|| - 02.20.2007
|I’m reading an awesome book right now, called “Last Child In The Woods” by Richard Louv. Just the title takes me back to my young days in Maryland, and the countless hours I spent outdoors, exploring and discovering all kinds of life in the woods and creeks around my house. Louv’s book describes his similar childhood experiences, and mourns the ‘nature-deficit disorder’ affecting the kids growing up in today’s overprotective, electronic-games and TV/computer-dominated world. Well, so, I’m typing this on a computer, and I’m actually sitting in front of my own TV right now (what hypocrisy!), but at least I’m watching a Discover Channel show about sea life!
You might already know that I talk and write a lot about the great outdoors, but I’m truly not hardcore in the granola/tree-hugger department. However, because I started early in my love for nature, I tuned my eyes and ears and other senses to notice nature. To see the bugs. To hear the birds. To look for something moving in the grass. To be a little bit brave (and I emphasize ‘little’) and adventure just a little further than a lot of people will dare.
What follows is the payoff. Inspired by the likes of Jacque Cousteau in my childhood, and more recently by the Jeff Corwin types, my curiosity has led me to face-to-face encounters with some pretty cool stuff.
Childhood found me, along with my brothers and neighborhood friends, ankle-deep in the creek, snatching up crayfish and trying to avoid their pincers…or ‘pinchers’ as we called them. I’d spot one on the bottom of the creek, slip my hand quietly into the cold water up behind the crayfish (because if they did startle, they would dart backwards right into your hand) and then quickly grab him on his sides where his pincers couldn’t reach back and get me.
I can still feel the sensation of the smaller underlegs squirming against my fingers, and see his claws spread straight out and up in attack-mode, wide open and ready to pinch anything they could reach. And I’ll have to admit, every now and then I’d let out a girly squeal and drop him right back in the water, and wipe the tiny drop of blood forming on my thumb or finger where he ‘got me!’
We caught dozens of box turtles and would feed them vegetable scraps from Mom’s kitchen. Some were shy, and would close up into their shells and would not come out until we released them and walked away. Others were very active and curious, stretching their necks and legs out as far as possible regardless of our handling. (Very different personalities, just like people, and I was already noticing and learning, and personally identifying more with the closed-shell guys.)
We would take little bottles of Testor model paints, and use a small brush to paint a number on the back of each turtle we caught, and log the dates and locations where we would find them throughout the summer. I remember finding one of our ‘tagged’ turtles several years later, after we’d forgotten our makeshift classification system and lost our notebook containing the charts (not too shabby for 10-year-olds!)
There’s no telling how many clumps of clear jelly-like frog eggs we found in the creeks and transferred to jars and buckets. When all the tadpoles hatched, we would release them back into the creek, after watching their daily development through the clear egg sacs around them. (A shout-out to God for making them clear so we could watch it all happen before our eyes!)
Those days led to our catching minnows, garter snakes, black snakes, rat snakes, frogs, salamanders, injured birds, and literally hundreds of animals that made their way into our temporary cages, and plastic pools, and ultimately into our fondest childhood memories and, I dare say, our current personalities (at least MINE!).
We were always very careful with the animals, and never kept them in captivity too long. We were little conservationists, environmentalists, whatever-ists. What great childhood memories! (Sounds more interesting than reminiscing about ‘that video game we used to play, remember?’)
We were learning. I believe we were learning so many life-lessons, without even realizing it. Learning about pecking orders and personalities. Learning about the food chain. Learning about injuries and compassion. Learning about birth and life, and even death.
I remember when it first dawned on my little brother, Josh, that there was a relationship between ‘fish’ that we saw in the water, and ‘fish’ that came out of the frying pan. We had been catching fish on a small pier at my aunt’s house on the Chesapeake Bay, and 4-year-old Josh watched in horror as the same ‘fishy’ we pulled out of the water was being gutted and cleaned and ultimately fried for dinner. When the plate came around to Josh he declared, “I’m not eating that--that’s a dead fish!” The connection was made, and in a way, a little innocence was lost, but it was a life lesson about food, and sacrifice, and that a little blood-and-guts isn’t really such a bad thing all the time. (My apologies to vegetarian readers who disagree…)
Other close encounters in childhood included tossing rocks up into the air after sundown to see the bats swoop down and follow the rock with their ‘radar.’ I remember feeling a bat graze my head one of those nights, when we were tossing a baseball, and the bat followed it almost right into my glove!
There was that summer afternoon after a big thunderstorm when a large alligator snapping turtle (at least a foot-and-a-half-long shell) came up out of the creek! Alligator snappers were pretty rare sightings in my neighborhood. (I had only seen two others in my entire childhood.) So we went into 'dangerous animal' mode, appoached him cautiously, and and nudged it with a wooden rake handle. You should have seen us jump when his powerful jaws instantly snapped the handle in half, like a toothpick!
There was nightfall, when the lightening bugs flashed randomly around the yard. Seeing them flash at different intervals and different heights, and trying to notice a pattern. But I was not coming up with any theory yet, about what all that flashing could be for. (I guess I was too young to know what male and female attraction was all about!)
