Author Archives: tylerbleeker

Killing for Ecology

I’ve been on a killing spree lately. No rampant caterpillar can escape from my smash…or at least my smashing ire. I’m conducting this purge because I’m an environmentalist. Ecology has turned me into a cold-blooded killer.

The standard picture of an environmentalist is often the gentle, peaceful hippie type, someone who expresses tender loving care for all plants and animals on the planet. They are caricatured as supporting all life and opposing all death and violence. As such, killing is not even remotely imagined as a tool that is in the environmentalist’s repertoire; in fact, it may be thought of as the antithesis. But the ecological household of nature operates differently from idealized notions of harmonious environmentalism. As the poet Tennyson would say, nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’; death, as well as life, are integral parts of nature. It is an eat or be eaten type of world, and death is as necessary to nature as every organism’s metabolism. Nature continues on unceasingly because it rests in an appropriate balance between the processes of life and death, fecundity and consumption. But unfortunately, the balance of nature can readily be tipped to a point of drastic change; there exist certain species that can escape their native habitats and alter the balance of the ecosystems in which they land. These species are known as non-native invasive species. Environmentalists and ecologists alike are thus faced with the quandary of whether it is right—and to what extent it is—to kill in order to restore the balance to native ecosystems.

One of the cast of characters that appears on the most harmful invasive species list is the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar dispar). This innocuous little caterpillar—and its flightless adult moth—seem relatively benign singularly, yet the monstrosity of their sheer numbers has been an extreme detriment to the northeastern United States. Native to Europe, the gypsy moth was intentionally brought to America less than 150 years ago in 1869. A man by the name of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot imported the non-native moths with the intent of interbreeding them with silk worms to develop a more resilient silkworm industry. Trouvelot’s experiment inevitably failed, and whether intentional or not, the moths were released from his residence just outside of Boston. Lacking any of their natural predators to keep their population in check, just twenty years later the first major outbreak of gypsy moths occurred in Massachusetts. Trees were defoliated, caterpillars covered everything, and frass (i.e. insect excrement) rained down on the town. Since then, the gypsy moths have started on their relentless march across the northeastern United States. Each year, the gypsy moths stake claim to new habitat, and with it they bring their trail of destruction. Entire sections of forest can be defoliated in an outbreak scenario, and the creatures can easily defoliate more than a million acres of hardwood forest in a given summer.

 

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Spread of Gypsy Moths in the United States, 1900-2007 (compiled by US Forest Service)

 

In early May, the next generation of gypsy moth caterpillars hatch from their over-wintering egg cases and commence their feast. They emerge by the millions and coat everything en masse. The tiny black-haired little crawlers make their visual appearance when they are about an eighth of an inch long, appearing on every natural or human-made object outdoors. The tiny caterpillars spin an elongated strand of silk and their long spikey hairs allow them to get carried by the wind to new places. To the casual observer, it seems like the tiny creatures are flying around. A young gypsy moth hopes to land on a palatable tree so it can begin its banquet and increase in size; barring an ideal landing zone, the caterpillars have a relentless drive to crawl over any obstacle to find a food source. In late spring, the observer can tell once again when the caterpillars have returned and can thus take action before much damage is done to the ecosystem. When the caterpillars are small, they are easy to destroy. Squashing the pests seems inconsequential. Pressing down upon them with a thumb produces nothing but a small black smear. Each caterpillar dispatched is gone forever and its life and memory are no more.

 

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In early May the small gypsy moth caterpillars emerge and coat everything in sight.

 

But as the creatures grow, they become harder and harder to kill both physically and psychologically. They have been feeding for weeks, turning native plant leaves into more gypsy moth biomass. The caterpillars have become larger, less fragile creatures. When they reach half an inch long, they are sizeable enough to squirt out a blob of dark-green or bright-yellow juice whenever they are squashed. At an inch long, they begin to display an adverse reaction to being squeezed; it takes increasing pressure before the caterpillar is popped and its life juices run down the leaves. As the caterpillars keep growing larger, their features become more distinguishable; they have become stronger and actively resist death now with all their might. Killing the destructive organisms is now more of a struggle, particularly a psychological battle for the executioner. The juice that gets on one’s hands sometimes runs a deep red, reminding the slayer that it once belonged to the realm of the living. The breached corpses of the caterpillars clench indefinitely to their leaves even in death, a chilling reminder of the life that once was. These things remind the exterminator that the organism dispatched just moments ago was a living, moving creature.

 

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Older gypsy moth caterpillars in the act of defoliating an apple tree.

 

What right do I have in taking a fellow creature’s life? Especially if they cause little direct harm to me? Is the fate of the ecosystem dependent upon my action as a concerned ecologist? Or should the gypsy moths be left alone and nature allowed to run her course? As the gypsy moth caterpillars grow, they continue to become more and more of a nuisance, even reaching plague proportions. They feverishly eat leaves, turning the native oak trees into Swiss cheese. Infestations can defoliate entire trees and can even lead to tree death; entire sections of native hardwood forest can be denuded by these insects. In a quiet moment in the forests of New England, the very sound of destruction can be heard from the tree-tops. Close your eyes and listen—it is not a sprinkle of rain you are hearing, but the falling frass of the swarm. The oak trees, and other hardwoods, suffer at the mouths of these non-native herbivores. The other native creatures that depend on the forests for food and habitat are adversely affected too. The greed of the gypsy moth’s appetite knows no bounds. Is it thus justified to kill the caterpillars for the sake of the trees and the forest in general?

 

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The damage done to an Oak tree, the gypsy moth caterpillar’s favorite forage.

 

Should we as humans intervene in the situation of invasive species, even if it means the prescribed death of millions of organisms? It is a struggle that we as environmentalists and modern humans must face. Our civilized world has created a narrative that removes us from the brutal truth of ecological relationships and our impact on the natural world. The metabolism of life is neatly tucked away into the folds of textbooks or of the grocery store. We do not see where our food comes from, and we avert our eyes to predation in nature. We do not fully respect the fact that in order for the balance of nature to remain intact, life indeed must be taken. Death has become so unpalatable to our modern culture. It is thus exceedingly difficult to compromise a human distaste for killing with a commitment to the facts of ecology. I am both an environmentalist and an ecologist, yet I too struggle with the necessity of death. Humans are compassionate and sympathetic beings. It is hard to watch a young or injured animal die. We like to root for the underdog to survive. But not every organism in an ecosystem ever survives; it is not even physically possible for every organism in an ecosystem to survive. The balance of nature rests on the facts of metabolism—of life and death. When humans are responsible for bringing the balance of nature to a tipping-point, shouldn’t we also be responsible for correcting our wrongs? Isn’t killing another organism justified in the name of the ecological integrity of the whole system?

I encountered a similar moral dilemma surrounding the eradication of an invasive species when I was in Australia—only this example was more extreme. Instead of simply squashing caterpillars, the most-wanted organism was the cane toad. These creatures were much more relatable than a small caterpillar, and the moral qualms surrounding their eradication were much harder for me personally. The cane toad, a vertebrate, is much more closely related to human kind. Its blood and organs are similar to mine, and I felt as if I had some kind of evolutionary connection to the toad that I didn’t share with a caterpillar. Cane toads are also much larger—reaching up to the size of a dinner plate, and their deaths would prove all the more gruesome because of it. Though I knew intellectually how disruptive the cane toads were to the ecology of Australia, I individually had quite a few reservations about personally killing a cane toad.

Cane toads (Rhinella marina) were introduced to Australia from the tropical Americas in 1935 as a biological control method to combat the cane beetle, which was threatening Australia’s sugar cane crop. In 1935, 102 toads were released in agricultural areas in Queensland. From then to now, cane toad numbers have increased to more than 200 million in Australia today. Adding insult to injury, the introduced cane toads did not even control the cane beetles they were intended to ingest. Instead, cane toads wreak havoc by gorging themselves on native Australian fauna, eating native creatures directly and leaving less food for other native species. Additionally, the cane toads are highly poisonous and use their poison glands as their primary defense mechanism. Native Australian fauna, unfamiliar with the toads, see the meaty morsels as an easy meal. The cane toads do little to resist being bitten, and instead wait for the poison excreted from their skin to kill the pursuing predator. Instead of an easy meal, the Australian wildlife is poisoned to death. As the cane toads continued to hop into uncharted territory in the Australian bush, more and more native wildlife became diminished because of it.

