Category Archives: Memories

Gory science education remembered across the years

What do you remember about your early years at school? If you’re like me, chances are not too many of the specifics.  But I am pretty sure that my oldest son, now in the second grade, had one of those lessons last week. Why do I say that? Because I have a very similar memory from my time at school, as does my mother. More than 60 years separate these lessons, but they are essential the same.

And the lesson? Dissecting an eyeball and extracting the lens.

My mother worked on a sheep’s eye. I dissected a cow’s eye. And my son got to do the same with an anchovy.

It was amazing watching a class full of normally twitchy seven and eight year olds settle down and learn what makes a fish a fish.  The climax was removing the lens and feeling the tiny hard sphere that you could then take back to class. It made science-education real — if a little smelly!

The staff and many volunteers at the Shorebird Nature Center at the Berkeley Marina did a great job turning these students into scientists for the morning. I have a hunch that one of his early school memories will be of this day and that little anchovy.

Do you have a favorite lesson that has stuck with you through the years?

Dissecting an anchovy.
Dissecting an anchovy.

Remembering Martin Litton’s passionate and indomitable spirit

I was saddened to learn earlier today that Marin Litton, a passionate conservationist, passed away yesterday. I met Martin during my time at Save the Redwoods League. We connected on the redwoods (of course) and over his time in England during World War II fly gliders from airbases likely built by my grandfather.

I will never forget the first time we met.  It perfectly exemplifies his fierce independence and passion.  We were hosting a memorial tree planting for Martin’s former boss at Sunset Magazine, Ambassador Bill Lane. Given that many of the guests were getting on in years, we’d arranged for a bus to bring people up to the redwoods from the Bay Area.  The bus was running late. Very late. And Martin was the reason.

Martin stepped out of the bus with a bloodied and bruised face. In the early morning light, Martin had slipped in his driveway and landed heavily on his head. He’d laid there until his wife found him.  Undaunted they dusted hims off and he and his wife drove to meet the bus.  Our staff encouraged (implored!) him to go to the local hospital to be checked out.  But that would mean missing the event to honor his long-time fellow champion of the Sierra. Martin was getting on that bus if it was the last thing he was going to do.  Finally a compromise was reached and he agreed to visit the Garberville emergency room to be checked out when he arrived.  Anyone who has done that drive in a car knows its a long and slow drive. Imagine doing that with a bloodied, bruised head? I can’t!

It didn’t end there.  Between checking in to the hotel and getting Martin in the car to the hospital, his wife slipped. So we took them both to be checked out.  Fortunately both were fine, if bruised. Martin joined everyone the next day for breakfast, complete with a massive bandage and incipient black eye.   I can tell from reading his obituary, that this was the real Martin. He was an unstoppable force and the mountains and the forests of the West are better today for it.

Rest in Peace, Martin.

Bruised, but unstoppable, Martin Litton talks about his friend Bill Lane.
Bruised, but unstoppable, Martin Litton talks about his friend Bill Lane.

Remembering Harold

Harold Hoyle was my great uncle.  Born in the late 1800’s, he died near the Front on August 25, 2018 in the closing weeks of World War I. This past weekend, my mother along with other relatives, gathered in Earby, northern England to lay a poppy at the town’s war memorial. The oldest of the clan was my uncle Martin — Harold’s half brother. The youngest, my nephew Mylo.

My mother shared her memory of grandmother, Harold’s step-mother, telling the story stood of him leaving for the last time. She was stood on the very step he left from never to return.

Harold Hoyle was my fathers half brother and lived at Hodge Syke in Earby. He was an essential mill worker but was given the white feather one Friday evening by two mill girls so went to war. He was injured in France and came home to recuperate for 5 months and then went back. I remember Pauline Mary Hoyle (my grandmother and his step mother) telling me about the day he went back, standing in the doorway at Hodge Syke and telling her he would never come home again. She cried when she told me this and although not much more than 10 years old at the time (I’m 70 this year) I have never forgotten her look as she remembered the event.

The local paper, The Craven Herald, carried his death notice along with two moving poems on September 20th, 1918.

Private Harold Hoyle, Duke of Wellington's Regiment.
Private Harold Hoyle, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment.

Private Harold Holye, Earby

Private Harold Hoyle, Duke of Wellington’s, killed in action on August 25th, was 25 years of age and the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. Albert J. Hoyle, Hodge Syke, Earby. He was wounded last October and returned to France after four months’ recuperation in England. Altogether he had been two years at the Front and was formerly an engine-tenter at Grove Shed, Earby.

HOYLE – In loving memory of our dear son, Private Harold Hoyle, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, who was killed in action somewhere in France, August 25th, 1918.

