This is a really important and endearing essay writen by Erin Cooksey from Western Arkansas’ Wayward Critter Connection.
How many times we have heard those fateful words…..
“Raccoons are great pets!” by Erin Cooksey
The truth is…raccoons, albeit amazing, do NOT display the behaviors that typically qualify an animal as “pet” material. Dogs and cats and many other domesticated critters have been genetically manipulated over time so that they adapt to our homes easily and look to us for quality and fulfillment of life. Wild animals are NOT domesticated and a choosing to keep them as pets means living on their terms.
Baby raccoons are unarguably adorable! They purr, cling to their parent like human infants and snuggle as long as you can stand it. The first year of life with a raccoon is full of quirky, fun behaviors and memories you’ll reflect on for a lifetime. All your friends will think you have the coolest pet on the block and you’ll take your baby everywhere you go and bask in the limelight of curiosity and envy that only such an amazing animal can generate….HOWEVER……
Generally by the raccoons first birthday it becomes obvious that its not nearly as awesome as you’d first imagined. By now you have a “den” within your couch, you’ve replaced the mini blinds 6 times, there’s a hole in your ceiling plaster, and there are areas of the house that don’t quite smell right. Its been a rough road but you pat yourself on the back and for fear of “I told you so’s” from those who urged you to give up the little beast when he was only a few weeks old, you forge ahead and figure you’ve got the worst behind you now….things will get better as he grows out of the “baby stage”.
The second year of life with a raccoon is much like the first year….except your baby is now a 30 pound, sexually mature animal hell bent on making YOUR home into HIS and assuming the role of a moody teenager who really doesn’t care what you want…what you DONT want…or what the house “rules” are. Snuggling is now cut to the minimal amount required to get a few cookies and you may or may NOT see your pet throughout the day as he moves from one sleeping area to another, only stopping to pull your coffee cup from the table and swipe your I pod from the nightstand….and you let him….because the last time you tried to stop him….he “told” you he didn’t like it and you have the scar to show for it.
As time goes on you realize that you probably should have done things differently in the beginning. Its now obvious that this “relationship” you have is a little lop-sided and you wonder how much longer you can allow this animal to live inside your home and dictate your life….you cringe at the thought of another 12 years of trying to “co-exist” with the monster. Certainly you could build a big cage outside….then he could have his own space to rearrange and pee on just as he likes without involving your own turf….but cages are expensive and time consuming to build…and wouldn’t he really be happier “free”? Yes…freedom…you decide that’s what he’s needed all along….and you figure that all the snippy behavior and ignoring you MUST mean that the “time has come” and he’s now ready to go his separate way.
Finally settling on the decision to give your pet the life he deserves you sit down and start making some phone calls. One by one you file through the list of animal rehabilitators given to you by your local DNR office. Each one says the same thing…”I do not accept imprinted animals”. You keep calling and you keep getting the same response. Angered and frustrated you wonder WHY no one wants to help you. Doesn’t anyone care about the animal at stake? Finally you make contact with a single rehabilitator who says they may be able to help you. They explain to you that the expenses involved with accepting imprinted animals is great..the time and effort consuming…..and the risk of danger high. THIS is why very few can help you. She also explains that although she will make the sacrifices FOR THE ANIMAL… there is a very good chance that your pet may never become competent enough to live on his own….and that sadly…the only option for him may become euthanasia.
It is at this point you realize the gravity of what has happened….and are mournful. You see that had you given your baby up to this very person in the beginning…..he would now be a normal wild animal…..living the life he was meant to have. Now instead he is a hopelessly lost wild soul with behavior and capability all molded by a “domestic” lifestyle. Basically…..he doesn’t fit in anywhere and it will now take months if not years of deprogramming to get him back to his birthright.
Despite all of these things, the rehabber lady still offers to take your pet into her program. You make the arrangements and drive the 2 hours the following weekend to hand over your baby to a complete stranger. All the way there you remember with fondness the good times and the baby face that stole your heart. You remember the plans you made, the life you expected and you realize that the dreams you had for the two of you were never possible and the only things accomplished by this endeavor are a few foggy memories and the theft of a normal life for the animal that you truly do love with your whole heart.
You arrive at the facility for wild animals and the smiley faced lady meets you happily…she knows she will have your pet for a long time..that she will spend lots of funding to support him….and that because pet coons generally don’t like new people, he could be a dangerous patient. But she smiles still and talks you through the tears of heartbreak you’re now fighting back….because she knows that no amount of “education” she can give you is any better than the one you have given yourself. Her only hope is that when you drive away that you have some sort of appreciation for her effort and will compensate her by becoming a voice and advocate for those future orphans found and kept hostage by those who are as well-meaning and dazzled as you were that fateful day 2 years ago.
Hello, This is John Griffith. Below is an article written by Emily Derue, a journalist for ABC/Univision about diversifying National Parks. In it, she quotes me quite a bit–along with a cpl of my close eco-allies Rue Mapp and Aaron Ableman. Thank you, so much Emily and Univision for addressing this important issue.
