends on sharing the planet?” A lovely, wry statement – obvious to conservationists, hard to swallow for the average human when she or he realizes the implications for business and personal life.

In only a few minutes, the conversation had turned from an affront to a pleasant camaraderie. I could feel the warmth of growing respect blooming in my smile.

The aforementioned announcement served as an interruption, after which our group disbanded, but I knew I’d be seeing the man and the other people throughout the conference. Some in rehearsal. Ours is a small, though growing, world of people who care enough about the environment to take time off work to go to conferences like these and gripe and grow and learn and lead. We’d run into each other again, and after a few fumbling, awkward exchanges, we’d delve back into sharing ideas and groping toward changing the world for the better.

 

If you’ve read this far, I thank you for sharing this experience with me, and apologize for going over my self-imposed 500 words limit. Those who know me well know that my dreams are vivid, and I didn’t want to break this one into a series or boil it down past its subtlety, which I hope I’ve conveyed. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this trip into one of the worlds my brain conjured during sleep.

Field Notes Friday 0027: Today I Felt a Prairie Fire

Is this what it means to be human? To have the power of life and death in our hands? Today I felt the heat of a prairie fire as I volunteered for a planned burn. It reminded me of the first prairie fire I ever witnessed, and an essay I wrote afterward in utter awe of the power. I’m taking liberties with my self-imposed 500-words-or-under rule to share this with you. The original publication was here in February 2011 (I was a guest blogger). There are great pictures at that link, and the other entries are well worth a read, especially for naturalists and prairie ecologists. The photos below are from Thursday, September 4, 2014.Today I Felt a Prairie Fire
Today I participated in a prairie burn at LLELA (the 2,000 acre wildlife preserve where I work). I now have a profound respect for the settlers who moved to the prairies and fought wildfires with their bare hands, with shirts and rags. They fought to help neighbors and themselves, to save houses, fields, and families.

I also gained a profound respect for fire fighters. Even several feet away from a blaze of waist-high plants engulfed in powerful, vibrant orange, I felt the skin on my upper arms burning and wondered if I’d walk away with blisters. How do fire fighters do it? How did settlers do it?

After work today I became aware of the bustling activity of a few LLELA employees and volunteers. The winds were right, the time was short, the plans were laid – it was time for a burn! Steady, slow winds and other factors expedient for a burn coalesce rarely, so when the time is right, action must always be swift (even though plans are made well in advance).

I was honored to be invited to watch my first ever prairie burn; I didn’t know I’d get to participate! I showed up to observe the pros at work, but instead was told to park my car nearby with the keys still in the ignition (so someone could start the car fast and get away if needed – yikes!). I was handed a big yellow bag full of water to wear on my back, and its accompanying hose and sprayer to douse unruly flames, and took turns with my boss Lisa using what looked like a mud flap from an 18-wheeler attached to a broom handle to slap little flames (or sometimes big flames) that strayed from their allotted zones.

Prairie Fire
It was serious work! My eyes would sting when the smoke thickened, my arms were burning, hot ash sometimes landed on my bare skin, my upper back muscles were sore, and the only shade available was from the smoke itself, and only when it became so thick and brown it blotted out the sun! In those eerie times, the glow around me would look alternately green, magenta, and even purple.

As I watched Lisa deftly handle the tools of the trade (the flapper, the hose, the igniter), and heard her conversing with Ken and Richard via radio, I realized how important communication is in such a situation. Teamwork is as essential as any of the other tools. A fire may be planned, but it is a raw, powerful, raging form of energy, and I kept thinking of the word force; it is a compelling, unavoidable, unrelenting Force of Nature which, once unleashed, is hard to contain.

And containing it was the art. The tools were never idle; used against a huge blaze, they may seem paltry, but they were deftly and strategically wielded. We were creating a fire break, an area that would be burned ahead of time so that the major fire would blaze toward it, get to the edge of it, run out of fuel, and subsequently die.

Our purpose was clear, but the method was subject to the caprices of weather. Our supposedly steady forecasted wind proved as fickle as a politician, and constantly shifted positions. Little flames seemed to be constantly testing their bounds, and when we turned our backs, they’d have created messes as toddlers with a new babysitter do.

