Sharks Don’t Honk. (and other lessons for saving the world)

“Do sharks make noise?”

An enthusiastic, sure little hand shoots into view at the fore of the small classroom. The young girl up front is eagerly nodding her head.  Surprised, the teacher asks, “Really? Sharks make noooise?” drawing out this last word to lead the girl to the correct answer.  No one else gets it.  The rest of us in the room are hypnotized by our classmate’s certitude.  It’s contagious, and 35 oversized little heads nod out a vigorous “yes!” The teacher is left with the choice of making the little girl feel humiliated by correcting her, or indulging the imaginations of the entire class of 4th grade children.  She chooses the latter.  We seem so sure, after all.

“They doooo? What noise do sharks make?”

The girl beams in her Moment to shine, “Daaa dum. …da dum.  Dum dum, dum dum, dum dum…”  The theme music to Jaws unfolds to a stunned cadre of parents and instructors. The teacher is unflappable, and manages to avoid crumbling into hysterical giggling.  She carefully explains that the “shark noise” is just music from a movie. The rest of us are stunned that this was the little girl’s vigorous revelation.  We all agreed heavily based on her vehemence alone, that sharks must certainly make noises.  She has led us astray.  I stop my head from bobbing just in time for the clear inflections of a familiar snicker and inhaled chortle from the back of the room to reach my ears.  Mom doesn’t hold back from open laughter.

By this point, my brother Damien and I had attended every manner of summer class and extra curricular excursion available to our age group and beyond.  Already this week, we had ventured behind the scenes at Sea World in San Diego; we visited inside the emperor penguin exhibit, walked above the shark pool, and had hands-on experiences with orcas.  When Sea World captured a live adult great white shark in 1981, Damien and I had stood fascinated within arm’s reach of the big predator.  It was being housed in a temporary pool that was normally the very popular dolphin feeding and touch pool.  We innocently explained to the aquarist that the freckles on the shark’s snout were receptors for sensing minute bioelectric currents, called ampullae of Lorenzini.  The keeper was stunned that 7-year-old children knew terms about the animal that he admittedly did not.  We knew our sharks well enough to know that they did not growl, or honk, or generally make any noises other than the occasional splash in aquarium pools.  We certainly knew that the theme music from Jaws was just that catchy tune I had ingrained in my head, from the car seat of my first drive-in movie experience.  Mom had exposed us to all kinds of things.

Well, they're not going to honk and let you know.

Well, they’re not going to honk and let you know…

Car headlights pass the corner outside my bedroom window, briefly arcing substance across the features of my daily surroundings.  White-yellow glow and stark shadow wrap over my big leather chair, my dresser, pencil sketches of dragons, dead eyes and a set of fangs.  I am comforted that they are still there.  Mom has checked out a host of taxidermy animals of varying sorts from her volunteer job at the San Diego Natural history Museum.  She often brings them home for “educational purposes.”  The tactfully posed raccoons, towering white pelicans, and avaricious raptors come home for an extended stay after a show-and-tell at our elementary school, or our Cub Scout Pack.  We have a constant rotating menagerie of stuffed animals in their acrylic boxes to glower at us through the sweeping headlights of our nighttime bedrooms.  I sometimes rustle awake with a cracked eye, to fang, and claw, and shadow; secure that Damien and I are the luckiest boys in the world.  Our Mom has a mainline to nature.  She’s a docent; whatever that is.  She talks to people about nature at the museum.

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I watch you sleeep! Luckeeeey.

