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.



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.



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.




Risky tools

It is time for aftercare.  The youngest kids rush outside for an hour of play, but I have a small group bouncing with excitement whose turn it is to whittle.  I hand each of these 7-9 year olds a utility knife with a retractable razor blade.  They don safety glasses and sit along the edge of the stone patio, carefully and patiently slicing slivers and chips off sticks that they have collected from the woods. I sit with them, sometimes whittling a piece of wood myself.  They are quiet, concentrating on their work with an intensity that I rarely see in any other activity.  Finally a boy says, “This is so relaxing.” The others nod in agreement but don’t look up.  They spend the full hour there, getting up only to find a new stick.  A teacher asks what they are making, and they take some time to think about this, examining the now very sharp tips on their sticks.  They know that certain responses may be unacceptable here in school.  “A trash picker-upper,” says one of the girls, demonstrating. “A spear?” asks one of the boys cautiously, examining his stick. “Yes, a spear for target practice,” he announces.  The others chime in, “Yeah, an arrow for target practice.” “A knife to practice throwing at a target.”  Another boy holds up several pale peeled sticks: “These are wands.” He demonstrates with an incantation. The first boy has continued working during this commentary, but finally says, “I’m just enjoying whittling.”knives1

A primary goal of My Fulbright project is to create a toolkit – a meaningful collection of objects that enhance our knowledge and support for sustaining biodiversity.The thought of energetic 8 year olds using razor blades might concern some people.  The same goes for saws, drills, and matches –  more tools that my students use under supervision. My philosophy of giving kids “dangerous” tools is that if they have the desire to learn to use them correctly, they will  gain competence that will serve them for a lifetime.  I don’t regard this use as “playing with knives;” rather, it is a child’s form of work, with as much meaning as learning to use a ball, a ladder, a pencil, or any other tool. Just as important is the confidence and trust in them that I have.  Learning to handle tools competently means that you have experiential knowledge of the hazards of using them unwisely.  Not that I wish for any of my students to hurt themselves to learn a lesson – of course not.  But, just like acquiring the balance and sense of motion required to ride a bike – and hoping that you will never suffer a crash – gaining the trust and dexterity to use a tool like a knife gives you confidence to handle all sorts of things.

In my biodiversity backpack, I would include a pocketknife.  I still remember the one that I was given at eight years old, and how it fit in my hand.  At the time, it went everywhere with me, including into the woods, where I fashioned bows and arrows and dug open rotting logs to see what was inside. Now, I use a pocketknife to collect fungi or part of a plant for identification.  Sometimes, as I walk the woods paths during recess, I cut away bittersweet or honeysuckle vines that encircle young trees. But mostly, I just like having it along, this tool that feels like a natural extension of my hand.

For another perspective: http://trackersearth.com/blog/kids-should-play-with-knives/