 

Cane Toad

The massive (and massively destructive) cane toad.

 

Cane toads have become a much bemoaned villain in Australia, and the culture Down Under is unsympathetic to the toads. Aussies will use whatever means possible to exterminate a toad. Drivers use them as target practice in the road. Kids use them as cricket balls for sporting events. Humane ethicists advise either freezing or drowning the toads as the most humane method of dispatching the pests. I too, was taught by the Australians to combat the spread of the toads by any means possible. As a backpacker lacking any real resources for the job, I was told to use my most powerful weapon—namely, my boots. I was taught to bluntly kick around the cane toads until they stopped dead.

As an ecologist, I felt that I had to fulfill my duty to an already ravaged ecosystem. And the cane toads were not hard to find. I stayed in many places in Queensland and northern New South Wales where cane toads covered the ground like a plague. Knowing about their negative ecological impact, I was ready to do something about it. At one roadside campsite near a creek and some slickrock, I encountered an abundance of the bedeviled toads. I singled one out. I picked it up by its warty back. Having no predators and no defenses other than their poison, the cane toad made no effort to resist. It didn’t even seem perturbed by being picked up. Holding the toad in my hand, I prepared for what was about to come. I let go of the toad and drop kicked it. The toad went flying onto the slickrock. I made my way to the toad. Dazed, but alive, I found it again. I had already committed to the extermination of this particular toad; it would be cowardly to back out now. Thinking thusly, I repeated the entire process a few more times. With each drop kick I imparted, I knew I was doing damage to the toad. Yet after every kick the toad still groggily got itself back up. I could still tell that the toad was every bit as alive as I was. My efforts at eradicating it simply weren’t enough. The toad wouldn’t be dispatched easily. From the outside, my toad looked every bit a toad as it did before my encounter. But on the inside, I knew, I must have done some damage. I knew I needed to end the suffering promptly and just kill the toad quickly. But I just couldn’t bring myself to the point of squashing down on the toad with my boot against the rock. I was appalled at the thought of the blood and the gore of it all. So instead I did the cowardly thing. I left the toad where I found it, hoping that it would soon die of its injuries. It seemed probable that the toad would have died soon after, but I’ll never know for certain. At any rate, my actions would not have produced anything akin to a quick, painless death. And now, I had to live with being the cause of that death. Though my hatred of cane toads caused me to maim one of their own, it could not overcome my desire to not take a life; all my beliefs about ecological integrity could not manage to win over my sentiments and cause me to end the toad’s life once and for all.

It is still possible that the cane toad I kicked around lived on. If so, the toad lived but it was the ecosystem that suffered because of it. Each cane toad, each gypsy moth that continues to live on in a place outside its native ecosystem continues to tip the balance of ecological resiliency. One does not see the consequences of continued ignorance towards invasive species individually. But collectively, the oak trees will suffer because of it. The native Australian fauna will suffer because of it too. The ecosystem as a whole suffers because of it. And thus, when an organism is causing undue harm as an invasive species, is it right to let it continue on and undermine the integrity of the ecosystem? I think not.

Though killing is psychologically painful, it is often necessary and justified for the sake of ecology.

 

For More Information:

  • Cane Toads: An Unnatural History

  • And the best scene from the film…

  • And the sequel…Cane Toads: The Conquest

The Sands of Time and Change

Some 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, a giant lobe of the continental glacier that stretched across North America during the last ice age ground to a halt during what is known as the Wisconsin Stage, the most recent phase of the last global glaciation. For thousands of years, that small piece of the vast expanse of ice stayed relatively stagnant at its location, neither advancing nor retreating remarkably. Though the terminus of the glacier remained more or less in place, the ice itself continually moved, acting like a giant conveyor belt carrying a load of rocks and sediment scraped from the bedrock of continental North America. Year after year the glacier persisted, bringing layer upon layer of sediment with it. About 12,000 years ago, the planet began to warm dramatically; it was the end of the last ice age. The glacial lobe, melting in the rising global temperatures, retreated north to the arctic where snow persists year round. In its wake was left evidence of the glacier’s presence; on the expansive coastal plain just off the mainland of modern-day Massachusetts was a very conspicuous mound of sediment. That pile of debris, known as a terminal glacial moraine, was the genesis of Cape Cod.

At its start, Cape Cod was little more remarkable than a hilly mound of debris pocked with depressions rising above a broad plain, for off the coast of New England the continental shelf is wide and gradually slopes down to the sea. At the end of the last ice age, with much of the world’s water being locked up in the melting glaciers, the ocean water was much lower than it is presently. For thousands of years after the glacier’s retreat, Cape Cod as we know it was not surrounded by water; it was surrounded by land. Gradually, as the Atlantic began to rise from glacial meltwater, the mound of sand and rocks finally became a peninsula about 3,500 years ago; a very primitive Cape Cod could now be identified by its shoreline. But it was not yet the Cape Cod we know today. It would still take thousands of years more to mold the landscape into its present form.

But even the Cape Cod of today was not the Cape Cod of yesterday, and will not be the Cape Cod of tomorrow. Geologic forces act with gusto on this geologic infant. All around the coast of the Cape is a blanket of sand—the telltale sign of active erosion. Sand moves quite readily in the wind and waves; there is nothing quite so solid about the Cape, no feature quite so permanent. Though formed of sand and rock, the Cape is little more than a giant sand castle in the midst of an angry Atlantic. To find a solid foundation—bedrock—one must burrow hundreds to thousands of feet down. With no solid foundation, the Cape exists in a state of flux. Just twelve thousand years after its creation, the Cape is dramatically different than the day the glaciers retreated. Cape Cod has never found its state of geological stasis.

 

Cape Cod Outline

Conspicuously ringed by a rim of white, the sandy erodible shores of Cape Cod are visible even from space.

 

Incessantly, wind and water work their relentless magic on the Cape, continually transforming the landscape. Though everywhere on the Cape has potential for rapid erosion, nowhere is this process more apparent than on the Eastern seaboard. Unprotected from the vast fury of the Atlantic, the eastern shore faces the brunt of its unmitigated ocean waves. The force of winds and waves cumulatively wash away the beaches lining the shore, which undermines the land above from the base. As more beach disappears into the water, land from above will tumble down to replenish the beach sands. Thousands of years of water undercutting the land have resulted in the wall of characteristic oceanside sand cliffs that line the eastern shore, and the continuously lapping ocean waves have eroded Cape Cod’s initially irregular eastern shore smooth into a long, continuous beach. Taking a look towards the cliffs above reliably reveals how high the land once sat.

 

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On the eastern shore of Cape Cod, the powerful Atlantic Ocean gradually eats away at the edge of the Cape, forming a long continuous beach lined by sand cliffs (@ Nauset Beach).

 

On its eastern shore, Cape Cod loses about three feet of land every year. At its narrowest point just south of Wellfleet, little more than a mile of land separates Cape Cod Bay from the Atlantic. Given the current rate of erosion, the outermost peninsula of Cape Cod will become an island separated from the mainland in less than two millennia. Even on the time-scale of a human life, the rate of erosion is unmistakable. Glancing up at any seaside cliff, one is likely to see the underground remains of society ghastly exposed. Drainpipes emerge from the cliffs, leading nowhere, draining nothing. Electrical cables dangle limp and useless. Large chunks of asphalt lie at the base of the cliffs, evidence of past roads and parking lots. All of this evidence points to the fact that the eastern edge of the Cape was once purposely settled with the intention of staying permanently. But not even modern development could stand up to the forces of erosion over time. Eventually, even this evidence of habitation too shall disappear.

 

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The ghost of previous settlement becomes apparent in the seaside cliffs. Drain pipes and old wiring poke out from the cliffs above (@Nauset Beach).

