Outdoor Urban

About a week ago, an article titled “The Business of Escapism” ran in the Washington Post Business section. The story was about the marketing of outdoor gear and “adventures” to an increasinlgy wealthy (and white) demographic. Well, that’s one of the things it was about. It was also about technology and modern conveniences infiltrating outdoor activities. But what I’m interested in here is who chooses to (and gets to) use the greatest resource Americans have–our natural and wilderness spaces.

The following is a lettter to the editor I wrote in response to the article. Since The Post chose not to publish it, I guess I’m free to post it here:

Who would think that getting back to nature could be so fraught. Unfortunately, as Lillian Cunningham points out (“The Business of Escapism,” Sunday, Sept. 7 Business section), in these hyper-connected times one cannot take a walk in the woods without carrying deep cultural baggage.

Among Cunningham’s insights, one point in particular stands out. By and large nature activities are, as Gregory Miller of the American Hiking Society points out, marketed to an increasingly affluent and overwhelmingly white demographic–arguably to the exclusion of lower income urban youth. Companies that specifically target minority youth to sell fashion and status stop short when it comes to promoting environmental values. Why?

One of the main responsibilities of my job is to accompany these very same young people into nature on wilderness adventures. I can tell you that such experiences have dramatic effects, and that love of the natural world is not, and should not be, exclusive to any particular demographic. Missing an important opportunity, outdoor companies continue to market exclusivity and privilege over authentic appreciation of nature. That is just sad in so many ways.

Fear of Falling: Adult Origins of Children’s Fears

As adults, we know that our actions and attitudes have a dramatic effect on the young people with whom we live and work . Most of us also recognize that acting on our best intentions sometimes has unintended consequences. Seeing the pronounced effect even small actions can have young people can be enlightening.

A while back I took a class of second graders on a short hike. The trail we took wound its way above a creek, climbing to the top of the hill before heading back down to a rocky beach about a 1/2 a mile downstream. Not a long hike, but pretty big for some of the students. At one point during the hike it becomes necessary to work your way around a protruding tree root along an especially narrow part of the trail. Negotiating some rocks at the highest point along the trail you then proceed down a set of rough stone “stairs”. It can be a bit dramatic–which is part of the reason I do it. I’ve hiked this route many times with students from 8 to 18 years old without incident. Until Tuesday…

On Tuesday four adults set out with eight students to hike the trail. We’d split the class of twenty-four into 3 equal groups to ease the flow and give students opportunities to experience three different activities centered around an investigation of water in the natural environment. Our first hike was completed without incident–save for the obligatory conversations along the way reminding excited students not to run and to stay in close porximity. When we reached the root mentioned above, the adults took up positions along the side of the trail to guide students safely along. Each student passed through in turn and walked down the steps back onto the dirt trail.

Our second group of the day was having much the same experience until the second to last girl–we’ll call her G–passed me on the stairs. As I looked up to make sure the next child was safely in place to begin the descent, G took a tentative step backward and tumbled from the side of the stone stairway. It was a dramatic fall. When I jumped down to help G, she was a bit shaken, but there was no obvious damage save a small scrape on her arm. In fact, when given the choice, G opted to head on up to a higher, but wider trail for the return trip rather than crossing a foot bridge to head back on a level, paved path.

My final hike of the afternoon was pretty much the same as the first two until we reached the now infamous stairs. Though none of the children knew about G’s fall, as adults we were a bit more cautious (I might even say overly cautious). We maintained what we felt was the same attitude and demeanor, but this time I walked with each student from the root negotiation all the way down each step.

The process took considerably longer and was a little awkward, but that’s not what was most striking. In this third group several students expressed fear either verbally or through their posture. This hadn’t happened in our earlier hikes. Granted there had been slight hesitations and slow steps, but never the outright expression of fear.

There was nothing remarkable about this final set of students. No more or less experience on hiking trails, no age or ability differences. The only difference was in the actions of the adults. In our abundance of caution, we’d instilled a level of fear beyond what was ordinary… or necessary.

As adults we often tell ourselves that our primary obligations are to love and protect our children. But what kind of love is it when our protective instincts instill fear?

