“It looks like Shrek!” That’s what one of the Compton high schoolers said as he looked down into a rare soft bottom section of Compton Creek. [and it wasn’t just because the teacher for the day was called Eddie Murphy, although he was]
The thin ribbon of green, dotted with trees, is pretty rare around here. As the students studied the map to assess the neighborhood of the creek they noted that parks were pretty uncommon. In this city of almost 100,000 due south of Los Angeles they could recount just three. What’s rarer still is a creek channel that still teems with life.
True the creek has its challenges, sandwiched as it is between high concrete banks, a massive culvert, and a mess of highway and train bridges. But if you spend a few minutes under the shade of the trees you’ll hear birds and bugs all around.
For the better part of a decade, Heal the Bay has been working with the local high school to help them use their local creek as a valuable resource for science and environmental education. Today the students were assessing the condition of the creek — is the water clear? Is there grass underfoot? Trees overhead? And just how much trash has been caught up? They’re able to link this back to what happens in their neighborhood and how they can help protect the creek and the ocean that lies a few miles downstream.
But for me, what it gets back to is that singular moment when a kid is transported from the concrete jungle and connects with the creek for what it is. A river flowing through their city. Even if that means relating it to a fictional forest on the Hollywood stage. Perhaps next time they see Shrek they’ll remark it’s just like the creek in their backyard!
Elk may be beautiful, majestic animals, but if you’re a young boy they are beaten out by a tiny bug any day of the week. I know as I experienced it first-hand last week.
I’d gone with friends up to Point Reyes for a few days. On a misty morning we took the trail out towards Tomales Point, hoping to see elk. We weren’t disappointed. The elk clustered along the road on the drive in and stood framed against the skyline as we started out on the trail. But elk are distant and not very interactive. Of much keener interest to the four boys were the countless bugs we encountered on the trail, from potato beetles and ear wigs, to crickets and lady bugs (or lady birds as we call them in England for some strange reason). They crowded over them. Picked them up. Moved them off the trail. Counted their spots. Looked for ones with different patters. Wondered where the eyeballs are on crickets. And generally crawled around on the narrow dirt trail that cuts through the coastal scrub.
We never made it out very far, but we had a wonderful time exploring the world close at hand.
Parks come in all shapes and sizes and I never thought I would be having this much fun in a skateboard park.
I don’t know what possessed me, but there I was with my six year old son strapping on pads while we watched the other guys (and they were all guys) practice tricks on their skateboards. I had even warned my son that he was on his own on this one as I had been on a board perhaps once, and that was at least three decades ago. My son on a “trixie” board as he calls it, and me on a longboard (supposedly more stable for us old folks).
Growing up, skateboarders were those punk kids who terrorized the neighborhood and insisted on riding places the signs said they should not. Perhaps that’s still true some places, but somehow the whole sport seems to have matured. Half the people riding in the park were in their twenties (or older) and all were friendly and slightly bemused by the sight of us two. By some strange coincidence a number of the guys were pro’s — yes, they made a (decent) living riding boards. Theotis Beasley even signed my son’s first board. Not sure it was the message I was hoping my son would take away from this — but its a good reminder that excellence comes in many shapes and forms.
After a few valiant attempts to teach everything I had learned from a 3 minute 41 second YouTube video on starting to skateboard, a five year old came over and took charge. A few minutes later and my son was making his first tentative turns. “You know,” he said, “It’s OK for a five year old to teach a six year old because we’re all good at different things.” Pretty profound lesson from the skatepark.
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.
On the walk to school this morning, my son tugged my arm and pulled me back. He’d spotted a large pine cone laying in the gutter — “its not even sticky,” he yelled as he picked it up, “can we put in in the nature pocket?”
The nature pocket is what you or might know as a water bottle holder on his backpack. Since there are two pockets, one can always double as a collectors pocket for my budding naturalists. I think this is a much better use! Today it collected the pine cone and a prickly seed pod from a plane tree. But it’s no stranger to redwood cones, leaves, flowers, feathers, sticks and the odd rock — all collected on our short walk to school. Sometimes they might stay in there for days, going back and forth until we remember to empty it out and admire the natural treasures that he and his brother collect. It’s like a nature table, only more portable.
They find the hunt endlessly fascinating and I am surprised by how much nature is hidden in what to me looks like an ordinary concrete sidewalk. One day perhaps we’ll hit it big and find an elusive turkey feather. That would be a day to remember!
Turns out, walking to school can be a lot of fun and it is also good for you! There’s a lot been written about the health and psychological benefits of walking to school – lowers obesity, improved learning at school, etc. I think its not just the physical exercise, it can also be an awful lot of fun as my two kids have proved every day for the past few months.
My Kindergartener and his younger brother walk, skip and jump to school every day. Along the way they turn a pretty mundane sidewalk into a wild adventure playground with a different obstacle and challenge at every turn.
They play hop scotcth….
….they have running races…on your marks, set, go…
…as they dash for 100 yards down the side walk….
….to a drain cover that acts as the finish line….”I win!”
…they jump to avoid the hot lava….
….they walk along the balance beam…..
….leaping the chasm with one bound….
….climb the fire hydrants……
…until finally we arrive at the school gate….
…warmed up and ready to learn!
Of course, its even better when its raining as the biggest puddle in the neighborhood is in the middle of the Kindergarten playground. Best place for it, I say!
And then I return home with the youngest one and we search for turkeys. But that is another story for another day.
Last week up in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park I overheard two young boys: “Daddy, can I take a photo of the creek?” His older brother commented, “I don’t need a camera, I’m going to take a photo with my eyes.” Pretty profound for a conversation between two brothers under 7. And something I will remember next time I reach for my camera as a crutch for memories.
The parks, particularly the redwood parks, can capture kids’ attention. I camped with friends over July 4th (unfortunately not in the redwoods, but up at Plumas-Eureka in the Northern Sierra). After four days, my two boys were filthy. Rowan has a memory of his first fish to get away, and Emerson hasn’t asked to watch a movie on his mother’s iPhone for days. It’s just fun and discovery from dawn to dusk. Questions abound, “Is there less oxygen on the freeway because there are no trees?” About bugs, “Is a leach an insect even though it has no legs?”
A lot has been written recently about the importance of kids’ and adults’ connection to nature. The book, The Nature Principle, is an example. Physical and mental health are just the start. Some enlightened doctors are even starting to write “prescriptions for visiting parks.” Spend a few days watching six kids under 5 play around camp, and you know it’s all true.
So as the summer grips us, I hope you find the time to get away and have fun in the redwoods and parks. I’d love to hear about your summer plans and memories of fun times past. Oh, and please forgive me for writing this on my iPhone while I was swinging in my hammock between two Sierra trees. Not a good role model, I know.
[first published on “Giant Thoughts,” Save the Redwoods League, July 10, 2012]