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.

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A Naturalist Looks at Pregnancy

Hello again. It’s been a while.

I’ve been reminded by my fellow interpreters at the latest NAI Region 6 conference that it’s time to break the silence; it’s time to post my own #FieldNotesFridays again, and get back to regular writing and online publishing. So I thank them and you for the encouragement, and the patience, as I gathered myself over the last months.

You helped me through a dark time, when I felt ecologically estranged and depressed. I can’t say I’m through that stage, but I can say that hearing from you, learning that I wasn’t alone, meant a lot to me and helped me see light at the end of the tunnel. I feel closer to our in-person and online naturalist community since sharing how I felt and learning how you feel. You were with me on that journey, and now I’d like to share another journey with you.

The driving factor in my life right now, the inescapable and obvious-even-to-others fact: I’m pregnant.

I’ve wanted to share the steps and moments with you all the way. I’m fascinated by the biology of pregnancy and excited to be ‘attempting’ our first child.

For example, I wanted to post around week 6 that – eww – my ‘baby’ still looks like a deformed tadpole and – fascinating! – has gill arches which will someday turn into a jaw, inner ear bones, and more. (More on the evolution of those homologous arches in Your Inner Fish – and hey, there’s a companion TV series on PBS we should watch)

And I wanted to post on week 23 that – strange – our kiddo might survive out of the womb with modern medical technology, but still has translucent skin, so would look like a baby-shaped bundle of blood vessels for a while.

And in week 31, I was excited to learn that our little human’s cortex was furrowing into a more spacious place for cognition.

At least, these were the developments we assumed were taking place, if everything was going well.

And that’s what stopped me cold. Once we got pregnant (and it seemed to take a long time, although I know it’s taken others longer, and some are heart-broken that they can’t get pregnant), I was quickly reminded of the social taboos of sharing your news “too early.” Too early – in the first three months! – because of the danger of miscarriage. Miscarriages are strikingly common. 50% of fertilized eggs are spontaneously aborted, and 10-20% beyond that are also miscarried (this doesn’t even count stillbirths, the term used after week 20). Those are sobering odds.

As a friend studying sonography(?) said, when you learn about all that can go wrong, it seems amazing that humans can procreate at all.

I’ve been… scared.

I’ve been scared of what can go wrong – not that I wasn’t previously aware of these possibilities, but now I am keenly aware of them, and they’re personal. If we lose this child I know I will go through a period of doubting myself, questioning anything I might have done wrong, and having a hard time forgiving myself.

And if, medicine forbid, I contract Zika virus… well, there’s a whole new worry for pregnant women. (More on the CDC’s suggestions for pregnant women avoiding mosquitoes and Zika here).

But part of being a naturalist, and therefore being scientifically aware, is not only recognizing possibilities, but recognizing probabilities. I’m not likely to contract Zika; there fewer than 20 cases in Texas so far (or were when I first drafted this in March), and all but one them is from travel. (One is from sexual contact, a transmission method more likely than originally thought – again, see the CDC’s recommendations.) Even if I do contract Zika, studies in Brazil show that only about 30% of fetuses are adversely affected*. (Right, I know… who wants to be in that 30%? Who wants to take those odds on their future kid? But my point is I’m more likely to experience complications from not taking my vitamins and from gaining too much weight.)

The fear has a positive side: I didn’t realize how much I would care about our first child surviving. I didn’t have any concept how much I would want this pregnancy to come to fruition, how much I would anticipate meeting our son, giving him all the chances I’ve had in life, and hopefully more.

So maybe now that I’ve shared my fears I can share the joy more readily. I’ve come far enough to be facing the very real, highly likely possibility that this pregnancy will be successful, that little Sagan Shane will enter the wider world healthy and ready to learn, and I’ll have a whole new set of possibilities to worry about and come to peace with.

Here I am, just another primate procreating… but to me, this journey is sacred. I have a support network of family and friends, I chose to be pregnant and chose a loving partner with whom to raise a family, and I recognize, because I’m aware of the biological process, that this is a precious, dangerous, treacherous, joyous, once-in-his-lifetime journey.

I look forward to sharing the rest of the journey with you.

bumpin' out.png

Pregnant naturalists can still hit the trails! Here I am bumpin’ out in the wilds of Village Creek State Park in March (left) and the LLELA Nature Preserve in February (right).

*Please note: this figure is from a newspaper article I read in March 2016. I need to find the article and link to it; I apologize for not having the source available at the time of publication. Til I can provide a source, take this figure with a grain of salt (healthy skepticism), just like I hope you treat every unsupported claim.

The (Sad) Happy Naturalist

I started this blog with the premise that happiness is a choice. And it is. But sometimes sadness is a sign that it’s time to take notice of something important. If you feel what we call ‘negative’ emotions, explore them. Don’t stuff them or ignore them. They can teach you something.