City Fox and Urban Owl

View from the upstairs front windowview from the upstairs back windowI’ve noticed that recently Corvidae Corvus has been dominated by posts about technology and do-it-yourself/maker topics. I guess that’s indicative of where my head has been at lately. But it is Spring (a little early, but nonetheless…), and it’s hard not to notice all the changes budding out–even here in urban DC.

We’re lucky enough to sit on the edge of Rock Creek Park. Across our back alley our neighbors are the fox family, who we occasionally hear and see late at night yapping to each other down the length of the alley. No doubt, out hunting rats and other vermin for their nightly meal. The wild goings on in our alley differ markedly from those in other parts of the District. Last night, I woke to the plaintive questioning of a barred owl, “Who-cooks-for-you? who-cooks-for-you?”

For an urban dweller, I have unusual access to forested tracts. But even in parts of the city without direct access, nature abounds. Recognizing it is a matter of looking with a different kind of gaze. And also, I would argue, recognizing nature when you don’t necessarily think you’re looking at it. The falcon waiting on the ledge of a building to pick off an unsuspecting pigeon, or even the tree sprouting out from the Metro overpass are examples of nature adapting to and reclaiming the urban landscape.

Stories of raccoons and coyotes rummaging through trash cans are not at all uncommon. But the common Norway rat that we city folk see running along a wall or run over by a bus represent a little bit of the wild in our cities. The lessons of nature don’t just occur in the forested rural lands, or even in suburban back yards. Survival, growth and beauty are sometimes all the more evident for the stark contrast of the city. It’s worth taking a walk along the river or through an alley to see some unexpected scenes.

Below, I quote from a piece by Rick Curtis, Director of Princeton University’s Outdoor Action program. Mr. Curtis is writing here specifically about observation in the forest–particularly about tracking. But his advice holds even in the most congested urban area:

The most important part of nature observation is relaxation. Observation and stalking require you to slow down and settle yourself. It is akin to a moving form of meditation. Animals can sense when you are agitated, anxious or fearful and will disappear. When you settle yourself, you can move among animals without them sensing your presence. You must press yourself to use all of your senses all of the time or they will become atrophied.

I. Varied Sensory Awareness

Vary your vision. Pay intermittent attention to your environment. Shift your focus. If you pay rapt attention to one thing, it will dull your senses (“highway hypnosis”). You will learn more if you are paying intermittent attention. Flash back and forth through your various senses, vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste.

II. Wide Angle (Splatter) Vision vs. Pinpoint Vision

We tend to use focal vision about 95% of the time and wide-angle vision only 5%. Animals use the reverse (5% and 95%). To use wide-angle vision you want to take in all the information from your peripheral vision constantly then focus down when needed. Concentrate on the entire picture, mentally blocking out information to focus down.

The primary thing that gives you away (or an animal) is movement. Focused vision doesn’t pick up movement whereas wide-angle vision makes the eye reactive to movement. When you notice movement then focus down to that object. And once focused, keep tracking that animal visually very closely so that you don’t loose it. Keep this process in mind! This is how the animals look for you. Anything that is out of the natural order, movement, shadow, or noise attracts their attention and they focus on it.

At night using wide-angle vision utilizes all the peripheral areas of the eye which are more sensitive to low levels of light. This improves night travel and seeing animals. It will allow you to notice nighttime animal movement. Flashlights cause focal vision which restrict your sensitivity to movement. At night a wind will blow things in one rhythm. Anything moving contrary to that rhythm, check it out with focal vision.

III. Automatic Vision

When you are looking at something you scan “take a picture” then scan, “take a picture” etc. as you look across a landscape. When you look across that landscape again you tend to “take the same pictures” or focus on the same spots. The Blind Spots (dead air space) are the ones you miss. Over time the number of automatic snap shots decreases until you only see a few out of the whole scene. Eventually you really don’t see it at all. You must consciously fight dead air space all the time. Each time you look at a scene again look at it as something new. Also, don’t just look at solid objects (e.g. a tree); look through the spaces of the tree, between the branches. There may be a deer behind that tree that you will see if you look through it rather than looking at it.

