Don’t Poison Your Audience With Politics

You’ve experienced it – you’re sitting in the audience enjoying a pleasant presentation on something you’re interested in, when the speaker says something awkward and cringe-worthy. No, no, don’t go there! you think, but it’s too late, and the speaker has just alienated a significant portion of the people s/he wanted to influence. You want to smack your forehead with your palm, or melt into your chair with embarrassment for the presenter.

This was my experience several weeks ago. A seemingly likable fellow was beginning his exposition on something interesting in nature. He introduced himself first – an important move, as anyone who knows the cardinal rules of resource interpretation will impress upon you. You want the audience to feel connected to and comfortable with you. But then, like a bolt from a clear sky, instead of mentioning why he’s qualified to give the talk, instead of explaining why he’s passionate about the topic, instead of finding out the base knowledge of his audience, instead of relating an interesting opening anecdote, he decided to make comments about current political leaders, even proudly comparing himself to a controversial one as if it’s a badge of honor.

Ack! There was instant dissent – groans, muttered comments, shaking heads, nodding heads, smiles and frowns. Not the atmosphere you want to cultivate to enhance learning. Even the people who agreed with his assessments now had minds whirring about topics completely separate from, and distracting from, what he would be talking about. I found my own mind fuzzy and spinning, like the man had just slapped us with a noodle or something else bizarre, and it was hard to reel myself in to listen. In fact, I don’t think I completely succeeded, as my paltry notes reflect.

I thought I never want to do this to my audience.

Here’s one way to avoid this gaffe: don’t talk about politics if it has nothing to do with your presentation! Even if it’s related to your presentation, tread carefully. In polite southern society, this is drilled into us: don’t talk about religion or politics. Stick to the weather or sports, anything besides those other toxic, polarizing topics. And currently, is there anything more polarizing than politics? (I gather from several members of previous generations that politics have not seemed this divisive and unpleasant in decades….or ever.)

As interpreters and educators, we often tackle tough topics. Climate change. Human evolution. Slavery. Environmental policy. It’s hard enough to influence hearts and minds when interpreting uncontroversial material; why make your work harder by mentioning unrelated and divisive subjects? 

In any attempt to educate, we must strive to find common ground with our audience, despite our differences. Tell the truth, but tell it in love and with understanding. Don’t poison your audience by bringing politics into your presentation. If your message is important enough to share, it’s important enough to share well.

Field Notes Friday 0038: A Creaking Floor as a Time Machine

I’ve been challenged to include sound, video, and historical/cultural treasures into my field notes, and I’m delighted to say I had a fantastic moment this week when all of those facets came together. Thank you to the historical interpreters who’ve inspired me to strettttttch just a little bit and open my heart to the importance of human history (not just natural history).

I just returned from the NAI Region 6 annual conference in Natchitoches (“nack-eh-dish”), Louisiana. We spent three intense days honing our communication skills, communing with nature and our fellow nature and history-lovers, and eating really good food. In the evenings, there were places to visit and tours to take, and one of these was the Prud’homme Roquier House, a restored French Creole building from the late 1700s.

I’ll share explanation from my field journal before the video, so it makes sense.

The words [the historical interpreter] shared about the function of the rooms, the type of construction (bousillage), the time it took to build the house… also insight into how central food and dancing were to the 1800s Creole… these were background in my head as I walked through the house, rather underwhelmed and under-engaged. The exposed bousillage wall felt more earthy and relatable than the nice, modern-looking (to me) old furniture. 

I went upstairs, enticed by a level change and a strange floating door above the stairs. I stepped up on the last step, looking at some neat old artifacts in front of me, and it happened: CREEEEEEAAK. an old board with cracks and personality creaked. A warmth rushed into my cheeks: It suddenly felt real that people lived here! They climbed these steps and danced below and played games and looked out those windows…

At first I thought that in spite of all [the interpreter’s] words, it was an experiential, auditory, tactile moment that brought it all to life. Then I realized, no: the facts that had been shared were a scaffold of context that I ascended like those stairs, and when I reached the top of both it clicked. All of it was part of the experience. Interestingly, the house empty of people and dark and museum-like somehow made [the moment] more real, or perhaps more poignant.

I delighted in that creeeeeeak and took some video. I shared the joy with Lisa and Diane [coworkers] and took video fo them making the floor creak more.

To me, these moments were hopeful:

  • If I’m sharing lots of information and someone is uninterested, they may yet have a meaningful experience because of what I shared.
  • Even I can be transported by human history, a subject I rarely engage with for long (but plan to engage with more!)
  • I felt challenged by my interaction with my fellow interpreters this week to share more audio and video, and because I had that in the back of my mind, I was ready when the opportunity presented itself. We shape our own learning!

