Category Archives: Nature

You can’t sell what people already have

The 36th Learning and the Brain conference is happening this weekend in Boston.  Amazing messages about the future of the educational model are coming out of it.  Here is a good, virtually realtime analysis of a couple of the keynotes and some of the themes:

Rethinking Teacher Roles in a New Networked World by Liana Heitin of Education Week

The pace of the education revolution that is underway is inspiring.  Things ARE changing.  Finally.  The leading educational thinkers are talking about the research, not the fads.  They are talking about the changes wrought by the information age and a networked world, and what they mean for schools – not what they hope they mean.

The best minds in education right now are talking about a model of schooling that is different than the one they experienced.  That is key.  The first trap educators fall into is in promoting a model of schooling that is exactly like the one they experienced – regardless of whether it works for students.  “It worked for me,” the argument goes.  Teachers tend to teach in a way that mimics their own schooling, which goes a long way toward explaining why change occurs so slowly in education.  Imagine if doctors practiced medicine the way they experienced it growing up.  Imagine any industry, profession, or craft that had such a built in mechanism for resisting change and growth.

Some highlights coming out of Boston this so far weekend:

  • The new PBL = place based learning = real projects of real relevance with direct and permanent impact on real communities that are local to the learner
  • Richard Louv on the deep and complex value of nature to student learning and well-being
  • Will Richardson says, “Stop asking questions on tests that can be answered with a Google search.”

If you – or more likely someone you know – has any doubt that things have changed and school has to change with it, consider just Google.  If everything else in our society, economy, and global community were the same, Google alone would change schooling.  Every one of us (with a smart phone) carries the entire internet around with us.  We have the complete curriculum of 90% of traditional schools literally in our back pockets.  What does that do to schools that are built on the notion of a discrete curriculum?  You can’t sell what people already have.

This is what they are talking about at the Brain Conference in Boston.

A One-sided Film Worth Seeing

Here is a plug for a delightful and significant film by Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel, a couple of inspired and inspiring social documentary filmmakers of some merit and promise. Siegel has been around the block a few times and has an impressive body of work including the well-received The Real Dirt on Farmer John. Betz seems to have emerged on the scene more recently. Their film Queen of the Sun is deserving of your attention. The issue is real, the facts are good, and with a couple of caveats kept clearly in mind, you’ll be better for having seen it.

Promotional flier

The film begins with Rudolf Steiner, the early 20th century Austrian philosopher and, perhaps more familiarly, the progenitor of Waldorf pedagogy. In 1923 (2 years before his death) Steiner published a series of lectures on the biology and the community of honey bees. Famously, he warned that if modern apiculture of the time continued to meddle with and manipulate the natural life cycle of bees, we would see an alarming collapse in global honey bee populations in the span of 80 to 100 years.

The prediction comes to light today mostly, I think, because it seems to have come true. Isn’t that right? Had nothing come of it, it seems to me we would never be citing it.

In any case, it has – and is – coming true. Commercial honey bee populations are declining in this country consistently by 30-50% annually, much of what we eat is dependent on honey bees pollination, and people are concerned about where this might lead. Common sense eater, sustainability activist, and wonderful writer, Michael Pollan is quoted in the film saying that 4 of every 10 bites of everything we eat is the result of pollination. It is a seemingly obvious connection – without honey bees we would not enjoy nearly so many almonds.

The film proceeds from that premise in typical documentary style, from alarming factoid to alarmist interpretation, to persuade us that the bees are in peril, that we caused it, and that we can do something about it if we care enough and if we develop an enlightened perspective. (You can sense my caveat, I bet.)

The film is not objective (but I didn’t want it to be) or balanced (and I was grateful that it took a stand), and it wafts into philosophy and mysticism without warning (which is my own proclivity, as well.) It is a position statement and a rallying cry – and as such it succeeds. I am not sure there is an anti-honey bee statement to be made. Still, the commercial beekeepers come out looking criminal, interested in the bottom line and next year’s income. The only large-scale beekeeper interviewed is shown saying, “It’s a financial concern. We are in it to make a living.” The issue is clearly more complicated than that. Consumers have to bear some of the culpability for their carefree consumption of monoculture crops – almonds, corn, soybeans.