National Parks Face Bleak Future Without Latinos
The Republican Party and the National Park Service have something in common: They want to attract Latinos and they face a bleak future if they can’t figure out how to woo this powerful demographic.
Just as the GOP faces a shrinking pool of white males, so too does the park service. There aren’t enough of the cookie-cutter families of four who have traditionally visited parks to sustain them long-term.
While that makes some people nervous, it shouldn’t. It means there’s a huge, largely untapped pool of potential visitors.
But just as Latino voters need to know a Republican president won’t tell them to self-deport, Latinos need to know that they’re welcome at parks.
ABC/Univision previously detailed some of the reasons minorities are reluctant to travel to parks, and they range from fears about safety to a lack of transportation.
Some of those concerns are difficult to tackle, and looming budget cuts don’t help the situation either. But advocates of increasing the diversity of park visitors say there are steps the park service needs to take if they want a future.
John Griffith, a supervisor with California Conservation Corps, an agency that gives young people who might not otherwise have the opportunity a chance to work outdoors, says simply adding more picnic tables at parks would be a good start.
“If you think about a typical white family, there are four people in that family and they need one picnic table,” he said. “But when Latin American families come, they often come with grandma, grandpa, aunts and uncles and one table is not enough.”
Why not just rent multiple campsites? Park planners might ask that question but if they included Latinos in the planning process, they’d have an answer before it became a problem.
Latino families don’t want to be split up into different sites. They want a bunch of tables in one place where they can all be together. It might not sound like a huge drawback, but it contributes to the sense that their preferred style of vacationing is not considered and that is a big issue.
“If you have a Latino and black population, then you should make sure to include those user groups in the planning of parks,” Griffith said. “If I was planning a park, I’d want the urban population to have access, so I’d run bus lines, and I would have multiple tables for extended family groups. If you’re engaging user groups with the design, I think you have much higher engagement.”
Spanish-language trail signs would also help, as would including stories about more than just the white settlers and native populations in park exhibits.
That sounds easy, right? Except it’s not really happening.
Griffith says park planners have assumed minorities are not interested in the outdoors so they haven’t planned for them. And even though minorities might be interested in going to the parks, the parks don’t reflect what they need, so they don’t feel welcome.
“There’s a negative assumption loop going on,” he said, and it needs to be broken to keep the park system vibrant.
One way to do that, Griffith says, is to engage children, especially racial and ethnic minorities who might not get to parks on their own.
“Kids are not engaging, they’re not playing outdoors,” he said. “No great conservationist has been raised indoors. Those early outdoor experiences are super important. We need our kids, all of our kids, to have a relationship with nature.”
And that’s not only important, it’s vital to the future of the park system.
Aaron Ableman, co-founder of Balance Edutainment, which aims to teach kids about conservation through entertainment, says one way to do that is through the “ubiquitous power of pop culture.”
He said kids are even more interested in conservation than adults, especially when it’s presented in a way that resonates with them, like through hip hop or YouTube videos.
The key, he said, is that “at the root of it, there needs to be a powerful story.”
Rue Mapp, co-founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, an effort to get minority kids into nature, said the park service needs to do a better job of conveying that there are national parks and monuments near many urban areas and that they are affordable.
She cautioned against bundling all Latinos together or all African-Americans in a group. Different communities will respond differently to information, she said, so the parks need to test what works and not assume that a blanket outreach effort will be successful.
The National Park Foundation, the official charity of the national parks, has focused recently on improving access to the parks for Latinos and other minorities. The organization has an American Latino Heritage Fund devoted specifically to making sure the national parks and monuments tell the Latino experience as an integral part of the American story. (Disclosure: Fusion Executive Producer Miguel Ferrer is on the ALHF Board). Last year, for example, the César E. Chávez monument was established to recognize the contributions of the renowned labor leader.
Midy Aponte, executive director of the American Latino Heritage Fund, said her organization tries to educate Latinos through social media and other campaigns that the parks are open to everyone and that Latinos and other minorities have played a critical role in their history. The foundation use things like Twitter and Facebook to combat the myths that the parks are expensive or that memberships are required. They also run a program called Ticket to Ride that offers transportation to the parks.
Aponte said the foundation wants to “educate this audience not only about their history and heritage being reflected in the parks, but also that they’re here and ‘Let’s go enjoy them.’”
‘White people aren’t going to save the earth,” Griffith said. “It’s going to take all of us and so all of us have to be engaged. The people right now making the calls need to be reaching out to user groups and kids and making sure they feel welcome.”
He added that if there were more of an outcry from the public, he thinks that would already be happening.
“I think it has to happen or our natural parks are going to become obsolete,” Griffith said. “If they want to stay in the game, we need to diversify.”
By Elizabeth Alvarez
Persistence. Vision. Integrity. Heart. – Fame in 31 Years (or longer)
“I want the faces in the conservation movement to look like all of the United States.” – John Griffith
John Griffith is a hero of mine, a modern day hero: eco-educator, visionary, philanthropist and author. I met John through my brother, Larry Notheis, also a hero of mine; Larry is the Center Director for the California Conservation Corps in Fortuna, California. The CCC is full of unsung heroes – they work their tails off … that is another story. John and Larry have worked together for many years.