Our revolving taxidermy zoo on loan from the museum, mirrors the smelly circus of pets at home.  Damien plays pet dad to a couple of parakeets, a guinea pig, a cat, and Champagne and Buffy; the cocker spaniel and toy poodle that our uncle Frank left at our house forever when he went on vacation.  This year, Mom and Aunt Stephanie have presented me with a garter snake for my ninth birthday. This is easily the most cherished prize for a nature lover my age.  We are all surprised when he turns out to be a she, and gives birth to a dozen tiny snakes while we are away at Disneyland.  Papa calls to tell us about it at our hotel room.  We all assume this is part of his usual antics like pulling his finger, or telling us that his appendectomy scar is from an alligator.  We are genuinely shocked when we come home to find that this one is true.  Mom and I try to hand rear the baby snakes by feeding them chopped smelt.  Reptiles in general soon infatuate me, as is proper in the development of any true nerdling.  On our visits to the San Diego Zoo, I stare hard through the glass of the reptile house with boiling roller coaster excitement in my stomach at the snakes and lizard whose signs are marked with a red dot.  The red dot is the marker that says they are venomous.  Those beautiful animals can kill me.  I am in love.  …Story of my life.

I’m not fitting in well with the other kids in my elementary school.  I don’t get beat up as often as I used to since I broke Andy’s nose in front of the whole school while we were lined up after recess, for plotting to beat up Damien.  It wasn’t brave; I’d just had it with that kid.  I could take the bullying, but I couldn’t let it happen to Damien.  Even after this performance, I’m still having a hard time making friends.  It’s crushing to be the outsider day after day.  It’s a relief not to be constantly bullied and verbally assaulted anymore, but at least that was attention.  This is something else.  Damien is younger and easily fit in with his classmates when we transferred here.  For me this has been lonely and unbearable for months.  I finally decide to talk to Mom about it.  It feels a little like walking into a den with a hungry lion while wearing a steak, but I’m too upset not to.  Through heaving sobs, I explain that the other kids don’t like me.  I don’t have any friends, and no one will talk to me.

“Well, do you smile at them?”

“No, they don’t like me.” I drivel.

“Do you say hi first?”

“No!  They don’t want to talk to me.”

“How do you know they won’t talk to you if you don’t say hi?”

This is how hairdressers come across to me. Maybe a little dressy, a little gaudy, but but who wouldn't want one of these to come to your rescue?

This is how hairdressers come across to me. Maybe a little dressy, a little gaudy, but but who wouldn’t want one of these to come to your rescue?

Hairdressers are practical women.  They are a brilliant feminine whose style is contemporary, attractive, and sometimes a little gaudy.  They’re pragmatic from both working with their hands and running their own business.  They master the social graces that send you away feeling good about yourself without giving you alcohol.  Bartenders have nothing on hairdressers in the commercially available art of being a person’s confidant and informal psychologist.  Mom has been doing this for a long time.

“When you go back to school, I want you to smile first, and say hello.”  It’s final.

I whimper a half-hearted protest out of leftover insecurity, but she has given me a solution and an order.  It works, of course.  I smile first.  I say hello.  I make friends.

I hate it when she’s right.

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Always with the flirting…

The tangy smell of hot eucalyptus and livestock bores into my senses on the back of the sound of flirting peacocks.  The summer heat at the zoo makes the sound and smells forever poignant in my memories.  The sweltering and the ever-present stink of straw and livestock assert hopes of a home that I wish was mine everyday.  I cherish being surrounded by living things that few people ever get to experience. Our teacher leans over the beige concrete enclosure wall to let Damien and I hold the echidna.  Straw bedding falls from its flanks.  The echidna is like a docile, thick-quilled porcupine that lays eggs.  They are in a small group of egg-laying mammals called Monotremes.  The only living species, echidnas and the platypus, are all from Australia and New Guinea.  The wet tip of this bushy creature’s skinny little nose leaves a dirty smudge on my hand when it smells me.  The teacher explains that the echidna’s quills are made of the same stuff as our own hair, but thicker.  I marvel that this is her job.  The woman gets to hold exotic animals all day and show them off to people.  Mom leans in to touch it too.  I idly watch her stout acrylic-tipped fingers brush the back of the echidna the way she does to my own back to put me to sleep.  She has enrolled my brother and I in every available summer class possible at the San Diego Zoo, the Wild Animal Park, Sea World, Boy Scouts, and water sports camp that she can find.  Between camping, sailing, holding eagles, and learning to ride and care for horses, summer is not an idle time.

