Thursday, August 30, 2012

Noah 'firing on all cylinders'

Well, I must say, I’ve been eager to get back with you all to report on Family Camp on Hog Island with Noah last week, but by the time I got home Sunday afternoon, I’ve been absolutely beat and have spent extra hours in bed catching up.  24/7 x 10 days with an 11 year old boy is enough to wear a grandpa out, you know?  ;-)

I suppose that’s the best place to begin:  Noah’s energy output.  Such a little dynamo!  I must admit, I did have a hard time keeping track of him on the island at first, but then it became evident that such close tracking wasn’t really necessary.  He and his posse of buddies created a ‘fort’ just above the high tide line in a very rocky spot covered over with bushes.  Turned out just about every time I wanted to know where he was, I could hear his voice as I approached the ‘fort.’  I caught his eye like clockwork, too.  He seemed to have a sense of my looking for him.  

To put the essence of the week right up front, Noah was willing and able to try just about anything all week.  For starters, just after we arrived on island and the requisite orientation session began, we were asked to introduce ourselves.  Being the introvert that I am, yet wary of making Noah feel uncomfortable in his first hours on-island, I figured the intro was up to me.  As I turned to him to tell him what figured, he jumped up and said, ‘Let me do it!’  And so he did.  

Later on that afternoon, campers were asked to participate in a ‘sense’ exercise where one person would lead another, blindfolded, to a local destination, and then, after being led away and using senses other than sight, the blindfolded person was to take off his/her impediment and then locate the place led to.  

I assumed Noah would be my partner.  Not so!  Before I could say anything, he picked his new little buddy, Elijah, so I took on the role of photographer.  I must admit, it was fun watching the kids work together.  

And then to get activities started Monday morning, the staff invited all interested to investigate low tide pretty early:  6:30 am.  Breakfast was scheduled for 7:30 with morning sessions right after.  The intertidal piece was a schedule add-on, and frankly, I didn’t know how Noah would react to getting up so early.  The kid can sleep until after 8 no problem here at our house.

We Ohioans need to understand how early the sun makes its appearance on summer mornings on the Maine coast.  Around these parts, old sol breaks the horizon around 7 am this time of year.  On the coast of Maine, at the other end of the Eastern time zone, that same daily event happens a full hour earlier.  So when I advised Noah it was 6 am and time to get moving if he wanted to go intertidal searching, I fully expected him to turn over and blow it off.  No so!  ‘Let’s do it,’ he said.  And so we did.  

And it pretty much kept up like that all week for Noah.  When I do full-week workshops like this, I deliberately skip at least a couple sessions, choosing to rest in bed or find a good place to sit with journal or poetry notebook to have some zen time and meditate.  Noah, on the other had, was up for anything.  Intertidal at 6:30 am?  No problem.  Jumping in a mighty cold ocean on Harbor Island?  No problem.  Walking through a bog, chest deep in peat?  No problem.  The little dude was ready for it all. 

Lots yet to talk about regarding a Family Camp involving a grandson and a grandpa who so much wants the younger one to be interested in Nature and people.  Stay tuned.  

Today’s Elder Idea:  Agreement is not important.  Only understanding is.
Richard Wade

images:  top: Monday’s early morning low tide adventure.  mid:  Elijah and 'blind' Noah.  bottom: Noah post-bog walk.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Return to Hog Island -- with Noah

It was late July thirty-one years ago when I wrapped up my first stay on Audubon’s Hog Island in Maine.  I’ve told lots of people lots of times ever since that that trip was a life-changer for me.  

When I got home, Dayton’s Audubon chapter, who paid for most of my tuition through a scholarship, invited me to do a program for them.  After my talk and slideshow and a reading of an Emily Dickinson poem that evening, I was asked to serve on the Dayton Audubon Society board of directors, which I did for twenty+ years.  It was the first of a number of volunteer gigs I’ve been involved in since for Audubon.

But the biggest life-changer I can talk about, I’d have to say, is my wedding to Emily Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd, those formidable figures of poetry and editing and scandal, and well, Nature -- who are such a part of Hog Island.  Before all was said and done three years later, I ended up writing my masters project on the combination of those two significant American women.  But that, as they say, is another story.  

During that first stay, it was the stuff of Hog Island that really got me going.  I like to remember that as a guy from the Midwest who knew little of the ocean, spending two weeks waking up to sunrises on Muscongus bay was something special.  Hog Island was the first time I saw four moons at Jupiter, and that wasn’t even through a telescope, but a bird spotting scope.  First time, too, for me to see a loon on the water, along with cormorants, eiders, guillemots, osprey, and harbor seals.  

I met some good people, too, including my roommate from St. Louis who, according to my journal that summer, was full of an ‘insatiable volume of jokes and words of wisdom.’  And then there was Freda, the retired teacher from Philadelphia who had had a hip replaced, though on the day we both set out independently to walk the trail around the 300+ acre island, I could barely keep her in my sights, even though she hiked with a cane!  It was the summer, too, when boatman Joe Johansen stopped the engine out on the bay when our company spotted a minke whale breeching.  When Joe called that animal a ‘brother,‘ I was moved to tears.  Still am.  

But this Hog Island trip is extra special because I get to share the place with grandson Noah, a partner of mine in all kinds of summer adventures so far in his 11 year-old lifetime.  Program notes that we’ve gotten by email advise us to bring an old pair of shoes in which we can muck around in tidal flats.  I know he’ll like that!  Mention was, too, of a bonfire on the shore, island hikes, kid games, and boat trips out into the bay.  We’ll also be able to see up-close-and-personal the new clutch of osprey that hatched out on a platform the camp staff erected for just that purpose a few years ago.  We’ve been watching these birds via an on-line connection since they broke out of their shells in early spring.  It’s like we know ‘em already. 

