The Single Biggest Thing You Can Do

IMG_20160507_134257.jpg

The single biggest thing you can do to save the planet might have nothing to do with your carbon footprint. It might be a simple life of love and devotion to your family and friends. Every father or mother you lift up is like a seed that far exceeds the value of good schools, solar panels or a successful career. Our children need parents, not teachers. Our earth needs humans, not jobs. Our ears need compassion, not judgment. Love the people who are wrong, because we need their help.

Chicken Funeral

We held them as little chicks. We read to them at story time. The kids put them through chicken school, created houses and whole race courses for them. They came in the house, then went out of the house. As they got older, the kids collected their eggs, and they still loved being held. Honestly, what haven't we done with these chickens?

Last week we buried one. It wasn't the first. Fact is, even with the fence it's nearly impossible to protect them. Hawks get 'em. Owls get 'em. Coyotes dig under the fence. Bobcats climb over it. How can you protect a couple dozen chickens from a hungry wilderness? You can't.

But you can give thanks for life. These kids carried shovels half a mile to bury this little hen in a sacred little spot in Bone Canyon. You can't do that with a person. As soon as someone dies, they are taken away. Sometimes, the funerary rites of pets and animals are all we have to connect us with the unvarnished truth. What child doesn't want that?

Chicken Funeral.jpg

What the Child Knows

20181027_160349.jpg

Listen to this beautiful excerpt from Jon Young’s What the Robin Knows.

“The two birds [cardinals] were exchanging a chip call every five seconds or so. Now, I have to bend the rules of time, because it would take a speed-reader longer to finish this paragraph than it took for the ensuing drama to unfold, which was about ten seconds, I estimated in immediate hindsight. The male to my right uttered a chip, and the female to my left did not reply in the accustomed time. This created tension immediately – and in the male, who issued a more insistent chip-chip, a companion call asking, What’s up? Then I heard his wings beating furiously as he headed toward me on his way to where the female had been feeding. At the same time, I caught a flash of brown to my left and just ahead. This was the female in sudden flight, and behind her was a sharp-shinned hawk closing fast. The female cardinal was heading for a wall of brush and vines, perhaps hoping to lose the hawk in this tangle. Just as the hawk was about to reach the female, the male burst onto the stage at a dead, bright red spring and flung himself right between his lady love and the hawk. It was a Superman-like maneuver – just amazing. Distracted, the sharpie faltered and swerved to pursue the male, but the male had too much velocity and a trajectory almost perpendicular to that of the other two birds. Even the sharpie, with his incredible turn-on-a-dime agility, couldn’t pull it off. The male escaped and continued in evasive flight to my left, along the wall of vegetation. He was gone in a split second. The female was back in the brush somewhere, not visible. The hawk banked, landed on a branch, peered left and right, gave up on the cardinals, and glided off in pursuit of other prey.”

This excerpt comes from within a chapter emphasizing the importance of recognizing what Young calls the “baseline” of bird calls, the chitter-chatter people like you and me take for granted in a well-populated forest and typically read as nonsense. Quite the contrary, Young says, whose careful study reveals something entirely different.

In the same book, Young reveals how, walking out of the forest one evening after leading a wilderness skills class, he heard a spotted towhee scratching its familiar scritch-scratch sound in the leaves, looking for food, followed by ten to twelve seconds of silence. Knowing the baseline of this bird to be a three or four second scritch-scritch-scritch followed by a three of four second silence, he took this behavior to be an alarm, but a subtle one. Given sufficient danger, a towhee, he says, will fly to a higher branch and give a wreeeannh alarm when fully agitated. This told Young that the bird, which remained on the ground, was only mildly concerned, and, coupled with the lack of alarm in the baseline of the birds in the surrounding area, made Young think the cause of the disturbance was another human nearby. It turned out to be exactly that, another instructor hiding in the shrubs nearby in an attempt to outwit or outmaneuver Young’s famously keen tracking skills. Not this time.

Imagine the subtlety of a man who recognizes the presence of an otherwise invisible human being simply because of a small delay in a tiny bird’s scratching pattern. To me, this is bordering on extra-sensory perception, but it’s perfectly real and Young’s books are full of examples of indigenous trackers still alive in the modern world who, he says, make his skills seem juvenile. That kind of awareness excites me.