Pretty adorable for a spiky critter.

Pretty adorable for a ball of spikes.

Someone else with an equally beguiling job holds a cheetah on a leash at the Wild Animal Park and gets it to chase a branch the way you would with an enormous rocket-fueled house cat.  It heaves a rooster tail of dirt hanging in the air as it takes off.  Someone has that job.  Someone gets to do that with their day.  Mom is there, having made sure to impose herself into the class as chaperone.  She gets to learn it all with us, and no one can stop her from being with her boys.

san-diego-20

Someone/these people have that job.

The teachers and animal care staff in all of our classes take the time to explain the conservation issues of the day.  Habitat loss because of our own expansive development is causing problems for wildlife, especially big predators.  Pollution like DDT is destroying populations of wild birds.  Mom, Damien and I are standing in the walkway at the Wild Animal Park staring at a video monitor of the last few California Condors being reared by keepers using a Condor puppet.  I am filled with a profound sinking feeling to hear that these may be the last of their kind, and that they may not survive.  I stare off in the distance at the secure Condor facility up on the hill above the park, and feel a fire in my belly of blended injustice and drive.  Together, our family may be looking at closing time on sharing our world with these animals.  I’m beginning to feel cheated.  Mom tells us that they are using puppets to feed the chicks so they don’t imprint on humans and will have a better chance of survival in the wild.  This rearing technique is relatively new.  She doesn’t sugar coat it.  It may not work with so few animals left.  The species may not survive, let alone return to the wild.  I make a mental account of the beautifully bald bedraggled chicks in case I never see them again.  I ache to feel their feathers and smell their messy nests.

Condors

California Condors. Before and after shots. The “adult” on the left is one of the puppets for rearing the chicks.  They still have problems in the wild, but those are way better than not existing at all.

Inside the Emperor Penguin encounter at Sea World; I lean over to sneak a touch of the waxy feathers of a nearby penguin.  Mom is there.  She’s already touched a penguin of her own.  I don’t know who was first, and it doesn’t really matter, because, well, we touched penguins.

Mom touched a penguin and she liked it.

Mom touched a penguin and she liked it.

Mom is talking to the trainer before the Orca show in Shamu Stadium.  She tells the trainer to pick my brother and I from the audience for the part of the show where someone gets to come interact with the killer whales.  The trainer says that she can’t do that because she has to be fair to everyone in the audience.  Her logic is poor.  Damien and I watch Mom’s compact frame full of fervor and looking larger than life as she makes the trainer an offer she won’t refuse.  Mom pauses for too many seconds before the styled cloud of her hair begins to rotate as she shakes her head.  We can’t hear her from our seats, but her face falls for a second before she adopts the crocodile grin that signals her intent to crush another’s will.  This won’t do.

“Look, you have to pick somebody from the audience anyway.  You don’t even have a system for picking them.  It doesn’t matter who you pick out of that audience today.  You don’t know any of those people.”

Mom will stand there shaking her head until she gets what she wants.  She’s figuring the trainer will come to the reasonable understanding that she’ll never see Mom or her sons again.

“When it comes time in the show, you pick those two boys.” She points to us in the amphitheater.  Damien and I wave as she points to us, just like Mom said to do.  We’re awfully adorable here in the bleachers together.  Sure enough, my brother and I are miraculously chosen to touch the orcas.

Chris and Damien Reeves; come on down!Wow, really?  You shouldn't have.  You're too kind...