Hoping you’ll join me (and a growing community) by participating in Field Notes Friday. Lear more here: http://bit.ly/FieldNotesFriday

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 0025: Patterns in Your Nature Collections

I’m totally into thigmotropism. I bet you are, too.

Into what?? Yeah, I hadn’t heard that word until recently. Very recently. But after learning the word, lots of things make sense.

Like collecting sticks like this…

and this… Thigmotropism_credit_HappyNaturalist

and this…Thigmotropism_credit_HappyNaturalist

and writing a post about this:

Snake or plant?

Snake or plant?

…and being called “Twisted Sister” by one of my botanist friends (Bob O’Kennon, one of the editors of the Flora of North Central Texas). Why does he call me Twisted Sister? Because I LOVE thigmotropism! I just didn’t know it, until a friend (Suzanne Barnard of the LISD Outdoor Learning Area) shared this worksheet (look at definition “c”):Thigmotropism

I knew about gravitropism and phototropism, but I’ve been a fan of thigmotropism for a long time without even knowing the name. I realize not everyone is a word nerd like I am, but isn’t it fun to learn there’s a word to describe something you’ve been enjoying for a long time? I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere about the human brain and how we learn.

At first it was hard to remember the strange word, but then I thought about the definition: plant growth in response to contact with another thing… thigmotropism… it’s like you’re saying “thing” but with a stuffy nose. (In other words, say “thing” without the ‘n’.) That’s my mnemonic device, anyway.

So, years ago, as these various trees and vines grew together in dappled shade, and touched each other and began an epic battle-dance for height and sunshine and space, I was developing an affinity for all things twisty, winding, and coiled. As these plants responded, each to the presence of the other, and allocated resources to the tussle, I was collecting sticks and stones and shells. And I started to refine my collections of sticks, leaning toward the twisted, the mangled, the beautifully bent. Some of these plants, or parts of them, died, and fell upon my future path, where I found them and treasured them and took them home. These events made a perfect nest in my mind for the word (and the concept of) thigmotropism.

I can understand why some people ascribe to synchronicity – some series of events seem laid out just for us!

Lessons I take from this turn of events (see what I did there?):

  • There’s always something unexpected to be learned.
  • Generous teacher friends are the best.
  • Encourage people to collect natural items (ethically and sustainably, of course). Patterns will emerge, and there are  wonderful lessons to be learned.

What patterns do you see in your collections?

Field Notes Friday 0020: Star Milkvine (Matelea biflora)

DISCOVERED: starfish alien flower life form!

I ecstatically soaked up information and enthusiasm at the 5th Annual the State of the Prairie Conference. I’m beyond glad that the Coastal Prairie Partnership decided to host the conference in Fort Worth, the Prairie Queen City of Texas. I might never have heard of the conference otherwise, and would be truly impoverished if I never met this group of knowledgeable, engaged, and proactive biologists, conservationists, land owners, and practitioners.

One of many great features of the conference was the field trips. My chosen trip was to the McFarland and Hilmont ranches. Jason Singhurst of Texas Parks and Wildlife and Dana Wilson were along, and their wealth of plant knowledge was as useful as it was stunning. I saw and touched plants I’ve never even heard of before. One of them was Matelea biflora, a vine I’ve never seen. LOOK at this thing!

Matelea Biflora

Notice the hairyness. Also, did you see the reason it’s called biflora (two flower)? There’s a green bud in the frame. These plants usually have two flowers together – no more, no less. (I’ve heard Star Milkvine is also called two-flower milkvine. Have you heard something like “two-flower milk weed vine” as its common name? I couldn’t find any references to that name online, but I only made a cursory search.)

Out of context, this plant may seem weird, or perhaps even wonderful, but it’s as disjunct as a factoid on a cereal box.

Only when you climb a hilltop in a generational ranch which is ecologically managed, and see this plant in its full range of life stages, scattered amongst other glorious flowers and inconspicuous green life, and take in the air and clouds and breadth of view – and realize you’re standing in a precious ecosystem that we have the power to save or wipe out – do you realize any plant’s significance. Star Milkvine is a harbinger of habitat, an ecological beacon. Whether it’s on the Floristic Quality Index or not, this plant is associated with good prairie, and if you live in the DFW metroplex (or any other urban area in the central US which is bursting at the seams) you understand how vanishingly rare that is.

