Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Bootfull of Pollywogs

Sunshine and springtime were rare bedfellows where I grew up. One day when I was four, my mother took me into the forest a few blocks from home. She had heard that the “Frog Pond," as it was known, was brimming with tadpoles. Cinching the deal that fateful day were scattered, caressing rays of sun.

After the short forest walk, I ran excitedly to the water’s edge and squatted down, staring intently. It took me a few moments to grasp the fact that each of the frenetic black blobs was a distinct life form. Wearing tall, black rubber boots, I stepped tentatively into the pond, captivated by the larval swarm. Bending over, I scooped up several with my hands to get a closer look. Bulging eyes, blob-like bodies, and long, slimy, transparent tails working madly against my fingers.

Captivated, I inched my way out further until, suddenly, the water overtopped one of my boots. I gasped at the chill now engulfing my foot. (Many years later, my mother told me that she started to object but thought better of it.) I hesitated briefly, imagining the tadpoles now darting around inside my boot, and then took another willful step into the muck. The second boot was now flooded.

I was in it now, sharing this pond-universe with thousands of frogs-to-be. Stepping gingerly so as to avoid any inadvertent amphibicide, I eventually found myself at the pond’s center, the water slightly above waist level. The sense of wonder and the smile across my face grew in tandem as I picked up handful after handful of squirming tadpoles. Immersed in that miniature sea of pollywogs, I felt, perhaps for the first time in my life, a deep and ecstatic sense of oneness with the world.

Through the late 1960s and 1970s, I escaped into that forest on the west side of Vancouver, British Columbia whenever possible, usually in the company of my friend Tim (TJ). Our local elementary school backed up against the forest, and the administrators established an “Adventure Playground” amidst a stand of hemlock, cedar, and Douglas fir abutting one of the playing fields. At recess and lunch, we would sprint for this natural wonderland, where a giant overturned cedar stump became cave, castle, and space ship.

As teenagers, the boundaries of our forest excursions expanded exponentially as we discovered the full, 2000-acre extent of the “University Endowment Lands,” more recently dubbed "Pacific Spirit Regional Park." (For us, it was simply “the woods.”) Canine companions joined us for this phase. I had a German shepherd named Rocky and Tim had Raisin, a poodle-Siberian husky mix that resembled a four-legged ball of steel wool. (When asked about the breed, TJ would offer the same straight-faced reply: “Purebred Pooberian.”)

Vision is the least intimate of human senses. In the forest, Tim and I were embraced by the sweet, almost citrusy fragrance of Douglas fir; the thick, moist air of late fall that turned breath visible; the deep qworking of ravens perched high on cedar boughs; and the tangy sumptuousness of fresh-picked huckleberries. This multisensory milieu offered a safe place, a cocoon within the world, for adolescent males to talk out their social angst and ponder the future. Needless to say, the dogs loved it too, relishing the endless array of textures and scents. As we explored more and more trails—with names like Sasamat, Hemlock, and Salish—we had no idea that this place was imprinting on our hearts and minds, that our pores were soaking up every moment.

Often we avoided trails entirely, preferring to bushwhack through the dense coastal foliage, clambering over rotting logs and navigating rock-strewn streams thick with skunk cabbage, nettles, salal, and ferns. On these meandering excursions, the forest took on a wild and unpredictable flavor, with amazing discoveries possible at any moment: teeming ant colonies; deep and murky ponds shaped like Japanese soaking tubs; raucous, foul-smelling bird rookeries; and humongous stumps, old growth ghosts. Hours later, humans and canines alike emerged from the forest filthy, exhausted, and exhilarated.

After a big winter snowfall (also a rare occurrence), the forest was transformed yet again. Blinding whiteness blanketed every branch, twig, and needle. A deep, cathedral-like silence settled over our refuge. With light hearts, we crunched through the heavy snow, stopping occasionally to lounge in the bare zone beneath one of the bigger trees.

In our mid teenage years, testosterone overdoses manifested in the forest as a risky game dubbed “Deelo Wars.” A deelo (etymology uncertain) was any piece of wood that you could heft at someone else. In essence the strategy amounted to abandoning the cover of tree or bush just long enough to fling large sticks at several of your closest friends. Of course, they were busy doing the same—every man for himself. All of us sustained a few direct hits, but I’m happy to report that no serious injuries resulted. (And no, I don’t recommend trying this at home!)

I departed Vancouver in the mid 1980s to attend graduate school in Toronto, eventually earning a Ph.D. and becoming a dinosaur paleontologist. Tim, meanwhile, headed off to become an airline pilot. In the decades since, I’ve been fortunate enough to search for fossils in such far-flung locales as Zimbabwe, Mexico, and Madagascar. Cumulatively, I’ve spent years living in tents in remote places that most people refer to as “badlands.” While hunting ancient dinosaurs, I’ve had face-to-face encounters with an assortment of living creatures, among them bear, elephant, hyena, cobra, moose, and crocodile. But the senses with which I have experienced these places and their inhabitants were attuned in that second growth temperate forest on Vancouver’s west side. Together with family camping trips, those countless treks in the Endowment Lands fostered in me a persistent passion for nature, undoubtedly influencing my career path. In recent years I’ve come to realize that I cannot help but take that Pacific Northwest forest with me wherever I go. It is an indelible part of who I am, more like a lens on the world than a collection of memories.

I become afraid when I think about the present generation of children growing up largely without such experiences. Kids today spend about 90% less time outdoors than their parents did. Absorbed in the virtual reality of glowing screens, youngsters are missing the natural wonders around their homes—yes, even in urban settings. For the health of children, and the health of the places they live, we need to re-engage children with nature and give them abundant, direct, multisensory, hands-on experience.

Many more kids need to feel the sensation of a bootfull of pollywogs.

Images: All images are of Pacific Spirit Regional Park. Image Credits (top to bottom):

1. justlist-it.com

2. panoramio.com

3 & 4. digitallery.blogspot.com