Chris and Damien Reeves; come on down!
Wow, really? You shouldn’t have. You’re too kind…

Damien, John, and I, lie deathly still and quiet at the sound of footfall in the dark of a midnight forest.  It’s late and there should be no one around.  We know that if we’re silent, we stand a good chance of remaining camouflaged in the lean-to we have constructed on the root side of a huge fallen pine.  We just look like another bush as we’re tucked into our sleeping bags over a bed of warm pine needles. Mom and Jerry have taken the time to make sure we know how to construct a shelter and navigate the forest in case we are ever lost.  They have made us practice in the wooded area across from the family cabin in Idyllwild, California where we spend a portion of our summers.  Mom has raised us to respect nature, but not to fear it.  We’ve eagerly begged to spend the night in our shelter and bask in glorious independence that is rare in our 9 and 10-year old lives.  We shush each other and hold our collective breath as the sound of crunching forest floor draws near in the pitch black.  We are more afraid of other people than we are of the night and the wilderness.  The crunching circles around.  They can’t find us.  We hear Mom call out to us.  She’s almost lost, and we are hidden too well.  Finally we stir with surprised relief that it’s not a stray ax murderer in the woods.  She let her mind get the better of her, and is worried that our shelter won’t keep us alive overnight.  She’s surprised to find that the inside of the lean-to is oven-hot with the three of us in there.  She kisses us goodnight and leaves us in the dark, chuckling a little.

Mom walks us to breakfast in the morning.  We pass a fresh road kill on the way, and she stops to hungrily look it over for salvageable parts.  She routinely brings the car to a screeching halt to cut the tails off of squirrels, which she dries out at the cabin.  It’s cool to have real animal parts at home in case we have some sort of future craft project for Boy Scouts that may involve illegally collected dead animal bits.  Jerry is a well-known and respected Lieutenant on the Sherriff’s department, which is like having a get-out-jail-free card for misdemeanors.  Mom doesn’t care about the legality of anything that she thinks would benefit her family anyway.  I have no doubt that her convictions would be felonious if she thought her boys needed it.  Still, she looks both ways to make sure the friendly Idyllwild townsfolk don’t develop an impression of her as a tiny fabulous Sicilian woman with a compulsion to spirit away with the corpses of flattened arboreal rodents.  It doesn’t stop with squirrels.  She’s developing a “nature drawer”, that will eventually extend to the backyard and be filled in with collected shells and bones from long walks on the beach.  This includes the gristly vertebrae of a whale spine that she wrenched free in front of horrified beach goers with her trusted Swiss Army knife.  That prize was too good to worry about keeping up with appearances.

Just take it.  Y'know, for arts and crafts.

It’s still good.  Just take it. Y’know, for arts and crafts.

Damien and I lurk on our bellies at the top of the stairs as we wait for the show.  We are squirming with anticipation.  The hang noose is a perfect touch.  Mom’s loud footsteps click toward the front door from her parking spot in the driveway.  How does someone so small herald such a big entrance?  Here it comes.  We can barely contain ourselves.  Waiting for hysterics, our faces fall as we hear, “Oooooh, who hung this cool frog here?”  The dissected frog that we have smuggled home from the summer biology class we are taking before I go into the seventh grade, sways gently in the sunny breeze that comes through our front door.  We thought that a woman who gives up her drink as soon as you take a sip and who shrinks from germy door handles in public, would have a screaming seizure at finding a surgically opened amphibian on a hang noose in the doorway.  What were we thinking?  The noose didn’t help at all.  Apparently she is accessing the part of her whose own father surprised the whole dinner table with the family parakeet hung over a spotlight outside the dining room.  I can’t tell whether or not it is a comfort that our mildly sociopathic sense of humor could be genetic. With our fiasco deflated, we switch to taking credit in the hopes of reward for trying to share today’s biology lesson with Mom.  …using a hang noose.  She makes us walk her through all of the functions of a frog’s dangling organs, while it rocks back and forth in our summer entryway.  Explaining it all to her cements the knowledge in our own spongy minds.  Clever Mom.

Next time, we'll knit our own.