IV. Focused Hearing

We have tremendous peripheral hearing with our ears on the sides of our heads, but poor focused hearing. Since we can’t move our ears as many animals can, we don’t have directional hearing. But we can increase our hearing by 10x by cupping our hands, thumbs up, behind our ears, with the elbows out. This creates a parabolic reflector which gathers the sound in to our ears. This technique is paramount in locating animals and finding out what lies ahead of you.


Green Meat?

Green cowIt takes about 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible beef. That’s a lot of food going to feed a cow that will arguably become less food. People don’t eat grass, but it can still be argued that a lot more food could be grown on the land (or a lot of trees, or switchgrass…) that it takes to feed a single cow. But what if we could produce a pound of meat and leave the grain to feed people, or the trees to filter polluted air, or the switchgrass to create new clean-burning fuels? This afternoon on the Kojo Nnambi Show, on WAMU, Mark Post, Professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and Michael Specter, a staff writer for the The New Yorker, and author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Livestalked about new developments that may eventually allow scientists to grow meat in sterile laboratories–no animals harmed.

The piece is interesting mostly because at the same time that it conjures slightly grotesque science gone awry images of cuts of beef hanging from wires and tubes in sterile, climate controlled laboratories, it also forces us to confront some deeply held misconceptions about genetic modification, organic foods and the nature of nature itself. It forces conversations–somewhat uncomfortable conversations in fact–about technology and nature, ecology and genetic manipulation, natural and processed foods, vegetarian/vegan ethics and making meat in a test tube that doesn’t harm animals, emotion and reason, as well as a host of other topics. It poses questions that increasingly a becoming a lot harder to answer.

I appreciated Michael Specter’s ability to be the guy I so badly wanted to hate, but who became the guy instead who forced me to confront some basic prejudices and to really assess my values at a core level. Am I more concerned about ecology or some idealized, pastoral sense of nature and purity? Does the ability to feed people, even if it’s by growing meat in a test-tube,  trump my desire for supporting locally-raised, sustainable, back to the land husbandry? Does my repulsion at the over-processed, candy-coated, hydrogenated foods I find in my supermarket cloud my vision when it comes to how we produce and deliver calories and nutrients to starving people?

In the end, being forced into an uncomfortable position, having to honestly confront values to which we may believed ourselves inextricably tied is an important exercise. We’re not often really asked to do that.



SUPERSENSORIAL: Experiments in Light Color and Space

About a year ago I was covering a Socratic seminar for a fellow teacher who was out for an extended period. He’d hurt his back and couldn’t comfortably sit or stand for any length of time. It was an unexpected new responsibility for which I hadn’t had time to adequately prepare…but all that’s really quite irrelevant to the subject of this post. By the time I took over his class the students had already come to the conclusion that neither black nor white are colors, and had moved on to discussing the nature of grey. I encouraged them move beyond their well-reasoned, circular arguments and to actually do a little research into color theory, the physics of light, the structure of the eye, and the neurological processes that influence our perception of color and light. In the end, I think we ended up at an impasse with certain students maintaining that grey was simply a shade and not a true color, some insisting that grey is most definitely a color since we also must consider the non-monochromatic hues, and a few claiming that they still weren’t convinced that any of us could say for certain that what we all called grey was in fact grey.
I wish that the new exhibit,“Supersensorial: Experiments in Light Color and Space”, had been at theHirshhorm Museum while my students and I were having this dialogue. We may not have gotten any closer to agreeing about the nature of grey, but we would certainly have had a much more interesting conversation about color,  light and how our experience of an environment or object can be totally transformed based on our perceptions. Some of the young philosophers would doubtless have asked the same questions I heard from exhibit-goers:

“Are the walls white?” or “Wasn’t that little room more pink the last time we walked through?” as they walked through Carlos Crus-Diez’sChromosaturation room, where the viewer is immersed in an environment lit by three sets of fluorescent lights (blue, magenta and green). As one moves through the space the distinct colors of the overhead lights begin to meld and morph. The walls, floor and ceiling change hue–pink becomes orange, blue fades to lavendar and then deepens to violet–and the viewer’s sense of the environment becomes less concrete even as it intensifies.