I’ve been feeling a powerful desolation; I imagine it as a stream that’s run dry. Imagine your feeling of deep joy is a cool, clear lake. It’s fed by many streams: one of your streams might be partaking in music or art, another may be time with family or friends, or reveling in ideas and good books, or running – who knows. We’re all different, and our lakes are filled by different streams.

One of my streams is connection with what we label ‘nature’ – that which is wild, beautiful, harsh, untamed, and ineffably tantalizing. It’s an arbitrary and misleading label because really, we are natural, and nature is within us as well as around us. There is no separation… but in my middle-class, affluent, wired life, there’s the illusion of separation.

I feel disconnected. And disheartened. And tomorrow, I plan to share a field journal entry that evinces this.

I thought I shouldn’t share it. I thought you wouldn’t want to read it, or it would bring you down. And I want, rather, to inspire people to make a positive difference in the world.

But perhaps sharing the down moments of despair is a way of inspiring those who want to make a difference. Not every moment is a high, one of elation or accomplishment. Sometimes there is darkness, and sometimes the lake is dry.

And this is why Jane Goodall emphasizes hope for those who care about the planet and the biosphere. She noticed an entire generation (my generation) who got the message that the world was f*(k3d, that the rainforests were disappearing and species were going extinct and there was nothing we could do about it, except maybe recycle (which seems to have nothing to do with the problems we learned about) and don’t personally kill whales. And I’ve seen, in my campaign to reduce my plastic consumption, that the biggest critics of my message were people my age. They cried ‘hypocrite!’ and ‘ineffective!’, ignoring the message that our planet needs help, and we can do the helping.

Hope is important. The choice to be happy is important, especially as we strive to fight the influences that make the world a worse place.

It’s also important to acknowledge the dark times, the down times, the dry times.

And I hope, somehow, this entry and my future entries help you.

How a Nature Interpreter Knows it’s Spring

…Because it’s busy as a beehive! If you’ve been with me on this journey for the last few years, you know I crave feeling attuned to the seasons, and want my job to reflect seasonality.

And it does. Spring is when suddenly everyone (“and their dog” as locals say) becomes aware that there are things to see and do outside of those climate-controlled spaces. The phone rings off the hook with questions about programs and trails (and sometimes found baby animals), program numbers sky rocket, and down time is a thing of the past and won’t be part of the present again till sometime in July, when the heat beats even hardy outdoor-folk into retreat (or at least into siesta schedule, a good adaptation in Texas).
Add to the Spring busy-ness a little El Niño weather-related excitement (like the most rain we’ve seen in 5 years), and trail conditions and mosquito populations and river levels and potential program cancellations and rescheduling make for one busy nature-centered job.

And I love it all. I love the rain. I love the highly seasonal level of activity. I love the uncertainty of whether the weather will favor a program at a particular time. I love people remembering that there’s a whole world outside their doors. As a sweet young person said on one of my recent guided hikes, “This is like the real, REAL world!”

Yes, these flowers and leaves and bugs and mud and tracks and that breeze – this is all the REAL real world. Nobody filmed it or animated it or coded it or photoshopped it to impress you more. It’s just beautiful and wonderful, and I’m so glad to have the occasional person like you who is open to it, aware of it.

Of course I didn’t tell her all that. I just let her soak it in, and I soaked in her wonder.

This is what it’s all about.

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

Field Notes Friday 0034: The Appearance of Destruction

Shocking as scenes after a fire may be, some fires are “good” (meaning they’re an essential part of some ecosystems). In a controlled burn, one of many goals is to burn often enough that raging, far-ranging fires aren’t a possibility in the future.

I imagine in the past, the swath of land a herd of thousands of bison had tread and munched might serve as a natural fire break – not enough fuel for the fire to continue. (I don’t have a source on that; just imagining.) In modern controlled/prescribed burns, at least the ones I’ve participated in, mow lines, water sprayers, and backfires do the job.

Here’s a before and after shot:

IMG_5122-0

It looks shocking. Like the land is devastated.

But it’s not. The fire burned through quickly and made way for native prairie species while making it harder for invasive woody species to encroach.

I hope to return and show a different “after” photo: one that’s full of the green and gold and reds of life, sprung anew from the ashes.

I’m posting this as part of my pledge that I will make it easier for myself to participate in Field Notes Friday. I’m taking my own advice: keep it simple! Just a photo and some thoughts are plenty.

Here’s a link to the photo and thoughts I shared on Facebook. I hope you’ll join me there as well as on WordPress (…and iNaturalist… And Instagram…)

Field Notes Friday 0033: A Realization and Encouragement

This realization has already helped me, and may help you. So of course, I want to share.