 

Along with the sand, much of the history of Cape Cod has fallen down the cliffs and disappeared into the hungry mouth of the ocean. The first twin lighthouses at Chatham have long since tumbled into the sea; later lighthouses would be built on moveable bases to prevent a similar fate. The landing spot of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable connecting America to continental Europe in 1879 is no more; that spot where messages were relayed across the ocean now lies more than 300 feet out to sea. As the pursuit of land by the ocean continues, more buildings face the dilemma of either moving or falling into the ocean. Man’s few accomplishments, even as groundbreaking and historic as they may be, are ultimately fleeting and ephemeral. Nothing can stop the onslaught of the elements over time. The ocean serves as a reminder for man to keep his humility.

 

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The view is one thing, but these houses will soon have to face destiny: move or be swallowed by the ocean. (@ LeCount Hollow Beach).

 

Though the eastern shore is rapidly eroding and the Cape loses about 5 to 6 acres of land every year, not all of the elements work to destroy land. Land that is lost will eventually result in land that is created. However, on Cape Cod it is a losing battle; for every acre of land lost, only ½ acre of new land will be created. The rest of the sediment vanishes into the ocean depths. Summer winds transport eroded material along the shore southwards, adding to the sand island of Monomoy off the Cape’s elbow. Strong winter Nor’easters transport most of the sediment down-cape to the curling fist at Provincetown. Here, currents slow and the transported sediments are deposited, forming the classic recurve shape of a sand spit. At the very tip of the Cape, the area known as the Province Lands has been formed very recently, an accumulation of the sandy corpse of the easternmost Cape. The Province Lands are not a glacial feature, but a geologically infantile accumulation of water-deposited sand. But even where deposition occurs, erosion is present also. Just south of Race Point, where sand from the eastern Cape is coming to rest, waves off of Cape Cod Bay move sand south around the Provincetown Harbor towards Long Point. Erosion happens on many scales—a fractal pattern of sand spits develops.

 

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Not all of Cape Cod is disappearing: sand from the eastern shore eventually settles in places like Race Point at the northern tip of the peninsula (Race Point Lighthouse).

 

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Where there is deposition there is also erosion: Herring Beach, just south of Race Point where a road and parking lot are irreversibly disappearing into the ocean.

 

Water is one factor in the continual re-shaping of Cape Cod; wind is another. Unprotected from higher surrounding landforms, Cape Cod is continually ravaged by winds whipping across the seas. Historically, the erosional effect of these winds has been tempered by a layer of vegetation growing on the sandy soil. Though the soil on Cape Cod is poor and holds very little organic matter, these fragile soils once supported great hardwood and softwood forests. Millennia after the glaciers retreated, pioneering species gradually built a thin soil in the sand; larger and lusher trees were then able to grow, a magnificent forest of large pines, oaks, and in places even the nutrient-demanding beech tree. Upon landing in the New World at the Province Lands in 1620, the Mayflower Pilgrims scouted the area and remarked on the majesty of the Cape’s forests, being “compassed about to the very sea with oaks, pines, juniper, sassafras, and other sweet wood.” Though the pilgrims moved on to settle permanently in Plymouth, more European settlers were soon to follow in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. With rapidity the native forests of the Cape were cut down for firewood and agriculture; the thin fragile soil was exposed to the unforgiving winds. The layer of green that held down the topography of Cape Cod was removed, and the fertility of the soil lost with it. By the mid-1800’s, man’s feeble attempts to eke out a living by farming the Cape all but ended. Today the stabilizing forests are in regeneration, the scraggly pitch pines being the first to reappear where man once tilled.

This story of human-induced erosion played out all across the Cape, but nowhere else was its effect as marked or as lasting as in the Province Lands. Though the native vegetation recolonized most of the Cape, not all places were able to return to mature forests. The sandy hills of the Province Lands, once denuded of their forests, created a perpetually shifting dunefield. As the dunes go on their continual relentless march, human habitations and historic buildings are engulfed by the drifting dunes without human intervention. Even today’s darling jewel of Cape Cod tourist towns, Provincetown, was critically threatened by the shifting sands; the fledgling town was close to being abandoned in the 1700’s as sands started to engulf the village. To allow the blowing sand to pass underneath unopposed into Provincetown harbor, residents began building houses on pillars. Efforts to combat the unceasing erosion happened nearly as soon as the dunes started moving. As early as the 1650’s, a law was passed in Provincetown forbidding the trampling of dune vegetation. Such conservation laws continue today, and Provincetown was saved from imminent burial. But the tip of the Cape is far from its pre-colonization state; the winds and sand continue to remind inhabitants of this fact. Paths and roads along Cape Cod’s sandy tip are continuously blanketed by a layer of sand. The Province Lands Dunes—as beautiful as they may be—are a man-made creation, one that has outrun his own control. Though the initial disturbance was created by humans, the relentless winds took over the process of dune movement and continues on to this day.

 

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Erosion is a force on land as it is at sea. Strong winds off the ocean keep a migrating dunefield at the Province Lands.

 

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No structure is safe: without the efforts of human intervention, the Old Harbor Life Saving station would eventually become buried in sand.

 

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Provincetown today. In the 1700’s, blowing sand from the Province Lands threaten to swallow this seaside town.

 

Everywhere on Cape Cod, change to the landscape is occurring. Much of it—the seemingly inconsequential movement of a single salt grain—happens ever so minutely and imperceptibly. Cumulatively, the effects of erosion serve as a reminder of the impermanence of humans and their accomplishments. Nothing, ultimately, lasts forever. Not even a feature as large and well-known as Cape Cod can last. Ultimately, all things are washed away into the sea.

 

For Additional Reading:
O'Brien, Greg (2003). A Guide to Nature on Cape Cod and the Islands. 
        Hyannis, MA: Codfish Press.
Strahler, Arthur N. (1966). A Geologist's View of Cape Cod. Garden City, 
        NY: The Natural History Press.

Permanent

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Like the shifting sand dunes, the seasonal worker rarely stays put for long. (Province Lands Dunes, MA)

If a college education and an advanced degree are supposed to lead to permanent full-time employment, then I seem to have missed the message. It’s been two years since finishing grad school, and I’ve yet to land a permanent job. Instead, my employment history over these past few years has seen me work formally in five different states and informally in one other country. Even the current job I hold, one that is projected to last eight months, will be the longest tenure I’ll have spent at one place since graduating (and that tenure will span three distinct hiring seasons too). While it is a nice change of pace to hold a job and not be actively searching for the next gig down the road, I know that nothing about my current situation will ultimately be permanent. Come October, my seasonal contract will be finished and I’ll be moving on to something as of yet unknown. Nothing about this arrangement is permanent; everything remains in flux.

As the near-future begins to become less cloudy in the magic gazing ball, it appears as though I’m headed to be a career seasonal—at least early on in my career. It’s not at all like fate has been keeping me as a seasonal transient. Whether it’s been highly intentional or not, I’ve ultimately chosen this lifestyle for myself. For me right now, considering a job with a year-round permanent status is a liability and not a benefit. Last winter while searching for future work, I began to flirt with permanent positions. I applied to a few and was eventually offered a year-round permanent position from a wilderness therapy outfit in Vermont. The job sounded great; I’d love to work in wilderness therapy, especially someplace as spectacular as Vermont. But I couldn’t shake that nagging specter of permanency that would have come with the job. Was I ready to commit my life to an unknown indefinite future that I wasn’t remotely close to 100% sure I’d absolutely enjoy? Of course not—at least, not then. So instead I opted for yet another period of seasonal work. It was just less risky to take an 8-month gamble on a job rather than one that could potentially last forever.

Part of my intentions behind choosing seasonal labor is a way to help me fall into a career path, especially early on in my career. I am quite choosy (and a perfectionist to boot), and trying out different jobs to see what I like and don’t like has gotten me much better at discernment for the perfect fit. Navigating the job market has become much easier with practice, and by now I feel quite adept at always being on the lookout for the next greatest gig. Perfectionism aside, I do realize that no job is ever flawless and that there can always be circumstances that could be improved about any given job. But then—at some point, I realize, there will be diminishing returns for trying out new and different jobs. As I’ve continually refined exactly where I find the most joy in my vocation, the list of potential jobs narrows. Could it be then that I would finally be satisfied with a permanent job?

