Saturday, August 21, 2010

Exploring outdoors with a young child: the walk without "no-no's"

(Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it is good for young children.)

This past week I spent considerable time with my 2-year old grandson walking around in the forest on our property.  I keep a system of paths mowed through the woods, so it is easy to stroll around the place, even for a toddler.  After a couple of walks, I developed the following rules for myself:

1.  spend as much time as he wants walking around, which usually lasts about an hour
2.  let him choose the direction we walk
3.  let him throw all the sticks and rocks he finds on the path that he wants; 150 seemed to be about the desired number
4.  make the walk as much fun as you can, and nothing but fun
5.  never, and I mean, never say "no" to the kid while on this walk

I call this walkabout "the walk without no-no's".  This must be liberating, maybe even empowering, for the youngster.  If you go when the weather is decent and biting insects are not bad, there is little that can hurt him.  So let him do whatever he wants the entire time.  This is such a different experience than being in the house, where there are sharp, pointed objects ("no-no"), household chemicals and cleaning supplies ("no-no"), basement stairs ("no-no"), and valuable, fragile personal possessions ("no-no-no!").  There is none of that in the woods.

My grandson and I made a game out of it.  He saw me picking up rocks from the path and tossing them into the woods.  I do this so the mower does not hit them, but he loves to throw, so it looked like fun.  He chose sticks instead of rocks, but close enough.  I called these objects we were throwing "funky dogs".  I don't know why; the term just came to me.  "Brayden, here is another funky dog.  Grandpa just threw a funky dog into the woods."  Pretty soon, he was tossing and saying "funky dawg", or something close enough for government work.  I let him lead and I followed him.  Every time we came to a fork in the path, he stuck his little index finger in the air and said questioningly, "this way?".  I immediately said OK.  And he always looked at me with an expression of amazement, like "Can we really go the way that I said?  I'm too young to know the right way, or am I?"  The thing is, there is no right way or wrong way.  We spent much of our time going around in a big circle.  But who cares.  The circuit was new to my grandson, even though it was old and familiar to me.  But that was fine, because I was there for HIM, not for ME.  I wanted him to have so much fun that he would go again the next day if I asked him.

And we learned some natural history during our walk.  Two days ago we found a single, perfectly ripe black raspberry perched on the end of a spiny branch.  Brayden recognized it immediately as a raspberry, because his mother buys those exact fruits for him in the grocery store.  I told him he could eat it and, after popping it in his mouth, uttered the technical word, "umm".  But then I got a bit worried.  Maybe he will think that all fruit he sees growing on plants outside is edible.  Near the raspberry bush was a patch of gray dogwood, loaded with its white berries.  I pointed these out and used the word "yucky".  Yesterday, we took the same walk, saw some dogwood fruits, and HE told me these were yucky.  He remembered.  On this same walk, I heard and then saw a Hairy Woodpecker pecking on a dead white pine directly above us.  I pointed it out to Brayden, who stopped tossing sticks long enough to look.  I told him what it was and that it was pecking for insects on the tree.  He used the word "banging", but close enough.  He knows that word inside the house, as in "Brayden, don't bang on the table.  Brayden, don't bang on the wall." I never lectured the kid.  I just put some words, phrases, and ideas out there that I thought would have impact on him.  ("Are you pickin up what I'm layin down?").

Whenever we returned to the house and to his mother or grandmother, I encouraged him to retell the story of our walk.  On this occasion, he said something about a woodpecker banging.  I think a debriefing, or summary, at the end of the walk is good practice.  It must result in some sort of consolidation of ideas or facts in that little brain.  These young children are like a factoid sponge.  They can remember and retain a tremendous amount of information.  Remember, these are the young things who learn a foreign language in about three years.  If you are over 30, start today trying to learn a foreign language and then report back to me in three years.  You will be very disappointed with yourself.  But young humans can do it, and in some places in the world they learn 2-3 such languages.  So don't worry; their little head is not going to explode due to an overload of information.  Just ain't gonna happen.