Bird banding log

Bird banding log and restored savannah behind it

It started to dawn on me when I listened to Dr. Jim Bednarz speak to the Dallas Audubon Society this month. He detailed his research in the Galapagos, an exotic location I’d be honored just to visit. He focused on the Galapagos hawk and its unusual polyandrous breeding arrangement, including what evolutionary pressures could lead to such an arrangement and how the size of male harems affects each individual’s fitness (survival and reproduction).

Dr. Bednarz did a stellar job making his research come alive; striking photos and interesting anecdotes wrapped around the scientific steps of creating a hypothesis, gathering data, celebrating being wrong and revising hypotheses… and gathering more data. Data, data, data. As the photos flashed before my eyes, I saw similarities with another study I’m occasionally able to participate in (and which Dr. Bednarz consistently does): the Winter Sparrow Site Fidelity Study at LLELA. In the Galapagos, the researchers caught, banded, measured, measured, and measured the hawks again. Data. And the researchers returned, year after year. I think the study spanned 6-8 years. Data, and more data, and details, and time.

And at LLELA, I’ve felt the excitement of flushing sparrows toward mist nets in the prairie, the pressure of writing data for multiple birds simultaneously, as well as the monotony of making the rounds to find empty nets. I’ve seen the enlivened team when there are multiple catches, and disappointed participants when the ‘pickins are slim’. And I realize: a successful researcher is tenacious. There is a process. There are steps. There is information to be gathered, there are good days and bad days, and one must persevere.

I’ve long admired the brilliant insight of naturalists like Darwin and Wallace, the adventurings and pluck of Mireya Mayor, and the discoveries and positive influence of Jane Goodall. But all I’ve gotten to see or study are the highlights of their lives: the big ideas, the results of their influence, the excitement and danger of travel… the director’s cut, really. I forget that there were hours spent with a magnifying lens or microscope, crawling at (truly) a snail’s pace on hands and knees to get a closer look at something, hours poring over books and maps. Hours of journal time, noting the tiniest changes in the subject. Hours of staring at the subject. Hours, probably, of recording seemingly unimportant numbers. Data.

So I revisited the sparrow study and took this photo.

And in my journal, I wrote:

MAYBE

SCIENCE

is a slow process

made of tiny mundane steps

leading to short, rare bursts of insight.

I need to adjust my desires and expectations.

I find this new perspective uplifting and affirming. The little moments you and I spend in detail work, perhaps feeling like we’re making no progress or not contributing to humanity’s knowledge, all add up. Keep on keepin’ on.

KeepOnTruckin

For more info about Field Notes Friday and how you can participate: http://bit.ly/FieldNotesFriday

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Field Notes Friday 0029: Sisters of the Eclipse

The clouds low on the Southern horizon were like a gathering army, visible only once illuminated by the premonition of sun. They invaded when the sun rose, never spoiling the view.

One of my latest Field Notes entries was more flowery than usual. The florid words were inspired by an early, chill morning, an amazing astronomical sight, and being graced by the company of like-minded naturalists who were dedicated to seeing something powerful in nature… regardless of losing sleep, enduring a tough climb (not to mention the descent), and facing the unknowns of a new location and the dynamics of a group of people who are just starting to know each other. We were watching the October 8 eclipse, which was awe-inspiring. I’m grateful for their company and glad to share my experience here.Sisters of the Eclipse

Continuing from my field journal:

My spirit bird* soared over us after the sun lightened the Eastern sky, but hadn’t yet appeared… (turkey vulture)

Int the dark turning dusk, a ladybug landed on my spread sleeping bag…. I was surprised to see it so early.

The air was still and warm till 6am, when a stiff breeze whipped the warmth away from my body… even though the breeze was warm.

We bonded on top of that tall climb, wanted to dance and sing at full eclipse, raised our arms to the wind and the rising sun…

And Cynthia says her name means moon.

As we stood on top of the dam, 125 feet up after a long climb, a dark morning, feeling like dancing and singing to the moon and finally seeing the sky turn bright and colorful, Susie said she feels the world would be a calmer, better place if more people saw something of this awe and beauty every day. Kris ventured ISIS as a juxtaposition… and I wondered if [ISIS members would] be where they are today if someone had shown them the beauty of calm and surrender and loving this world and its creatures. Maybe I can help make the world a better place – by helping people be more calm and introspective.

Some of my pictures are here on my Facebook page (although don’t expect astro-images until I get permission from friends to share their photos. Mine are much more earthly).

* I feel the need to explain that this is not an animal that came to me in a vision after a spiritual quest; I use “spirit bird” to mean the animal that makes me feel elated, makes my “spirits soar” every time I see it.

If you’d like to participate in Field Notes Friday, it’s as easy as using a hashtag on your favorite social media and sharing your unique perspective on nature. Learn more here: http://bit.ly/FieldNotesFriday

P.S. One of the Eclipse Sisters herself just shared this photo! This is totally how I felt.Eclipse sisters from Diane

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.

Want to know how to participate (and sometimes not participate) in Field Notes Friday? Click 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.