Another draw to seasonal work is that I can try out living in many different places. I did major in geography in grad school after all, and place as a concept is critically important to me. I enjoy traveling, especially to the point of becoming acquainted quite well with different geographies. Though many landscapes hold an allure over me due to their uniqueness, to think about where I’d live permanently is a very serious matter indeed. Rotating through different seasonal jobs is like speed-dating with geography. I can have fling after fling with a variety of places and leave it at that. No strings attached, after all. But emotionally, I still consider myself a true Michigander at heart (even though I’ve scant been in the state in the past four years). I can’t as yet see myself claiming allegiance to any other state. And though I currently live on Cape Cod, I am only an outsider here. Perhaps instead I can consider myself an honorary Cape Codder for the time being. Doing so provides a relationship with much of the benefits but without all the commitment required to declare residency. I had similar sentiments about place when considering the wilderness therapy job in Vermont. Though I’ve been to Vermont and looked fondly upon what I saw there, I just couldn’t begin to even envision transplanting myself entirely to become a Vermonter. With a series of seasonal gigs, though, I know I can always return to my hometown between jobs. I can openly cheat on my beloved Michigan with as many places as I want to, but it is forming a permanent relationship with just one place that feels like a real transgression.

Being non-committal has definitely been a factor in my history of seasonal work. But I think a larger influence may be that I am just too committal—and sometimes too committed for my own good. I have a tremendous capacity for grit and determination, especially seeing things through to the bitter end. Personally, I feel great satisfaction in bringing things to completion and feel it a shame to give up before the natural termination. For better or for worse, I’ve learned to stick it out. The downside to my tenacity is that I can very easily end up sticking it out in a situation where it is better to just cut my losses and leave instead. Pursuing only seasonal work puts a natural limit on this tendency of mine. If I end up in a short-term job that I don’t particularly appreciate, I can stick it out and then take a stab at something else later. If I were to have a permanent position, I would likely keep at it for way longer than would be beneficial to me personally; there just wouldn’t be an intuitive end or an easy out to the position. Instead, I would be faced with the daily gut-wrenching feeling that I’m not in a position that I want—daily wrestling whether or not to continue to stick it out or to make a change, until many months pass by unnoticed while I was wondering the whole while.

Seasonal labor also puts a natural restriction on my all-consuming exuberance and dedication to my work. I’m a perfectionist to the core, one who takes great pride in work accomplished. My identity is in large part based around the job that I do, and thus whatever jobs I end up taking I take very seriously. This seriousness can easily allow me to become consumed by my work. Even when crafting my master’s thesis in grad school (a monumental task which I didn’t particularly enjoy), I became so engrossed in the task that I lost focus on the other pleasures of life. Though I take pride in my work and the ownership which I have in it, too much ownership can cause tunnel vision and blur my focus on what other things matter to me (and also make me lose track of taking care of myself too). To resolve this tendency, I’ve been taking only seasonal jobs, ones where my job responsibilities are of a smaller, daily variety. Any given day on the job could be good, or it could be bad. I can enjoy the good days and brush off the bad days, in either case going home at night to relax free from any further mental obligations of job duties. Since I’m not in a position for the long-term, I don’t have those additional lingering responsibilities of a higher-level job—that glowering cloud of complicated logistics and organizational politics. I don’t feel burdened by the specters of the long-term sustainability of an organization’s programs or other tricky institutional questions. Given my personality, I find enough even in a low-level job to invest in and worry about. I don’t need the extra responsibility laden down on me by a job description; I just go out and add more responsibilities myself.

Even though I’ve felt very satisfied holding only the status of a seasonal worker, I am not immune from the pressures of career advancement—of holding a job at one organization and rising through the ranks. I can sense the pressure to do so; whether such pressure comes internally or externally to me is still a mystery. Given my upper-middle-class upbringing and my level of education, somewhere inside of me I must be convincing myself that I’m letting myself and others down by not climbing the career ladder—that I should be aspiring for something greater in terms of status. Haven’t I, after all, earned a master’s degree to boost me up the employment scale? But two years after earning that degree, I have yet to use it formally. I have instead chosen to dabble in the realm of entry-level work. What was supposed to be a distinguishing mark now serves more of a trivial fact at best (how many people can say they’ve studied wildfire ecology for two years?) or an embarrassment at worst (Master of Science and still earning minimum wage). Shouldn’t I aspire for advancement? I’m at the point where my immediate supervisors are within a few years of my age—or even younger in a few recent instances. Since I’m a high-achieving person, I feel like I should be doing the same as my higher-achieving peers. I know I’m capable of doing so. But I’ve never had any supervisory experience for any job which I’ve held, and I have no desire for any. I’ve always been the supervised, the one being directed what to do. Alas, I feel the pressure to get a regular, permanent job. But so far I’ve been tremendously fulfilled by my seasonal labor; the positions I take are not a way to make a livelihood—they are in fact my livelihood.

I often really enjoy the seasonal jobs which I do find, and often I wish I could stay on for longer. The longing for rootedness and connection are strong within me. But the prospect of ever staying on permanently still seems daunting and unapproachable. As one friend, another long-term seasonal, put it, “I couldn’t see myself signing up for that job for four years all at once, but I can see how I agreed to work there for one year four times in a row.” With any job that I enjoy, more time would be a bonus, but it’s not realistically expected. I always keep open the possibility that I might return to a place I’ve worked before, and I always strive to be the worker that employers would have back in a heartbeat. But I also value the personal renewal and new experiences that come with taking a new seasonal gig in an unfamiliar location. Ultimately, with each of these temporary positions the season will come to a close. Savoring the good aspects of a job while they last can make each day on the job seem all that much sweeter. As for the undesirable parts of a job, they can be toughed out to the end. Though leaving any position has its necessary pains, the natural end to a seasonal job makes the pain of leaving all the more bearable. We can brace ourselves for the fatalistic closure of any given position, for they were never expected to be for eternity from the beginning. It may be taxing to start and stop so many short-term jobs and meet and then leave so many different people; but similar to a long journey, beginning with the inevitable end in mind makes the ultimate departure ever so slightly more bearable and meaningful.

Above all, the biggest draw to seasonal work for me has been the nature of the work itself. I am in this field full of seasonal positions because I enjoy the work that comes with each successive season. I revel in being out in the field as I perform my work. I enjoy the blue-collar aspect of my jobs (as blue-collar as the educational field can be), and a little manual labor now and then serves both the body and soul well. The variety of my job keeps me fresh, and I feel utterly free from not being tied to an office for administrative work (indeed, my greatest employment nightmare is getting stuck in an office job). What’s more is that I enjoy the comradery of my co-workers—multiple people in the same position, working the same job—an egalitarian crew by job description. As a low-level employee, you’re part of the pack and live and die on the teamwork you provide. I’ve found that I thrive on that aspect, relying on others as surely as I am depended upon by my peers. For sure, I’m competitive and want to perform better than my co-workers, but I don’t desire to rise in the ranks above them. Though I am envious of the benefits and respect that the permanents get and I lust for that kind of social standing among my peers, my greater desire is to be one of my peers as well. I like being a team member. As for leadership on the job, my style is one where I want to lead with the respect which I earn from my peers, not with reverence from holding a higher job title. And thus, I feel uncomfortable having a position of power above people. I want to be an everyman; I want to be one of the people. When I find the work that I love to do, then I’d rather do the work myself. Of what benefit is it to me to supervise people doing the things I’d rather be doing myself?