And the film sidesteps entirely the issue of how bees came to be in this country in the first place. The film’s implication is that we need to get back to a wilder, more natural state in which bees live on their own and pollinate without human interventions. The historical fact is that honey bees were introduced intentionally to this county only in 1622 – it is a glaring omission to ignore the fact that honeybees themselves are an invasive species. There simply are no wild hives in North America. They are all feral and introduced and non-native. The film does not take up this issue, but instead takes for granted that bees are here, for us, and we must be their caretakers.

But in the end, from this reviewer’s perspective, it is a worthy viewing. There are wonderful scenes of deeply connected and charismatic nature activists doing what feeds their souls. There are intriguing philosophical and spiritual digressions, and there is a strong message of human place in nature, not as dominator or manipulator, but as stewards.

And it presents the sexy side of the issue seductively. It is easy to get on board with this cause and to feel good about doing your part for a fuzzy, softly buzzing insect that frequents flowers and makes something as sweet and sensuous as honey – sometimes stinging when we misstep in its presence but giving up its life in the gesture. As one student remarked in the afterglow of the film last night, “I think I’m going to get a hive.”

The Latest From The Hives

I am never sure what I will find when I open a hive.  These are a few images from the latest foray into my troubled hive at school.  It emerged from winter sleepy and slow – and with a reduced population – perhaps 2000 bees in all.  But they had a queen, she was laying, and the bees that were there seemed determined.  Every few days I stopped by the apiary just to look for departures and arrivals and every time long moments would pass when I saw nothing – no activity.  I would think surely they collapsed.  And then a bee, one, lone forager would emerge, inevitably, and fly.  Nonetheless, these bees were on the verge of viability.

The brood pattern looks okay, not great, but of more concern is the patch of darkened larvae to the left.  Below is a close up.

The larvae are formed well but they are mottled – not brown, but dark grey and black.  The developing pupae in the capped cells all look fine – white and glossy.

Seen it before?  Know what it is?  Here is another clue.  I recently added three frames of brood and nurse bees to this hive to bolster the population and give them some more bodies to warm the hive.  Currently the population seems to be increasing, there is more activity at the hive entrance, and a lot more eggs being laid.  Also, we have had a long spell of cold, wet weather.

So, with

  • low population
  • cold weather
  • recently added brood from a different hive

this is chilled brood.  Not an emergency, it just means that the in the hive could not keep these larvae warm during development and they died.  The fact that the other brood is okay and the population is increasing is a good sign.  My bees will likely get around to cleaning out these cells when they can and when the population swells enough they will be able to take care of their brood properly.

Why Go Outside?

This short speech I delivered recently to the Marin Academy campus community as part of an all-school assembly.  It was a small part of a larger effort to promote MA Outings and the value of getting outside, but it figured prominently in the program, was requested by students, and I was proud to address my colleagues and students in this manner.  Other than my meager contribution, the entirety of the assembly was organized and presented by the committed and enthusiastic students of the Marin Academy Outdoor Leadership Emphasis (OLE).  It was impressive to witness these students owning their experience outdoors and promoting something they believe in to their community.

I have always wanted to quote Thoreau to my colleagues – one more thing I can check of my must-do list.  The speech went something like this:

Why go outside?  Some wonder: why do we do it?

Why have outings?  Why hike in the mountains?  Why go SCUBA diving?  Or snow camping?  Or kayaking – when there is so much good stuff to do – inside.

Why learn to surf?  Or climb rocks?  Or hike in the desert?  Or dive for abalone?  These things are hard – and they can be scary.  I can fall and get hurt, and I like to play it safe. So why do it?

And why spend the time and energy to learn the skills that these activities require?  Why learn to identify a wild mushroom?  Or the print of a coyote?  Or the call of Red-Tailed hawk?  These things take time.  And I don’t have a lot of time.  I have things to do.  Homework.  Emails.  Staying current.

So why do it?  Why go outside – to spend time I don’t really have – to do things that are hard and possibly unsafe?

It is not an easy question to answer.  Not really.  Not today.  Not for us living in a day and age in which we define progress as technological advancements in the art and science of  – standing still.  Think about it.  If we were to catalog all of the major technological advancements of the 20th century – and if you were asked to identify the one distinguishing feature common to them all – you would have to say that 20th century technology gave us a greater and greater ability to be less and less active.  20th century technology gave us the ability to produce more by doing less.