Moving from Cruz-Diez’s saturated interior space, the young sages would have encountered an entirely different sort of environment (object?) that would  almost certainly have elicited similarly profound, but very different discussions of vision, sensation, movement and perception.

Jesus Rafael Soto’s Blue Penetrable BBL sits, or rather hangs, like some beep blue decontamination unit in the antiseptic white white room. Resembling something out of Woody Allen’s 1973 comedy thriller Sleeper, Soto’s environment adds a tactility to the disorienting visual effect of light bouncing off hundreds of hanging blue tubes that dissect the participants field of vision. The piece creates a vibrating effect in the room, like silent static on a blue and white screen. Walking through, or watching others walk through the blue nylon baleen shadows and light play funny games.

Much less disorienting is Helio Oiticica‘s Cosmococas. The opium den inspired environment felt more like an attempt to recreate a scene from a late 60s animated Spider Man episode than an experiment in light and perception. Although it might have been interesting to talk with our philosophers about how placing this installation in a museum might have affected our experience differently than placing it, say, in the basement of their grandparents early 1970s ranch house. And whether we would have reacted differently if the images flashing on the wall were scenes from  World of Warcraft or Call of Duty.

Julio Le Parc‘s Light in Movement (shown above) also might have given us some interesting points of reflection–both literally and figuratively. Using only two spotlights, and some small silver mirrors in a darkened curving room, Le Parc makes some interesting points about reflection and perception. A grid of small silver mirrors hang from filament, catching the beams of light from the spotlights and reflecting them much larger on the curving wall behind the occupants of the room. A large mirror at the front of the room allows us to see a 360 degree view. Small movements in the hanging grid are reflected and translated as big arching, and spinning starlike lights on the back wall. Our thinkers might have found any number of metaphors to talk about the distorting effect of reflection. Any of which would likely have taken us beyond our simple discussion of grey.

As a teacher, I found Supersensorial… a befitting title for this exhibit. Science and art meet in this exhibit to create interesting environments that should  elicit discussions and explorations beyond the typical “what do you think the artist was trying to say” lessons that too often are the basis for a visit to the art museum. Forcing us to interact with art, and the environment, in different ways, Supersensorial opens a world of possibilities for interdisciplinary investigation.

WFR: or a meditation on good teaching

WFROne morning about two months ago I was sitting in a classroom at the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center just outside State College Pennsylvania, learning basic anatomy. Later that afternoon I found myself in a snowy wood assessing injuries to a hiker who had fallen and suffered a broken leg and serious head injury. Four or five of my classmates–most in their early to mid twenties–worked feverishly together to splint and stabilize the disoriented patient, secure him in a litter and carry him out over a creek, up a hill, and back to the classroom where we’d started our day. Meanwhile, others tended to the broken and twisted limbs of the patient’s fellow hikers. Once the straps were taken off, the limbs unsplinted and the bone wax washed away, we debriefed our first multi-patient rescue.

Our patients were our classmates. The falls, the broken bones, the confusion and the evacuation were all a test, planned by  John Clancy our SOLO Wilderness Medicine instructor–a heck of nice guy. At Shaver’s Creek, I was one of about 14 people taking part in a ten-day Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course. WFR is the basic certification required for most people who work as backcountry trip leaders, mountain guides, river guides,  ski patrollers, and in a variety of other environments where one is responsible for the safety and overall well-being of others in a wilderness setting. It also provides a really good set of skills (both medical and leadership related) for anyone who spends a significant amount of time outdoors, or without quick access to medical aid.

Since returning from Shaver’s creek I haven’t had to splint any limbs, stabilize any spines or apply direct pressure to any arterial bleeds. But I feel better knowing that if I were put in that situation I’d know what to do. I would undoubtedly be nervous, and my dressings might not come out as perfectly as John made sure they did during my training. Nevertheless, I know enough now to do more good than harm–which I’m not sure would have been the case before I became a WFR. Most importantly, what John taught through a combination of lecture, demonstrations, conversation, hands-on practice and scenario simulations over nearly two weeks has made an indelible impression. His combination  of instruction strategies–along with his flexibility in letting us find our own best ways of grasping concepts and performing procedures–made John perhaps one of the most effective teachers I’ve ever had in a technical course like this.