Somewhere in France in a soldier’s grave,
Lies our dear son among the brave;
From earthly cares to heavenly rest,
Missed by those who loved him best.

–From Father, Mother, Brothers and Sisters

Somewhere in France in a soldier’s grave,
Lies my dear sweet heart amongst the brave;
But the unknown grave is the bitterest blow
None but an aching heart can know,

–Ever remembered, Mollie

100 years after the end of the Great War, I find the story deeply moving. Harold was doing his part for the War effort on the home front, and yet something as flimsy as a white feather —  a potent symbol of cowardice — led to two years at the Front of the most brutal war and ultimately to his death in battle. Rest in Peace, Harold.

 Martin and MyloIMG_0317

What does Topanga smell like? To a four-year-old.

Walking back from dropping his brother at school this morning, my middle son suddenly shouted out, “I don’t see Topanga, but I smell it!”  Asked what does it smell like, he responds, “It smells like mountains full of bears.”

We were in the Bay Area, far from Topanga Canyon and many miles (I think) from the nearest bear. So what was he smelling?  The sun was out and shining on the trees, so perhaps it was the smell of morning sun warming up the trees.

We hadn’t been together in Topanga since late summer. It was a good reminder of how smell can trigger strong memories. And as we never saw a bear in Topanga, it also shows how young minds blend fact and fiction seamlessly. Now I am wondering how to include protecting natural smells in our conservation plans!

The distinct smell of the mountains of Topanga
Enjoying the mountain trails, Topanga Canyon



What color is SoCal?

I was playing around with photos and my blog and had an ah ha moment.

The color palette for a day at the beach matched that for a day miles inland at a old ranch turned into park land.  At the beach you have sand, water and waves. On the ranch, desiccated grass, sky and clouds.  The elements may be arranged differently, but the colors are so similar. To me it is the colors of late fall in southern California.

Hikers enjoy Ahmanson Ranch


Hyperion – they don’t come bigger than this!

Hyperion. To some the legendary father of the sun, the moon and the dawn. To some, the tallest tree in the world.  To the millions who live in Los Angeles, it’s the sewage treatment plant at the end of the pipe. And to me, it will forever be a place that brings two parts of my life together.

Mayor Garcetti opens a new education center at Hyperion
Mayor Garcetti opens a new education center at Hyperion

On September 16th 2006 I schlepped Steve Sillet’s crossbow through the woods as he set out to document this record-breaking redwood for the first time. Until that point no-one really knew how tall the tree was. Steve’s work documented it as a record-breaker at 379.1 feet tall (that’s 115.55 meters). What was remarkable about the tree is that it narrowly escaped being cut down before being protected in Redwood National Park in 1978. I clearly remember being sat in that remote grove as Steve and his team went about their painstaking work. It was a magical place. So quiet and remote with beautiful trees all around.

Roll the clock forward a few years and on September 16th 2013, I found myself sat out by the beach under a hot sun with Hyperion — the municipal sewage plant for LA at my back. It was my first day on the job at Heal the Bay and I had come to where it all started. I was part of the crowd of city officials, environmentalists, and citizens come to watch the new Mayor of LA, Eric Garcetti, dedicate a brand new education center at what I learned is the second largest septic plant in the United States.

Back in 1985 a group of concerned citizens were tired off the endless pollution pouring into Santa Monica bay, killing fish and sickening people. Organized by Dorothy Green, they founded Heal the Bay, which for 28 years has worked tirelessly for clean beaches and water in Southern California.  Their first fight was to stop untreated wastewater from Hyperion being dumped into the bay. They won that battle and many more since then.

Today, the greatest threats to our coastal waters and watersheds, and to all of us – both human and animal – that rely on the ocean for pleasure, income or sustenance, come from urban and stormwater runoff, plastic pollution, and the ever-increasing stresses to our marine environment from over-fishing and climate change.  Together, these threaten to impair the bay and ocean just as untreated wastewater from Hyperion did all those years ago. Unfortunately the solutions are no longer as simple as as a new septic plant. They require us to be thinking and working throughout the watershed and at policies at both the local and state-wide level.

When I need inspiration,  I will return to this day and to Hyperion that brought so many threads together. From the towering redwood to the sewage treatment plant. At their core both are a story of how people stood up to protect places they care about and in the process changed the course of history.

Muir Woods

What’s missing in our playgrounds?

Every day as I drop my oldest son off at school or collect him at the end of the day I walk across a maze of white and yellow lines that mark the playground. Straight lines, perfect curves, right angles and more. My son is beginning to recognize that marks that seemed random at first actually come along with a whole set of rules that describe the lore of the playground. To me it all seem both familiar, and somewhat sterile.