And it’s not merely birds who are listening to bird language, Young says. It’s the raccoons, the mice, the squirrels, cougars and elk. To find out where those animals are, and what they’re doing, we have to listen. For millions of years, our ancestors did precisely that to help locate and hunt their own game, and to keep themselves safe. Our bodies inherited those skills, even if most of us no longer use them. If we took the time to pay attention, Young says, we’d realize that whether in our backyards or deep in the wilderness the birds are talking about us every day.

Imagine listening to your wife or husband that way, or your child.

Why We Sleep

IMG_0421.JPG

What is sleep? Do your children get enough? What about you?

Sleep has always mystified people, but in his bestselling book Why We Sleep, neuroscientist Matthew Walker gives a comprehensive and fascinating view into its purpose and how it fits into the entire life-cycle of the brain.

Put briefly, the brain has three basic phases - awake, deep sleep and REM sleep. The first phase, awake, is when the organism is taking in new stimuli and data. The second phase, deep sleep, is when the brain is sloughing off old info it no longer needs - Walker likens it to housecleaning. The third phase, REM, often associated with dreaming, is when the brain is building novel connections. Input (awake) - Housecleaning (deep sleep) - and New Connections (REM). Rinse and repeat.

Isn't that astounding?!

But here's where it gets even more interesting - the sleep phases of the brain alternate back and forth throughout the night, and shift significantly throughout childhood, so that it's not just 4 hrs of deep sleep then 4 hrs of REM, but a mix of both throughout the night and more REM (or less) depending on one's age.

An adult has roughly 80 percent deep sleep (cleansing) and 20 percent REM (creation). During a typical night's sleep, the bulk of that REM sleep comes at the latter end. That means that if you're cutting an hour or two off the typical 8hr sleep period (and many of us are), you're still getting most of your housecleaning done. You're just missing out on a lot of creativity and new connections.

Wow!

And what about kids? Kids are even more interesting, because their sleep patterns are entirely different than adults. Infants in utero are asleep almost the entire day, and as we might suspect - REM (construction) sleep dominates their cycle. The result is that we have more synaptic connections in the brain AT BIRTH than we do at any other time in our lives.

Holy shit!

As a child ages, she is constantly cycling between being awake (taking in stimuli), followed by housecleaning and then the creation of novel arrangements. This is what the brain is always doing - intake, cleaning, creation. Sleep is not rest. It is perhaps the most active our brains ever are.

My goodness!

As a child ages further, the amount of deep sleep increases, while REM ramps down, until the late teenage years when a person stabilizes at the relative 80/20 split between deep sleep and REM sleep for the remainder of their life. This is what growing up is. As a child we are constantly building, over-building in fact, until the ratio of deep sleep begins to take over and starts culling out much of the extraneous connections inside the brain, so that an adult has far fewer synaptic connections than an infant. This is what makes a person smart, mature or wise - LESS BRAINS!

Isn't that fabulous? This dude deserves an A.

PS - If you find this subject interesting, you will not be disappointed by Walker's book, which includes much more than what I've glanced at here, including a very thorough treatment of both caffeine and alcohol. Great stuff.

Connecting Your Brains to Smart

Connecting Your Brains to Smart.jpg

I was sitting on a rock when two of our kindergartners came up and started giving me a haircut (for pretend). Obviously, I needed some serious attention, because my hairdressers quickly turned into doctors. At one point, while I was getting poked with a stick I asked what exactly was going on back there. “I’m connecting your brains to smart,” I was told. I thought about it for a second, then asked them to continue.

Left Brain Right Brain

IMG_8049 - Copy.JPG

I'm reading a book by a neurologist and piano player titled The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language and Human Culture. The main thesis of the book is that hand evolution and articulation are major components to the development of human language and thought. Below is a summary of Chapter 8, which is about right or left hand dominance. Get ready you left-handed geeks, (or righties) 'cause this rules.

