Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Nature Lesson

May 2008 408

My dogs were showing clear signs of cabin fever and, in spite of a To Do list as long as my arm, I was aching for a walk as well. The wind was chilly, but carried an earthy scent that made me want to be outside and breathing deeply. I looked forward to hearing the symphony of birds that "perform" each spring by the thousands. I was anxious to see the river ice up close and listen to the crystaline sounds of its splintering and shattering. Rumors had been circulating that the ice could "go" any day...at any moment. I wanted to see it for myself and do my own prognosticating. I was ready for a quiet walk hoping to listen to anything and everything that nature might have to say.

Barely had I walked beyond the shrinking mountain of snow behind my house when I heard a familiar smallish voice calling to me from the road...

Girl 1: Kimberlee! Hi, Kimberlee! (waving enthusiastically)

I waved and smiled, but kept walking.
My dogs had already disappeared down the hill...terrorizing a parka squirrel, no doubt.

Girl 2: Hi, Kimberlee! Where are you going? Are you going to walk your dogs?

I nodded an exaggerated "yes" that they could see from the road.
I waved and smiled, but kept walking.

Girl 1: Kimberlee, can we follow? (yelling a little louder)

I stopped, sighed deeply, smiled and motioned for them to come.

Two giggling girls bobbed quickly across the uneven, spongy, sometimes soggy tundra. The giggling never stopped or even tapered. Every false step or unbalanced movement inspired fresh bouts of silliness and laughter.

When the girls reached my side, I turned to face them.
"Okay, girls..." I began. "I'm taking a nature walk. Do you know what that means?"

"Yes." They both responded eagerly.
"Okay," I said. "Tell me what it means."
They looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders in unison and then giggled.
No clue.

I explained that I wanted to hear the birds and the sounds of the ice cracking and the wind. I explained that those things can only be heard if we're quiet. I asked if they understood. They both nodded that they did.

"And you're sure that you want to come with me and stay quiet the whole time?" I asked using my most teacherly tone.

Girl 1: I do.

Girl 2: I do too.

Me: Okay, but remember, we're listening. Right? (they both nodded in agreement).
And then...

Girl 1: Your dogs don't bite, right Kimberlee?

Girl 2: Her dogs don't bite. You just have to stand still, right Kimberlee?

Me: That's right.

Girl 1: Did your dogs ever bite?

Me: No, but you shouldn't run up to them. Let them come to you.

Girl 2: You have to stand like this, huh Kimberlee? Right, Kimberlee?

Me: That's right.

So we walked toward, Tikigluk, a small stream that meets the river...while the small stream of conversation continued to flow ever steady and persistent. A never-ending variety of subjects tumbled from the lips that had sworn to be silent....rubber boots...bicycles...fishing...small ponds that form when snow melts in the crevices of the tundra...who has been to Anchorage...who wants to go to Anchorage...who has been camping...whose daddy caught a tuttu (caribou). Finally, I decided a reminder might be in order.

Me: (Whispering) Girls, remember? We're listening for birds. Do you hear them?

Girl 1: (Whispers)...Yeah, I hear lots.

Girl 2: (Whispers)...Yeah, I hear lots too.

Me: Let's listen for a minute.
And we did...for a minute.

Then we came upon a strange pattern of drying mud on the path.

Girl 1: Ew, look at this!

Girl 2: It looks like a big snake.

Girl 1: Yeah, it looks like a big snake.

Me: It does look sort of like a snake. I wonder why the mud is only peeling in this one spot.

Girl 1: Yeah, I wonder why.

Girl 2: Yeah, me too.

Girl 1: It looks kind of gross. I'm not touching it.

Girl 2: Yuck! I don't wanna touch it.

Me: Well, you don't have to touch it, but I don't think there's anything gross about it. It's just dirt.

May 2008 412

May 2008 410

Then we found ptarmigan tracks in some slushy snow.

May 2008 359

And a pair of ptarmigan farther down the path.

May 2008 368

The male was willing to pose in spite of our proximity. I tried (unsuccessfully) to record his comical vocalizing. The sound of ptarmigan cackling always makes me smile. Thankfully, the girls were content to listen as well.


Girl 1: Kimberlee, how come he's white?

Girl 2: Yeah, and the other one is mostly brownish. How come he's white?

