childhood

Appreciation is sometimes slow in arriving. It took me years to enjoy single malt scotch. Decades ago I used to compare taking off my ski boots to sex; yea, that was way off the mark. The love of watching bats artistically flutter against the backdrop of a mountain sunset is, at this time in my life, more poignant than seeing The Who in concert. The point is that interests and passions change. And while time is synonymous with age, finding your passions can slow the march of time.

I have recently, just this morning, finished reading E.O. Wilson’s Anthill. It is the first novel of a first-rate ecologist, and it likely will not change your life. What it might do, as it did for me, is rekindle an awareness of the passions you had as a younger you. And by younger you I mean any time before today.

The truth is that I should not have been reading anything of the novel genre. I have a comprehensive exam proposal due tomorrow. It is a document that clearly and solidly demonstrates my path to finishing my PhD. 15 pages of succinct scientific method and proof that I have read the primary literature and basically that I deserve to someday be granted the degree of Doctorate of Philosophy in Biology. On top of that I actually have to send the thing to people who know something then get up in front of them and do a presentation about the proposal and then withstand another 2.5 hours of questions and discussion about my topic. So I should not have been pleasure reading during the holidays.

Or maybe I should have.

Dr. Wilson’s parable took me back to being a kid and learning about (note I do not say discovering) the extraordinary world of the army ant (Genus: Eciton). I remember clearly when and where I heard about them: an impressionable 7 year-old at Twin Springs Farm Day Camp in Ambler, PA. My counselor, who I do not remember, had talked about the marauding army ants in Africa. And it stuck with me, dormant at times, but never to achieve its half-life. And here I am, south of 50, studying ants and the impacts of humans on nature.

Anthill traces the life of a young naturalist. And it exposes the strangeness that is the human species. In so doing, Dr. Wilson confronts the naïve and powerful influence of open-minded, unprejudiced observation; something we lose later in life and, as a consequence, I believe the World is worse off for (nice grammar).

What I carry away from this reading is the joy of the resurgence of my juvenile trust in nature. What is most surprising is its ability to persist. And it is this dismantling of all the stresses involved in being an adult, or graduate student, or seeker of career options, that lent energy to the writing of my comps proposal and the acknowledgement that I am pursuing my passion and that this passion has been there for a long time. It is a lesson from the annals of childhood. And it is a suggestion that we should stop and reconnect with who we are and dismiss the whom we think we should be.

Advertisements

a quiet post

Hello everyone,

It has been a long time. I am here and aching to write. Yet as I sit down and catch my breath from the holiday rush, a 3000 mile road trip, writing a proposal that moves me along in my education, and start a new job as lab coordinator for CU’s Principles of Ecology lab, I am at a loss as to what to write. So I will just type this…

…Happy New Year and may all your crazy dreams and desires become real after the appropriate amount of effort has been put in to achieve them.

Chat soon.

find your runner’s high

We run because it concentrates the sweetness of living. We continue to live to demonstrate that your violence is dead.

I have never understood the use of violence to achieve a goal. I am pro-Irish and pro-Palestinian. I am vehemently anti-violence and I will never understand its use as a tool of leverage. I will never accept collateral damage. Never accept the death of an innocent eight year-old watching the beauty of human spirit and accomplishment. And if that child happened to be in Syria, Somalia, or Afghanistan instead of Boston, USA, I still would not accept it.

I have heard the reports of heroism, compassion, sadness, anger and confusion that is the aftermath of the events at the Boston Marathon. I have heard the defiance and resilience of Bostonians and Americans and I am proud to be a member of their tribe. I stand with their resolve and respect their paths of mourning and healing. And I will pause there…

…because I want to also illuminate all the other acts of courage, splinters of anger, fists raised in defiance, unwavering resolve to carry on, that happens every day around the World. The innocent bystanders caught off by flying shrapnel and maimed because of the inarticulate perpetrators of violent acts. I want the events in Boston to bring us together, all of us. To focus a light on the extreme nature of killing in the name of achieving. Humans have a lock on letting ideology, whether “home grown” or “international”, function as a justification for murder. I think we can do better.

I challenge you to run with that as your energy drink.

the presense of misunderstanding

Misunderstanding can be a gentle and learned teacher…

The other day I was running one of my standard favorites. Being Spring, the sky was clear, the temperature was low and the wind had kicked up to announce the movement of an upslope storm. As I climbed up the path, I approached a woman walking alone. Employing my usual practice, I yelled “on your left” many meters ahead of time so as not to frighten her. She turned with a start and a smile. “I am sorry if I scared you”, I blurted. Her response was “The wind has me…”. And thus the misunderstanding was born.