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time as a seasonal, and for the near future, it looks like that will continue. If I could find the right job in the right place, then the prospect of becoming permanently employed wouldn’t scare me as much. But unfortunately, the opportunities to take a permanent job in the wrong place or in the wrong profession are endless. With taking any permanent position I would undoubtedly be left wondering if there was a better-suited job out there somewhere. I am quite picky, after all, and the prospect of not being able to change daunts me. If I were to take a permanent job, I would have to be ABSOLUTELY sure that it’s the job I need to take. Perhaps it may just the word permanent that rubs me in the wrong way. Permanent. Not to be changed. But even a permanent job can be gotten out of fairly easily (though not as easily as seasonal gigs). Maybe instead we should call them indefinite jobs; jobs that finish when the end is appropriate for the worker, instead of when the season concludes. Even so, the costs of taking a permanent job seems more of a burden to bear than the perpetual onslaught of seasonal labor. So I’ll continue to be a seasonal. At least for now…

Turkeys in the Rain

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“Turkeys in the rain and they don’t complain, they just graze in the field with the cattle in the mist”

Seth Bernard and May Erlewine, from “Turkeys in the Rain”

 

Springtime has been coming on gradually in Cape Cod, with slowly warming temperatures as the amount of daylight steadily lengthens. Cool spring rains fall across the landscape as the deciduous trees burst forth their buds into new foliage and flowers. The fauna, long-since arisen from their winter torpor, are milling about their animal business. The cyclical change into springtime causes a hormonal shift and serves as a trigger for much animal behavior; for some, the breeding season is nigh and is fraught with activity. Listen closely. All around the Cape, you may hear the familiar fowl and its iconic gobble as it struts showily about. Yes, both field and forest are alive with a rafter of turkeys (indeed, that is the correct name for a group of turkeys, derived from the antiquated use of the word ‘raft’ as a motley collection of things). After a long winter living in groups separated by sex, the male and female turkeys start to mingle and commence their rituals of courtship. It is quite a show to bear witness.

The turkeys go about their labors, indifferent to rain or shine. The hens, the more pragmatic of the sexes, spend their time foraging about for food. The toms, preoccupied with vanity, fluff out their showy plumage and strut about for the ladies. The frequent rain doesn’t dampen their spirits—they continue on as they had, indifferent without complaints. Nor, as urban legend may have it, do they stare up at a raining sky, mouths agape, until they drown (actually, with eyes on the side of their heads, turkeys would need to tilt their heads sideways in order to view the sky). Neither do the turkeys seem to mind human observers; instead of being frightened by human encroachment, the turkeys merely seem more annoyed with the distraction. The hens, being more vigilant, are the more likely party to move if a visitor gets too close; the toms (also known as gobblers)—well, they still seem a little preoccupied with other matters.

Any given morning during mating season you will hear their distinctive call resounding. The comical gobble-gobble-gobbles of the turkeys pierce through the chirping din of the petite songbirds to dominate the avian conversation. Though the call may sound silly to our own human ears, the gobbling is nothing short of a serious business. With each call, the toms try to attract a mate, and their gobble is one of the criteria upon which they will be judged. Their plumage and showmanship are other vital categories in this talent show. Unlike the drab brown females, the toms are bedazzled with ornate patterns of plumage—stripes and streaks, lights and darks, mottles and dapples. They fluff out their feathers as they strut about their courtship dance, becoming the stereotypical turkey in every grade-schooler art project. Their bald heads and their hanging wattles, in varying shades of red and blue, add to their sexual appeal. On the top of their beaks hangs their snood, a fleshy protuberance that engorges with blood and expands, signaling both the prestige and attractiveness of the mate. The toms’ courtship walk about the fields is reminiscent of the dinosaurs, deliberately stepping about. For all the effort that went into this display, though, I wonder if the hens even care to notice the showmanship.

 

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A rafter of toms

 

For all the pomp and ceremony that the males put into the show, the actual copulation is finished in a swift and inglorious manner. The hen, satisfied with the robustness of her mate, squats down for a quick fertilization. While the mating season is ongoing, the hens will gradually begin to break away from the co-mingled groups to create a nest—little more than a few shallow scratches in the ground under the protection of some dense brush. The hens will lay a few eggs before returning, once again, to the mating show for additional fertilizations. Once they have laid about a dozen eggs, the hens break out from the group entirely and begin the weeks-long period of continuous incubation. The eggs will hatch in June, bringing forth the next generation of poults to continue on with the show next springtime. The toms, as uncommitted as they ever were, re-form their bachelor groups and mill about in the forest. Their days will now be filled with re-establishing their pecking order for when the next mating season comes around.

As the evening fades into dusk, take a glance up into the trees. Maybe a frantic gobble from up above will give it away. The turkeys have taken to the trees to roost for the night. They prefer the stands of towering old white pines, where the branches are thick, straight, and long, and where the inner foliage of the trees is sparse. Up safely off terra firma, the turkeys can avoid their many ground predators as they rest through the night.  Though they are large heavy birds and look like a Thanksgiving dinner, turkeys are actually quite adept fliers. They can muscle their way up into the lower branches of a tree, where they will hop about from branch to branch continually climbing higher into the canopy. Look up and you may be lucky enough to catch the motion of them flying from branch to branch.

As you observe the wild turkeys here on Cape Cod, you may notice how abundant they seem to be. As in the days of the pilgrims, these plump birds casually roam the forest en masse. Turkeys haven’t always been so abundant though. With increasing settlement and more game-hunting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the number of wild turkeys dropped precipitously. Eventually the iconic fowls disappeared from Cape Cod altogether. In Massachusetts, the very state where Thanksgiving was first celebrated (and very likely served turkey) the last wild turkeys were extirpated in 1851. Only recently, were these charismatic birds reintroduced onto Cape Cod. In 1989, 18 wild turkeys were re-introduced onto the wilds of Cape Cod’s Otis Air Force Base, which lies just a few miles away from camp. If all the evidence points correctly, clearly the turkeys have taken off really well since then.

 

Trail Trash

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Camp’s magical bin of “Trail Trash”

At camp there is a magical box. It’s a magical box because the more trash that gets put into it, the cleaner camp becomes. This box is known as our Trail Trash, a motley collection of litter odds and ends found scattered across the camp property.

Though our camp may be on an expansive forested area in a natural setting, it doesn’t mean that litter isn’t produced here. Quite the contrary, actually, as our camp plays host to a multitude of 5th graders over the course of a few days for their environmental education. With ten year olds, a whole compilation of stereotypical litter materializes on the ground seemingly out of nowhere—candy wrappers, chip bags, plastic toys. The vast amount that gets dropped is tremendous, as if every 5th grader’s pocket leads directly to the ground. At camp, we can forgive this incidence of litter with magnanimity because the students are young and still learning to look after themselves and their surroundings. Thus, when leading a group of students through camp, I always keep my eyes peeled on the ground for those teachable moments inherent in litter. If I am inspiring and unyielding enough about picking up litter, then after every class I lead the students will have collected for me a few pocketfuls of trash to add to the Trail Trash bin.

I don’t like to think of litter as inevitable, but it is a part of life that must be dealt with. Even with the best of intentions, we all unknowingly litter. Things fall out of our pockets, or get sucked out the car window. We fumble a wrapper that is immediately swept up by a breeze. Something slips from our grasp and drops irretrievably into a crevice. We forget about things we’ve left outside, and before we can remember they have been lost to the entropy of the environment. I have littered in these ways a lot—countless times, in fact. Like death and taxes, it seems that litter is one of the few guarantees of life. But the inevitability of litter doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything about it.

This is why we so strongly encourage and model the responsibility of picking up litter at camp. Ultimately, the vast majority of trash on our camp is produced by our campers. Through the practice of picking up trash instead of blithely walking past it, students become involved in the solution of cleaning up their own environment (though they likely don’t even realize that they are the ones making it dirty in the first place). Our students learn that it is not only environmentally unacceptable—but also socially unacceptable—to cast unwanted items into the environment. They learn that when throwing something ‘away’, there really is no away. From the trash the students pick up, they can visually see that the litter on the ground stays on the ground and continues to get trampled into the dirt until someone takes the initiative to pick it up.