As much as I love Hog Island, though, this trip is really for Noah.  I know in my heart what the place has meant to me.  One of my goals is to show him what I find special about the place, but more than that, it’s a target of mine to get out of the kid’s way and let him discover the place on his own.  I so much want to be his shadow, watching his eyes and body language as he responds to this wilderness island which is home to so many things that will all be firsts for him. 

As grandparents, Cindy Lou and I have made it our goal over the last decade to expose grandkids to cool stuff that could spark a lifetime interest in any number of things.  We’ve watched baseball at the old Yankee Stadium, visited historic aircraft lots of times at the National Museum for the United States Air Force, gotten the oldest grandkid to Washington DC for a couple of museum days, took another to Cincinnati for a weekend of aquarium and zoo exploration, and, of course, spent lots of time watching birds right here at home.  

And now being able to get Noah on Hog Island, that place that captured my own heart three decades ago, is really a dream about to come true.  I’ll do my zen best to just be present for the week and watch Noah’s immersion into a Natural world that should be full of beautiful surprises.  As far as this grandpa can figure, it doesn’t get much better than that.  

Today’s Elder Idea:  Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.

Rachel Carson

images: Hog Island’s Long Cove and recent screenshot of the new osprey.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


I’ve been a NASA TV junkie ever since I’ve been able to get it on my home television, which has been the last half dozen years or so.  I did spend time watching that same signal stream on-line prior, but sitting in front of a computer watching television doesn’t quite work the same for me as in the easy chair, feet up, with a beer and chips at the ready.

I’ve watched lots of launches, daily International Space Station updates, space probe reports, and tons of talking heads on panels explaining what engineering and scientific miracles NASA and its global partners are up to.  

I’ve got to tell you, in my view NASA TV is the greatest reality television going today.  I mean, when you look at a quiet TV screen of a fueling rocket breathing on the launch pad for hours before ignition and launch -- or a last minute scrub -- it doesn’t get much more real than that.  No rush.  No commercials. Nothing fake.  An interview or two explaining what’s happening. Occasional voice-over updates. Real stuff, I tell you. 

So it was with heightened interest that I watched the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, better known to many as the Curiosity rover, last November around Thanksgiving.  Loaded high atop an Atlas V rocket, the largest Martian probe ever built -- about the size of a small SUV -- took off into a lovely Florida morning on a multi-million mile, eight month trip to the red planet.  Such an interplanetary expedition can only happen every eight years due to the orbits of both Mars and Earth.  It’s a fuel economy thing.  Last time the planets lined up like this, rovers Spirit and Opportunity made the trip.  

So it was with even greater interest that I watched the landing of Curiosity early Monday morning about 1:30 Dayton time.  Sure enough, there was plenty of drama.  All of the landing activity broadcast in ‘real time’ had already happened almost ten minutes prior on Mars.  In reality, we were just getting a reading of the data that told the folks at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena what already happened.  At one point NASA administrator Charles Bolden said they knew the probe was on the surface, but didn’t have a clue yet what kind of shape it was in.  Soft land or crash?  After all, more probes to Mars have crashed than have made safe arrival.  

What really got to me Monday morning -- and brought me to tears for much of the event -- was the reaction of JPL engineers and scientists who had their faces front and center on NASA TV’s cameras.  There was no hiding their enthusiasm.  Every time a positive bit of news was announced (‘The chute has opened,’ or ‘We have powered flight’), a series of cheers went up in the room.  And then when the news of the soft landing finally ended the ‘seven minutes of terror,’ all hell broke loose in the room.  

What moved me to tears?  First, I’d have to say, is the understanding that hundreds of people had worked diligently to both solve new problems for this flight and build a craft that could execute all the commands a robot geological laboratory trip to Mars requires.  It was kind of like shedding a tear when an American ascends the medal stand at the Olympics.  Along with the national pride, you just have to appreciate the blood, sweat, and tears the whole thing required.  

But another piece that really got me occurred at the Q&A following the post-touchdown news conference that, frankly, prompted today’s post.  Something like 700 international engineers and scientists are currently on the Curiosity team.  Story is they will live together in Pasadena on Martian time for the next 90 days as both engineers (who must check out all of the rover’s equipment) and scientists (who will work the multiple labs on board) learn how the machine actually works in Martian conditions, some of which cannot be duplicated on Earth in simulations.  And it’s not just the equipment they need to learn and calibrate, but it’s each other.  Seven hundred folk need to learn how to work together more closely to maximize what Curiosity can do.  After 90 Martian sols on Earth, these folks will be able to go back to their institutions and operate Curiosity remotely  from their own work stations.    

So in reality, it’s not just the amazing machine built that succeeded in an exceedingly difficult task, but the people who made it all happen over an eight+ year problem solving cycle.  And to put an exclamation point on those people who know how to do such things, another NASA satellite currently in orbit around Mars was in proper position to actually photograph Curiosity’s descent.  For heaven’s sake, we actually have a picture of the parachute fully open, drifting the newest Mars rover to the planet’s surface, before the device even dropped out of its shell and started to fly on rockets. 

It is stunning what these amazing people have accomplished.  Makes me think that just about anything is possible if we just put our minds to it.  Such a day!  ;-)

Today’s Elder Idea:  A special thank you to Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac for bringing forward this poem by Wendell Berry last Saturday:

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey. 

The mind that is not baffled is not employed. 

The impeded stream is the one that sings. 

from Standing by Words: Essays
North Publishing (1984)

Reprinted by Counterpoint (2011)