Exactly when right or left handedness came about we don't know, but we do know that today most people are right-handed. The right/left division of our bodies mirrors the right/left division of our brains, and it’s the left side of the brain that largely controls the movements of the right side of the body and vice-versa. This has led to all sorts of theories about lefties and righties over the years, including who is more artistic, shameful, bossy, rational, emotional, etc. But if you’re like me, you might not like being put in any of those boxes. That’s why the following is so enticing.

When our ancestors came down from the trees millions of years ago, their visual systems, which predominate in the right brain, were already highly developed. That’s how it remains today. It’s possible that this left a glut of sorts on the left side of the brain, and so the ensuing hundreds of thousands of years tended to focus our fledgling skill of fine manual dexterity in the left brain, meaning right hand.

However, if you’ve ever paid careful attention to two-handed skills, you may have noticed that while your dominant hand does what we typically think of as the “skilled” work, your less-dominant hand does a whole variety of supporting tasks. In fact, the skilled movements of your dominant hand, once learned, are controlled by largely unconscious movements, while the movements of the non-dominant hand are more conscious.

A good example of this is your signature, which for most people cannot be replicated precisely when slowed down. Once you’ve memorized a task in your “muscle memory”, which is actually in your brain, the accomplishment of a skilled task is like rolling out an ordered sequence of memorized events. But what’s interesting is that this high level of skill is usually only possible in a small range of proximity (try writing your signature with your arm fully extended). Therefore, the rest of the body, and particularly the non-dominant hand, does a lot of work to orient and “deliver” the dominant hand to the task.

Think of the precision moves of athletes and pianists (or car drivers). Most of these movements do not require focused conscious attention. In fact, they happen best when we DON’T think about them.

Now, bring in the other hand (and the other side of the brain). The dominant hand is the hand in which we primarily store the recipes for these precise movements. Meanwhile, it is the non-dominant hand that constantly adjusts and orders the rest of the world so that the dominant hand can get to where it needs to be to do its highly specific work. In other words, the dominant hand is like a technician or plumber, but for this hand to do its job it needs the non-dominant hand to make dinner and drive it to work.

Writing is a good example, because while the dominant hand does all the writing, the non-dominant hand tends to spend a lot of time adjusting and orienting the paper so that the specific skill can be carried out. Pay attention the next time you write a postcard or letter.

What we’re describing is the left brain (right hand), by and large the brain of skill and rationality, being put to good use by the big-picture visuo-spatial right brain (left hand). Surely, nothing is quite as simple as this, but this explanation shatters the old convention of righties and lefties, whether that’s brains or hands. Point is, we are creatures with highly developed fine motor skills AND global positioning systems. We are creatures of rationality AND emotionality. We are creatures of severity AND gentility. The organism works best when these go together, not when we segregate.

Isn’t that cool?

Here’s how it relates to children – handwork. A child that is given lots of opportunity to explore and refine her digital dexterity will simultaneously develop those areas of her brain. When taken as a whole – fine skill and global orientation – the child has a great opportunity to comprehend her world, engage in it, and expand her education. But poorly defined limbs and fingers tend to produce under-developed brains, which often result in lack of comprehension and motivation. Imagine a child with highly developed finger skills, but a poor ability to orient her hand in space. Robot? Or, imagine a child that loves to look, but has a hard time motivating herself for specific tasks. Dreamer? Right. Left. Cooperation. That’s the jackpot. Nothing is a perfect solution, but sometimes the lack of motivation or global awareness we see in children can be treated simply by giving them handwork. It might work for us adults too.

What Motivates a Child to Read?

20180911_082440 - Copy.jpg

I left this sentence on the board (a window in this case) for my first-graders, then told them that it contained a secret that I would neither read nor teach. Their curiosity was piqued and for two days they snuck glances between lessons, writing secretly in their notebooks and teaming up on the big words. One child even implored that he be allowed to stay in during recess to work on it. Sorry, buster, you have to suffer out there like the rest of 'em. A few days later, after slowly piecing it together, they raced out to the propane tank and found the container of chocolate I had taped there.

I don't mean to suggest this was a perfect lesson plan, just that I'm curious - what motivates a child to read?