Sometimes he tried to point out some natural history to me.  Yesterday, he raised his little index finger next to his nose, and said "Papa, listen, a bird". I admit he should have placed his little finger next to his ear, not his nose, but again this was close enough. Maybe anatomy is not his strong suit.  I listened and was able to tell him that it was not a bird, but a squirrel.  Sometimes a barking gray squirrel can sound like a bird.  And so it went, one light bulb after another going on in that young head, all positive and interesting, no restrictions, no rules, no household chemicals to worry about.
Now, obviously, if there are certain dangers like a grizzly bear or a cliff, you may have to invoke executive power to avoid a problem.  For example, yesterday my grandson wanted to sit on a stump that was covered with poison ivy.  Instead of saying "no, you can't sit there", I used it as an educational moment.  I explained that if you touched this plant, it will make you really itchy.  He bought my explanation, and chose another stump.  I don't like the notion that we teach that there are good plants and animals and bad plants and animals.  Some organisms have defense mechanisms that humans don't like.  No need to sugar-coat what goes on out there in the wild, but we don't need to start little ones off with a "them and us" attitude about the natural world.  You may not like the ticks that cause Lyme disease, but try to explain the fascinating biology that creature represents (if you know it) rather than simply denigrate the species in a word or two.

I was always amazed at how few questions university undergrads asked in a class that I taught.  Two-year old children may not ask that many either, but by the age of four they are non-stop questioners of everything they see or hear.  Take them on a walk in the woods, and you could be hoarse by the time you return after their Q&A session.  Never discourage this!  I have long been afraid that our school systems do discourage the asking of questions in students, so that by the time they enter college, they sit there dutifully, take notes, and keep their mouths shut.  Give me a 5-year old's curiosity over this sedateness any day.  So wake up parents and grandparents, get outside with those young ones and their questions, and their innate, unbridled wonder of the natural world, and leave those "no's" (AND CELL PHONES!!!) at home.

"In the end we will conserve only what we love. We love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught."  Baba Dioum.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

My grandson, ants, and E.O. Wilson

(If my grandson could speak English or if E.O. Wilson could speak Estonian, they would have a great conversation about ants.)

Last night I had a pleasure that only a grandfather who is a biologist with an interest in languages could appreciate.  My daughter was reading Harry Potter to her daughters on our deck.  Our 2-year old grandson became bored with that story (as I always do also), so he led me into my den where he demanded in perfect English to have a book to read.  He made no specific request, although he was pointing in the direction of my copy of Darwin's The Origin of Species.  Assuming that content would be a bit too esoteric for the kid, I chose one of my favorites: The Ants, by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson.  It is a large format book and as I let him try to carry it to the deck, where all this reading was going on, he screamed, again in English, "It's too heaby!"  So I toted the tome to the deck, where he promptly curled up at the foot of his mother's lounge chair and opened up the book.

He turned immediately to the chapter titled "Colony Odor and Kin Recognition" and began to read aloud as children often do, slowly turning the pages when he finished absorbing the information on each.  I realized that he was reading in the language with which each baby in the world is born speaking fluently, Estonian.  (See my blog where I laid out this hypothesis several weeks ago.)  My joy was unsurpassed as I listened to my daughter reading the silly fiction about wizards and ghouls in English, while my young grandson read what I believe to be the finest bioscience book published in the past 25 years, in Estonian.  Of course, the book was written in English, so my grandson must be translating as he goes.  That kid is destined to do great things, if he can just get over his fear of real ants.

When he had finished reading, he looked at me with an expression that conveys a mutual understanding between mentor and student.  He could have told me directly what he was thinking, but because I no longer understand Estonian (as we all lose the ability to do, except for those babies actually born in Estonia), he had to convey to me through manipulations of his facial muscles what he wanted to communicate.  Apparently my grandson had thought until he read that chapter that ants identified one another strictly through the tactile sense; he had no idea that they used the olfactory system as extensively as they do.  The fact that there are differences in the proportion of hydrocarbons among colonies and not just species, allowing for colony recognition, astounded him.  My grandson had not yet read the seminal paper by Bonavita-Cougourdan et al. (1987), who advanced this idea, although I will download it for him today.  My grandson is extremely disappointed that E.O. Wilson will be too old to accept new grad students at Harvard when the toddler is old enough to apply. 