This past weekend I taught a workshop on evolution to a group of middle school and high school teachers. It was the first time I have taught to the people I see as my mentors. Yes, I was nervous. And yes, it went well. I was confident, relaxed and generally having fun. The response was positive with a number of teachers approaching me afterward to see if they could get my Powerpoint presentation to use in their classes. Public speaking is something that scares the shit out of me. And thus I have practiced it. A few years ago I jumped into a number of open mic sessions at a local poetry bookstore. I have practiced my presentations for general biology labs for undergraduates and reaped the benefits of not feeling incapacitated by fear. And I have stood in front of seventh graders over the course of the past year and talked about science; a subject I was never sure I could master.

The difference this weekend, standing in front of tenured teachers who had come to refresh their understanding of evolution, was that I was focused. I was focused on them as the experts and me as the tour guide. My role was to work with them, to discuss, to inquire, and to educate. The focus I had was on knowing there was no right or wrong in this discussion. I reveled in being present in what I was doing and didn’t much worry about what I wasn’t. There was a sense of comfort in not being perfect. In knowing I could explain any misunderstood or unclear concepts. And they responded with attention and appreciation.

While running to the high point of my run, I mulled over what I had thought I heard. I was sure the words she shared were “the wind has me present”. I felt so alive by this artistry. What a lovely way to express the immediacy of nature and its effect on our lives. Yes, the wind has us present, and thus it should.

As I ran down, I was so curious to know what she had really said. Well, mostly. Part of me wanted to accept it as it was. Part of me wanted to know if my story teller had invented something. As I approached her, this time face to face, I asked, “did you say the wind has me present?” She smiled big. “No! I said the wind has me flustered. But I love your version.”

That “flustered” and “present” are layers in the same story of my life is such a healing reality. That we can distinguish between the two is an art to be cultivated. Most of us will be nervous under certain circumstances. And most of us will be confident under certain circumstances. What struck me as liberating was seeing the space in between those two bookends and appreciating that growth happens when we jump into that uncertainty and expose weaknesses and fears that we can work on.

ecological progression

Today is Christmas Eve. (Does “eve” really get capitalized?) That translates into, “Oh wow, it is the end of the year”. And while an appropriate response to December 31st could be “so what”, my sense is that most of us will feel some sort of tug towards reminiscing about the past 360 and some odd days. I think it would be strange, given the national tragedy of Newtown, if most people were not caught in reflecting (the glaring exception might be Wayne LaPierre).

I have sought, through this blog, to encourage the use of nature as a way to understand the cycles and patterns in our own lives. Walking hand-in-hand with this encouragement is the notion that our inner patterns and character can be better understood through an appreciation of our connection (or perhaps lack thereof) with nature (however you may define “nature”). As I stand on the threshold of 2013, looking out over the paths I have traveled and those that spread out in front of me, I am acutely aware of the ecology of self and the focus it offers.

On Wednesday of this past week, in the midst of teaching at Manhattan Middle School and still thinking about the 26 individuals murdered in a Connecticut elementary school, our principal came over the intercom. “This is not a drill, all classrooms are directed to go to lockdown”.

This year has been a year of addressing the shackles that have held me back, celebrating my contributions to the present and not shying away from the potential of the future. Partly this is the result of having weathered the past decade with some sort of new experience and perspective. Partly it is the result of wanting to break free from my own constructed constraints and the desire to interact with my potential. Yes, at the age of 47, I have finally discovered a potential, a focus, an inner ecology. It is a 3D hyper-volume (to borrow from Hutchinson) of cycling history, desire, nourishment, creativity, experience and vision. One of its current foci is teaching science to children.

The ability to say this has been slowing developing all year. In the seconds that followed our lockdown order, it became incarnate, a full-fledged mission, expressed in the self-spoken sentence, “I will protect these kids, both body and mind”. I suppose it is similar to those that, in the face of some situation, see and know the presence of a god. So, while I am an atheist, teaching, in that moment, became my god. And I didn’t even have to make any deals. I merely had to let who I was come to the fore. In those few seconds I looked around the classroom, realized this was the niche I filled and the habitat I belonged to.

In the end the whole situation was a necessary overreaction. Yet recent history and the time of the year molded the experience into a personal celebration of what lies ahead. During the past few days I have felt in myself a change, a slightly different way of addressing the marker of time that is December 31st. I have certainly thought back over this past year, been joyful about events and grateful for the people that now populate my life, been sad at those who do not and taken a minute to reflect on the lessons that required effort to survive. The change is that I am not dwelling in that head space as I have in years past. Now I have an appreciation that those were seasons that have come and gone. Instead I see them as the cycling of nutrients, the life and death of an ecosystem, the preparation for the coming Spring. So while we should not forget the past, we must not overlook the present nor dismiss the future. We can take stock, raise our hands in connection and keep moving forward.

The happiest and safest of holidays to everyone. Peace.

