Posted by: cctracker | April 24, 2012

Backyard Walkabout

Photo of Oecophora bractella and House Sparrow eggs at nytimes.com

No matter how many times I’m taught the lesson, I’m surprised over and over again to relearn it.

Abstracted as process, it goes something this:

Look.

See that?

Pay attention.

Closer!

Yes, that.

Now, OBSERVE.

Repeat, everywhere.

Take a look here at a wondrously good New York Times article that reinforces the lesson.

Now I’ll grant that as a science writer on exotic species Carol Kaesuk Yoon is uniquely prepared to absorb this wisdom, but she was in her BACKYARD for goodness sake and the critter was sitting a few inches from her nose in dazzling, iridescent color!

Her story begins with a moth on her kitchen screen. I was schooled in the lesson last summer when a fly caught someone else’s eye.

I teach in an outdoor summer program called Walkabout. A “Walkabout” in its Aboriginal Australian context refers to an extended ritual journey in the wilderness for an adolescent male.

Our program is three weeks of classes in reading, writing, art and field biology for 6th grade boys with hiking field

Photo James Burton

trips every other day in the heat of a midwest summer. It’s great fun, but despite the modest scale of the hikes and an experiential emphasis in the classroom, it can be an ordeal for the boys.

We were hiking steeply up hill in full sun.

I walked at the head of the line crunching out rhythmic steps on an unremarkable gravel path at a pace I felt the boys could match until we reached the top. Though “Awareness” is our mantra–the boys are always supposed to be looking for plants and animals of note–the hiking rule is “no complaining.” I was on guard against supposed “sightings” that were really excuses to stop. It was time to teach a little toughness.

“Hey! Look at this!” I didn’t miss a step but shouted back over my shoulder: “Whada’ygot?”

“A big fly!”

“Great! Get a look but let’s keep going!” Clearly a bogus ploy for a rest. We weren’t stopping for a horsefly.

“No, this is a COOL fly!”

Perhaps it was the sincere music in that youthful throat. Maybe it was simply a kind of blind obedience to the mantra. I stopped and turned around.

“Ok, don’t spook it! I’ll get a picture.”

This was a big fly. For a split-second I thought it might be a bumble bee, but I got close enough to confirm that the student had gotten it right. From three or four feet away, the zoom got me a pretty good shot.

The group was already moving on. “Hold up! Let me get to the front.” A few seconds later we were marching up the trail again, the fly forgotten.

Hours later I opened the day’s photos on my computer to prepare for the class the next day and there it was.

Robber Fly-Photo James Burton

I was astounded by the detail the photo had captured: bristled legs like bottle brushes, prominent, menacing, mechanical hooks emerging from the rear of the abdomen, huge oval eyes, orange and yellow hair-like tufts, a humped “backpack” just behind the head and, most terrifying of all even before I discovered its function, a long mouth tube like the barrel of a gun. The beast seemed to me a nightmarish hybrid  of insect and machine, something a nefarious group of military scientists might design one day soon to infiltrate the enemy lair and give the bad guys a lethal bite in the ass.

Turns out this fella’–one of the Robber Flies– doesn’t bite at all. He grabs flying insect prey mid-air with those huge legs, lands somewhere, then injects them with an acidic saliva turning their flesh to digestible goo which he then slurps back up through his mouth tube.  The students went crazy the next day. I had tried to find the exact species in the field guides so I could give them the scientific name, but insects are the hardest creatures we study in the course: so many species in such variety that all you can usually do is get the name of somebody in the family.

Though I didn’t find him in my backyard, he’s probably out there every summer terrorizing my moth population.  And that’s Yoon’s point in her NY Times piece: “So Much Life on a Little Patch of Earth.” The fact that the moth she found had never been seen in North America was news, but her main point is more fundamental: We ought always to be looking. We ought to be in awe of the astonishing variety, complexity and interconnection of life around us. Inspired by the moth, she tries to document every species of life on her own small planetary plot:

“Our unimpressive lawn became a kaleidoscope of mysteries, just one square foot of it boasting multiple species of grasses, one species of dandelion, countless other unknown plants that quickly came and went, and no end of insects, algae, mosses, worms, bacteria and fungi.

Every beam of slanting light, every breath of wind, every flitter of movement revealed something unseen. A droplet of rain splashed on the deck, a potential marvel of aquatic life. A newly noticed stain on the fence proved to be a burgeoning lichen. A squirrel ran into the yard and paused to scratch itself, prompting Merrill to yell out: “Squirrel fleas! New yard species!”

Soon, she is overwhelmed:

“I wish I could give you a bottom-line species count, but I can’t. Living organisms are reliably, inspiringly unpredictable, as any birdwatcher can attest; in years of watching, we have seen many species only once, so it is very likely we have missed many more. And though we are good at spotting birds and insects, we are nearly plant-blind, so who can say what botanical change has been afoot here? The same is true for the many, many microscopic things we literally cannot see.”

She concludes:

“For those, like children, with eyes open wide, rarities can abound. On any given day, of course, you’re not likely to spot an unexpected guest. But one day it will happen. While you slice a grapefruit or fold laundry or sit at the computer, something unbelievable will be creeping or flittering through your life. Look for it, just in case.”

Every summer I testify again–even preach–about the faith to a new set of fresh faces : “Awareness!”

Photo James Burton

But the truth is, I doubt. And other times I just don’t want to bother: we’ve got to keep marching, I sometimes tell myself.

And each year its the students who stop me. Their musical voices ring out: “Hey, look!”

Their 20 pairs of eyes rove the landscape and never fail to find something riveting to look at, to believe in.

And it is so important that I do stop with them to take a look, to marvel. Because my real hope is to send them back to their backyards, where they’ll live out most of their lives, in the spirit of “Walkabout.”

And I need to have that same spirit, find that same faith, in my own backyard. If I can’t find it there I am lost indeed.

Photo James Burton


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