I love referencing the Trail Trash bin at camp because it gives me great satisfaction to pick up litter and then deposit a handful of it into the bin, continually watching the level of trash rise. The bin provides a clear visual demonstration of our human impact on our hyper-local environment. The same sentiment towards trash compels me to pick up litter in other areas where I find myself as well, not just when I’m leading children at my job. Having lived and traveled to many places, I have seen firsthand how litter is a problem everywhere. Rubbish is just casually tossed aside to join the ranks of other discarded items on the wayside, and few places have advocates championing for their cleaning. Maybe not everyone feels the same way about litter as I do. Maybe not everyone knows better either. But trash is trash nonetheless.

Litter is a form of pollution, but unlike some forms of chemical or radioactive pollution, litter is something that we can tangibly handle. It is a visual presence as well, the results of trash being immediately observable to the onlooker. There is really no excuse for the amount of litter in our society where we all should have learned better. But just taking a look down any old highway or around any old vacant lot, one will see that we still haven’t acted any differently. Litter is the low-hanging fruit of pollution. It is everywhere. It takes no specialized equipment to clean up. If our goal is to clean up our environment in all forms, maybe we can start small. We can start with the pollution that’s the most obvious and unsightly and close to home. We can challenge ourselves to pick up trash instead of walking over it. Maybe then, more people will begin to be interested in solving some of our more troublesome pollution problems.

 

Cape Cod Canal

The popular park lining the Cape Cod Canal

 

Since I absolutely love the feeling of accomplishment from picking up litter, I recently went to a trash clean-up event along the Cape Cod Canal in honor of Earth Day. Along the canal runs a narrow linear park with open space and a recreational trail popular with residents and tourists alike. For an organized clean-up area, the canal was in pretty good shape to begin with. In order to find trash, the volunteers had to scramble down onto the rocks which line the canal and rummage through the seaweed in order to find small bits of litter. After a couple of hours of searching, I didn’t even manage to fill my large trash bag. I pulled out lots of individual pieces of trash though, but most of what came out of the weeds was small, fragmented bits of plastic—water bottle caps, drinking straws, cigarette filter tips, plastic rope fragments, balloon ribbon. Though it may have not been completely satisfying to only find small bits of trash, the clean-up event was gratifying nonetheless based on the fact of what trash wasn’t there. The evidence from this clean-up meant that the bigger and uglier trash is either being picked up or not produced at all—well, at least in our well-loved public parks. What remains in the environment are the smaller, more hidden bits of trash that may not have even been intentionally disposed of improperly. This example provides some hope that we must be doing a good job educating people about not littering—at least in some places. On my drive back to camp that day, I could still see all the roadside clutter clearly visible at 55 mph. Cleaning up our recreational areas is a good start, but our less beloved areas still tend to get carelessly dumped on.

 

Roadside Litter

Compiled rubbish common along many a roadside

 

But at least picking up litter is a place to begin. I genuinely hope that someday trash won’t be such a problem in our society. I hope that someday the trash that we’re picking up now—the small, one-time use disposable plastic bric-a-brac—will be phased out of our society completely. Educating people not to litter is one challenge, but the bigger underlying challenge is to refrain from producing all that garbage to begin with.

Crepuscular Awakening

Crepuscular Owl

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To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Wendell Berry, “To Know the Dark”

space

There is a certain phase between day and night, a time of transition, where the diurnal blends into the nocturnal. These periods of emergent light and shifting darkness make up the twilights of the day—the bimodal intervals between dawn and sunrise, and between sunset and dusk. This is a time on the edges, on the border of binary classification. Organisms that make their way about in these in-between times are known as crepuscular. Those active strictly in the morning twilight are the matutinal; those active solely in the evening twilight are vespertine.

Many familiar creatures make their way about in this altered level of light, taking advantage of both the dimness and the illumination. This is the time to be crepuscular. Under these conditions, a multitude of large forest dwelling creatures emerge—bear, deer, moose—along with their small mammal compatriots: skunks, raccoons, possums, rabbits. Many creatures of the air take flight. The insects—mosquitoes, moths, fireflies. The birds—the owls, the nighthawks. The charismatic bats also take wing. It is now that the active behaviors of these creatures peak. To bear witness to these crepuscular awakenings, the intrepid observer must come join the experience, without light, as a member of the dark.

You are in the middle of it now. Let your feet and voice be silent as you travel in deeper. You will find that the woods are alive with sounds and movements. Careful! Listen close! You too will hear and know the character of the fading light. Though the growing darkness distorts your human vision, fear not. There is nothing to be afraid of in these woods. Nothing in the night is any more dangerous to you than during the day. With transformed senses and unfamiliar sensations, your mind fills in the gaps and imagination runs wild. Yet don’t be alarmed. These crepuscular creatures are more afraid of you than you are of them. Relax. Stay a spell. You may become privy to the hoot of an owl or catch the gliding wisp of a bat overhead.

This twilight journey has been a distinctive experience for you, for humans are not crepuscular creatures. We are largely diurnal, adapted to the brightness of day. Our main sensory experience, our vision, works best in broad daylight. As the day fades into twilight, our eyes begin to cope. The iris expands and the pupils dilate to allow in the dissipating light. Inside the eye, the cones—the sensory cells that detect color and detail—begin to shut down in the dimness. Colors begin to fade, details blur. The acuity of vision diminishes. Yet within the eye, the counterpart of the cones—the rods—begin to become engaged. With the activation of the rods, contrast and shadow become keener, movement more detectable. The silhouettes of trees overhead begin to pop against the dimming sky. The rods readily pick up movement in the periphery of your vision. What was that?!? Did something move? In your periphery, you may detect movement, but oh what tricks your mind may also play on you! The darkness is unfamiliar territory; you are more wary, more attuned to sudden movement.

Yet there are creatures about. There is an abundance of life that is indeed adapted to the crepuscular world. The fading light offers a veil of protection for easy prey, yet illumination enough by which to forage. Predators, too, make use of the twilight as a time of feeding. Equally adapted to the hunt, the crepuscular predators seek out their crepuscular prey. In the twilight, the never-ending battle of evolution ebbs on. Owls, marauders of the night sky, have large eyes adapted to gathering the few rays of light available; binaural hearing, also known as asymmetrical ear placement, allows the owl to detect differences in sound occurrence down to 30 millionths of a second, letting them pinpoint even the tiniest rustle on the forest floor. Overhead the sky is filled with the noise of sound waves, inaudible to the human ear. The bats have emerged and fill the night sky with their echolocation. By emitting their sonar in flight, bats are able to precisely locate the abundance of crepuscular insects upon which they feast. It is a world of eat and be eaten.

All daylight has now faded. At astronomical dusk, the light from the sun no longer can reach over the horizon—it is now as dark as it can get. The period of crepuscular animals is ending. Patiently they will wait again until the next time of twilight. Truly nocturnal animals now make their way about the forest. Take a moment to gaze up now. The sky abounds with a brilliance of stars. Even in the dark, light from a thousand distant suns still caress the planet with their brightness. Even in the darkness, there is light. Even in the darkness there is knowing.

To the Spiders in the Bathroom Corner

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“I seek a garret. The spiders must not be disturbed, nor the floor swept, nor the lumber arranged.”

* Henry David Thoreau *

 

There is a congregation of spiders who reside in the corners of my bathroom. Inverted, they hang from the ceiling, by day and by night. They are small-bodied creatures; their combined head and thoracic sections—the cephalothorax—is rounded into a light-brown disk no bigger than a lentil; the abdomen, dark brown and cylindrical, the size of a peanut. The body is flanked on both sides by long spindly legs, light-tan as the thorax but with kneecaps of auburn. Chelicerae hang abruptly from the mouth like two tiny stilettos. Taken together, these parts compose a graceful creature—thin, delicate, fragile. A handsome specimen of nature.

But how did they get here? How did they arrive in this indifferent human world so far removed from the wild? There is no window in the bathroom, no apparent opening to the outside world. No cracks in the walls seem large enough for them to squeeze their gangly legs through. Surely they have not crawled out of the drain, for they do not seem to like the moisture—they spend their lives on the near-side of the bathroom, far-removed from the dampness of the shower. Have they spontaneously arisen from the lavatorial miasma?

