by Denny Olson
I’ve always been a student of nature, gleaning factoids and evaluating the quality of evidence about the health of our wild environment. I’ve been able to teach what I have learned – about in equal measure to my continuing efforts as a student – to literally hundreds of thousands of people over 47 years as a teaching naturalist. Because of the “nature” of my work, the lines between work and “play” have been blurred beyond any distinguishing characteristics. I mostly teach in the woods and play in the same woods. The downside, which I don’t see as one, is that I’m ever-so-slightly less financially secure as, say, your average venture capitalist. I have been able to spend a good share of my life where I am most comforted, euphoric, frightened, enlightened, peaceful, adrenaline-riddled and satisfied. It is my real home, and I feel that right down to the most primitive gene in my body.
The riches from this kind of life come in the form of stories, and the lessons I can pass on from those stories.
As an example – and forgive me if you have heard this one in another context – there was one spring when I was in the thick, overgrown North Woods with a troop of 5th-graders following on the trail. A Ruffed Grouse male began drumming, on his chosen log, about a hundred-fifty feet away from the trail. I had tried for years to get a photo of that – sneaking, hiding, sitting in camo – with no success whatsoever. On a whim (no idea where it came from) I decided to try a playful and a bit radical approach. I drummed with my fists on my chest with the same increasing tempo as the grouse. The kids were suddenly looking at me warily … until the grouse drummed back. I walked toward him, nine fifth-graders in tow, and drummed again. He drummed. Forward some more, in plain view. I drummed. He drummed. A few more repetitions of that sequence, and we were ten feet away, repeating the war of body language. The grouse was fanning his tail, hissing, pecking at the log, stalking back and forth, stopping to drum his muffled air-compression thumps whenever I did – as perfect a rendition of testosterone-riddled football game sideline behavior as he could muster.
By that time, the kids’ eyes were wide and mouths were hanging open, and they were wondering why they had ventured into the woods with this guy. I had a volunteer from their group try a “drum”. The grouse now saw two enemies to defeat and doubled his efforts. We did this for a full hour. The kids never got bored, and their eyes never narrowed. In that hour, we called in eight females! I’m not sure if the male had romantic payoffs later.
I saw big, big grins as we walked back to the outdoor school of my employment. The least of their expectations was that they were going to go home with a real story to tell. And it wasn’t just a “nature I out there and I watched” story. I think at least some of them realized then and there that they were, and would always be, active participants in nature – a part of it all, as it should be.
In my own participation in nature — as a student, teacher, predator, meditative observer, restorer, and fellow living being – the riches of stories have piled high. There was the time a bull moose sneaked behind me to eight feet as I was doing morning duty at the base of a tree, literally catching me with my pants down. Or when a female moose with two small hours-old calves shared a tiny island for week with three friends in Quetico Provincial Park. Or the two times “docile” black bears had stalked me – heavily-armed with a fly rod. Or the times the more “fearsome” grizzlies had walked by unruffled and calm at ten and fifteen feet in Glacier National Park. Or being temporarily blinded by a very close lightning strike on my sleeping rock, and another time felt the current from a strike through the roots of an unfortunate white pine. Or meeting a curious wolf at forty feet on a trail, alone, in the bright moonlight, and watching the sparkle of subzero snow making a halo as it wagged its tail. Or watching a silly American Bittern freezing in the middle of the road to “disappear”. Or White-throated sparrows sitting on my head looking for the whistling “invader”. Or the dominant beaver female waddling up to me and depositing her territorial castoreum claim on my rubber boot.
This is just the proverbial “tip” the iceberg mass of stories I get to share from my primordial best and oldest friend, the natural world. And I get to take them with me when I go back to her (although not terribly soon, I would hope!).
Yup. I’m a spoiled rich kid. I have the stories to prove it.