The radio, the telephone, air conditioning, light bulbs, the automobile, the airplane, instant coffee, television, the yo-yo, the parking meter, drive in movie theaters, the photocopier, the microwave oven, fast food, Velcro, cake mix, super glue, the credit card, the VCR, the integrated circuit, the microchip, the calculator, post-it notes, the lap top computer, cell phones, the internet, email, the tablet computer.  All came about in the 20th century in the pursuit of productivity – and all require almost no effort to use.  Progress is in some way defined by how little effort is required to produce a product or an effect.

What does progress in this light do to our sense of self-efficacy, our physical sense of our bodies existing in the world by the effect they have on our surroundings?  Do I exist in any meaningful way in the world if my body does not exist in an efficacious physical relationship with its surroundings?  Consider it?  How do you know you exist except by your effect on your surroundings?

You know, I spend a lot of time in the Outings Office – which is adjacent to the Science office.  My desk is not 35 linear feet from the desk of my good friend and colleague John Hicks.  And yet, more times than I care to own right now I have picked up my phone, which is within arms reach of the chair in which I sit, and I have dialed extension 274 – which is the numerical identifier of the phone which sits on the desk of my good friend and colleague John Hicks.  Why?  Why do I call instead of taking myself on a short jaunt into the Science Office to speak to my good friend and colleague John Hicks?  Because it is easier, it is quicker, and I don’t have to go outside to do it.  Of course, right?  No.

It is not a matter of course.  In fact, it is inconceivable, because it is not easier.  Not in the long view.  I memorized John’s extension.  Okay.  Not hard, right?  What is it again?  Right.  272.  And to do that I had to print out the Voicemail Extensions list – think: printer – manufacturing, shipping, diesel, electricity, ink, paper – I had to find his extension listed there – think about all that went into creating that list and the need for it – all those extensions, and all the work that goes into assigning them, reassigning them, and sending out electronic copies of updated versions – and then I pushed some buttons on my phone that elicited a few sounds from that device and I waited to hear John’s voice – think about what goes into that.  Yes, you get the idea.  Is technology of this kind really easier?  Or does it merely duplicate simpler existing techniques?

It is not easier or quicker to stay still and develop a dependence on technology.  Technology has done some wonderful things, of course  look at us here, now, inside this gym with heat and lights and a microphone and – but a dependence on technology is an addiction like any other.

For one thing humans grew up outdoors, understanding ourselves in relation to the natural world of physical things.  Real things.   Our brains evolved in response to outdoor challenges and we developed the ability to make meaning in natural settings.  Real is still more meaningful and more salubrious to us than virtual – and we can tell the difference because we are human and we are alive.  Nature – and its physicality – makes sense to us on a very deep level.

And the inverse is also true.  We make sense to ourselves in nature.  Nature doesn’t lie to us.  It doesn’t sugar coat the truth and it doesn’t respond one way or the other to the stories we tell it about ourselves.  It’s neither impressed with our successes, nor is it disappointed with our failures.  Nature is impervious to charm and wit and spin and elocution.  And yet, it speaks to us.  Every time we grow hungry, thirsty, sleepy, weary, or cold our deep and true selves are in dialogue with nature.  Even if we aren’t listening.  Nature reminds us in the language of our native tongue of the rules we must live by, the boundaries of our existence, and the limitations of our physical being.  Nature defines us.

So why go outside – to spend time – doing things we find challenging?  Because we are alive, because we are human, and because being alive means something by our relationships with the physical world.

But don’t take my word for it – I might just be nuts.  Listen to your self.  Listen to your peers.  And listen to our old friend Henry David Thoreau from the second chapter of Walden.  Listen to how many time he uses the word life – and live:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Marin Academy – I invite you – I encourage you – I implore you.  Get outside and into your next excursion.

Change by Necessity or Faith

“Sometimes … reaching your Element requires devising creative solutions to strong limitations.  Sometimes … it means maintaining a vision in the face of vicious resistance.  And sometimes … it means walking away from  the life you’ve known to find an environment more suited to your growth.

“Ultimately, the question is always going to be, ‘What price are you willing to pay?’  The rewards of the Element are considerable, but reaping these rewards may mean pushing back against some stiff opposition.”

