Tuesday, July 28, 2009
I've been employed seasonally since 2005, and this is the opportunity that I've been hoping for. The permanent jobs just don't come along very often, and when they do, they are so competitive it's usually not worth trying. Even the seasonal jobs I'm competitive for usually fall through. But my strategy of applying for a job that opened while everyone else was working (during the summer) and in a place no one knows about, in a state people don't usually flock to, seems to have paid off again.
Duties are more limited at Ft. Larned so my job classification is "Park Guide." I will do some of the usual duties of visitor centers and guided programs, but I will also get to do living history demonstrations. Ft. Larned is a historic U.S. Army fort on the Santa Fe Trail.
Of course, I owe thanks to the many people that have helped me all along the way at Glacier National Park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and Pipestone National Monument.
Monday, July 27, 2009
Me: "Can you be more specific?"
Visitor: "It sounded like... 'HUUUNGH!'"
Me: "Ha! Can you make that sound again?!"
I apologize for a lack of theme or common thread to the post this week, but there has been a lot going on that I just want to make notes about.
There was an explosion of wildflowers this past week with the leadplant and yellow prairie coneflowers lighting up the prairie with purple and yellow. The native, warm season grasses are shooting up and will get very tall soon. I forgot to bring my camera this week to take a picture of it, but it turned out I was too busy anyway. Speaking of tall, the farmers' corn has shot up and across much of southern Minnesota, the corn is flowering. The weather has been very nice! I haven't had to use my air conditioner since June! After a couple wet weeks at the beginning of July, it has dried out, partly because of the high pressure system that is also keeping temperatures down.
This was a busy weekend in the park as the Love of the Land Rendezvous went on. It's not as big of an affair as North American Indian Days out in Browning, MT, but it's basically all the same things you might expect if you've been to that sort of event before: drumming and dancing, arts and crafts, indian tacos. Alice Erickson made some great indian tacos. One of those is plenty enough to eat for a whole day. The rendezvous kept us busy in the park over the weekend and we had more visitors on Saturday than any other day yet this summer. My grandparents came to visit on their way to a family reunion in South Dakota, and it was nice to see them if only for a short while!
On Thursday, I was walking the trail and found a deer with a spotted fawn prancing around her in the grass. Then I noticed a pair of orchard orioles flitting around in the trees nearby. I watched them for a while since I had not seen then in several weeks. Proceeding down the trail, I saw the male red-winged blackbird in a perch he typically uses, but this time, he was squawking and making a variety of angry noises at me. The female appeared and fluttered around my head a little bit. It was obvious they had a nest there, so I played with them a little bit, stepping one step closer and making them get agitated, then stepping away a step or two and letting them calm down before stepping closer again. I was amusing myself with that when I heard an unfamiliar, piercing honk sound. It was a green heron, which flew in and perched at the top of a nearby tree. Sometimes you see everything all at once!
I saw some folks using a credit card with a picture of Bucky Badger on it. I told them I liked it and that I used to sit "Riiiight about there, in Section O." The man said, "O sucks!" And I said, "I can't give you the reply!" He said, "I know!" I guess you have to know what Section O is all about to understand why that's funny, but suffice to say that Section O has a reputation and has specific cheers at UW football games, and the job of the rest of the sections is to harass Section O, and a startling degree of profanity is used both ways.
Yesterday, the phone rang at the visitor center. I was helping other visitors and didn't take the call, but I could hear another ranger talking to the person, trying to give directions. I could only hear one side of the conversation, but I could hear the ranger saying, "Did you see the signs? Where are you now? No, no, that's the housing area!" Once the people finally got sorted out and to the visitor center, they told us they had followed their GPS and it had taken them as far as the Three Maidens, the picnic spot at the entrance of the park. They couldn't find the visitor center because their Garmin GPS did not lead them straight to it. They literally followed the GPS so loyally, they never looked around to see where they were. If they had, they might have noticed that the road continued straight to the visitor center - there is nowhere else to go. It was yet another, "How do some people function in society?" moment that is always terrifying. The incident reminded me exactly of the scene on The Office regarding loyal GPS-following.
UPDATE: Even worse. A middle-aged Swedish couple on holiday in Italy drove 650 kilometres out of their way when their GPS system confused the island of Capri with the northern Italian town of Carpi.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
We have asked that donations be made to the Medical College of Wisconsin, specifically for Multiple Myeloma Research. You may do that online at http:\\secure.mcw.edu, and make sure to specify that the gift is for "multiple myeloma research" in the comments section.
Working as a park ranger, people ask me a lot of questions that I don’t think they would ask other people, such as “What made you want to do this job,” and “How did you get this job?!” As for the second question, there is a straightforward answer: I applied for it. The first question, though, “What made you want to do this job,” is much more difficult to answer. The best I can tell people is that a lifetime of experiences led me to it.