McFarland Ranch

Star Milkvine in context at the McFarland Ranch

I’m proud to have ‘discovered’ this weird life form and to have documented it. I’ve been re-introduced to iNaturalist.org by Michael Fox, and I think I’ve finally got the impetus to fully participate, so I’ll be uploading my finds from this conference to iNaturalist soon. I’ll also be sharing more photos via my Facebook and Tumblr page, so stay tuned.

Thank you for participating in Field Notes Friday by reading my observations and and by sharing yours. We make a difference in others’ lives when we share our field notes; we’re educating and enchanting our friends and the public with the otherwise unnoticed life all around them.

Dear [Undisclosed] United Methodist Church: Please Don’t Litter!

Imagine enjoying a vacation in one of your favorite outdoor places. You come upon trash tangled in the grass by a river: a card attached to a pink ribbon and the remains of a ragged green balloon. The card has a friendly message from a church and a request for you to respond with where and how you found the card.

A group I was with last month was in this position. This is my response.

 

Dear [Undisclosed] United Methodist Church,

I received your Easter card attached to a balloon. Thank you.

But please consider finding another way to share your message.

The Story

I was in LLELA (the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area), a 2,000 acre nature preserve in the heart of the metroplex. The group I was with hiked and explored beautiful forests, prairies, and aquatic ecosystems for three days. On April 26 we were surprised to find your card near the river, tangled in the grass. We read your message and although no one disparaged it, three people in the group are members of United Methodist churches and seemed to cringe at their denomination being associated with litter.

About the Nature Preserve

I do not represent LLELA when I send this letter, but I’m someone who cares about the place and all the life within it. Putting LLELA in context, the land is recovering from a history of harsh use by humans. The forests were cleared, the prairies were plowed, the wildlife was killed, and the land was used as a dump. LLELA staff and volunteers work diligently to restore ecosystems, reintroduce and care for native species (like Wild Turkey and Texas Bluestar), and ensure that our natural heritage is here for future generations. Slowly, LLELA is again becoming a refuge for wildlife and native plants and a place people fall in love with.

What’s the big deal about a balloon?

Plastic pollution is a crisis for our wildlife, fisheries, and fellow humans. (More info at Plasticpollutioncoalition.org)

Ribbons, string, nets, and fishing line are devastating to wildlife, including birds. LLELA staff show pictures like these to fishermen to encourage them to clean up their trash:

Balloons and plastic bags, once in water, look like jellyfish. They tempt and choke countless wildlife, including turtles.

You and I may seem landlocked in prairie, forest, and city, but we share a watershed connected to the Trinity, which flows to the Gulf.

Trinity Basin and Texas Counties

Trash, just like water, rolls downhill.

The Gulf of Mexico, as you probably know, faces plenty of pollution problems. Seagulls, pelicans, dolphins, turtles, fish and humans contend with oil spills, agricultural and suburban fertilizers, chemicals pouring in from our storm drains, and humanity’s ceaseless flow of unnecessary trash.

But it’s not just the Gulf that suffers. The problem is local, too. People at LLELA find wildlife tangled in fishing line and ribbon too often, and usually only after the situation has become fatal. There are lakes, ponds, and rivers near you, too, and if you look closely, scenes like this are common:

Great Egrets are a common Texas shorebird, and often end up fatally tangled in fishing line, rope, and twine: http://morningjoy.wordpress.com/2008/08/18/seaside-tragedy/

A Great Egret (a common Texas shorebird) with a mangled leg wrapped in fishing line: http://morningjoy.wordpress.com/2008/08/18/seaside-tragedy/

Due to ocean currents, even places where humans don’t live, or where humans don’t produce plastic, are swamped with debris.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the terrible plight of the Midway Atoll Albatrosses, where thousands of young birds die each nesting season because they eat plastic debris. Long after they perish and their bodies completely decay, the plastic remains, to be eaten by the next generation of chicks. One piece of our throwaway plastic can contribute to untold deaths.

Chris Jordan's heart-breaking photography of Midway Atoll Albatrosses: http://www.blog.designsquish.com/index.php?/site/plastics_dont_disintegrate/

Chris Jordan’s heart-breaking photography of Midway Atoll Albatrosses: http://www.blog.designsquish.com/index.php?/site/plastics_dont_disintegrate/

Alternatives

I implore and encourage you to use your creativity, passion, and love to find another way to share your message.