Last year, John financed and published a book, and right now John is living through a time many first-time authors dream of, as he juggles a staggering number of press invitations.
But it is not what you might think …
In the first round of the press hullabaloo, the media wasn’t contacting John about his book – John is the co-star of a YouTube dance video that went viral, with John dancing along with his crew workers, Antwon McCoy and Leonard Patton. In the video, we watch as John surprises his crew with his mighty fine dance moves. Even for the most broad-minded of us, the surprise is delightful in part because it shatters an idea of what a very good dancer might look like.
Here is the set up: two young African-American men start a dance – they are wearing their CCC uniforms, and they are cool and good-looking – we are 30 seconds into the video (which is 61 seconds long, total) before we see John, described in the YouTube text as a ‘big, country-ish boss.’
John doesn’t look nerdy to me – rather he looks more like you might imagine a mountain ranger would look.
(John once told me he doesn’t have a photo of himself on his book website because, his words, “I am a mountain, scary-looking guy.” I had told me my nine-year-old daughter this. After she watched the video of John, she told me, “I think John is very handsome” – but I digress.)
Back to the video: after the initial set-up, most of us think we know what will come next, right?, The ‘country-ish boss’ is about to make a fool of himself trying out the city guys’ smooth street moves, right?
John can dance.
The next 25 seconds are a pure joy – we watch Antwon and Leonard’s expressions transform from ‘cool-as-I-show-my-moves’, to ‘ok-then-let’s-see’, to unmitigated surprise, and finally, an extended, authentic, in-the-moment joy — not something we often see on the face of a young adult.
And the hug. There is a big hug at the end of the video – I cannot describe that hug. This has to be one of the best hugs on earth, ever.
While I am stumbling trying to describe it, this is what I know: only a great leader could have created the foundation of respect, trust and spontaneity that HAD to precede these 30 seconds, that end with that hug.
This is what else I know about John:
- Since he was 11 years old, he has written and published articles, and has served as a steward of the planet, and as a champion of nature and of animals.
- He is passionately interested in engaging young people, of all cultural backgrounds, in ownership and responsibility for the health of the planet.
- He is a respected and effective leader at the CCC.
- He wrote an Eco-Fantasy called Totem Magic Going MAD with the goal of reaching young people (ages 9 to 13) in the conservation effort (the two main heroes are both multi-cultural).
- His story was received with interest in the conventional publishing world.
- But the book was not finally published through a traditional publishing house.
- He decided to publish the book on his own dime – a mayor financial commitment.
- He then worked tirelessly to promote the book, and he created phenomenal national and local partnerships with like-minded Eco-Educators and leaders in the diversity dialogue, including Akiima Price; Outdoor Afro; California Conservation Corps members, Wildlife Rehabilitation Centers, Pacha’s Pajama, an eco-pop musical, Conserve It Forward, Center For Diversity and the Environment, The Nature Conservancy, and more.
- He is now recognized as a leader in the diversity and Eco-Education national dialogue.
- He loved creating these relationships.
And, probably as telling as all the above -
- At some point, he became discouraged.
John’s plan in publishing the book had been a great philanthropic idea. His plan was that he would donate all the profits from sales of the book to the programs listed above, as well as for scholarships for young leaders to attend conferences and camps in the conservancy effort.
The problem was this: the book sales were not what he had hoped for.
But, John kept going. He continued moving ahead, he continued his work, work that he had started, over 31 years ago.
And then came the gift –a tip to post his dance video on Reddit.
On a Monday, John wrote to me, “Something’s happening – my video is at 14,000 views …” Then, Tuesday at 253,000 view and going … tipping one million on Friday … and going.
So how about the book Totem Magic? Has the video helped with sales? I believe he’s had a few. And, this is what I imagine coming next …. John will release second book in the series Totem Magic, this year.
And, if you haven’t seen the video – watch it. Sixty well-spent seconds. You will smile, ear-to-ear.
Here is John: from his blog at TotemMagic.com
Fifteen Minutes: “By the time I get this national media interviewing thing down, my fifteen minutes of fame will be up! I love how much that this experience has given me the opportunity to brag about my heroes: California Conservation Corps members, Corps Programs, Wildlife Rehabilitation Centers, Outdoor Afro, Conserve It Forward, Pacha’s Pajama eco-pop musical, Center For Diversity and the Environment, The Nature Conservancy, awesome community builders and environmental educators like Akiima Price, and all of you who have dedicated yourselves to building healthy relationships with human and wildlife communities. Let’s celebrate this fifteen minutes together and share the solutions that will benefit EVERYBODY! We are building a better world together, one dance at a time.”
When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world. – John Muir
Selection of articles about John Griffith and his work – many others on the web.