My teenage years brought some changes. But still more snakes. My Dad caught one during a backyard birthday party (I think it was my 15th) and held it’s head up as high as he could reach, and at least two feet of tail still touched the ground (which would make the snake about 8 feet long!)
My next door neighbor, David, and I were back in the woods one day when we were 13, and I jumped down into a hole about chest deep. I scrambled out as fast as I could when David pointed down next to me and yelled, “Snake!” My heart was racing as I stared down into the hole to see a copperhead right where I had been standing.
“There’s another one!”
“There’s another one!”
This continued until we had counted 9 copperheads in the same hole! Now THAT was a close encounter with nature! (Now it’s starting to get dangerous.)
Enough about snakes, before I lose half my readers! Let’s move on.
Ok, now to Ocean City, Maryland. The Atlantic coast and horseshoe crabs in the surf. We’d find them two feet long from nose to tip. As weird and alien as they looked, we’d pick them up by their stiff tail and watch their legs move frantically on their undersides.
We'd watch the waves recede and look for small holes and bubbles in the sand, evidence that 'sand fleas' were burrowing. So of course, we'd dig them up, some the size of a quarter, most more like a dime. We'd set them on our tongues and gross out the girls, or sneak up and drop them down each other's shorts and then laugh at all the jumping, and flailing, and squirming and yelling.
Then there were the jellyfish stings! Sometimes we’d catch them, avoiding their tentacles, but too often we’d get tagged by one that we didn’t see in the water while bodysurfing. One day I came out of the waves with red marks wrapped around my neck, and under my arm, and around my torso. It happened so often, we’d just scrub the stinging area with wet sand to break off the ‘nematocysts’ and go right back into the water!
My love for the ocean got me to buy a snorkel and a mask to see what I could see. Not much visible in the brown Mid-Atlantic water. But when I started going to the Gulf beaches in Florida for youth camps, I discovered a whole new world in the tropical waters!
Every summer I purchased about a dozen sets of masks and snorkels, so I could take as many kids out into the Gulf with me to spot sea life. It was guaranteed, if you were with Chris Rice in the water you would see something interesting!
I caught a large green sea turtle one year! John was with me, and it took both of us to lift it above the water to get a good look. She was a ‘beauty,’ as Steve Irwin (Crocodile Hunter) would say in his thick Australian accent.
One of my favorite snorkeling moments was the time I dove to the bottom to pick up a Coke can that had been ripped in half. When I pick it up, it was full of something, and that something suddenly came out and wrapped itself around my hand. It was an octopus! He held on for about half a minute, long enough for me to look him over and see into his humanish eyes! What a new feeling to have all those suction cups holding on to my hand! Then, he let go and darted off.
Let’s see…sharks. I’ve had three shark encounters. None of them were ever over 4 feet long, but I actually grabbed one by the tail for a brief second! How many people are dumb enough to do that?
Nobody else was around, so I was only endangering myself. (I hope my Mom’s not reading this!) The shark had been circling me for several minutes as I was slowly making my way back toward the beach…just in case. I noticed him move out of the way when I reached my hand toward him, so I figured he wasn’t hungry. And since he was only about 4 feet long, I knew he wasn’t going to swallow me whole (but I was worried that he might have a dad somewhere close by!) So, I took my chances, let him swim near, and then reached out and grabbed his tail just long enough to feel him pull away and disappear into the deep.
I said three encounters. Another was with one of the camp kids, Jamie. We were snorkeling out pretty far when I hear him yell underwater through his snorkel, “What’s that.”
He came up sputtering water and wide-eyed.
“It’s a shark. But he’s small.”
“What should we do?”
“We’re ok. Let’s just keep an eye on him and swim back to shore.”
The whole way back to shore, there was a little black pilot fish swimming under my belly, like they do under sharks. That was cool. Jamie nervously kept his eye on the shark, who finally stopped circling us and swam off when we got about 30 yards from the beach.
The last shark encounter was when I was in the surf and heard people on shore yelling, “Sharks!” There were about 20 small sharks (about 3 feet long), black and silver, swimming up and down along the beach. I layed down in the water with my mask on and watched them approach. They just split and went around me and swam past. They turned and came back and forth several times. Of course the people on the shore were screaming at me, but I felt perfectly safe, and enjoyed a beautiful experience few others get to have.
Then there were the two times when I was out boating with friends and jumped into the water among dolphins! Once was with Delinda in Mobile Bay, and once was with Jennifer around Hilton Head. Now, they’re pretty much harmless, but they’re also pretty big, (I'm talking about the dolphins, not Delinda or Jennifer!) and have a way of suddenly disappearing beneath you. They were actually a little more scary to me than the sharks. On one of these occasions, one of the dolphins let me touch the top of his head, but only while I was in the boat. As soon as I got in the water with him, he would swim near, but would never let me touch him.
Scuba diving with Will in the Red Sea at the very southern tip of Israel! That's something I'll never forget. Swimming 60 feet deep with all kinds of brightly colored tropical fish! There was a whole area on the bottom, that looked like a patch of seaweed, or blades of sea grass swaying in the current. When we got closer we saw that it was a whole mess of sea snakes, maybe a hundred of them, with their tails buried in the sand, and their bodies floating about in the current.
