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Woods 1, PlayStation 0

Posted Jun 03 2009 12:24am
The last thing I wanted to do last night was go bat hunting.

I started two new jobs yesterday, and as evening fell, all I wanted to do was face-plant on my pillow.

But I'd made a promise; I had a date with Dr. John Bowles. One of the nation's most renowned bat scientists, he also happens to be my friend. Now that he's retired, the knowledge he's accrued through fifty years of bat research goes largely unappreciated.

But not last night. At precisely 7:30, my boyfriend Matt and I rolled into John's driveway. With our honored passenger in tow, we drove just a few minutes to a small nearby lake. At the junction of the pond and the neighboring woods, we set up John's stool and settled ourselves carefully amongst the goose poop, gazing out over the lake.

I rested my aching head on one knee. No bats. Over the field beside the lake, the clouds were burning purple and blazing pink as the sun settled over the horizon. Effusive beams of scarlet light streaked across the sky. Above my head, chimney swifts darted and twirled against the fading shades of blue. I sighed, and felt a wave of tension escape from my tight muscles.

"Cigars with wings," chuckled John. "That's what my students called them. Even when the bats don't come, there're always the chimney swifts."

"Did your students like coming out to look for bats?" I asked, watching a particularly deft swift spiral skyward.

"Oh, yes," smiled John. "I tried to teach them to want to learn. I tried to get them to ask the question before I gave them an answer. Too much teaching these days is just giving students answers to questions they didn't ask. And never think to ask."

John continued telling me about the long-term questions he had encouraged his students to ask. One student studied screech owls for three summers in a row. Another observed the effects of dropping lake levels on the nearby mammal species. Rather pertinent, I thought, to the rain-hungry pond before us, whose surface was at least two feet lower than usual.

As John spoke, I pondered his comments. Why don't more of our students ask questions about the natural world? Perhaps it's because we need more teachers like John to teach them how to care, how to wonder.

This weekend I went camping with my young cousins, Lily and Jack. At ages five and three, it was their first time on our annual family camping trip. We spent hours in the forest, looking for salamanders under rocks and rotting logs.

We picked mushrooms, examined deer droppings, walked on fallen tree trunks. We crouched by an ant colony, watching the workers frantically carry eggs away from our peering eyes. "That was sooo cool!" Lily breathed as we clambered back to our feet.

Despite their enthusiasm, I couldn't help but notice how new all of this was to them. When we found a centipede curled under a rock, Jack exclaimed, "It's a slug!" Climbing trees was a new experience for both of them. I wonder if they'd ever done anything like this before.

If not, they're not the only ones. My father, like John, is a dedicated teacher of biology. This spring, he accompanied an environmental science class at his school to the campus woods, to look at birds. In the course of the outing, he discovered that three of the students in the class had never before set foot in the forest. And these are not underprivileged children. These are kids who vacation in the Alps, who go to the Caribbean over school holidays. And yet they've never been exposed to the greatest treasure right under their noses.

But for my biology loving parents, I might have turned out the same. Without teachers like John and my father, who took the time to show me woods and ants and bats and deer, I too might never have come to value these treasures.

I remember camping at the very same state park when I was Lily's age. I can still feel my childish amazement at the giant stone boulders scattered through the woods, the thrill of excitement at scrambling up their lichen-covered surface. I think it was those early days of exploration that kindled the love of the woods that I am now desperate to share with Lily and Jack. The same love that dragged me off my bed on an exhausted Monday evening to go look for bats.

My mental meanderings were suddenly cut short by a loud, fast clicking noise from the bat-tracking device that Matt held in his hand. Our three heads swiveled skyward, and sure enough, the fluttering outline of a bat hurtled past us, silhouetted against the darkening sky. A moment later, a second one followed. Then five, ten, twenty bats were dipping and diving over the lake. I gasped in delight.

Our tracking device was going wild. Bats emit high frequency calls that help them ecolocate insects or obstacles in their paths. Our "bat-meter" captures these sounds and plays them back at a frequency low enough for our ears to detect. As John explained to us, you can determine the species of bat by the frequency of its calls. At 28 kHz, we heard red bats. At 32, one of three species of Myotis, or mouse-eared bats. And at 40, the lovely Pipistrelle bat. My heart pounded as the clicks, chirps, and clucks narrated the delicate bat ballet above our heads.

As darkness fell, we rose to our feet and shuffled back to the car, still smiling and breathless. Although I was even more tired than when I left home, I was no longer sorry I'd come. Not only had I just seen the best bat show of my life, but I'd realized another value to my presence there that evening. As teachers like John retire, it's up to younguns like me and Matt to carry on the torch of compassion for the natural world to another generation. If there is any hope for the protection and salvation of our wild spaces, it depends on our young people being taught to value these treasures. As I have been taught, so I must also teach, so that Lily, Jack and I myself are not the last children left in the woods.

by Sadie Kneidel
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