  • Send paper airplanes off a tall building, or leave little cards on benches, on buses, or in restaurants. You might be shocked to hear a conservationist propose strewing paper about, but paper is biodegradable and, in the United States, usually sustainably sourced.
  • Join the Geocaching community and leave messages of hope and love that way. When you add to or create geocaches of your own, you’re tapping into a network of engaged, interested searchers.
  • Start a sustainability club or committee to consider your outreach, even looking at your utensils, cups, and plates. I hope you ascribe to the well-founded belief that every action and choice an individual or organization makes changes the world – for good or ill. With more information, we can make decisions that better all species.
  • This website suggests alternatives to balloons.
  • You’ll find even more info and alternatives here.

I understand.

I’m sure you’re not intending to cause harm. I’m sure, like me, you’re trying to reduce suffering in the world.

I also understand that your balloon release was intended to be a joyful and community-enhancing event. My horror at finding a balloon in the wild doesn’t squelch my curiosity: I’m fascinated by the distance this balloon traveled: about 25 miles in 6 days (as the crow flies). I have lots of questions I’d love to ask you about how many responses you received, where they were from, and more. I’m not writing to squash your joy or outreach; I’m writing to help you do less damage.

I recognize your denomination and possibly congregation face many challenges in the future. As you decide your path and actions, please carefully and compassionately consider the environment in your ethics. Your decisions affect humans and all other species, the least of these, who have no voice in our society. With just a few habit changes, you can profoundly influence the world for good.

I have mailed this to [four staff members] and also posted it on my blog. I didn’t include the full name of your church, because that might expose you to undue criticism. I’m not here to gripe; I’m here to help.

Please, please find another way to share your message, and consider the environment when you do.

 

Don’t Mess With Texas!

Sincerely and hopefully,

Erin Taylor

The Happy Naturalist

Field Notes Friday 0019: Texas Yellow Star Daisy

Something simple today: 2 drawings and the photos that inspired them. Lindheimer Daisy, Texas Yellow Star, Lindheimera texana – whatever you call it, it’s in bloom, bud, and seed in North Texas.

I’ve always loved Texas Yellowstar seed heads, but this week I paid attention to the flowers and the buds. I took pictures, mostly because I wanted to draw them but didn’t have time right then. I’ve gone to one drawing class since my latest art kick (at A Creative Arts Studio), and the instructor told me it would be easiest to start by emulating other drawings, then move on to photographs, then live/in-person. I couldn’t find drawings of Lindheimera texana online (and wasn’t lugging around my 20-lb copy of the Illustrated Flora of North Central Texas), so photos had to do. And they did rather well. I was able to zoom in on the photos the way I’d want to do with a loupe and the real thing, and finding a spot on a picnic bench under a cottonwood tree to concentrate and draw was like a mini-vacation.

Lindheimer Daisy by Happy NaturalistNotes I from my journal (which don’t come through on the compiled images):

  • Only 10 lobes [I crossed through my first, less observant attempt]
  • In the Spring, 2 shades of green are the most important colors to have.
  • This is not just shading [around the center of the bud]; there is some sort of casing/cupping around those lobes
  • A rather bedraggled Texas Yellostar/Lindheimer daisy… but one with personality.
  • A central vein seems to lead to a div[o]t at end of petal.
  • After looking at more pics, I’m not actually sure what stage I drew yesterday. It’s so green it seems pre-bloom… but what I thought was post-bloom looks almost the same, just brown.

For me, sketching and drawing has been a matter of facing my fears, learning a few simple techniques, slowing down to pay more attention, and being pleased with the process. I hope you’ll join me and others in sketching… or writing… or listing… or experiencing nature in whatever way makes most sense for you, and sharing it with the world via Field Notes Friday.

 

Caterpillars and Curiosity

My recent strange interaction with caterpillars led to curiosity, then inspiration. During a wilderness survival weekend, I was on “Earth Time” as Mark Suter calls it, and I leisurely observed caterpillars around us. But I’m not as adept at up-close vision as E.O.Wilson (who lost his long-distance vision as a child but has seemingly microscopic vision up close), so I needed help from some handy-dandy tools.

Here’s a friend’s camera and a $4 jeweler’s loupe, and how I used them together. I put the loupe at the end of the camera lens, and WOW! could I see detail!

Makeshift macro lens

I used my makeshift lens to observe a caterpillar even more closely. I was amazed at the tiny critter. I had thought its pattern was simple (a white “skull”, some blue and yellow stripes)…

tent caterpillar

Normal macro setting

…but the pattern was complicated, intricate.

tent caterpillar

the view through a loupe and macro setting

I was surprised again when I turned the loupe to a second and third caterpillar: Each caterpillar’s patterns and colors were recognizably different. I could tell the caterpillars apart.