Expanding on the point, I might tell people that, well, yeah, I was in Boy Scouts and we did a lot of camping with them and with my family, and I took some field study classes in college that made me interested in a career in something like a park ranger. But, after the events this week, and reflecting on my relationship with my Mom, I realized that my interest in the outdoors is much more deeply rooted than that.
I can remember a time when I was very young, running through the back yard of the blue house on 28th Street in Cedar Rapids on a warm summer night, catching lightning bugs and putting them into a mesh jar that, after enough work, began to twinkle and glow with the abdomens of dozens of lightning bugs. I also remember that my Mom said that when she was a kid, they used to catch the lightning bugs, pull off their tails, and wear the glowing part on their finger like a gem on a ring. I know I tried that many times. I had great fun! It seems gross now.
I can remember a time when my mom pointed out the shed exoskeletons of cicadas that had climbed out of the ground onto a tree, then hatched into their mature form, leaving their old shell behind. She always called them “locust shells.” I learned to look for the shells on the trees, and, one summer, I hunted the back yard for them for days, maybe weeks, and built up an impressive pile of cicada shells on her deck as a cat might leave a grotesque offering expecting some sort of thanks or praise. I had great fun! It seems gross now.
I can remember a time when my mom signed me up for a week at Camp Hitaga, where she and members of her family had spent many happy summers attending and working. I remember one of the chores assigned to my group was to clean up around the horse stables, and my job was mainly to shovel dried horse manure into a wheelbarrow and dump it into a big pile. I had great fun! It seems unappealing now.
Of course, I can also remember many times when I was roused from a slumber in my sleeping bag in a tent somewhere in the woods by the sound of the Coleman stove being primed, lit, and pumped, and the sound of percolating coffee as my Mom got ready to prepare breakfast.
Once, while hiking in the woods, Mom picked up a deer tick that she discovered later. She was worried about Lyme disease and saw a doctor. This event was not significant other than the fact that I remember it, but I bring it up because many years later, ticks made my Mom a medical pioneer. During her treatment, Mom was the first person in medical history to get a tick-borne illness called Erlichiosis through a stem cell transplant, just one of the many hurdles she cleared on her long journey.
I think Mom was more of a leisurely nature appreciator, letting it come to her while she was in the backyard or while camping. This is actually a good strategy much of the time. She was not an aggressive hiker, but we did go hiking sometimes. I was fairly young when we visited Fossil Butte National Monument in Wyoming. I remember hiking the trail alongside the butte, looking at black lines in the side of the rock that were fish fossils, and looping back toward the starting point. I reached the end of the trail before Mom did, and I turned and looked back. I still can clearly remember her coming down the trail, smiling, hair blowing in the wind. She said she “Felt like Sacajawea,” coming down the trail like that.
In 2002, hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, she had planned a day hike that was perfectly reasonable for all of us. But then Justin and I decided, once way out there on the trail, we absolutely had to take a 5.5-mile “extra credit” hike to a place called Sky Pond. I think we were both glad to have done it – we saw a pika, a couple neat lakes, the krummholz, and a white-crowned sparrow – but neither of us was glad to run ourselves completely out of water. Mom had smartly stayed behind, waiting along the trail for us to return, though she later confessed that she was worried a mountain lion was going to eat her. She shared some of her water with me when I got back, but I felt guilty taking it from her on account of my own stupidity. She had been smart and still had water and why should she be obliged to give some to me? Nevertheless, I learned a valuable lesson that has served me well not because she told me to do or not do something, but because she was willing to sit and wait and let me explore and succeed or fail on my own.
She took the same approach when I was in college, letting me find my own way, not judging. Looking back, though she never revealed it to me, she must have been wondering what I was thinking. As my college career reached its later stages, I started looking for internship opportunities, and one landed in my lap that seemed appealing.
Long story short, I got an internship at Glacier National Park. The experience was a mental, physical, and spiritual reawakening. I had not considered the cumulative effect of Mom’s interest in nature and National Parks on me and on my decision to pursue a career in national parks until I actually stopped to take stock of all of it while preparing for today. Just think of all the places we went together: Everglades, Great Smoky Mountains, Mammoth Cave, Effigy Mounds, Herbert Hoover, Rocky Mountain, Grand Canyon, Walnut Canyon, Saguaro, Wupatki, Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, Jewel Cave, Yellowstone, Devils Tower, Little Bighorn, Theodore Roosevelt, and all the other parks and refuges. These visits did not happen by accident: they were planned. They were the places we aspired to go, and still the places I want to go to.
Working as a park ranger came very naturally to me, partly because of personality, but also because certain behaviors had been ingrained in me. There were countless occasions where my mom would look out the window of our house and see something in the yard – a bird or other animal that was unusual or doing something interesting – and she’d call, “Come look!” I don’t know how many things I saw just because she was observant enough to notice and cared enough to share it with me. I think if you ask my wife, I do the same thing to her now, “Come look at this!”