There are many reasons to love corps programs like the California Conservation Corps (CCC). Who doesn’t love the idea of hiring and occupying youth to build trails on public lands, restore wildlife habitat, and respond to a community’s natural disasters (like big fires and floods)—and then offering them up to $8000 in educational scholarships after one year of service? What a great investment in our society! It’s a far better alternative than those same young folks just hanging out at mom’s house or on the streets without any employment prospects. The prospect of masses of unemployed and bored American youth doesn’t sound good to anybody. It makes us anxiously recall that ominous phrase, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” There’s already plenty of bad press about idle-handed youth these days, but I know a whole bunch of young adults who are engaged in trying to improve their communities and the environment. They are corps members.
Let’s start by remembering why corps programs are so important for our modern American economy. We’ve all heard that jobs are hard to come by these days, and that colleges keep getting more expensive, right? Those employers who are still hiring get to be really choosey because they have tons of applicants for each open position, even the low-paying ones. Job competition is fierce! The big picture gets even grimmer for the young job seeker when you throw in facts about diminishing natural resources, jobs outsourced overseas, and elected officials who seem like they strongly favor whoever can finance their re-election campaigns over those who can barely finance themselves and voted for help. It’s no wonder that more and more young adults who thought they were about to embark on the American dream are instead finding themselves in dreamless sleep on their parents’ couch.
Luckily, corps programs like the CCC give just about any youth a chance to become engaged in helping solve some of our environmental problems and building stronger, more sustainable communities. Corps programs prepare youth to enter the workforce by teaching employable soft skills like a strong work ethic, a good at-work (professional) attitude, and a sense of team. Throw in some hard skills like installing solar panels, weatherizing houses, eco-restoration, emergency response training, and basic carpentry and, “voila!” there’s an employable youth. What’s really cool is that most people who are 18 to 25 years old are eligible to join, even without any previous work experience, a high school diploma, or a place to live.
Let’s talk more about what it doesn’t take to join. If you (or the youth you have in mind) don’t have a high school diploma, no worries. Corps programs know how important education is to your future, so if you don’t already have a diploma, they provide the classes and require you to get one. And if you’re homeless, or fearing that your mom—who is hinting relentlessly about you finding someplace else to live—is about to reclaim her couch, then you’ll be relieved to know that some corps programs have residential facilities that are similar to college dorms or military barracks where you can stay while you’re a corps member.
Corps programs are definitely more than just workforce development programs that provide youth with tools to become more educated and employable. Participants experience significant personal growth in a short amount of time, and it’s not entirely due to things like the challenges laid out in the CCC’s motto: “Hard Work, Low Pay, and Miserable Conditions.” Corps programs offer the environment and opportunities that ignite transformational experiences. A Transformational Experience takes us beyond the average, the mundane or the “usual” and creates an impact that somehow affects us.
There are many ways to have a transformational experience in a corps program. A lot of times it happens simply by spending time in nature with your fellow crew members. The CCC, for example, often takes corps members on eight-day “spikes” into the wilderness to build or repair trails. Since the trail (or similar project) is so remote, corps members and their supervisor camp for eight days (a.k.a. “spike”) near the worksite. For a lot of newly recruited urban and suburban corps members, this is their first experience sleeping in a tent, building a campfire, cooking and cleaning with a group, and discovering the vast “wild” of our national forests.
Sometimes it’s the interactions with the community that bring on transformational experiences. There are frequent opportunities for corps members to volunteer in their local communities. Volunteering at a homeless shelter, animal shelter, food bank, or nursing home makes youth aware of the power they have to exercise compassion and relieve unnecessary suffering in others. These experiences reveal to corps members that they have a responsibility to their community, and that inner strength and healthy relationships can result from that service. They discover that it feels good to empower others.
Working on an ethnically/racially/culturally diverse crew certainly leads to transformational experiences. It helps corps members move beyond any blinding prejudices to see that a creative exchange among people with various backgrounds empowers all who participate, particularly when that practice is approached with honor and respect. They make friends across railroad tracks and build bridges that span lifetimes.
There is much more that could be said about corps programs. Former corps members say it best. Below are some testimonials describing what was transformative about their time in service as part of a corps program. In my next blog, I will talk about how corps programs are good for society, nature, and the conservation movement, as well as for the government agencies that support them. You can scroll down to find a link to a study that proves that corps programs are good for youth and communities. But the real proof is in the testimonials, so please read them! To learn more about the California Conservation Corps, cut go to ccc.ca.gov. To learn more about AmeriCorps: Americorps.gov. To learn more about other corps programs, check out the Corps Network: nascc.org.
Before joining the California Conservation Corps, my life literally had no direction. I had recently become a manager at a Pizza Hut in Port Hueneme, CA. and I always knew that I wanted more for my life and my future. I went to the Camarillo Center and was introduced to a map of C’s options, in which I chose Del Norte, Klamath Ca. I got on a bus at noon and ended up at a fishing post in Klamath on a rainy morning at 7am in flip-flops and a long skirt. A CCC truck picked me up, and as we drove up Requa hill my heart bloomed. The scenery was amazing. My first week there I cried almost every day because I didn’t believe I belonged there. I had done so much damage to my family from my childish decisions that I didn’t think I belonged anywhere that gave me the opportunity to thrive. But I did. I thrived in the CCC. We had meetings with all the corp members, and I would express how Del Norte CCC was like a heart that we had to keep beating and should never let die. The hard work and low pay developed a sense of integrity and self-appreciation like I’d never received. I have a forever family in my fellow corps members. I know that I will strive to serve my community in my future endeavors, and that I have the strength to get through anything. I thank the CCC for the ability to say that every day. I miss the C’s every day, and the C’s are like a heart that we need to keep beating and never allow to die. I have so much more to say. So much more to express. I could talk for days about my experiences in the CCC. Thank you for the opportunity.
