Sunday, September 11, 2011

Flipping Rocks

The interpreter was attempting to flip a rock.  It was a large rock, roughly the length and breadth of a welcome mat.  How thick it was, and how deeply set into the ground, his back was about to find out. He spread his feet a bit wider, clamped his hands onto the rounded corners, and heaved.  The far side lifted from the powdery soil without a sound.

“Pull harder!” the children cried.

He lost the battle, fell forward, and the rock resumed its place in the earth, again with no sound.  “That one’s too big,” he said, straightening, and wincing in pain.  “There would be nothing under it anyway.  Too deep.”

He was leading a group of fifteen eight- to ten-year-olds on an invertebrate program, specifically, a Forest Invertebrate Program, part of an end-of-summer week long nature camp for urban children.   It was a next to impossible situation.  Any of the usual isopods, millipedes, centipedes, spiders, whatever, would have weeks ago fled from or perished within this place.  The ground was dusty.  The moss was dry, and on touch crumbled to powder.  It had not rained for two months.  There had scarcely been a cloud in the sky those two months.   This was not a place accustomed to constant sun, and dearth of humidity.

Why was he leading this Sisyphean rock-flipping quest? This search for life now gone?

His own fault.  He should have signed up earlier, for the seashore program, or the pond program, or the creek program.  Any one of those programs would have provided living, wriggly, eye-popping results: Amphipods! Crabs! Water striders! Water scorpions! Whirligigs! Crazy freaky nymphs! No, he had sat on his hands until the last possible moment, allowing other interpreters to snatch up the relatively weather-proof, aquatically-based programs. He was stuck with looking for invertebrates in a kiln-dried forest. 

This forest was dry to the point that a pair of whooshing corduroy pants could set it ablaze.  He and these children should not even be in this forest.  It was safe to assume that none of these eight- to ten-year-olds were smokers, wasn’t it?  (When the interpreter was a child, it wasn’t.)

After half an hour, much longer than an average modern human’s attention span, they had found nothing, not even a wood bug.  Not even an ant.  Who knew Death Valley was a suburb of Vancouver?

Thus a subset of the children began misbehaving, targeting an obvious science-boy named Marcus, who had revealed himself early on with a big-wordy vocabulary.  A boy named Ben stole his water bottle and he and others were trying to goad Marcus into a game of monkey-in-the-middle.  The interpreter snatched the bottle and handed it back to Marcus.

“Knock it off!” he snapped. Because he was soft-spoken, raising his voice was a potent short-term remedy.

He tried another log, finding nothing, peeled back loose bark at the base of an ancient maple, also nothing.

“Here’s a great rock!” One of the Marcus-tormentors yelled.  He was a few metres off the trail.  The rock was in a depression, a spot that must have held melting snow well into early summer.

The interpreter approached the rock.  It didn’t look too imposing, was squarish, a little more than a foot each way.  It made him recall a rock he had flipped more than a year earlier, with Stacey, back when she was still an interpreter, back before he knew for sure how sparkly she was.  It was on a day they had gone to the great muddy tidal flat south of the city, a sunny summer day very similar to this one, and with a very low tide.  It had been meant as a work day.  His supervisor had instructed the interpreter to teach Stacey how to identify and speak engagingly of the mollusks of the mudflat.  There had been an inkling things would go differently though, when Stacey laughed at his gumboots.  She was wearing flip-flops, which she kicked off and tossed into the trunk of her car.  “Take those dumb things off,” she said.  “We’re at the beach.”

They tip-toed barefoot through a minefield of barnacled cobbles, where gumboots or flip-flops would have been helpful, but soon arrived at the silty, sandy expanse of the mudflat, which at low tide was criss-crossed by shallow pools that near shore were warm and shallow, but cooled as they broadened and deepened farther out. 

They kept walking, talking about anything but molluscs, farther and farther, easily a kilometre and a half, toward the snow-capped volcano forty miles distant in Washington State.  Eventually they came to the end, where the bottom suddenly dropped away.  In water above their knees, the surf arrived to remind them that they were actually in an ocean.  At this place of deeper water, eelgrass thrived, and the grasping blades of these plants whipped around and between their legs, eelgrass full of life, full of invertebrates.  Stacey laughed like mad as a large wave rode up above their waists.

They ran back, laughing, pausing now and then to pretend to identify field marks of a cast clam shell, until, close to shore, they came across a flat rock, what looked like an eroded paving stone, thickly encrusted with barnacles.  The interpreter sensed a rock such as this could offer surprises.  He asked Stacey to step aside, straddled the rock and heaved.  “Anything there?” he grunted.

She squatted to peak underneath. “Oh my god!” she exclaimed.

“What is it?”

“The ugliest fish I’ve ever seen, and it’s glued to the bottom of the rock.  It has a huge frog head and almost no body.  And there’s maybe a hundred orange eggs stuck everywhere under the rock.”

“Uh-oh,” he said, easing the stone back down as gently as possible.  “I hope I didn’t squish anything.

“What was it?”

“Clingfish. They’re great.”

“It was totally great,” she said, “but you didn’t even look at it.”

“I’ve seen them before,” he answered.  “I hope I didn’t hurt her or her eggs.”      

They  kicked through the shallowing water to the beach.  Their walk had connected them in a sweet, gentle way, and the interpreter felt he should be holding her hand.  It had been a while since he had held a young woman’s hand. Twenty years on, he was no better at this or more certain of what to do than he had been in high school.

He pulled on the rock in the forest.  He immediately wished he hadn’t.  He heard a pop, not from his back, from somewhere lower down.  He released the rock, and pressed his hand against his abdomen, low, below his beltline.  He swore, silently.

Another child called, “Here’s another rock!”

He staggered from the depression, maintaining pressure, holding himself together. “There’s nothing here,” he said. “Everything is aestivating, or dead.”

Marcus said, “I vote for aestivating.”  The other children only understood the word “dead.”

The interpreter said, “I have to lie down.  And make a phone call.”

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Note!  Today is International Rock Flipping Day

Please investigate the very fruitful and non-painful results of the flipping of rocks by bloggers from around this planet, as presented by rock-flipper extraordinaire Susannah, author of Wanderin' Weeta.


pattib said...

Thank you, Interpreter! Wonderful story. :)

Deesquared said...

Hey Hugh!
I heard about your blog while at an Interpretive Training course today. This post brought back many good memories of programs at Belcarra and Burnaby Lake.
I can't wait to read more of your adventures!
Dianna (Gola) Harvey