Lines mark space in the playground
Lines mark space in the playground

What fascinates me about the lines is that although similar to what I grew up with, many of the games he plays are as new to me as they are to him. I am having to learn a whole new vocabulary: cherry bombs, water melons, no-holdsies and across the world.  While we played football-against-the-wall, run-across, and if the teacher wasn’t looking “British bulldog,” my son plays four-square, wall-ball and tether ball. He’s starting to learn the elaborate rules that dictated the play — passed on no doubt from one year to another with slight mutations along the way. I wonder if one day he’ll spend as much time talking about “kiss chase” as we did — not that we ever played it of course….

Four Square
Four Square

I was fortunate that our playground had more grass — fields for football, rugby in winter and cricket in summer. They also had trees we’d build bases for our tiny lego-men and hedgerows that bordered the neighboring farmers field.  The greenery and semi-wild spaces added a whole new dimension — a dimension that is lacking in my son’s urban school. As California looks to renovate the failing infrastructure of its schools, I hope it will give some thought as to how the school playground can be transformed into part of the learning environment. Some schools have made a start by incorporating vegetable gardens for the kids. Adding to these tended gardens some wild spaces — the occasional patch of untended grass, dipping pond, or miniature forest groves — would go a long way to bringing nature closer to our kids. In an era when the school day is crammed and money for busing kids on a field trip is tight, anything we can do to enrich the school environment seems like a good option for our kids, their education, and our environment.

Tether Ball
Tether Ball

What does climate change taste and smell like?

What does the rain taste like?
What does the rain taste like?

Does climate change have a taste and a smell? Will it create memories in years to come? While working at the Save the Redwoods League I worked on a number of projects with collaborators looking at both how climate has changed over the past 30 years and projections of how it might change in the future. One change that is already underway is we’re getting more late spring rains. Ask any forester in the north coast of California and they’ll tell you that late rains are reducing the logging season as roads stay wet longer.

This came back to me this past sunday morning. Saturday had been hot with a muggy tinge in the air. Sunday dawned overcast and muggy with a foreshadow of rain to come. Quite unlike what I am used to in the Bay Area — more like a humid muggy summer day in England when I was growing up. The clouds even looked the same. And there it was. Rain coming down, gently at first and then harder. Soaking the deck. I opened the door and encouraged my two older boys to step outside and smell the air – the unmistakable smell of rain after a hot spell. They then got the idea of trying to catch the raindrops in their mouths, curious what they tasted like. And as quickly as it had started, the rain stopped.

It wasn’t much. And I am under no illusion that it was climate change. But it was a late spring rain, just like the models forecast. If so, perhaps over time it will create new memories for my boys. The memory of the smell and taste of rain coming down out of a warm humid sky. The memory of a changing climate.

Heralding Summer’s End among the Redwoods

Spot the bear!

Albee Creek campground in Humboldt Redwoods State Park was full over the Labor Day weekend. Clustered around each fire ring were happy faces enjoying the end of summer and start of fall.  Each year for the past four years, I’ve camped at the same spot with family and friends: On the edge of the meadow overlooking the spires of Rockefeller Forest.

It’s nice to return to a familiar spot to see what’s changed, and what has remained the same. This year the blackberries were late and the bushes dotted with bitter red fruits rather than laden with juicy black orbs (fortunately we brought our last pot of jam from last year!). Replacing the berries was a bumper crop of apples and one very black bear who ambled through the trees gorging himself. There’s nothing quite like the sight of a full-grown bear perched at the top of a spindly apple tree reaching for one last fruit to draw and hold a crowd of campers!

Swimming beneath the redwoods at the Garden Club of America Grove

Swimming beneath the redwoods at the Garden Club of America Grove

The redwoods were unchanged and timeless as they always are. It was great to see each trailhead with a cluster of cars—more than I recall seeing before.  And yet the park’s groves are so vast that you can still find solitude and peace among the towering giants.  Deep in Rockefeller Forest the only sound was the distant splash of Bull Creek, an occasional bird call, and the gentle creaking of the trees as their tops swayed and rubbed together. It’s as if they were talking to all who came to visit for the weekend.

At Richardson Grove State Park on the drive south, I spotted a bald eagle flying low over the South Fork Eel River. It was truly a magnificent sight. It was also a trip of firsts for me: taking our new month-old son camping for the first time and sleeping out with my five-year-old son for the first time. He’s a seasoned camper but had never slept out under the stars. Wisely he didn’t believe me that the bear came and licked his nose at night. We lay on the mattress listening to the dawn chorus break over the redwoods. That’s the best way to start the day and say farewell to summer.

[first published, “Giant Thoughts,” Save the Redwoods League, September 5, 2012.]