–Robyn Elaine France California Conservation Corps, Del Norte Center 2002-2004
and CCC Backcountry Yosemite/Stanislaus 04′
A life-changing experience is what I had while working at the CCC Fortuna Center. That place introduced me to something that I thought I would never be a part of. Coming from the city to the wilderness is how I viewed it at first. But it became my home for a year and a half. I learned so much and worked and lived with people from different cultures that I thought I would never come intact with. I gained so many work skills, a better attitude, and that transformed me from a girl into a young lady. I had the support from staff who were full of encouragement to help us all make the right decisions. The CCC was MY LIFE’S stepping stone that I will never forget, and I appreciate this program to the fullest. I highly recommend this program to all young adults who are looking for a life-changing experience.
–Shaveonte’ Jones, California Conservation Corps, Fortuna Center 2010-2011
When I look back over 33 years to my time in the CCC my memories are of learning “green” skills (before the word was even used) and becoming aware that there were simpler and more productive ways of getting jobs done that did not have to include the latest technology or a truckload of fancy equipment. I developed a much greater interest in Nature (besides just enjoying it) by working on stream restoration, seedling plantings, underbrush clearing (both at Big Trees and Santa Cruz) and reclamation of wood by tearing down old military bunkhouses in the San Luis Obispo hills. I learned how to use and care for tools (shovel, pick, double-bit and chainsaw – et al) and there was a lot of problem-solving (both as an individual and as a team). I know that although I was a fairly outgoing person before joining the CCC, that this skill was more firmly cemented into my nature through my interaction with other corps members. I was probably at my most healthy and physically fit during my work with the CCC where I learned to cook and live away from home for the first time (I was 19 yrs old). I really appreciate staff members Mel Kreb, Mark Rathswahl, Leo Schlossberg, and especially Tim Brown for everything they shared to enrich my life and leave me with fond memories of my time in the CCC.
–Pat Lynch California Conservation Corps, San Luis Obispo Center 1978-79
For myself and many others, the CCC was an escape from an abusive household. They gave me a bus ticket 800 miles away home to a new home and job. While there I learned to value and speak up for myself, and how to have healthy relationships with others. I’d recommend it for anyone who’s young and wants to get out of their current situation.
–Patrick Bohon, California Conservation Corps, Fortuna Center Served 2009-2010.
I could write a book on how the Ohio Civilian Conservation Corps at Zaleski changed my life. I am emotional about it. It’s hard to hone it down. Some of the greatest things I have done in my life have totally fallen into my lap, or perhaps it was God. Somehow or another I found myself working there at the Zaleski Ohio CCC camp. They say you make your best friends, your lifelong friends, when you are in college…for me it was at camp. Camp was where everyone was ACCEPTED. People who could barely read or write, people with physical handicaps, country folks, college kids, different people, outcasts, everyone, became a family. We shared the 3C magic. If you weren’t ever a corps member you probably wouldn’t understand. We were a lucky few, it hurts my heart that no one else will be able to experience the Ohio Civilian Conservation Corps. It was closed down. I have been a NC State Park Ranger since 1999. The skills I learned in the OCCC I use every single day in my job. Simple things from learning what it means to wear a uniform to having the confidence to run any piece of shop equipment or any tractor. But most importantly I learned to work with others, figure out solutions, teamwork, and trust. The OCCC gave me a CHANCE to do something, to learn something. For a female from the middle of nowhere, this was Huge. The variety of skills I learned, from taping drywall, to building bat-access gates on coal mines, to restoring opera houses, to reconstructing historic cabins was incredible
–Robin Riddlebarger Kalish, Ohio Civilian Conservation Corps, Zaleski 1996-1998.
Conservation Corps Boost Youth Leadership, Community Service and Outdoor Involvement, PLSC Study Shows
Corps members display numerous developmental advantages such as enhanced leadership and teamwork skills after a season of service.
By the time I get this national media interviewing thing down, my fifteen minutes of fame will be up! I love how much that this experience has given me the opportunity to brag about my heroes: California Conservation Corps members, Corps Programs, Wildlife Rehabilitation Centers, Outdoor Afro, Conserve It Forward, Pacha’s Pajama eco-pop musical, Center For Diversity and the Environment, The Nature Conservancy, awesome community builders and environmental educators like Akiima Price, and all of you who have dedicated yourselves to building healthy relationships with human and wildlife communities. Let’s celebrate this fifteen minutes together and share the solutions that will benefit EVERYBODY! We are building a better world together, one dance at a time.
There has been a lot of recent interest in getting kids outside after numerous studies have shown that today’s American kids are experiencing indoor childhoods to an epidemic proportion. Concerns about the manifestations of an indoor childhood range from obesity and civic apathy to blunted social skills and a lack of understanding about what society needs to be resilient.