20121224-083317.jpg

spatiotemporal focus

I have read part of Einstein’s theory of relativity. The analogy to the moving trains I get. The math, and ultimately the details of the theory, I do not. Time and space can be beguiling concepts. For example, I have just finished reading The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, and have read that the expansion of the universe is the result of space expanding between galaxies. Um…OK. (I felt better after reading that astronomers are not quite sure what this means either.) Yet, as I make my way back from Australia, via Maui, I am feeling surprisingly grounded in my ability to assess time and space.

While the past few years pursuing my PhD has been an amazing experience, there have been some long periods of time within that journey that were not much fun. Addressing and overcoming personal challenges in the context of achieving a goal is not new. In fact, the effort associated with such challenges may ultimately define the value one assigns to the goal. Inherent in this realization is the ability to distinguish the passage of time.

Each of us uses individual means to chart time. I tend to vary my approach. Sometimes referring to a wrist watch, at other times eschewing my watch for the bright lights of my iPhone. However, when looking over the events of one’s life, events, that when taking place, seemed to either stretch the progress of time into slow-motion drudgery or speed it along like a flash of light, watches and iPhones are inadequate. When we assess personal progress over the course of years we require something more substantial.

My substantially larger timepiece, and the framework for my groundedness (which does not appear to be a word and I am sticking with it), is the variety of ecosystems I have experienced. This realization hit me as I was sitting atop a surfboard and watching three sea turtles play in the waves at Ho’okipa. And while the immediate perspective was focused on the pervious four weeks, my appreciation for this ecological clock grew as I expanded its application to the preceding decades.

Intermission: So here is where I was going to enumerate the ecosystems I have experienced and the progress I have made. That seemed self-serving and egotistical, and ultimately undermined the entire purpose of this post, which is to encourage an appreciation of our surrounding environment (aka ecosystem). What I consider the ecosystems of my life most certainly are different from what you consider an ecosystem. So we shall rush to the end. Ah, the lights are flicking…

This devout child of the mountains and alpine environments was basking in the foreplay of salt water and mysteries of the deep. This spatial experience, this very moment of being present, put into focus a temporal journey. And that journey, it suddenly became very clear, had the fragrance of perfection. No mechanical timepiece could define the travels of my senses. The smell of pines and eucalyptus, the spray of seawater and snow crystals. I was guided by my environment and it in turn proved the most empathetic of mentors.

And maybe, ever so slightly, I gained a better understanding of Einstein’s genius.

20121208-093654.jpg

my ted talk

In my experience, fieldwork is not a social activity. Sure, the morning coffee and evening beer is a great time to share observations and questions, but the bulk of the work requires solitary effort. During my work in the Australian forests I spend many hours walking in silence, listening to the sounds, smelling the Eucalyptus, and having rather extensive conversations in my head about topics as broad as the Australian ecology. A lot of the time is spent daydreaming about what ifs. This past trip found me daydreaming about, and chewing on, the kernel of what my TED talk would be (not that I have been offered one).

As is often the case with my writing and public speaking, I start my planning by considering how best to leave an impact. I work on the opening sentence, the body language, the delivery. My TED talk started with, “I have a problem with the business model that…” And that was as far as I got while opening pitfall traps and changing data logger batteries.

The message I would like to get across is that we all have some sort of day-to-day, year-to-year, decade-to-decade, and occasionally life changing experience. I believe we can create community by sharing those experiences, however small. The art of perception is what we give to our neighbors. Their art is listening and distilling what they feel is important to their lives, then sharing with whomever they interact with. It creates a circle of communication and requires direct interaction and humility.

Direct interaction and humility are epitomized by our relationship to nature. I happen to subscribe to the idea that one of the things that binds all of us (read as organisms) together is, in fact, our surrounding natural environment. How we interact with and are influenced by our experiences in nature is something to be shared and learned from.

One of the ways I interact with nature is to seek to understand how it works. A by-product of this is my belief that science is one of the universal languages. The language of observation. The language of unraveling the mysteries of our world. The language of inquiry. The language of curiosity. When spoken and shared, science can level any playing field. It is the process of teaching, of learning, of learning to teach, and teaching to learn. If we are still enough, and listen carefully, we will hear this language spoken by dogs, cats, humans, ants, bees, sharks, buzzards, cacti…you get the idea.

So, after many hours of planning my TED talk, here is where I have landed: I am on stage, behind a small counter with a large espresso machine. Cups are neatly stacked on top of the machine and a grinder full of coffee proudly announces the café is open. Each seat in the audience has been fitted with an electronic device that allows people to order a coffee of their liking. I get the orders, along with a seat number. I make the coffee, deliver it, perhaps sit next to my new friend and give my talk in this fashion. The title of my talk is The art of sharing nature. My opening is, “I have a problem with the business model that separates and elevates my education and experience from, and over, yours. I have an issue with the cult of personality…”

I will send all of you tickets when this happens. Get your coffee order in early.