Most of us don’t go into the world thinking that we’ll encounter the worst case scenario. I think if we did we might not travel very far out into the world, actually. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be prepared for the things we may encounter, whether on a city street, suburban cul-de-sac, or backcountry trail. My WFR class reminded me of the importance of being present, the value of observation, the benefit of listening closely and the  reward of taking responsible risks. It also reminded me what really good teaching should be like. After each eight hour day of my WFR training I walked back through the woods to the cabin in which I was staying. Tired, but charged, I noticed new things on each walk. Rather than being dazed and confused, I felt curious and observant. And maybe that’s the biggest gift of a teacher like John: he gets you to look carefully at the environment around you, gives you the confidence to act on what you see.

Filicide Among Deciduous Trees: Those Leaves Didn’t Fall… They Were Pushed

Paper thing beech leavesWalking through Rock Creek Park on a late afternoon in mid-February you’ll notice many beech trees (and a few oaks) still clinging to dry and faded, tissue-paper-thin leaves. While other deciduous trees in the woods push their leaves to the ground every autumn in an annual act of paternal rejection, certain members of the Fagaceae family cling to their brood through the long cold winter.

Make no mistake, the leaves littering the forest floor did not, upon losing the greenness of youth and taking on the spectacular colors of maturity, leap to ground, voluntarily returning to soil. They were pushed. If you don’t believe me listen to Robert Krulwich, reporting for NPR on “Why Leaves Really Fall Off Trees”.

What made me think of this piece was a walk in the woods last week where I came across a familiar beech tree. I pass this tree nearly everyday as I drive through the park, run the trails or ride my bike down Park Road toward Pierce Mill. Hanging branch with leaves still attachedThe hanging branch in this picture split from the large beech you see to the left during a storm almost two years ago. As the tree shed its leaves that first autumn, I noticed that the leaves–wilting, but maintaining their clorophyll green color–clung to the detached branch long past the time the their dried-up, golden-brown siblings had been pushed to the ground. They stayed through that first winter, and by the time the canopy was again green, the leaves had turned brown and crisp. They still, however, clung to the branch hanging upside down high above the path.

Now, two Februaries after the wind tore this big branch from the tree, the leaves have turned black. Though dry and molded, they continue to hold onto the dead branch–seemingly waiting for the wind (or decomposition) that will finally bring the whole big branch to the ground, leaves intact. That likely won’t happen, however. The solid thick beechwood branch, though unable to push these last leaves off, will still hang in the tree for some time after the wind, rain, and sun have stripped the last leaf from the branch.

In the NPR piece posted above, Peter Raven, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden, explains why, when shutting down food production for the winter, trees shed their leaves. Of course, we know it is in part to protect against high winds and heavy snows clinging to the leaves–a situation that as we saw in the Northeast this winter can cause limbs to crack and snap. But Raven also notes that green leaves, left attached to a tree over the long cold winter could feasibly, on a warm sunny day, begin photosynthesizing. As the food producing leaves draw fluid through the outside layers of the tree just below the bark, a quick drop in temperature might just freeze all that water, killing the entire tree in the process.

Pushing the very leaves that have nourished it all spring, summer and into the fall to the ground becomes a matter of survival for most deciduous trees. So why do some beeches and oaks hold on to their leaves? They’re no longer capable of producing food, and they would best be returned to the soil where they can decompose, providing nourishment to the tree in a new way. Scientists aren’t really sure. All they know is that the abscission cells  that like scissors cut the leaf from the tree don’t seem to work all that well in trees of the Fagaceae family. Maybe, though, it’s because the ghostly pale leaves and the soft dry rustling caused by a cold winter breeze in a beech forest such as Rock Creek Park are just too beautiful for nature to pass up.beech tree rock creek