Next time, we’ll knit our own.  That’ll freak her out.

“Hi Mom!  Hey, we’re running waaay behind, and they’re waiting for us.  We need to get moving.”

I squeeze Mom’s tiny frame, still larger than life, and toss her luggage into the trunk of my gunmetal-gray Jetta.  We have a date to tag leopard sharks in Elkhorn Slough.  I’m volunteering this summer in exchange for help with my senior thesis.   I’ve traded in my obsession with insects, volunteering in the insect zoo at the San Diego Natural History Museum and keeping bees, for my first dreams of being a marine biologist.  Working as an aquarist while in college for ecology and evolutionary biology is earning me valuable work experience and a reputation for being that guy who gets bit by weird animals.  We begin the climb over winding highway 17 with the speed of Southern California drivers in a hurry.  I tell Mom that she’s going to have to change into the wetsuit I’ve brought for her on the way.  She spends a fraction of a second coming to the only conclusion I know she will.  She looks around at the other cars on the road and shrugs.  “I’ll never see those people again.”  Minutes later, she’s clad in neoprene and gold jewelry with a smug grin.  We catch up on the drive to the slough; gossiping like old girlfriends on their way to run around in knee-high mud that smells like rotten eggs and tackle sting rays.

Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve has strict rules in order to protect the rich ecosystems within.  The group we are with is seining for sharks and rays in a part of the reserve we don’t usually visit near the heron rookery.  We walk single-file in order to reduce the impact of trampling on the muddy banks.  I lead Mom along the edge of the Pickleweed with the seine net slung over my shoulder.   The tips of the Pickleweed are just beginning to show the hints of red that signal their sequestering of salt before they drop off in the Fall.  This summer’s fog has been mild and the waters warmer, which has brought high numbers of sharks, rays, and Guitarfish to the slough.   I pass a perfect molt of a kelp crab on our trudging walk.  Without looking back I spout over my shoulder, “Don’t even think about it.”

“Aww, c’mon!  I just want to take it hoooome.  It’s just going to sit there until it rots anyway.”

“Nope. I told you; this is a reserve.  You can’t take anything.  Those are the rules, it doesn’t matter why.”  I try to preemptively skirt the oncoming argument that she’ll find logical.  I can practically feel the breeze from her head shaking behind me.

She’s quiet for a minute.  “OK, but you know, I have a question.  Sometimes when I go for my walks in Carlsbad, I find all kinds of these great big shells, but then lately, I don’t see anything at all.  It’s weird, there’s just nothing on the beach.  Is it because of the time of year, or something?  I just don’t find anything.”

“It’s because there aren’t anymore Mom.  You have all of the mollusks from the whole ocean.  They’ve just run out.  There are no more snails or clams.  You have them all.”

She snorts in her laughter as always when Damien and I mess with her.  We’ve long since learned that sarcasm is the most effective hang noose to get to Mom.

Minutes later, we’ve seined this finger of the slough and brought up a couple of big female leopard sharks.  We measure them in the floating tub, tag them, and let them go.  The tangy smell of hot Eucalyptus and livestock from the nearby pastures digs into my senses, this time it is accompanied by the serene twinkling summer sunlight off the salty water.  We are already desensitized to the sulfur stink from the anoxic mud we are crouching in as I teach Mom about the shark I am holding and showing off to her.  I get to do this with my day.  Mom is here to learn it all with me.

A couple disclaimers:1) I would never keep an animal out of the water again to take a photo. 2) No actual friggin’ laser beams were attached.

A couple of disclaimers:
1) I would never keep an animal out of the water again to take a photo. 2) No actual friggin’ laser beams were attached.