Sir Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Viking, p155.

Not just throw-away advice, it seems to me, although, unfortunately it has the ring of platitude.  In fact, I think all great advances, in whatever field and whatever context, were revolutionary – tending to turn things around or upside down, demanding sacrifices and causing anxiety.

What’s deceptive about Sir Ken’s words, what seems platitudinous is how easy it is to accept in hindsight.  The “of course” factor is huge, as it is in all platitudes.  But there is no “of course” when you are turning your world upside down, swimming up stream, making sacrifices, and causing anxiety.  There is no “of course” in the moment.  Still, that is what people tend to say.  “Of course, it was hard.  Of course, there were sacrifices.  That is part of the deal.”  But that belies the severity, the pain, and the difficulty experienced.  The great and noble stories unto myths we pass around the family of relatives who gave up everything to follow a dream, uprooted their families to reinvent their lives, faced the fear of failure for the chance to greater success, don’t include the reality of the pain, don’t allow the experience of the anxiety and the difficulty.  What we experience in stories like that is the the inspiration and the success.  As if the price paid for change is somehow a little less relevant.

And it is so much easier to go with the flow, to make lemonade, to take it easy.  But those aren’t the stories we tell.  The story of uncle so-and-so who “was never particularly satisfied with his lot in life, but he made it work.  Day in and day out he just got along, kept on.  Sure, somewhere deep down he had something like passion, a dream that he always said he couldn’t remember, but what he was really good at was going with the flow, taking it easy, playing it safe.”  We don’t tell that story – because success depends on adversity.

Weird, eh?  Why should that be?

And great advances are always perpetrated out of necessity, not luxury or privilege.  It is too hard to swim upstream – unless you have to, unless there is no other option.  Think of pacific salmon that die after struggling to invent the next generation.  (And listen to the inspiration in that: struggling to invent the next generation.  It gives you chills.  But I wonder whether if the salmon had a choice, they still do it?  Would they still swim up stream?)

Looking back we say it was all worth it, but in the moment, how can we know?  We can’t.  In the moment, we trust.  Change requires either necessity or faith – which is belief without support, believing in something despite the evidence (not purposefully believing in something that is contradicted by evidence – some people do that and that practice is perverse.)  But, you don’t always need evidence to know something is true.  Or right.  Or apt.  Or necessary.  That’s intuition.  And as the poet Rumi says, “There are many ways of knowing.”

A Landscape of Sound

These Eastern Woods, pine and hemlock, maple and birch, are a place of sound.  I am habituated to depend on my eyes – as are most of us, I believe – but this place is so full of ambient sound that if I were deprived of my sight, somehow prevented from sensing with my eyes, I feel sure this place would come alive for me through sound.

In fact, I have found, puttering around this stout cabin, these shady lands, that in this place hearing is more keen than eyesight.  How often I have heard a whistling birdsong or the echoing knock of a woodpecker – and not seen its maker!  When I can’t see, I can still know.

Two days ago an enormous crack split the woods, a precipitous sound both startling and exciting.  I was inside but I heard it plainly.  Then, following close, the wrenching sound of falling, the breaking of branches and the upheaval of earth.  It all culminated in a booming thump and crash that seemed to roll through the woods like thunder, lingering in the air and falling off slowly.  The lasting reverberations I felt more than heard.

(When a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound.  Be sure of that.  Sorry.  Couldn’t resist.)

My first thought was of the kids and I hurried out to the front porch.  I didn’t know where they were at that moment and for all their scampering and knocking about in the woods, I thought it could have been them pushing over a tree. (!)  An absurd thought it was and easily dispelled.  The kids, of course, were safely perched on their favorite boulder and just as rapt by the sound as I.  They sat there, all three, frozen where they had been when the first crack sounded, staring off through the timber with wide eyes.

“Did you see it?” I called to them.

They hadn’t.  “It was over there!”  They all pointed.

“What was it?” my youngest said.

The instinct to look for what one hears is not mysterious.  With just a few notions – evolution, self preservation, natural selection – it is easy to see, so to speak, why we do it.

But much goes on in the woods that I hear and never see, and my world, the suburban world of career and commute, is seldom so invisible.  It is disconcerting at first to be so suddenly reacquainted with the significance of sound.  But it is a necessary upset.  It is disconcerting in the way one knows one needs to be disconcerted, a healthy kind of growth.