Great Horned Owl

owl.jpg

On Monday, we made birds out of clay and set them out under an isolated tree on the mesa. Mostly, it was just a fun project, a chance to get our hands dirty and a cause for a walk, but we took the opportunity to acknowledge the familiar birds that would soon be leaving for winter - vultures, swallows, ducks, etc. Our figures, we said, would be a reminder to us throughout the winter and a beacon of strength to the birds as they traveled long distances to their winter homes.

Wednesday, we returned to see if anything had happened. The clay had hardened in the sun and while some had been knocked about, by and large everything was as we had left it. The kids had fun searching for their creations, then we moved on.

Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at Happy Canyon for lunch. On Monday, we had been inconvenienced by a sisterhood of red ants under our usual tree, so when we arrived I sent one of my students off to scout a new location. A few minutes later, I heard shouts.

"An owl! There's an owl!"

We jumped up and watched as the bird, a great horned owl, flew right between our heads, then circled in a tight arc and landed back in the tree.

"Wow!" we all shouted. We tried to remain respectfully quiet but we were unable to contain our excitement. Almost instantly, the owl took off again, circled us, and landed in a second tree. It circled us one more time - three times in all - then landed peacefully back in the first tree.

"We shouldn't be over there," one of my students said, shaking her head and waving her hands at us, "it likes that tree."

"I agree," I answered, walking backwards. My heart was so touched by how tenderly she cared for this owl's breathing space. We settled for a different spot, taking our lunches out as we kept an eye on roaming ants. A few minutes later, we saw the owl take flight again, circle one last time, and fly off.

"Wow," I whispered.

While we were eating lunch, one of the kids piped up, "Silke always says that if you see an owl in the daytime you get to ask it a question."

"You're right," I answered.

"But I couldn't remember in time," she continued.

"Well, if the owl was here, what would you ask?"

She thought for a second, then said, "Where did the first human come from?"

I frowned thoughtfully, impressed with the depth of the question.

Another child pointed to the sky and said, "I want to know about space."

"Good questions," I said.

We ate the rest of our lunch in silence. At rest time, I used the opportunity to tell a story about an owl who spreads magic wings of protection around the children of the earth.

Teach Food

Teach Food.jpg

Children appreciate snacks that require work. Just look at that mighty arm!

Sometimes, it's just slicing bread or cutting apples, but last week we ground peanuts for peanut butter. The peanuts are grown in southern New Mexico, so they're local for us. And they're organic. Ha. We roast 'em and then grind them ourselves. Yeah!

But there's so much more to the lesson besides just good food. The kids get to feel the warmth from the friction of the mill (physics), watch whole dry peanuts become globs of cream (chemistry), and test their strength against steel (John Henry).

Even if they eat store-bought peanut butter for the rest of their lives, they will now be able to picture it in a way that even the mechanical grinders in the store are unable to replicate.

Food!

Egyptian Tsunami

Egpytian Tsunami.jpg

"Joe!" one of my students shouted, "I just remembered a past life from, like, a million years ago."

"Wow," I answered, enjoying the enthusiasm we all felt in that moment. The events of the past twenty minutes had been a roller coaster of excitement, and I didn't want to squelch this dawning creativity with any eye-rolling about past lives.

"We were in Egypt...and there was, I don't know, a Tsunami..."

"Okay, that is interesting," I said honestly, loving the incongruity of that image. "Let's go inside and draw pictures."

"I don't want to draw that," said another student, "I want to draw the tarantulas."

"Yeah, I agree. I don't know..." It was hard to talk as we tumbled inside and out. We were so giddy. "We can draw whatever we want to draw," I said, followed by shouts of approval.

When we got inside, I poured some tea while the kids got out paper and pencils.

"Maybe it was Shady!" one child said, "...sending a message!" Shady, our old dog, had died the night before. The kids from both Silke's group and mine had said goodbye, and in the afternoon I had dug a large hole in the backyard.

"Yeah…maybe?” I said curiously, getting out chalk for the board. "Okay, who remembers what happened first?"

"The tarantula!"

"Right. We were sitting by the tarantula, watching to see if its mate would come out of her hole and eat him."