A lot of efforts have gone into mitigating indoor childhoods. Groups like the Children & Nature Network (childrenandnature.org) and Outdoor Afro (OutdoorAfro.com) have formed to encourage families to engage in outdoor recreation. “Unstructured play” and “Nature Deficit Disorder” have transformed from obscure concepts to units of measurement. I’ve joined the anti-indoor movement with my own more-infiltrating tactic, as well. I’ve written a fast-paced, multi-cultural, eco-fantasy for kids ages ten and up, titled, Totem Magic: Going MAD (TotemMagic.com) in hopes of reaching kids indoors and sparking their interest to go outside and become guardians of endangered species. And I’m always on the watchful lookout for allies in the war against the couched and complacent empire.
I found a staunch ally in a group from Florida whose founder and executive director is eleven-years-old. Avalon Theisen, and her parents Deborah and Keith, are better known as an organization called Conserve It Forward. Avalon founded this environmental education and advocacy organization when she was merely nine-years-old. (ConserveItForward.org). Her organization works to make folks aware of wildlife conservation issues, especially issues relating to frogs. She also raises money to build bio-sand filters in developing nations where clean drinking water for kids is not readily accessible. Avalon has received numerous awards for her efforts, including the International Eco Hero Award and the Gloria Barron Prize. To say that I admire Avalon’s work would be an understatement. Youth like her give me hope because their contagious passion for helping human and wildlife communities, and their efforts to encourage kids to get outside is the recipe for de-couching a generation that is spending their childhood in zombie-like meditation in front of electronic screens. Kids like Avalon open our eyes to our flying, hopping, swimming, and slithering neighbors while invoking questions that lead to healthy coexistence. I was a youth similar to Avalon-–though not nearly as articulate or focused. I cared about creatures and their habitats, about people and their prosperity. I wanted to prevent and/or relieve suffering wherever I saw it. I still do. I thank my mother and grandmother for helping me to learn to understand and care for people and nature. And I often write and talk about how they woke up that ethic in me. Saving the world starts with good parenting. But how can folks be good parents that are actively engaging their children in the outdoors while also maintaining a busy schedule and dealing with their fears for safety? Recently, I asked Avalon’s mom Deborah what she did to create an outdoors kid with a passion to protect nature. I wondered if she had approached raising Avalon in a similar way that my mother raised me. She had. The subtle wisdoms in Deborah’s answer are helpful for parents who do not want their kids settled on the couch in some kind of continuous and self-imposed “time-out.” I’ve shared Deborah’s response to my inquiry below: I’ve titled her answer, “Raising and Engaging An Outdoors Kid.”
Raising and Engaging An Outdoors Kid.
by Deborah Theisen
Where does Avalon’s interest in the environment and nature come from? My husband and I have always enjoyed spending time outdoors, camping, etc., but the real environmental interest came from Avalon herself. It’s just who she is. Keith and I have followed her example, for the most part (simply enjoying the outdoors is a different thing than what Avalon’s interest is). When she was an infant, I remember placing her on the ground and she would get a look of complete awe staring up at the trees. I don’t know how much she could actually see or what she was thinking, but she has obviously always had a strong nature connection. Maybe all people do and over time it slowly fades away for many because of how we live. Avalon has always preferred being barefoot outdoors, and can drape herself over a rock, in the sand, on the grass, in a tree and become peaceful. People sometimes ask how we have encouraged her in her love of the outdoors. While we have always encouraged her, it has not always been in such obvious ways. We also have not tried to discourage her by telling her it was gross or dirty, or even unsafe, as some may do. Still today she can be around other children who are not “into” nature but soon she’ll have them climbing trees, getting into the lake or playing in the mud. It’s like an internal need to ground herself with the earth, if that makes sense. We also have made sure that our travels include different natural areas, be it the mountains, rainforest, beach, forests.
One of the big influences in her life is a man named George. George is a herpetologist and has taught Avalon for over 3 years. The classes she takes with him are at a co-op and are semester based. One was about nature through literature and they studied some people like Jane Goodall and Rachel Carson. One common thread was exactly what you said, unstructured playtime outside and parental encouragement. That class helped reinforce what we did not necessarily realize we were doing in the first place with her!
People often say that being a parent was not at all what they expected. I can say that 100% in many ways! LOL I read a book when Avalon was born, and though I cannot recall which exactly it was, it included a main idea that stood out to me. The thought was that babies are born with certain instincts and connections. If there is a cliff, a baby will not just go tumbling off it. They will just know to not go over the edge. In our society, not only would someone immediately grab the youngster from the edge, they may not even let them into a natural area to begin with if it had a drop off. I do not advocate letting babies near cliff edges, by the way. ;-) I just found it so interesting that a lot of things that society would consider good parenting or child minding would be the exact things that instill fear into children. Fear is very different than healthy instincts or respect. If Avalon fell down when little, I didn’t run to her and make a fuss to see if she was ok. I trusted she would let me know if she needed assistance. I know many times she’d get a cut or scrape, be bleeding and go wipe it off, put on a bandaid and go about her way. She was learning to handle things but I trust she always knew if she needed me, I was there. If she put a stick or rock in her mouth to chew on, I didn’t snatch it from her, but let her explore it and figure out it may not be the best texture to chew on! Of course, if those items were in an area that has chemical use, it would be a different story. When I said earlier we encouraged her in not so obvious ways, I guess I mean that when it comes to being allowed to explore and enjoy nature, encouragement may come in a form of not making her fearful to do so, and also simply in not discouraging her. The only fear she seems to show is of spiders and I take total blame for that. See?? If it wasn’t for me and my putting the fear of spiders on her, she would likely just have a healthy respect for them!