It is like recovering from an injury I didn’t know I had sustained, learning to hear again.  I didn’t know, wasn’t aware, that I was slowly going deaf.  Like seeing through prescription lenses for the first time – I hadn’t known what I wasn’t seeing.

Ultimately, the desire to see is too strong, the spectacle is irresistible.  Later that afternoon, we all went to investigate the epicenter.  A large white birch, having grown over the years on a bending angle in search of light, now lay in an awkward sprawl across the road to the upper header.  It had taken with it two other trees, both small hemlocks.  We stood and surveyed the scene.  The ground uphill where the tree had stood and the roots had broken was a chaos, like a bomb crater, stones and soil, moss and roots still hanging in the air.  The heavy trunk lay where it had landed, ponderously inert in the deep rut it tore in the ground.  You could almost hear the reverberant thud all over again.

“Wow!” my youngest said.  It was all any of us could say.

The acoustics of this sylvan venue, this landscape of sound, are astounding, enviable for any theatre, lecture hall, or symphony space – because the woods are, of course, all of those things.  But the imagination is always second to the real thing.  A live encounter always requires actually being there.

A Place in the Forest

Early morning in the Adirondack woods – north of Albany, just inside the park.  The forest is of hemlock here, mostly, and white pine.  There are birches, white and black, beech, red oak, basswood, and maples.  Their leafy branches are more noticeable, more conspicuous than the needled foliage, and one would tend to call this forest deciduous.

But it is not.

Those whose habits are in walking the woods, those who watch the trees and come to know how each individual grows, know different.  The tallest and straightest trunks in every direction are evergreen.

The light from the east has not yet penetrated the stands of timber that surround our little house, though it is quite light by now.  In the growing ambient illumination, the hues of green intensify, vary, and the forest deepens as lighter shades of green appear beyond others in long views through holes in the foliage.  The forest is waking up, and the color comes on, grows as things in the forest begin.

The air is still still, though just barely, and the mist that took all night to gather still hangs in the trees, though not for long.  It is not like the fog where I come from that lays in thick sheets, condenses, and drips from eucalyptus branches.  This is a true mist, gossamer, subtle and immaterial, like an ambient quality to the air, a characteristic of atmosphere more than a presence.  So thin you have to ask yourself if it is really there.  Maybe your glasses just need cleaning or you still need to shake off your sleep.  No matter.  As soon as the sun needles its way low through the trees and lights on branches, it will be gone, dissolved back into the fabric of the air, the forest itself shaking off its own sleep, the torpor of the night.

I see it now, through the mist that rises from my mug of coffee, the first bright rays of sun.  It will all begin in moment.  My wife will be up and padding in for coffee, the kids will rise not long after that, and my attention will be needed elsewhere.  But for now, I am here, witnessing the advent of day in the northern woods.  And I feel lucky.  The sun’s rays for now newly shine through the leafy and needled canopy.  But in a moment, that too will be gone.  There are clouds in the sky today, perhaps showers are in store, and the sun will likely be periodic at best.

Sitting here in the slow waking, I feel myself blending.  The boundaries blur and what separates me from the world of trees and rocks and flowing water grows thin.  Couldn’t I just stay here?  Blend in?  Grow wild and lean with original energy?  Maybe I would grow hair, become long in tooth and claw.

That temptation is always there for me in places like this, calling from somewhere pure and permanent.  The instructions to blend are written indelibly in me – I suspect in all of us – and this place feels like my first home.

But I am not wild, not only wild, that is.  I am not wholly wild like that chipmunk, not merely wily like the trout in the stream or the coyotes I heard through the dark last night.  And I am not solely dependent on my wits to survive.  I am a creature of comfort and society.  My fate lies in the company of people, in love and language and thoughts and plans.

But here, for a time, I am closer to original being.

It is not hard to feel.  Give yourself moments of quiet to watch what goes on around you in wild places and you feel it seep into you – the immensity of what we are living, the indifference of nature that takes care of you not for love or obligation, but because somewhere underneath the routines of career and commute, you still know how to live in harmony with nature and nature’s laws.

It is permanent, inscribed where you cannot erase it, your place in the world.