"They have to mate first."

"Right. Mate first. Then eat. Got it."

"Then the hail came!"

I drew a picture of the tarantula on the board, then spelled it out in large letters. The kids were already working on their own drawings, a combination of the entire thirty minutes.

"We ran from the hail,” I said, drawing a raincloud, “all the way up the path, then the driveway, and got inside. We took off our shoes, and dried off..."

"You made tea!"

"Yep...tea..." I took a sip. Egyptian Licorice. Mild and sweet.

"Then there was lightning...!"

"Yeah, that was wild. Does anyone remember exactly what happened?"

"It was really loud."

"Right. So loud, in fact, that we decided to go outside to see if we could find where it landed.” The kids were fast at work on their drawings, shaking with excitement.

“Yeah, but…”

“I saw it!”

“Right,” I said, answering one of my students (if you haven’t noticed, I’m trying to do a better job of protecting their privacy, so I’m not using names). “You saw lightning in the classroom.”

“On the ceiling!”

“On the ceiling,” I repeated.

“But maybe I didn’t…”

“But maybe you didn’t…”

I was once outside near a metal gate during a thunderstorm. Someone happened to be taking a photo, for reasons I can’t recall. A bolt of lightning flashed. We oohed and ahhed. Later, as they reviewed the camera, which took a series of photos in milliseconds, we could see that an arc of electricity had snapped off the gate. We couldn’t have been ten feet away, but none of us had seen it in real time. The bolt seemed to be a mile away. But the photo was unmistakable. Inevitably, I guess, a surge of electricity throws up an electromagnetic field in its wake, and it’s possible the metal gate conducted that invisible field and gave off some of its own sparks. Might something similar have happened in our classroom? Who knows, but the boom was about as close as I’ve ever heard it, and that’s why we ran outside (after a few minutes), to see if we could eyeball any damage.

“So, we got our shoes on…” I prompted.

“And ran outside!”

“Then what happened?” I asked.

“Chicken alarm!”

“Well, right. But what happened first?”

“There was a hawk on the roof.”

In actuality, the very second I walked outside my eyes caught the flight of a large hawk. “Look!” I shouted, already distracted by my purpose of amazement with something else amazing. Tarantulas. Hail. Lightning. Now we watched as the hawk swooped up and sat like a silent beacon on the roof. Circling overheard were dark gray clouds, intermittent with clear blue sky (it hadn’t actually looked like rain to me, hence our sudden evasion from the hail).

“It had a feather that stuck out kind of funny,” said one child.

“Yeah, it did,” I said, recalling the tuft of fluff that jutted unkempt from the otherwise stately bird. “It was windy,” I said, partly in the bird’s defense.

“Then it flew down to the chickens.”

“Ri…”

“Chicken alarm!”

“Yeah,” I answered, smiling at the phrase. I was nearly done with my drawings on the board. The hawk, which had distracted me entirely from my purpose, then captivated me on the roof, was – duh! – hunting our chickens. It was an epiphany moment for me, pulling together some of what I’m learning from Jon Young’s stimulating book What the Robin Knows – which is that birds of prey and other predators often use the cloak of an already alarmed situation to hunt birds that are otherwise calm and vigilant. I was so dumb-faced at all the excitement that he could have carried me away. But not the chickens.

“You ran!”

“We ran!”

“Yes,” I said, laughing at the recollection. Shaking loose the momentary hypnotization, I ran as fast as I could to the other side of the house, shouting and clapping, the kids in tail. We got there just in time to see the hawk swoop up, empty-handed, over the fence and disappear.

We laughed and gathered ourselves, recalling the excitement of the previous twenty minutes. “What’s with this morning?” one of the kids said. I wondered might happen next. “I don’t know,” I answered. Then I remembered the lightning bolt. “Let’s circle round the house,” I said, pointing forward. We walked, checking all the treetops and roofs in the distance, looking for anything smoldering or exploded. But we didn’t find anything. Hope the tarantula was okay. Eventually, we made it back to the classroom door. We were about to go inside when…

"Joe!" one of my students shouted, "I just remembered a past life from, like, a million years ago."