I think a lot of times as parents, in our want for our kids to be safe, we forget the value of just letting them be sometimes…and that is very apparent when it comes to the natural world. In our family, by learning to follow our daughter’s lead, we all have a stronger love and connection with the environment, which has resulted in action that hopefully is helping improve it.
Finding Strength as an Environmental Hero: A Review of Teen Fiction
I have so much good news, but it will have to wait. My crew of California Conservation Corps youth and I were sent off to fight fires in the Sierra Nevada Mountains! Wish us luck and safety, and learn as many ways that you can help endangered species while I’m gone.
I wrote this article on salmon habitat restoration ten years ago to help California Conservation Corps members understand why we were doing the hard, wet, and often sweatingly hot work of saving salmon. It was picked up and published by the Eel River Reporter.
There are several different types of trees that grow in the Eel River watershed: redwoods, Doug firs, tan oaks, live oaks, black oaks, madrones, bay laurels, willows, alders, cottonwoods, and the list go on. When these tree species grow in a watershed that’s home to salmonids, I call them Salmon Trees.
Salmon Trees are always best for fish when they’re left in an intact old growth forest. Most of our watershed’s remaining old-growth groves are protected in parks frequented by tourists from all over the world. A few old growth groves still in danger of being chain sawed down grow on privately owned lands and are frequented by tree sitters from all over the country. As you read this, youth are sitting more than a hundred feet up in a redwood tree that they named Spooner. Spooner and the many other ill-fated ancient trees that grow in a tributary watershed of the Eel called Nanning Creek are scheduled to be cut down. (Since this article was written, Humboldt Redwood Company has agreed not to cut down Spooner or the trees growing around it.)
While not the preferred landscape, even second-growth and third-growth forests of Salmon Trees are good for the watershed. Salmon and other native fish evolved in certain river conditions and reward us when we maintain those conditions with lots of their succulent flesh (a.k.a. productive fishing industry). These conditions include clear and cold water, deep pools, spawning habitat (clean gravels), lots of aquatic invertebrates (water bugs), places to hide from predators, and places to rest (side channels, slack-water pools). Salmon Trees are essential in providing these conditions. Let’s discuss them one at a time.
Clear water: What if every time you went to retrieve your Cup of Noodles from the microwave, a thick brown fog came pouring out as soon as you opened the door? Now you can’t see a thing. You’d have to grope around the kitchen to locate the oven again and then pat around the greasy inside until you found your food. Now imagine a juvenile salmon searching for a little bug in dirty, cloudy water. In our watershed that’s often their challenge.
Erosion puts silt (dirt) in the water, raising the level of turbidity (muddiness, as when particles and sediment are stirred up). Erosion is caused by a multitude of things, including road cuts, overgrazing, clear cuts, poorly planned railroads, off-road vehicles, you, and volcanoes. Since much of the Eel River watershed is comprised of ancient sea- floor that was lifted out of the waves in a series of major earthquakes, our soils are sandy and more often prone to minor erosion events–as well as major ones like land avalanches–than most watersheds in the U.S.
Tree roots stabilize soil, even on steep slopes. When a clear cut happens on a mountainside, the roots that keep the stumps in place continue their soil holding function for a few more years after the tree is dead. But when those roots rot, we have tragic landslide events. Sometimes people’s homes are destroyed, but almost every time the salmon’s homes are.
Cold water: Some of us envy the fishes’ ability to breathe underwater– especially you abalone divers. But some fish, like salmon, need more oxygen in the water than others. People who care about salmon–I call them fish-heads– would describe this water-bound oxygen as being “dissolved oxygen.” And cold water holds more dissolved oxygen than warm water. Cold water also discourages some fish diseases (think Klamath fish kill) as well as invasive fish that thrive in warm water such as pike minnows.
Salmon prefer temperatures somewhere between 48 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Shady rivers are cooler rivers, and Salmon Trees provide that shade. Replanting native trees along denuded banks is a way to help keep lots of dissolved oxygen in the water for our fish. Riverside trees were usually the first ones axed in the old days, when logs were rolled or dragged down mountains into the streams and floated to the mills. Livestock also did their deforesting part by wrapping their lips around and consuming any young tree sprouts attempting to replace the galleries of mature willows, alders, and cottonwoods that once shaded the tributary streams of the Eel.
We mustn’t forget water diversions in the demise of a cold Eel River. The shallower the river, the more quickly it can warm. While much of our water is still being diverted, the need for lots of healthy Salmon Tree forests has never been more essential.