Tonight, we will read before bedtime again, and my grandson will appear in my den ready to select.  This time, I will recommend one of my favorites, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I don't want this early education of his to focus too intently on the biological sciences, when there is so much good philosophy to study.  He is already in love with trucks and tractors, so a book about motorcycles should be right up his alley.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The life of a census enumerator

(Off to work.)

"Hello.  My name is Tom Gavin and I work for the U.S. Census Bureau.  Is this 455 Elm Street?  And were you living here on April 1 of this year?"  And so it goes, day after day, week after week, all summer long.   I knock on door after door, finding that most people are not home, leaving a NV (Notice of Visit) to call me on my cell, completing Enumerator Questionnaires---all for $13.00 per hour plus $.50 per mile reimbursement for the miles I drive.

I thought this might be an interesting experience; it has had its moments, and I've met some pretty nice dogs.  But for the most part, it is pretty boring.  Most people are happy to give out the information I require about their name, age, date of birth, and so forth.  You know, the 10 questions or so that we all ask and that most of you have answered, either by writing it on the form you got in April or by telling a person like me who appeared at your door.  Some of you have gone through this three times this summer.  Don't ask me why.  I just work here.  I am only doing what the Constitution of the United States requires the government to do every 10 years: count all the people living in the U.S. on April 1, and collect some ancillary data.

For some people it seems like a major inconvenience for me to ask these questions.  It only takes about five minutes, and it is only done once per decade.  Some interviewees act as though they are the busiest humans on earth, and they could not possibly take a few minutes to talk.  Others are obviously desperate to talk to someone about anything.  One lady took 15 minutes to complain about the crack cocaine-selling neighbors she had until they were evicted.  She feared for her life much of the time.  Then, she rambled on about an event in California where the police used a TASER on a man who was already down on the ground, and how terrible that was, and what is wrong with the police.  "Mam, I work for the Census Bureau."  I had a farmer all but grab me by the shirt and tell me to tell the President that farmers are getting a raw deal in this country.  That most dairy farms have gone under because of the price of milk.  "Sir, I work for the Census Bureau, and I don't know Barack very well." 

One guy told me that he had been on the internet a lot lately and that people really hate me.  Geesh, these people have not communicated their hatred to me directly, and I check my mail every day.  He was mad, and these people were mad, because this entire census operation was costing taxpayers $450,000!  I said, "Only $450,000?"  And he repeated the amount as though it was the largest number he had ever heard.  I didn't have the heart to tell him that the grand total was more like $14.5 billion.  If they knew that, those people would really hate me.  I would have to change my name to remain safe in a world where every U.S. citizen was gunning for Tom Gavin for committing such a huge sum of taxpayers' money.  I would have to dye my hair, gain 40 pounds, and wear plaid golfing slacks to go into town without being recognized.

I thought I would sign up for this gig, in part, to sample the residents of upstate New York.  To find out what people were thinking about the government and the world and their place in it.  But I'm not getting a strong signal about people in general.  Humans come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are pissed at the world and everything in it, probably because their life is a mess.  Some seem happy to help, feel good about contributing to this operation, and offer me iced tea.  Some are just plain lonely and want to talk to anyone who shows up about anything at all.  Some appreciate that enumerating the people in the country is an important exercise and were disturbed that I had not gotten to them sooner.  And still others couldn't care if the country went to hell in a hand basket tomorrow.  One young guy was gloating over the fact that he had been working for 10 years and he had never paid a cent of income tax--ever.  "Sir, I also work for the IRS."  Just kidding.

I don't regret working for the Census Bureau one bit.  I'm just a lowly enumerator like tens of thousands of others across the country.  But the job has given me the credentials to approach my neighbors, look them in the eye, and ask them some personal questions.  And while I detest the degrading effect that large numbers of people are having on the earth, I find individuals worthy of respect.  I disagree with some, I empathize with many, and I share a common territory with all.  And tomorrow morning, I will drive onto Main Street in a nearby hamlet, and ask those living there to share a bit of their time.