I’ve stopped being bitten by exotic animals, and now embrace the tendencies I have inherited from my mother.  I’m better at talking with people than I could be at taking care of aquarium animals, or becoming a world-class scientist.  The public needs to be involved in order to save the world, so I work where I think I’ll be most effective.  The sons of a hairdresser appear to make good educators.  I see this carried out in Damien’s family as a parent along with his wife Suzy.  Mom’s “nature drawer” now occupies significant real estate.  It grew mightily through my cousin Alex’s formative years, and will soon get a workout with my nephews Demetrius and Titus.  It is what my mother does.

I’m pacing this evening as I mull over the introductory speech for docent training at work.  I love this part.  I savor the beginnings.  They are loaded with potential.  The volunteers arrive full of deep interests and hope.  They are looking through a syllabus of 11 weeks of training and information from some of the best marine scientists the west coast has to offer.  They crave the knowledge.  They want a focus for the fires in their own bellies. They want to make positive changes in the world.  This is the first time I get to tell them that they can.  I know that along with our current volunteers, they’ll talk with roughly 45,000 visitors this year.  These docents will help people touch sharks, and learn about kelp forests.  They’ll fill our visitors with stories of hope for today’s conservation issues, using examples from yesterday’s.  They have the opportunity to make a difference on purpose.

The problems of today make DDT and habitat loss look like child’s play.  At the time, we thought that those problems were unstoppable as well.  I begin this class knowing that I will get to show these docents that the peregrine falcons were brought back from the brink of extinction from the same causes that were affecting the California Condors, by only a couple of hard working people.  I get to remind them that a few years ago, I got to watch a bird species that I thought I was saying goodbye to as a child, fly past the cliff I was hiking in Big Sur.  It looked like an enormous black city bus in the sky.  That condor was so close to me that I could almost make out the tracking tag numbers with my naked eye.

Plastic pollution, overfishing, and especially climate change seem insurmountable, but so did the issues of the last generation.  They aren’t completely solved of course.  We do have enough of a track record of success for the community of scientists, conservationists, and educators I work with to recognize that public education is what is needed to tackle the big issues of today.  We have examples to give us to hope.  We have reasons to keep working.  These new docents are the people that will take on that responsibility.  I am honored and privileged to be the one to facilitate that.  I think back on my interest in nature; on touching penguins, being up close with cheetahs, seeing that someone had that job, and that Mom showed us that we could too.  I think on the comforts of a dark forest, the joys of raising snakes, and telling people about what I’ve learned.  I smile inward and out that despite practicing tonight’s speech, I know the passion will take over in the middle, and my memorized words will cease to matter.  It is my responsibility now to show these new volunteers how to translate weeks of science information into something that they can use to convince other people to consider their world, and how to motivate those people to help make it a better place.

People are often unfamiliar with the term “docent” when I try to explain what I do at work.  It is an older term born of European titles for an appointment or rank at teaching institutions.  The word itself is derived from the Latin word docēre, which means to teach, or to lecture.  Today “docent” has been adopted to describe the informal educators of the world who lead tours and interpret information at museums, state parks, zoos, aquariums, and other cultural institutions.  While I would drop the title at our own visitor center in favor of the title “Interpreter”, “Docent” has a tradition that makes people feel at home.  In this class tonight I am reflecting on the first thirty people that I trained as docents in 2010.  Who was my first docent?  How do I choose one out of that group of thirty to qualify as my first docent?  Do I choose one alphabetically from the graduation?  Do I choose the one who gives the best tour?  I realize that I’m standing here tonight, filling the shoes that I am because of that first docent; my first teacher, my first informal educator, my friend, Colette.  Mom.

The class is idly talking amongst themselves.  I have them working together on an icebreaker activity.  They’re getting to know each other, and finding out that they are all here for the same reasons, and with the same hope.  It’s time to begin.

I smile first and say “Hello.”

I have that job.

I have that job.

Happy Birthday Mom.  Thank you.

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3 thoughts on “Sharks Don’t Honk. (and other lessons for saving the world)

  1. Pingback: Here Be Monsters? – Part 5: Only the Best | Seemed Like Good Science at the Time

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