For most of my life, my Mom noticed things happening in the natural world and shared them with me. Once I moved out and was working in the national parks, I became the one sharing observations and experiences with her. When she got sick and could not go outdoors, she lived vicariously through my experiences in nature. No doubt, the things I was doing and the places I was going were preferable to the things she had to do. Whether I was in Montana or North Dakota, she checked the webcams every day and knew what was going on. I would call and tell her what I was doing, what the birds were doing, what flowers were blooming, which bears were getting into trouble, how viciously cold and windy it was in North Dakota in February and how much fun that was. I posted photos and stories on the internet for her and others to read. She read my reports very closely; she corrected me recently when I misidentified a flower. In return for sharing my experiences, she collected newspaper articles about wildlife and natural resources and mailed them to me. When she passed away, she had been working on filling another envelope with newspaper clippings to send to me: an article on lynx kittens in Colorado and another about the gray-crowned crane, which Amber and I saw in Tanzania – she knew I had a special connection with that bird and that I would be interested.
Having become more attuned to the natural world, it has shaped my philosophy and spirituality in ways that no book, no person, no culture could ever change. Nature is cyclic: the changing seasons and the plant and animal responses to the seasons, the geologic processes of mountain-building and erosion, the process of forest succession. No matter your sense of theology or spirituality, all forms of religion in the world grapple with death and new life; the two are inter-connected. This is because the process is observable in nature – it is universal.
While working in Glacier National Park in 2006, I was evacuated from the path of a major forest fire. It was a disturbing event to witness, especially because it was altering the world I knew and loved at an extraordinary pace, yet it was unstoppable. I had never seen anything so powerful before. The human scene was very active: the sky was abuzz with airplanes and helicopters, trucks and machines growled up and down the road, and sooty-faced firefighters from all over pitched in to do their part. When it was all over, the landscape was strangely quiet again; it had been easy to forget what it was like before all the commotion.
Even by next spring, not a plant was growing. I could walk a long way though what used to be thick woods without one plant brushing against my legs. The landscape was alien, almost unrecognizable; many trees I knew individually, landmarks that had been there for over 200 years, had been killed. It was the same place, but from now on, it seemed it was going to be different. But then something remarkable happened. It was not long before plants began to emerge and the entire landscape erupted into an endless ocean of green leaves and colorful flowers. The next year, even more flowers appeared – thick, brilliant and robust. Though the fire was unstoppable when it occurred, and cathartic in its effect, the dramatic sweep of flames that took the trees allowed the flowers to grow again where they could not before. For people like me who had known the place before and after, we were able to appreciate it in an entirely new way. Through death came new life.
Just after Mom was taken from home after she died, those of us gathered there in our living room heard a cardinal begin to sing outside the window, signaling the beginning of a new day.
I slept for a little while, and when the sun rose on Sunday morning, it was a beautiful day: not a cloud in the sky, the birds singing outside, the flowers in the backyard opening to greet the day. It was nothing short of perfect. Of course, my thoughts were on my Mom, and I thought back to the countless days past when my mom would have been there on the porch, sipping some coffee, paging through the newspaper, quietly enjoying the sunshine, the flowers, and the chorus of birds. So I decided that, even though I had not had nearly enough sleep, I was going to go out there and sit on the porch and take it all in – because that’s exactly what she would have done.
Let my Mom’s life be a reminder that each day is precious, and that even simple things can sources of great joy, especially when shared with others. Slow down and simply take notice of the world around you because it is more amazing than you know. Just sit outside in the sunshine with a glass of iced tea and page through a magazine, surrounded by singing birds and colorful flowers. Take your kids camping and feed them powdered-sugar donuts. Catch a lightning bug and wear it like a ring.
Looking through photo albums a couple nights ago, I discovered a scrap book with a brochure from Mesa Verde National Park from a trip there in 1968. She would have been 12 years old and on the trip with her family. It is clear that Mom’s values in nature were rooted in her family’s tradition, passed down from her parents. She passed those values down to me. I, too, will pass those values on. I know that would make her proud.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
Along the Casey Jones State Trail, the only reliable place where my cell phone works (but not if I don't stand up straight!), some yellow coneflowers and black-eyed susans have begun blooming.
Within the park, I observed a kingbird fighting off a nighthawk, living up to its "tyrant flycatcher" family name. Another time, while listening to a bluebird that I could not see, waiting for it to appear, I was surprised when it suddenly flew down to chase a wren in the tree where the bluebird nest had been, then peck at a nighthawk perched in a nearby tree in one long swoop.I also had the pleasure of observing two white-tail fawns still wearing their spots. They just watched me. I didn't have my camera.
Within the park, a small group of sun dancers is encamped at the Sun Dance grounds. While the group leader has come in to the visitor center a couple times to sign in to quarry the pipestone, I haven't seen much of the group. I am content to let them do their thing and be alone. It is interesting to walk around the park and hear the singing and drumming from a short way off.
We continued presenting our evening programs at the Pipestone RV Campground. I rustled up 15 people for my show, which doesn't sound like much. Compared to Glacier, though, I'm reaching a proportion of the park's annual visitation a power of ten higher per show.
European honeybee on smooth sumac