I have been face to face with a blueish-green moray eel, snarling it's teeth at me from a crevice in the rocks out in front of "Charlie's Crab" in Palm Beach. Very nearby, I was snorkeling around a pier, swimming about 15 feet deep, when I turned to realize I was right next to a live animal that was larger than I. I think it was a grouper, and I think my heart was pounding at about 300 bpm! I knew I wasn't in danger, but I felt really small and vulnerable next to him. The real danger came about 30 seconds later, when I looked up to see three baracuda pass just above me, silvery and mean-looking. That's when I decided to get out of the water!
But not all my close encounters with nature happen in the water.
I remember at one youth camp, I received the award, “Nature Boy—for becoming one with nature” at the end of the week. The reason? I was hiding in the woods one night during our ‘capture the flag’ game. At one point I felt something crawl onto my leg while I was on my belly hiding. I whispered to the kid next to me, “Hey shine your flashlight on my leg and tell me what it is…” As soon as he said, “It’s a salamander,” that thing quickly squirmed up my leg into my shorts, and let’s just say he wiggled his way up as far as possible. Talk about a ‘close’ encounter!
Some animals are small and peaceful, like salamanders, but some are much bigger and more ferocious. I’ve pitched tents in grizzly territory in Wyoming, in the Grand Tetons. We had to tie our food up between two trees, so the bears wouldn't smell it in our tents and come in looking for a free meal in the middle of the night.
Actually came across a grizzly lying in the woods about 50 yards away in Yellowstone National Park. There was a ranger nearby who was monitoring her movements and warned us to immediately but slowly walk away, without running. That was scary—especially when my young friend David decided it would be funny to start running and yell, “Run for your life!” Fortunately, the grizzly wasn’t interested at the moment, so we got away without incident.
I’m not always so lucky. A couple of years ago, I was camping with Donnie. A raccoon came up, so we started tossing him little crackers from our bag. Dumb, I know, but remember, I’m “Nature Boy!” The curious raccoon became more and more brave, and after a few minutes started eating from my open palm. For a brief second, the raccoon suddenly went Bilbo Baggins on me, snarled and hissed, and bit the side of my hand.
Well, we stayed one more night at the campsite, and then I knew I had to go to the hospital. The result? About twenty rabies shots! And now I believe the raccoon’s DNA combined with mine, so now I have superhuman powers: I can wash fish really, really fast!
I’ve pitched my tent with an elk standing ten paces to my left and a bison about ten paces directly in front of me. We set up slowly, and kept our eyes on the animals the whole time. Breathtaking!
I remember a solo trek through some foothills in southern Montana. I was hiking through some beautiful green hills and gullies at the base of some grand mountains. The peace of the moment was shattered when I crested a small hill and surprised a herd of at least a hundred elk, about 20 feet away. My heart raced as they suddenly scattered. I can still hear the sound of their hooves thudding in the dirt, and I can still feel the vibrations in my feet that faded only seconds later as they disappeared over the next hill.
All I could do for the next several minutes was to stand there laughing wildly at my glorious adrenalin rush.
My most recent encounters? Canoeing with Josh on a river in Florida a few months ago, we sited two alligators. You could see them floating at the surface, and each looked to be about 8 or 9 feet long. As we got closer, they would sink below the surface and disappear. That’s when you just keep moving and hope you don’t ‘tump’ your canoe, as they say in the South.
Closer to home, a few weeks ago, and actually only a mile or so from my house, Josh and I were driving along next to a field when I spotted it. Talk about beauty, mystery and a haunting feeling.
What was it? An albino deer! Beautiful! Glowing pure white and standing there in the field looking at us! We sat there for a few minutes before she bounded off! A special encounter for sure.
Well, the stories seem to be endless. I hope there will be more! I just know I love nature, and it started at an early age, with pretty small encounters. The smaller discoveries still happen (because I’m still curious and aware) but they have given way to what seem more exciting and larger-scale encounters.
I'm sure some of you have had way more exciting experiences than I have! And probably some of you can't imagine yourselves in any of these situations. I promise I'm not an over-the-top outdoorsman, but my love for God's creation has lured me outside an awful lot in my lifetime--childhood through adulthood!
I guess the key word that appears over and over is the word ‘encounter.’ Encounter means contact. Contact can’t happen unless you get close. Unless you hit the OFF button on the remote, and drop the video game controller, and do something about the nature-deficit in your own life.
Maybe everybody can’t stomach a shark encounter. Maybe not everyone wants to risk a jellyfish sting in the ocean. But everyone CAN walk out in the backyard and notice the life all around them, or put a harmless bird feeder in the garden, or stop by a local nature center and walk a path through the woods. Be curious. Pay attention!
Any encounter with nature, no matter how simple, is a great experience. And whether you know it or not, you always walk away from such encounters having learned something!
For inspiration, you could start by reading “Last Child In The Woods.” Whether you do or not, I know one ‘child’ who’s still in the woods--and not coming out anytime soon.