Me: Well, the female was white too, during the winter. In the summer she needs to be camouflaged so she can be safe from predators. Do you know what a predator is?

Girl 1: Stuff that eats them?

Me: Yes, like foxes.

Girl 1: So...how come the other one isn't camo-flodge?

Me: That's a good question and I'm not really sure why he's still white. I'll have to look that up.

Girl 1: Like on the internet?

Me: Yes, maybe. Or in a book...like an encyclopedia.

Girl 1: Oh.

Me: Maybe the female thinks he's more handsome with white feathers and she told him not to change.


(oops...my mistake)

May 2008 389

We found signs of new growth.

May 2008 425

And the vaguest tinge of green in an ocean of Fall's left-over gray and brown and maroon.

May 2008 427

Then we reached the top of the hill. Ice, flowing down toward the Arctic Ocean, was piling up at the bend.

Girl 2: Hey, that's my dad and my mom!
(both girls ran down the hill toward the river)

I spent a few more minutes at the top of the hill enjoying the air and the view and the lack of conversation.

May 2008 415

Once we were together again at the bottom of the hill, we noticed that the creek at Tikigluk was flooded. Normally only a few feet wide, the stream had swollen to about twenty feet across at the mouth where it flows into the Meade River.

May 2008 418

Upstream melting snow, still clinging to the hills, slowly fed the building rush toward the river.

May 2008 417

My dogs, splashing through the mud and water, helped to ignite a fresh batch of questions straight from the hot little minds of two tireless thinkers.

Girl 1: Kimberlee, can your dogs swim in the river?

Me: I think they could. They know how to swim, but the river is really cold. I think they know it's not safe and that's why they aren't going in.

Girl 2: They know they can't go in?

Me: They seem to know it's not a good idea. See? They stay where it's safe.

Girl 1: And it's cold. They probably don't like it cold.

Me: You might be right.

Girl 2: Kimberlee do you let them get muddy?

Girl 1: And they're all wet too.

Girl 2: Do you let them be muddy in your house?

Me: Well, I have a towel on the porch and I try to dry them off before they come in.

Girl 2: But they're still muddy?

Me: Yes, they do bring some of the dirt in on their fur and I have to vacuum a lot.

Girl 1: Oh.

May 2008 420

Girl 1: And, Kimberlee. Could we have another tea party?

Girl 2: Yeah, a tea party!

Girl 1: Yeah, like before. Can we have a tea party, Kimberlee?

Me: Yes, we can do that. But it might have to wait until I get back from my trip.

Girl 1: And we'll have cookies?

Me: Yep.

Girl 1: And we'll use that little tea set?

Me: Yes. We'll do it just like the other times. Hey, listen.
(we all stop and listen to the sound of ice cracking and falling against other chunks of ice)

Me: It sounds like glass breaking doesn't it?

Girl 1: Yeah, like if you threw a glass and it broke. It sounds like that.

Me: (whispering) We can hear so many things when we stand quietly like this.

Girl 1: (whispering) Yeah. I can hear lots.

Girl 2: (whispering) Yeah. I can hear lots too.

We stood quietly listening together...for a minute.

And then...

Girl 1: Kimberlee, you want to hear a joke?

(very deep sigh)

Nature Lesson:
When setting out to appreciate nature with eight year old girls...it may be necessary to appreciate the nature of eight year old girls!


Steve said...

That is a very, very long post!

But it is worth it. Thanks for taking the time to record the conversation; I can relate well to it.

Anonymous said...

Great post Kimberlee, and the girls have one of the key elements for learning about nature, asking questions, including the great one about the colour of the male ptarmigan.

You probably hit the nail on the head with your answer also. Like his red combs his white colour is likely the result of sexual selection, she does prefer him that colour.

Kimberlee said...

Yeah, Steve. It took a while to get it all down and then I wondered if anyone would be interested in reading anything THAT long! Thanks for muddling through it! I'm sure as a long-time birding and nature guide you have many similar experiences that you could share. :)

Kimberlee said...

Hi, Clare. I definitely agree with you. I love it when kids ask questions. Sometimes I'd like them to stop asking long enough to hear answers, but for the most part I enjoy their inquisitive natures. Of course, eight year old girls tend to have lots to say about everything...which can be fun too. That's what tea parties are good for. :)