And a new babysitter is exactly what I felt like! Experience is a grand teacher, and it was obvious that I had none. Lisa could see signs of fire where I saw only grass; she could see flames where I saw only wisps of smoke. When I first started helping, the scene would look placid right up until the point that there were multiple small fires out of my control. Gradually I became more aware of the patterns of the fire, and of the goal behind the smaller actions involved in keeping the fire in line.

Prairie Fire
At one point I saw flames brightly and colorfully reflected in big drops of water Lisa had just sprayed on the grass. So I knew that grass was wet and had no need of my attention, so I turned to other fires to swat. The next time I looked at the same area, it had become a bustling city of little flames, sprouted there as if by magic, or mischief! Vigilance is a must.

Little flames could also crouch unseen, hiding under small thickets of green grasses and plants. They seemed to watch with bright eyes until I turned away, then they’d suddenly burst forth and consume the towering goldenrod above them, as well as the shorter stems that had covered them. I could understand how ancient people might have attributed animate characteristics to fire.

The movement! The colors! The sound! The smell! The smell of a prairie fire is as homey to me as a campfire. Nothing was as unsettling, though, as the sound it made. Different plants burned with different sounds, but when many plants were burning inside of a wall of angry red and orange, the sound became cracking, popping, and a faint thrumming roar. I think it would have given me goosebumps if I hadn’t been so hot. If I heard that sound anywhere but in a controlled burn, my blood would to turn to ice in my veins. That’s the sound of death rushing straight at you.

And the animals noticed, too. We were only burning about 20 acres, so I’d guess that most of the animals we’d consider cuddly and cute were able to get away before they were in real danger. But the grasshoppers were caught by surprise. Some of them didn’t seem to be able to figure out which way to hop. Are they geriatric at the end of their season?

I had only a little time to contemplate the fate of some roasted grasshoppers, and wonder at the other animals who were (hopefully) making their escape. (In particular, I asked Lisa about snakes, her area of expertise. Could they slither fast enough?) But as I drove home, the implications of the power of fire wielded by human hands settled on me like heavy ashen dust.

Is this, then, what it means to be human? To have the power of life and death in our hands?

We decide when to burn; we decide when to plant. We decide what to kill; we decide what to preserve. We decide what to contain; we decide what to eradicate. Fire is the most blatant display of such powers I’ve ever seen. The scorched land we’d created with the use of fire recalled scenes or war, or descriptions of a hellish wasteland, a true gehenna. What will spring from these ashes, though, is a healthier prairie, covering the scars of fire with breathtaking greens, golds, reds, blues, browns, and purples in less than a year.

Fire kills, and fire brings life. It’s a heady experience to control a power like that, even just to see it. Maybe control is too strong a word; perhaps manipulate is better. Manipulate – is the root word related to hands? That would be appropriate. With our own hands, and our own brains, we choose how and when to use a power like fire.

Prairie Fire Preparation

Some tools of the trade: an igniter (the silver can) and water tank with pressure hose (the white container on the ATV)

Fighting that fire (for that was my role, though others had different roles) was tough and rewarding. Though I’m inspired by the prairie settlers’ tenacity, bravery, and toughness, I can see that they were fighting a perpetual battle against a force of nature. Prairies and fires are as inextricable as forests and leaves.

Restoration ecologists know this about North American prairies: you can’t have a thriving prairie ecosystem without bison… and fire. Fire, as destructive as it seems to humans, is necessary for the renewal of the prairies, and the removal of trees. Prairie Fire

Trees, yes – those symbols of restoration. “Plant a tree!” we’re told. But trees are the enemies of some ecosystems. Trees and grasses are ancient enemies; where one thrives, the other rarely survives. So, fire it must be to keep the prairies alive. Fire, bison, and now humans, for so much of the prairie is incarcerated behind concrete bars and barriers that we are the new bison; we are the new force of nature, and in our hands is the power to protect or destroy.

After the prairie fire

Part of the fire team reflects after the burn is over. Note the charred area behind us.