And why are they here? Why have they arrived, and how did they find their way? Are these creatures lost souls in an alien human habitat? Are they, perhaps, just frightened émigrés huddled in a dry corner, fearful of the strange land they have stumbled upon, haunted by the large creatures that repeatedly visit? Do these spiders even recollect the outdoors or pine away for its presence—a storied, sylvan world now lost to them?

Maybe they have spent all their lives here. Maybe they were born to a generation of bathroom-dwelling arachnids, generation after generation after generation. Maybe the barren corners of the bathroom ceiling is all they have known. Despite their mysterious origins and incongruous circumstances, theirs seems to be a contented life. Though resplendently graceful, they seldom move. They stand an enduring guard over the sink and toilet, watchmen on an eternal silent vigil. Quiet, monastic, unhurried. Ever present, ever-vigilant. They lead lives of amity.

Their webs, if they do make any, are non-descript. Invisible. Wispy cobwebs of fluffy silk bundled in the corners, of seemingly no practical use. Inside, there appears to be no insects victimized. In fact, the spiders seem to share the bathroom with no fellow invertebrate dwellers. From where do these spiders get their sustenance? Do they eat at all?

I’ve chosen to live with the spiders in the bathroom. They are not demanding guests. They cause no fuss. Their presence has become part of the décor; I can no more think of the bathroom without thinking about the spiders that inhabit it. Why spoil the commensal relationship we have together, out of a desire to clean and tidy? No, these creatures are part of the home, welcome as a cherished guest. They have just as every right to exist and inhabit this space as we do. We and the spiders, both fellow creatures adorned on our home the earth together, seeking out our livelihood whichever way we can.

 

Making the House Ready for the Lord

 

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but

     Still nothing is as shining as it should be

For you. Under the sink, for example, is an

     uproar of mice – it is the season of their

many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves

     and through the walls the squirrels

have gnawed their ragged entrances– but it is the season

     when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And

the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard

     While the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;

what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling

     in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly

up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will

     come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,

the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know

    that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,

As I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.

 * Mary Oliver *

PostSecret Confessions

PostSecret

 

Dear Readers;

I have a confession. I have sent anonymous secrets through the mail to a man named Frank who lives in Maryland.

Signed,

Anonymous

 

What is it about secret confessions and their anonymity that draws us in? Why are we intrigued by the private admissions of others? Is it a voyeuristic thrill at becoming privy to someone else’s inner being? Is it that we feel oddly connected to the vulnerability espoused by another—a vicarious living through another’s susceptibility without having to be vulnerable ourselves?

Since 2005, there has been an active channel to send one’s anonymous confessions broadcast on a postcard via standard mail. The PostSecret project, as it is formally known, was started by a man in Maryland named Frank Warren. It was an experiment. A community-fueled mass mail art project. Confessions being mailed in had no restrictions on content or style, so long as they were true and a genuine first-time confession. Since its inception, the PostSecret project has grown into a large social experiment shedding light on the hidden side of human life. It has become a clearinghouse of secrets and confessions, both mundane and salacious. The collective consciousness of the confessions is a window into the human condition.

I find myself continually drawn to the PostSecret project. I am inextricably attracted to the struggle and humanity expressed in the postcard confessions. A simple piece of paper, an anonymous hand-scrawled message, is a gateway into the breaking down of the barriers and facades that bind us to polite society. The reader of the postcards is as anonymous as the sender, a conversation happens in which no one speaks face to face. Does the reader relate to the struggle of uncertainty and vulnerability? Is the reader only humoring himself? And how many people, if any at all, will eventually see one’s confession?

After being merely a consumer for many months, I have decided to join the ranks of the confessors. Understandably, I have sent in no groundbreaking confessions of my own. Compared to the content of many postcards, mine are quite tame. I will not spoil my secrets by publically disclosing them here. But mine have been confessions more akin to bad manners and personal oddities that don’t quite match up to social etiquette. ‘I enjoy peeling gum of off the bottoms of chairs,’ would be an example similar to the content of my confessions. It’s a small start. But it imbues a powerful feeling nonetheless.

Reading these postcards and sending in my own confessions, I feel a sense of solidarity with the community of unknown contributors. It gives me a sense that I’m not so much alone in the world. That other people, like me, are indeed strange and have many quirks and idiosyncrasies that we cover over in the going-abouts of our daily lives. Each confession sent also provides a sense of relief. A freeing feeling. A sense of liberation at getting something off your chest.

Has the PostSecret project amassed its popularity because it is so hard to be open and vulnerable? Because it is so tough to find a confidant in other people? Perhaps it’s because life is so much about image, about putting on a game face and hiding what’s underneath. We don’t normally get exposed to the nitty-gritty details that lie at the core of a person. Is it because we have a deep-rooted desire to be known and exposed that we seek to confess to others?

Posting this blog article is a confession in itself. A confession of having confessed something. But the audience remains anonymous. To paraphrase Annie Dillard, writing is the most egotistical endeavor; instead of personally telling their story to a select few people, the writer chooses instead to pursue the attention of anonymous thousands. Maybe sometimes all it takes is a nameless confession in front of a multitude of strangers to feel some sense of comradery.

 

Check out more about the project at http://postsecret.com/

~Or~

Send in your own secret to

PostSecret

13345 Copper Ridge Road

Germantown, MD

20874

 

PTA Mom

 

Dollhouses

Primitive Survival Instincts Bred in the Toxic Classroom Environment

Tornado Classroom

 

It all changed after a series of bad days. Especially after one particularly tough day where I ended up reaching a turning point. It started, innocently enough, in a kindergarten classroom. Within the first 20 minutes of class, one troublesome boy raised both his middle fingers and yelled ‘fuck you’ to a classmate. Accepting his correction, but not changing his behavior, he continued to harass and hit other students throughout the morning. Later on, a tardy student walked into the class, promptly stealing some chapstick from another student. After refusing to correct her actions and to make amends with that student, she became defiant. “Make me, motherfuckin’ bitches,” she called out as she ran around the room, “Go ahead—call the principle. She’s a bitch!”

The afternoon, unfortunately, got worse. Instead of kindergarten, I was switched to a second-grade classroom. Older kids did not mean more mature behavior. Instead, when the students came in from lunch recess, they immediately proceeded to physically fight with one another. One student raised a chair above his head and threatened to throw it. The principle had to be summoned—the quarrelling students had to be removed. While waiting for backup to arrive, I held the most intent student back by the shoulders. He had been insulted by another student and was now deadest on pummeling him. I got down on the student’s level to reason with him. He made no eye contact, he spoke nothing. All I could see was the glazed, glowering expression of a young boy narrowly focused on physical atonement on those who he felt had wronged him.

Both classrooms ended in chaos. That school was not a safe learning environment. It was a place where physical and emotional violence was dripping at the seams. Driving home that day, I reflected on what I had just experienced. It was a lot to process. Once back to the safety inside my house, I plopped down on a chair in the living room. A visceral sense of relief finally settled over me. As I debriefed my day with my housemate, my body started to physically tremble, sympathetically, autonomically. While at school, my adrenaline was flowing in the moment as my attention was focused on the extreme behavioral challenges in the classroom. Once fully removed from the situation, my body was left quaking from the trauma of the day.

That was the turning point for me. At my third week of substitute teaching, I came to a crossroads. It was either get tough or get out. I knew I couldn’t continue in the teaching position with my idealistic attitudes of kindness and compassion. So I got tough. Instead of focusing on nurturing the development of the students, it became more imperative just to control them. It was an unfortunate reality, but this change of focus was a move for my own survival as a teacher. The situation had devolved to a point where basic jungle survival instincts kicked in.

As an idealist, I came into the job soft and compassionate, motivated by the belief that I could make a profound impact upon the youth. I wanted to look favorably upon children as kind and innocent. I wanted to run the classroom with fairness and generosity, giving the students the benefit of the doubt in all situations. Fundamentally, I wanted to foster holistic personal growth in the students—all within the short day-long duration of my stints as a sub.

