The live eel is just inches away from my face. I have to make a split-second decision whether or not to touch him, but I have a live clam in hand and so I skip my turn. Most of the others standing next to me do the same; we examine the eel through his plastic container and pass him on, until he gets to Max, and then a drama unfolds.
It’s week three of State Master Naturalist training and I’m a student. I’m not sure what exactly put me here. Maybe I just saw the sign-up poster in the park one day and got curious. Maybe I was missing my days of growing up on a farm in Maryland where the woods, the rivers, and the wilds were a five-minute walk away. Or maybe I had seen one too many ’earth-is-dying’ stories on National Geographic Channel and could no longer ignore the ache to do something good to the earth before I leave it.
For whatever reason, I found myself, a recently retired Grandma, committing every Tuesday and several more field trip days for three months, then eighty-plus hours of volunteer service each year. I knew it had to be a good thing. What I didn’t know was that it would change the way I relate to my planet and all its contents.
Master Naturalist trainees carry enormous loose-leaf binders. The books come to us about three inches thick and then grow to four or even five inches. They get filled with hand-outs and brochures, of course, and then we add stuff like, well… leaf cuts, feathers, little sticks, maybe an insect wing. Those bits that don’t get tucked into the binders end up clinging to us as we head home after the day’s work. Our cars are soon cluttered too, with sticks, stones, and seed pods. Every day of training sends us on at least two journeys; the intellectual wash-down of information from the guest instructors, and the treks into fields and streams to look at samples that will bring to life the mind’s new contents.
I can never decide which of the journeys I love best. I’m a lifelong word gatherer, eager for concepts, rubrics for classification, definitions of bugs and beasts. I adore the little chart that shows things like how 80 percent of my DNA is identical to that of most insects. About half of the class are born students like me. We miss that every-September cornucopia of classes and books; we never got enough of school and left it only because there was no pay coming in.
The other half of the class struggles through the didactic material. Their feet start to quiver and tap as lunch time gets close; they can’t wait to suit up and head for the woods. They are the ones always in front or trailing behind. They never travel with the pack; they are outliers looking for something they haven’t seen before, something not in the book, a question the trail guide can’t answer. First out and last in; these are the people from whom I’m learning the most. I don’t have a brain like theirs, even though I always thought of myself as wide open to experience. It never occurred to me, I admit, to taste a leaf or smell it to see if it was in the mint or poppy family.
I envy that look they wear on their faces; these ‘natural’ naturalists with mud on their boots and eyes open wider than the rest of us. Their faces seem larger, their senses aligned to each channel on nature’s wide-screen show. ‘Natural’ naturalists see more flowers and birds and plant types; they see insects I barely notice; they hear bird calls that are just background to me. They might be holding a leaf that smells like mint, scratching it with a fingernail to sniff, but what they say comes from some other direction entirely: ‘that was a pileated woodpecker; he’s looking for a mate.” How do they do this? If I look up, I might see a tiny flash of red and then nothing. I ‘m carrying the best binoculars money can buy and yet I’ve missed the bird, as well the scent of mint.
In the outdoor expeditions, we accumulate a mishmash of little pieces of the forest, along with a plethora of facts that I’ll forget in a week or hours, or sometimes even minutes. The leaves I can manage to hang onto, but all those exquisite details can’t find a rubric to tuck into when they hit my brain. They have to compete with all the other sights and sounds. They must jockey for a place in the classifications of flora and fauna, invasive versus endangered species or whether they are pollinators. Despite all the things I forget, I have assimilated things like coevolution and pollination, habitats and watersheds, habitat loss and pollution. I’ve learned the most important lesson: how things connect.
We all come to love the field trips. One gorgeous day we go to a local stream to assess its health. We’re here to count mayflies and eels. We find mayflies and rejoice; this find alone is enough to mark this as a healthy stream. We’ve learned which ones are the most fragile species – the ones easily killed by invaders and pollution.
We pull on high rubber boots because the Naturalist from The University of Maryland is going to shock the water with a power paddle, stunning everything within a six-foot radius. We stand next to her in our high boots, holding nets and buckets. We swoop our nets through the water and dunk their contents into the buckets, then go ashore with our catch to count the mayflies, weigh and measure the eels, and see what else is in there… such as the tiny Asian clams we find, just a quarter of an inch wide, yet a serious threat to our freshwater streams. Some of us scoop out the buckets and bag the critters, while others of us record the markers of stream health, and still others form a line to return the wildlife to the stream. Which brings us to the drama of Max and the eel.
Max, a young college student, asks if he can take the eel from his bag of water and hold him.
“Sure,” says the Naturalist with a teasing smile. ”If you can. It’s almost awake. Eels are awfully slippery.”
“Well,” he hesitates. “I don’t want to hurt it. I don’t want to be that guy.”
The girl he’s trying to impress, Amy, a young single mom, smiles sweetly and says, “C’mon Max, go for it.”
I’m thinking that, for this moment, these two are alone here. The other twenty-eight of us don’t exist. Max and Amy happen to be of the species natural naturalists; they usually wear those open faces, but not at this minute. This minute they’re doing a mating dance.
Max picks up the eel and as predicted, it pops awake and slides from his hands to the ground. Max is mortified; he flushes. Amy pats his shoulder, laughs, and says, “nice try.”
Henry, an ex-marine sergeant standing next to me says, “Hey, I guess you are that guy, huh Max?”
Max takes the teasing well and besides, the Naturalist instructor has scooped up the runaway with the net. Already, the eel has swum back downstream. This instructor is accustomed to the shenanigans of her volunteers; she can handle us as expertly as she does the rest of the wildlife in her stream.
