Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Intertidal interpretation.

The interpreter was at the rocky beach with several other interpreters. It was two weeks since they had last been there; their lives were dictated by tide tables. During the big tides, busloads of children would arrive and be shown sea-life. Prior to stepping on the beach they were told that the seashore was the home of many creatures, that they were merely visitors, that they must remember to act like visitors, step carefully, very gently replace any rock turned over, and so on... and to try their best not to step on the barnacles.

Retention of this message typically lasted about three minutes, until the first child flipped a rock and found a tiny shore crab. "I SEE A CRAB!" This cry inevitably was followed by frenzy -- rocks tossed and kicked aside, barnacles pulverized, and indescribable pain inflicted upon thousands or millions of things that have been designed only to stay stuck somewhere and filter feed.

“Wait! Be careful! Gently!” the interpreters shouted.

The children progressed, a chaotic sweep paralleling the shore. The interpreter couldn't help but think of carpet bombing. “Oh I don't know,” he said to himself, not quite sure what he meant.

He reflected, It is hoped that by showing children the life that shares the planet they will value it, feel a need to protect and preserve it, for whatever noble reason. But he wondered if this was a learnable thing. Although a few were very clearly delighted, and many were hearteningly gentle and concerned, there were too many little monsters who evidently lacked certain wiring and saw only toys. Catch it. Control it. Torment it. Make it fight with another.

The interpreter showed them hermit crabs with saggy backsides bulging from inadequate shells. All the larger gastropod shells had been combed from the beach and lost. The near-naked hermits looked embarrassed. The interpreter explained their plight to every group he led, once to a group of grade ones who spontaneously set about trying to find new shells, a simple solution, except that there were no larger shells and the children didn't even know what sort of shells to look for. The interpreter wanted to tell them not to bother, but ended up standing in the mud waving his arms. That’s me, he thought, a man standing in mud, waving his arms.

A child would hand the interpreter something he or she had found beneath a rock, a crab or periwinkle, maybe a pretty clam. "Look what I found!" the child would cry.

The interpreter would act surprised and pleased because he supposed that was probably the best way to act, but then because of his encouragement the children would keep on searching, keep on damaging, so the interpreter suspected it was perhaps not the best way to act. “Oh I don‘t know,” he said.

Sometimes the interpreter wished he had a child, some little dark-eyed person he could show this world to, whose brand-new connections would shoot sparks through him and make him feel that his life was not just lily-dipping.

Two weeks earlier, one of the children had been crying. The interpreter hurried over and asked her what was wrong. She was looking down at the thousands of barnacles attached to every chunk of anything. "I keep stepping on those creatures!" she said.

"It's okay," said the interpreter. "Just step gently."

"I don't want to hurt them!" Her classmates were already tremendously amok, ripping sea stars from rocks. Wha-hoo!

Parents would accompany the children on these excursions. Some would tag along to see what the children were finding on the beach. At the end of one program, a mother asked the interpreter if he didn't think that the beach animals suffered because of what they were doing.

"Yes, they do," said the interpreter. "I know that they do."

She asked, "Doesn't it hurt your heart?" 

Next story... 

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Karen said...

Kids are born wild, and we do our best to civilize them. They won't have a chance to learn to be gentle if nobody tries to show them how, so good for you for trying, even if it's hard to watch the ones who don't respect the little creatures. I say this as the mother of a child who is not always as gentle as I would like but is getting better through practice and example.
- Karen

Patricia Lichen said...

Oh, such a sad post.

But as a fellow former naturalist, it made me happy to see "sea stars" (instead of "starfish") used so accurately and easily. We must take happiness where we can find it...

Kim said...

I took groups of 3rd graders out to a concentration of desert potholes (with tadpole shrimp, fairy shrimp, etc) and the same thing happened. "Don't step in the potholes; they're very fragile." The potholes got stepped in!