Instead, I shockingly found what could become a very corrosive environment inside the classroom. These kids don’t know you, and they don’t respect you because of it. They aren’t of the upbringing where they learned to respectfully listen and obey adults or authority. To them, you are a stranger with no weight or consequence to their lives. They see you and think they don’t have to follow because “Man, I don’t even know you,” or “You’re not a real teacher.” The relationship I developed with the students never reached my idealized version of youth mentorship; instead, what organically developed was a predicament of antagonistic adversaries. As a substitute, you have to be stern and assert your authority, lest you quickly lose control of the class. You budge an inch, the kids take a mile. Eventually, you begin to develop the mentality of a prison guard controlling your wards. Your task as a sub is to force your prisoners to follow the lesson plans no matter how much they try to derail your efforts.

In the end, I became a much more callous person. My patience shortened. Authority and control became my goals—not out of a desire for control itself, but out of sheer necessity. Each morning, I had to prepare for battle with the mindset that these kids are out to tear me down. In a behaviorally troublesome classroom, I had to enter drill sergeant mode quite frequently, barking the students into a terrified submission. Often, I had to publicly shame certain students in front of the classroom just to make an example of them. Teaching was not an uplifting experience—for me or for the students.

For all those reasons, I had to quit being a substitute teacher. The person I feel that I am and the person I feel like I want to be did not line up with who I was becoming as a substitute. So I had to quit while I was ahead, before my integrity became corrupted by the corrosive classroom environment. I honestly enjoy working with children, but how did teaching become a position where children are viewed as the enemy? I’m not that kind of person. I don’t want to be that kind of person. But I am as much a product of my environment, and those toxic classrooms created a menace in me. I never wanted to yell at kids. I didn’t enter education to yell at children. But nevertheless I found myself slipping into the mire of the circumstances.

More than anything else, I was appalled by what I witnessed as the toxic learning environments that predominated in many school classrooms. It started with a culture of disrespect for the teacher and for the learning process, then broadened to include a disrespect for any students interested in learning. In my classrooms, there were numerous fights and countless episodes of crying. There were times where I as a teacher did not feel safe in the classroom. No doubt that my students, young and vulnerable as they are, felt any safer. Instead of becoming an opportunity for inquiry, learning became the punishment for misbehavior. How, then, can you expect anyone to value or invest in the educational process? Thus, I had to remove myself from the situation once I felt myself contributing to the culture of school as a penal system.

In stark contrast, life was much easier in the suburbs. I found I could be more relaxed and compassionate towards the students, reaching closer to my idealized vision of classroom flourishing. Instead of being a punisher and enforcer, I could be a friend, mentor, and teacher. But even though the suburbs are easier, I couldn’t allow myself to stay there. I could never feel right about selling out to the suburban school districts and contributing to the flight that attracts resources away from the already under-resourced districts. I felt it more important to be in the urban school districts where the behavioral issues were most pressing and the impact of a teacher is most needed. But I also found that I couldn’t survive there—at least, I found I couldn’t survive there while being the type of person I was striving to be. Being in the inner-city classroom for too long reverts one back to primitive survival instincts. Values like kindness and compassion take a backseat when your main goal becomes surviving the day.

The Inevitable Predictability of Career Tests

paper-stack-messy-desk

 

I’m a sucker for a good personality test. Still am, even as I get older and my personality seems to cement. I habitually take and re-take old favorites like Myers-Briggs, True Colors, or Enneagram just to see what my results are—generally, to see if they match the way I feel about myself. Retaking the tests as I mature, I’m always curious if my more recent results still match my results from earlier. Partly, this fascination stems from me always searching for new insights into myself—particularly, the kind of insights that feel certain and definite, like those garnered from the results of a scientific personality test.

My early college career was a particularly fruitful time for taking such tests. As an emerging adult trying to understand himself in a college context, such tests provided reassurance; they were like a friend who knew me well enough to point out that I’m not altogether crazy or odd. And with the personality tests came the related career-matching tests; young college me also needed to discern what role he would play in the adult world.

One test that stood out to me way back when and still stands out to me now was a career-matching test—the Strong Interest Inventory—taken at the career counseling center midway through my first semester. When I took this test, I was not looking for career matches in particular—I was still a stubbornly committed engineering major who was only taking the test as part of another class’s assignment. Given my doubts about the necessity of career counseling to begin with (I can figure everything out on my own, right?), offering the test as class credit was a great way to incentivize one reluctant college freshmen to venture into the career counseling office. However, upon having the test explained to me by the career counselors, I became intensely intrigued out of the sheer curiosity of what insights these tests might provide about myself.

The Strong Interest Inventory was not exactly just a career-matching test. Rather, it was a query of what I was good at and what activities I found fulfilling—and then the test metrics compared my results to the jobs in which people with similar aptitudes and interests described as fulfilling. Essentially this test was a comparison of how well my personality and interests would fit into a wide range of career fields.

A week later, after the results of the test were processed, I went back to career counseling to see the outcomes. As a college freshman blindingly intent on the engineering program, I wasn’t too happy with what I learned. Although already disappointed by the lack of joy that I was encountering as an engineering major, I was even more disappointed with the results of the career match survey. It wasn’t a surprise, then, that engineering was not in my top ten job matches. In fact, engineering scored rather low on the list, which gave some validity to the less-than-amorous feelings I’d been having to the engineering discipline. But—what I couldn’t get over was what my top career matches actually were.

 

Career Test Snip

 

Sitting there smack dab in my top ten matches were jobs I’d never even think of considering: chiropractor, corporate trainer, school counselor, nursing home administrator…on and on. Sure, I definitely could have seen myself as a carpenter. But match number two as a minister? (oddly enough, writing a blog post seems peculiarly similar to writing a sermon). And my top match…an elementary school teacher?!? What?!?!? Are you sure you didn’t mix my results up with someone else?

To my abundant surprise, my top ten career matches were vastly different than expected. As high school me had thought so strongly of his performance in the ‘hard’ disciplines of math and science (my stronger subjects in high school) and had greatly relished his introversion (i.e., I didn’t want a job working with people), he couldn’t have seen himself touching any of those occupations with a ten-foot pole. Opposite of my hard-science, asocial bias, my top ten matches were all very much centered on the social disciplines.

As a college freshman, I found the results so far removed from my expectations that they were amusing, borderline comical. I quickly dismissed the results and switched my major from engineering to…biology (to stay in the sciences, of course). I was not quite ready for such a radical switch from the picture I had of myself as an elitist physical scientist, nor did I believe I would desire such a socially-oriented job either. Sure, engineering was not for me, but even less could I envision myself in those other careers.

I tucked the results of that career-matching test away in a folder, somewhat out of personal respect at the mound of high-grade paper it was printed on, and partly out of the sheer curiosity of how wildly unexpected the results were. I mean, c’mon…nursing home administrator?

But reality found a way of having its last laugh on me. Though I shunned the outcome, I nevertheless kept making choices that wound me closer to the results of the test. My majors in biology and environmental studies deepened my love of nature, a passion that I couldn’t help but share with others. So I decided to begin working in the outdoors in a capacity where I could share this passion, first becoming an outdoor guide and then later teaching environmental education. After gaining some experience with youth in education, it wasn’t such a big leap to take on classroom substitute teaching when the circumstances called for filling in a gap in employment. That, of course, led to working in public schools—where the bulk of available assignments come at the elementary level. Thus, out of economic necessity more than sheer personal desire, I found myself working as my top career-match from that test of my freshman year. Inevitably, I have worked as an elementary school teacher.

And you know what? I agreed with the test results. Far from the discordance I felt earlier while in the engineering discipline, I found the elementary job to be meaningful and fulfilling. Being an elementary school teacher was a challenge that I could both accomplish and feel like I was making a positive difference in the world. Somehow the results of that career test snuck up on me. I’m glad they did. Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t even have begun to suspect that I would enjoy such a job.

Maybe there is a degree of validity to all these career tests that we take. After all, I didn’t go out in search of the types of jobs matched for me. Rather, one thing just led to another and I ended up stumbling to results myself.

(Perhaps maybe the results of another career-test will sneak up on me—during graduate school, I took a different career test that gave me the top occupations of nanny, combat soldier, gynecologist, and underwater welder. Of those, I’d take the underwater welder!)