That night, I tell my own kids this story and they’re amused, but not at the part about the eel. They’re falling down laughing at the thought of their Mom, the-computer-chair potato traipsing through a stream in muck boots.
In nearly every class, we stew over problems with invasive species. One day I bring in a lovely flower that has popped up all over my yard. I show it to Rebecca, the program director, who says, “I don’t know what it is; ask Ellen. And hey, if it’s a good propagator, bring me some seeds. I need something to fill in at the rain garden.”
Ellen is the ‘flower woman.’ She scratches a leaf, sniffs it and says. “I think it could be a mustard…no wait. The leaves are scalloped…” She pulls out her smart phone. Here let me post a picture in my Google group.”
The lecture comes and goes; the instructor happens to be an edible plant expert. She looks at my mystery plant and says, “Looks like an asteraceae. Wait, it’s more like a ranunculus; if so, it’s non-native and very invasive.”
She means buttercup, but I’ve learned enough today to rule that out; my plant is too tall.
Ellen heads over to me on the break.
“Found it.” She pulls up a likeness of my plant on her smart phone.
“That’s it,” I smile, delighted.
Her face is even more triumphant than mine and then darkens. She says, “it’s greater celandine, AKA devil’s milk or wartwort. It’s difficult, make that impossible, to keep it from spreading like crazy. By the way; it came here from Europe. Sorry.”
I recoil in mock horror at Ellen’s verdict: non-native, invasive. I’m only partly playacting; I now have to go home and yank out all those lovely flowers. I’ve learned, of course, not to call the unwanted plants by the name ‘weeds.’ There are only ‘plants that misbehave,’ whether they’re in planned gardens or untamed meadows. The greater celandine would push out all my Black-eyed Susans and milkweeds, so it has to go.
Oh yes, about those milkweeds. We worship milkweeds here in this room. We propagate them from seeds in the fall and give the extra seedlings to our friends in spring. Many insect species depend on them as a primary food source. Most important to us are Monarch Butterflies, since both larvae and adults eat only milkweed.
Not a weed at all, it’s a tall, stately flower with fruits shaped as green pods that fall off, turn brown and burst open in the fall to let out great tufts of fluffy seeds. We try to grab them as they float off and we sprinkle them in potting soil for over-wintering. You can’t propagate them as transplants since their roots are deep and interconnected, spreading themselves underground to form a thick colony that quickly crowds out any other plants.
What? you ask. They’re invasive?
Maybe they are, but we love our Monarch Butterflies here in Maryland and we’ll work hard to keep them. We are sincerely anguished to learn there’s been a ten-fold drop in the butterfly’s population over the last decade. Some scientists predict the Monarch will go extinct within 20 years.
But not if naturalists can help it.
After all, we humans, naturalists included, are an invasive species too, often destructive and greedy enough to extinguish many other species. It’s fortunate that something else we’re good at is changing our minds. We want to change the earth back. It’s one way that all of us Naturalists and naturalists are alike. We all struggle to memorize as much as we can and we try things we never thought of. We have mastered new skills.
We can dissect regurgitated pods full of mouse bones that have come from owl’s stomachs. We don’t even flinch as we pull apart the clumps of feathers and bones with tweezers and line up the parts on a matching bone chart.
“Jumping mouse!” we exclaim to each other.
“No… field shrew; look at that pelvis,” we answer back.
We don’t cringe while watching the footage of a raptor swooping down and tearing into squirrel flesh. We have come to understand nature’s cycle of feed or die. We accept and advocate food webs.
At some point during my training, I revisit, this time for real, my decision not to eat beef or pork. I’m not sure I can go all the way, like so many in our group, and give up chicken. I’ve been a meat-eater for too long. Before this class, my motives to abandon meat were based on maternal weakness: I’ve always been a sucker for big eyes and soft fur. I always felt slightly guilty at my willingness to eat things that were once alive, sentient, innocent.
My reasoning has become loftier. Never mind the innocence. It’s about what has to be taken from the earth’s limited resources to support habits like herds of cattle, manicured front lawns, or tidy gardens without a ‘weed’ in sight. These badges of civilization that I once took for granted now seem selfish to me.
No, I really mean they seem wrong.
Miracle-gro? Not on your life. I’m the one buying organic lime and fish meal.
”Oh, I need more oily sunflower seed for the birds, “I say to the clerk at the local nursery.
“Here you go,” says the clerk as he hands me a huge bag of mixed wild bird seed.
“It has millet!”’ I reproach the clerk. “You shouldn’t even carry this. Only brown house sparrows eat millet around here.” I shake my head as he frowns and looks confused.
I am relentless.“Don’t you know about the house sparrow? A non-native invasive. It steals bluebird nests by pushing all the bluebird babies out to die.”
Change the earth back; wipe away the effects of human mismanagement.
I have taken on the torch of the newly converted volunteer, as have most of us in this class, but even so, we are very tiresome to handle. Opinionated, unpredictably creative, unruly. Each of us in this class has at least one agenda item not in the program’s mission statement. So many motives in this small room teeming with volunteers:
learn as much as I can, meet somebody new, sit next to my friend, do something useful, connect with the instructor, pass the time that’s become too heavy on my hands, find an avenue to a job in this field, or for some of us, just get through the day-I’m-so-bone-tired.
We share, however, one awesome commonality. The housewife, the marine sergeant, that young mom, the college students, retirees, and part-time professionals, and especially the paid staff. Every time we set foot in this room full of people wearing raincoats with binoculars and magnifying glasses hanging out the pockets, all of us dressed in beat-up hiking shoes, blue jeans and backpacks…each and every time… we feel the power of our journey to a place where we are becoming bigger and better than our real selves.