"Wow," I answered, enjoying the enthusiasm we all felt in that moment. The events of the past twenty minutes had been a roller coaster of excitement, and I didn't want to squelch his dawning creativity with any eye-rolling about past lives.

"We were in Egypt...and there was, I don't know, a Tsunami..."

We Took a Field Trip to the Dump!

Landfill.jpg

There are few things more visceral than looking at acres of trash with your own eyes, smelling it and watching the circling birds. But I know one thing better - contributing!

Most people throw their trash in a bin and have it picked up in a truck. Hard to know what happens after that (if you don't, just look at the truck in the background). In Taos, there is little trash service, so most folks have to haul their own trash to dumpsters or bins at various "transfer stations."

But if you know the right people (and I do), you can ride with them all the way in to the very place where the trash is thrown on the earth, there to remain for the next few thousand years.

Last Thursday, we did just that. The kids and I helped haul trash out of the trailer, watched as trucks came and went, emptying their contents, and generally gawked at the enormity of it all (if it's not obvious, all the dirt you see in the photo is just earth piled on top of more trash). And this is just Taos. Imagine what's it's like in more populated areas!

I take major exception to one of the primary strategies of the environmentalist movement, which is to describe rainforests and whales, rivers and aquifers, and how it's all going to shit if we don't save it. There is growing evidence that this just overwhelms kids and leads to adults who feel impotent, not courageous.

What children do need is direct experience with the natural world (which my class gets plenty of). So, when I brought them out to the dump I didn't harangue them with do-goodisms. It's enough to just look at it, and maybe take a little responsibility for it (that's our trash in the foreground).

I was thirty years old before I saw something like this firsthand. I think everyone should go to the dump once a year, starting around age six. I even think they should have a good time doing it (we did).

The Mountain Ethic

Mountain Ethic.jpg

I recently took a long road trip with my daughter and my partner. We were constantly climbing mountains, digging in caves and swimming in uncommon rivers, but we also faced occasional emotional hurdles, as thirty days in a tent or car are apt to bring up.

At one point, while my daughter was sleeping, my partner expressed her tendency to feel left out, but that she didn't want to make a thing of it because she felt stupid complaining that a six-year-old got all my attention. I understood her reticence, but gave this response. I call it the Mountain Ethic.

A group of hikers deep in the wilderness can't afford to lose even one person. If someone is getting a blister or is beginning to feel dehydrated, it's that person's responsibility to speak up so that he and the other members of the group can care for him. Otherwise, if the situation grows worse and the person becomes disabled, now miles from home, it suddenly becomes everyone's problem. In other words, being tough isn't helpful. It's dangerous and puts everyone at risk. In fact, you owe it to your friends to speak up.

Emotional hurdles are similar. Don't we all feel things, regardless of whether we think they're good or right, then try to stuff them down so that no one notices? Has that ever worked? Was it right for my partner to feel a little lonely, even if she felt guilty about it? I certainly think so, but it's not even the point. Fact is, she DID feel lonely and if she hadn't spoken up I may have continued being such a blockhead as to not take notice, and she may have felt compelled to keep stuffing it down. That's an emotional time bomb, no? Who wants to be with those two at the top of a mountain?

Now, that didn't mean I was ready to throw my daughter to the wind, but it did mean that I was able to listen and adjust, giving the three of us, or the two of us, the chance to look at the situation head on and do our best. It gave us a chance to trust each other, to acknowledge one another, and remove the obstacles of ignorance and isolation. But here's the best part -

A few days later, we had joined up with several other family and friends. I was exhausted, spending day after day, morning till night, trying to accommodate everyone and make good plans for what amounted to twelve people and five different nuclear families. It was me that had invited them there, so I felt responsible. I put on a good face, but I was burned out, stressed out, and it was no surprise when I began to get sick. Laying in the car one afternoon, while the rest of my family was out visiting a lake, I received this photo on my phone from my partner, who had chosen to spend the day resting at the campsite. So brilliant.

The Mountain Ethic - You owe it to yourself AND EVERYONE ELSE to speak up about your physical, emotional and intellectual discomfort. Otherwise, we're all in danger.