Learning the language

One of my favorite authors, Barry Lopez, once gave advice to an aspiring writer, concluding with “Get out of town.” Only when you get far away from home do you face the necessity of learning new languages, meeting new people, understanding new cultures. It stretches you in unexpected ways.

I’m out of town now – way out. So far out that moss grows on the south side of trees – trees that never lose their leaves, that cast a lovely pungent scent, and that bear odd names: she-oak, black peppermint, coastal wattle, banksia, prickly box.Banksia serrata I am so far out of town that Orion has tipped upside down in the night sky, wallaby and pademelon are the local, equally common and voracious version of deer, and the constant roar of surf plays background for utterly unfamiliar birdsong and the chatter of cicadas. When I catch sight of something that I think I know – say, a weeping willow – it is usually, just like me, introduced. Likewise, in the midst of all this strangeness, it astonishes me to come across a butterfly that I instantly recognize – a painted lady. But an Australian Painted Lady: Vanessa kershawi. How did that happen?Vanessa kershawi

I knew that being in Tasmania and New Zealand would provide a different view of biodiversity, but what I didn’t anticipate was becoming a three year old again. I am continually asking Peter, our patient host at Windgrove (www.windgrove.com), “What’s that? What’s that?” And, because virtually everything is new to me, I have no filters for the uncommon, the extraordinary. When your senses are trained and attuned to a particular context, the slightest sound or movement doesn’t put you on alert. Here, not yet knowing the significance of anything, everything becomes significant.

toolsWith Peter’s help and some Tasmanian field guides in hand (building the toolkit), I’ve begun the first steps of learning what’s here. I am, in effect, undergoing the very education in biodiversity that I want to explore during my Fulbright project. This is an unexpected benefit, and one that is beginning to yield insights into what it takes to become familiar with an unfamiliar ecosystem. kookaburra2One of the most important is understanding the dynamics of the landscape and the environmental effects of variables like climate (this area is experiencing drought right now) or invasive species (that kookaburra sitting in the old gum tree just off the deck in the welcome rain, laughing).Even though English is spoken here, I feel like I’m learning a new language: individual species are the vocabulary, while how they fit together within their ecosystem is the grammar.

flame5

 

And, speaking of language, I am doing that other three-year old thing: inventing names. Bottle bird, toilet seat skink, flame butt, sugarberries. Eventually maybe I’ll figure out their real names.

 

dandrone

I’ll be putting lots of new photos up on Flickr (sidebar), identifying and commenting on them as I am able. Feel free to visit Dan’s site as well, www.panopicnic.com. It’s not every traveler who gets to have a professional photographer-spouse tagging along, but I got lucky.

 

 

 

Whose home

rbhaistreakvfrit1A day off from school.  I stayed home for most of it, wandering around the yard and gardens with my camera.  Each observed movement of an animal felt like a gift, each moment held still enough to photograph, additional bounty.  A red-banded  hairstreak in the grass slowly rubbing its tails together, a variegated fritillary basking on an apple leaf – these I managed to capture.  I am struck today by how many lives I am privileged to witness playing out here that I am never able to photograph.  This is their home in ways that I can barely fathom.  The phoebe swooping in a perfect arc from dead spruce branch to insect and back, the groundhog lumbering along the edge of the woods, the deer wandering casually into the yard munching apples, the robberfly perched on the top wire of the fence, eyes seeing in every direction. The young squirrel creeps along the stone wall, just a few feet from where I sit, carrying an acorn in its mouth.  It bounds out into the grass, pausing and sniffing until it finally begins to dig at the dirt, stuffs its acorn into the hole, and then pats the small mound down with its paws.  Before it bounds away, it moves a few stray leaves, tidies the grass.

This is my hobby, to watch, to enjoy the watching, to document it when I can.  These creatures, along with the seeds floating on the breeze, and the maple leaves shadowed against dappled sycamore bark, are part of what I consider my home. When the woodpecker taps seeds into the siding, or the deer eat the hosta, the burn weed invades the flower bed, and the groundhog pushes her way under the fence and into the garden, they make themselves at home with an imperative that is hard to deny.

Sustainability scramble

warning signThat momentary mental jumble when I am  asked what I will be doing in New Zealand.  Then the slow churning of multiple syllables in my mind as I prepare to deliver them in some coherent fashion: “Looking at how kids learn about sustainability through understanding local biodiversity.”  Sometimes this torrent of sounds registers, and I get an honest nod of understanding; more often, it’s a polite, bemused smile. Too many scrambled word bits.

Clearly, I need to find a better way to express these two primary themes of my Fulbright project, at least for the kids that I’ll be working with.  I have barely begun to broach the topic of biodiversity with M Group, but so far presenting it as “How many species?” is a start.  We began by trying to figure out the biodiversity of the classroom (about 20 species, not counting the wild things that inhabit dark corners), their houses (this was fun when they realized that their fish tanks and houseplants accounted for many different species), and a single milkweed plant outside (at least 10 species of aphids, milkweed bugs, wasps, flies, etc.).  I am hoping to be able to segue this fairly concrete definition into the part that is sustainability by asking, “How do our actions affect these numbers?”

neshamaBut even more simplicity is needed, I think, to make these terms manageable. Breaking biodiversity into morphemes yields something along the lines of differences in living things.  That’s not a bad start.  Sustainability is trickier, assimilated by so many different political, educational, and economic sectors. I like the idea of “to bear” better than “to endure,” since that implies an immediate and personal responsibility.  Endurance heads off into a realm that is too easy to ignore or postpone.  We’ve got a job to do now, vs. we’ll figure that out when it gets bad.  Even more appealing is the idea that to sustain is to care.  In my classroom, I have a dozen small habitats containing diverse living things.  I care about them, so it is my job to sustain their worlds, to care for them.

What kinds? How many? Caring about them.  Caring for them. Biodiversity and sustainability in a nutshell.

Itching to go


mon3It’s been a week, and I am still scratching the chigger bites that I got hiking around Soldiers Delight NEA last week.  Throughout the broiling summer, I would head out to this favorite spot clothed head to toe in tick and chigger-proof gear, spray my ankles and shoes with repellent, and jump into the shower as soon as I returned.  For the most part, I survived these outings unscathed, but I detested being out in the woods wearing chemical armor and didn’t feel like lingering to look around. So last week, I went out sleeveless in shorts and sandals.  The butterflies popped out of the bluestem, lit on boneset and ironweed, nectaring long enough for me to slowly approach through waist-high grasses.  I spent hours out there relishing the solitude, the slight breeze that picked up a lone monarch and carried it to a patch of bright purple blazing star.  The scent of joe-pye weed rose along a grassy stream where I crouched, lifting rocks one by one – here a young dusky salamander, there a tiny coiled water snake.

The chiggers accepted my invitation to dine.  Their bites, swaths of vivid red welts against my pale midsection, will slowly fade. Chiggers are invisible to me when I am out photographing butterflies. I am searching for the bold, the lovely, the striking, the remarkable, while being consumed by creatures tinier than a pinhead.  Also consumed by the need to know more, I have just learned that only the juveniles feast on me, and that at this stage their legs number 6 rather than 8. Their digestive enzymes dissolve my flesh while forming a feeding tube in it.  No animal remains in or on me – only the rankling itch.

My skin still holds the faint scars of last year’s chigger feasts, etched by the elders of this year’s youngsters. I am tattooed with reminders to pay attention, to keep watch for what I haven’t yet learned to see.