Deep pools: The bottoms of pools are nice and cool. Pools are great places for us to go swimming and relax. They’re good places for fish to go swimming and relax too. Imagine if you always had to walk against a gale-force wind. Wouldn’t a large rock or a wall be a nice place to get behind for a break from those energy-zapping, lip-chapping gusts? Deep pools provide that same kind of break for fish that sometimes need a rest from the constant barrage of a ripping current. Pools are also good places for fish to hide from flying predators like osprey, kingfishers, and bald eagles. During lower flows the current downstream of a pool is often moving faster than the water in the pool itself and therefore able to sort gravel in such a way that is good for spawning habitat. Fish-heads call this area (or habitat type) a “pool tailing.”
So what do Salmon Trees have to do with deep pools? Well, as we discussed earlier, tree roots prevent erosion by stabilizing soil–deep pool-filling soil. Trees that fall into the water also create a dynamic known by fish-heads as “scouring.” The tree that falls with one end resting underwater on the riverbed and one end on the bank causes the water to dig (scour) around it and create a pool. When fish-heads purposely put a log into a river for that reason they call it a “digger log.”
Spawning habitat (clean gravels): Salmon Trees create spawning habitat and keep gravels clean. But why do salmon need clean gravels? It is because salmon eggs breathe. Spawning salmon dig a hole with their starved bodies (they stop eating once they enter fresh water but still strike at stuff that looks like food, which is why you can catch them with a lure), then they lay and fertilize their eggs in this hole. Next, they go a short ways upstream of that hole and dig another one. The current washes the gravels stirred up by the digging to cover the salmon’s first hole and the eggs. If mud were used for this purpose, their air-breathing eggs would be smothered. But since salmon use gravel, the cold, dissolved oxygen-containing water can infiltrate the spaces between the gravel and keep the salmon progeny alive. Without Salmon Trees keeping the soil in place, upslope erosion can occur, burying the eggs. Sadly, that happens all the time.
Erosion also embeds potential spawning gravel in a dirty cement-like compaction that makes it really hard or impossible for the salmon to make a nest (redd) with their emaciated bodies.
Lots of aquatic invertebrates (water bugs): Upon seeing a squiggly or slimy thing scurrying through the water, some people scream, “Eww, bugs, gross!” Juvenile salmon say, “Yum.” And Salmon Trees are behind this delicatessen. Leaves and other tree parts that fall into the river are food, habitat, and nutrient providers for aquatic insects. Salmon Trees support a viable ecological system for aquatic invertebrates in many other ways that I don’t have the space to write about. Just remember: Everything is connected to everything. A food source needs a food source to be a food source. Without that connectivity we all starve to death. If a hungry water bug could speak English it would certainly ask us to plant more Salmon Trees.
Places to hide from predators and places to rest (side channels, slack-water pools): We already talked about how even a fish needs a break. That’s especially true for newly hatched salmon. They just get swept away. That’s why side channels, slack-water pools, and slow-moving water at river edges are so important to fish, and chocolate gifts so important at work–especially after you’ve turned in messy paperwork.
When a Salmon Tree falls into the river, it can divert some flow into the gravel bar and scour an ideal refuge (a side channel or slack-water pool) for the tiny fish babies. That same Salmon Tree provides cover to hide from the roving eyes of air stalkers–feathered predators hunting from above. A fish-head attempting restoration work might secure a couple other logs with rebar to a placed or naturally fallen digger log, and they call them “cover logs.” Together all these strategically placed and rebar-connected logs become salmon habitat structures. These structures create pools and pool tailings, slow the water down for young fish, and provide excellent places for them to hide. This type of restoration work is being done by several different groups all over our watershed. Lots of planting of Salmon Trees is happening as well–and now you know why.
Fish need Salmon Trees for the reasons I mentioned and others that I didn’t get into. Humans need Salmon Trees not only because we depend on salmon but for another purpose that has recently become more evident. Trees absorb carbon gasses that contribute to the warming of our planet. At the most recent Salmon Restoration Federation conference–successfully organized by Dana Stolzman from SRF–one of our region’s finest writers and philosophers, Freeman House, publicly stressed the importance of cooperating in preparation for climate change. Like many others, Freeman’s words confirmed truth for me the way the advice from a wise and respected grandfather would.
We must evolve beyond thinking of ecological restoration as a process of saving just one economically viable species– such as salmon–and its habitat. Ecological restoration has become the practice of continuing the survival of the human race, our watershed roommates, and our shared habitats. If we work to facilitate nature by keeping what is healthy intact and accept that it will migrate and adapt, we can buffer ourselves against the direst effects of climate change. By understanding the climate-changing process while doing what is necessary to boost the number of salmon (and other native species) in our watershed, we are in fact building the food production capacity and cultural connectivity of our children’s nutritional store. Saving and restoring anadromous fisheries, the Salmon Tree forests, and the Eel River is no longer just a moral and political struggle for outdoor recreationists, fish-heads, and ecologists to engage in. It is the ritual of survival–your survival.