Start by looking at the white spots. Then look at the difference in colorful patches.

Start by looking at the white spots. Then look at the difference in colorful patches.

I was so intrigued, I created a palette for each, using the colored pencils I’ve recently added to my field bag.Nature's palette

Being able to tell individuals apart humanized (for lack of a better word) the caterpillars. They weren’t objects; they were individuals. Perhaps this is why (as I’ve discovered) sketching something leads to caring about it. The closer we look at anything in life, the more we understand and appreciate.

And don’t we want people to appreciate and care for the environment and its inhabitants, whether local or global?

My interest deepened to inspiration, so I’ve set brush to canvas to paint my fascination. (The tetraptych is still a work in progress, but I’ll share it eventually.)

All of this – the interaction, observation, curiosity, endearment, photography, inspiration, art – was before I knew what the species is called. But in a deeper sense, I knew the caterpillar in a way I won’t soon forget. I’d wager that this species will stay in my mind throughout my life, whether or not I recall the scientific name.

I even had a friendly wager going with a coworker. Was this a species that made the ‘tents’ on nearby tree branches, or not? As it turns out, we were both right and both wrong, at least according to the Texas Bug Book. This is a tent caterpillar, but it’s a kind that doesn’t make tents. Weird! Maybe that’s why they were falling on us from Grandmother Bur Oak…?

Obviously, there’s more to learn, and I’m grateful for the printed and online resources I’ll use. But please note: the curiosity, inspiration, endearment, and deep memorable learning wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had an experience with this species in its native habitat.

If someone had simply toldme about these caterpillars, or if I had only read about them, I might have retained the information but wouldn’t have made profound connections – connections which will deepen with time and experience, rather than facts which will erode due to irrelevance and disuse.

Field Notes Friday 0018: Caterpillars From the Sky

You know it’s been busy if I’ve missed two Field Notes Fridays in a row! But it’s been a good Spring busy-ness. I crave a job that embraces the changing seasons and helps me feel connected to earth’s cycles… and I have it! Spring is as busy for an educator/interpreter as it is for the bees and birds. And mammals. And butterflies. And caterpillars.

Yep, caterpillars. Some gardeners hate ’em, most butterfly lovers love ’em, and most people find them at least interesting, if not downright fascinating. My latest experience with caterpillars was not only fascinating, it was inspiring. And, frankly, a little weird.

I was participating in another Survival Skills weekend led by Mark Suter of Primitive Texas at LLELA (the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area). Throughout the weekend, we noticed caterpillars on our backpacks, on our shoulders, on the ground around us… there were always several within view any time. They seemed to be everywhere. We tried not to kill any, but I’m pretty sure I rolled over one in my sleep. They were cute – a little bit fuzzy, pleasantly colorful, and with interesting behavior, if you took the time to watch.

And taking the time to watch came naturally. All of us made observations – this caterpillar was climbing, that one seemed to be sleeping, this one was reaching for branches, this one seemed to be jerking or dancing, oh, look, there’s another one on your sleeve – we were observing insect behavior without even intending to. We were immersed in wilderness, working on skills previous generations needed for survival (making rope and fire, finding resources), and it gave us time to connect to the biological richness around us without even trying.

A few of the survival students enjoying lush Spring surroundings.

A few of the survival students enjoy the lush Spring surroundings.

I’m sure wonder and bemusement turned to mild annoyance for some. Trying not to harm caterpillars that come out of nowhere is taxing. Did I say out of nowhere? They seemed to be raining from the sky. Actually, on the final day, when Mark and I sat in the warm dappled shade working on hand-drill fire technique and yucca basket-weaving, we figured out they were falling on us. Perhaps from “Grandmother Bur Oak,” as Mark dubbed the tree shading our beautiful shelter. We could hear the soft pat….. pat as they fell into the thick leaf litter around us and began what I assume is the next chapter of their lives.

The sound of caterpillars. The sight of them dancing. The feel of them tickling your arm as they walk. We experienced caterpillars with multiple senses (but not with taste or smell, thank goodness). Because of these mental connections, we’ll never forget these little creatures.

Experiences like this usually inspire curiosity, as they did in me. What in the world species is this? Why are they falling on us? Do they sleep? What butterfly or moth will they become? I’ll let you enjoy the curiosity and questions a little while, as I did. Answers (and inspiration) coming soon…

(And here’s a treat. At least, I enjoyed it: A relaxing 30 second video looking up at Grandmother Bur Oak)