Gratitude Celebration 33: Naturalist Colleagues

My next Gratitude Post in my series of 60 essays for my 60th birthday, is dedicated to the first group of naturalists I worked with at Woodland Altars Outdoor Education Center.

“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” Well, really it sounded more like 8 hoots in the dark of night, but naturalists all say the Barred Owl asks that question about dinner!

My outdoor education group, timidly excited on their Thursday night hike, whispered, “There’s one” with eyes wide enough to be seen in the dark. I called back in my believably authentic owl call, honed and practiced during staff gatherings or doing dishes with the students.

A  matching answer broke the wooded silence. “It called back!” the ten night walkers breathed, standing still as statues, camouflaged against the trees. I let them believe the ruse, using the staged moment fill them with wonder, smiling inside with the delight of working with lighthearted colleagues. Later, after we had dismissed the children to their beds and dreams of owls in the night, the eight of us would laugh and figure out which of us heard the other from another trail in the deep forest.

I loved Thursday nights with my Outdoor Ed colleagues. On those nights we would all work together, first taking our groups out for a night hike, then gather back at the lodge for singing and stories. We got pretty good at our routine, and sometimes would just keep on singing while the kids went off to the bunkrooms with their chaperones. I didn’t want those song sessions to end because I felt a bond of joy with the other naturalists.

I almost think of that group as a unit, rather than individual people because we worked together so much! Jim and Judy, Karla and Larry, Nan, Mark, and Dave. We hosted groups of 60 or so in weekly programs on the 500-acre Nature preserve of Woodland Altars in southern Ohio. The kids would arrive around noon on Tuesday and stay until after lunch on Friday. We had a fairly regular schedule that included sessions when each of us took the same group of ten, afternoon sessions when we mixed everyone up for special interest activities, and evening programs when the whole group played games. The schedule provided a good mix of teaching solo and with various teams of the other naturalists. I liked them all!

We even had good times with each other on our weekends. Often on Fridays, after our post-group cleanup was all done, we’d pile into Dave’s big blue van and trundle over to the Dairy Queen in Locust Grove, 5 miles away. Or, we’d ride all the way into Peebles, the little town 9 miles away that had a bank.

Many weekends saw us visiting with Jim and Judy, the couple who were Director and Head Naturalist, in their house in Peebles.  We’d make Judy’s favorite polish dish, noodles and cabbage, whose Polish name I can’t remember. Jim loved fishing and would talk all about that!

Karla and Larry were a couple too. Larry shared his passion for music, and introduced me to Bruce Springstein, although I preferred going home with my roommate, Nan, and putting on my Joni Mitchell on the “sound system” that Jim had helped me pick out at the Radio Shack in the big town of Hillsboro soon after I had started working at the camp.

Dave was a wildflower expert and would make sure that we saw each spring ephemeral, urging us to get out right away and see new flowers as they popped up in the Spring. Thanks to Dave, I first saw Goldenseal in the wild, way back in the “Wilderness” area of the camp.

And Mark Van Oss, originally from Minster, OH, near my dad’s birthplace in Coldwater, was my favorite for encouraging us all to learn the calls of the spring warblers. In late winter, he studied the calls and would quiz us on them while we were setting up the lodge for our next group on Monday afternoons.

Outdoor Education was a job with long hours and few breaks while the students were there, but having colleagues with whom I could work so smoothly made the weeks go by much too fast! It was just one short school year that this particular group worked together, then all but Dave, Karla, and Mark stayed for the next year when I took over as Program Director. I learned so much from all of them about Natural History, Pioneer crafts, and teamwork, doing my best to continue the spirit of camaraderie we had with my new staff the next Fall.

But, there was a certain chemistry among us that just can never be repeated, and I remember fondly this group of Naturalists who gave me my start in my most favorite profession!

Gratitude Celebration 32: “It’s a Zoo!”

It’s ironic that for the first time I’ve been writing my Gratitude Essays on the porch of a cabin in Maine, a camp adventure group with ten canoes is landing at the ramp nearby. How fitting that this is the day I’m writing about the woman who introduced me to my life’s favorite workplace – Woodland Altars Outdoor Education Center.

I had already met Maureen “Mo” Sullivan, a short, cheerful Nature lover with red hair to match her Irish surname, at Camp Blue Heron a couple of summers before. At camp, she was the long-time Dorm Counselor of the girls. She rarely went on the long canoe trips that I led because her job was to keep life flowing smoothly at the base camp in the backwoods of Ontario. And she did! With Nell, the Director, Belinda the Science Counselor, and the male Dorm Counselors Mike and Alec, she brought a consistent atmosphere of fun and exploration to the campers. Sometimes the outings to the swamp and the garnet quarry and the ice cream shop sounded like so much fun, I wanted to stay at camp so I could go too! Continue reading

Gratitude Celebration 31: Simply Friends

Mike O’Brien stands out as one of my best friends. It would have made some sense for us to be a couple for more than the few months that we hung out with each other, but there was just something about Mike’s personality, his exuberant self-confidence and drive that I couldn’t match.

I’m not exactly sure how we met. Mike was a unique visitor to the Thomas More College dorm. He seemed to always be there, but he didn’t live there! He lived just a few miles away, but had made friends with Kathy and Mary Jo, two dorm students a year ahead of me. I would see him with the two women joking and making plans, there in the lobby of the dorm. There was something attractive about Mike’s energy and relationship with Kathy. She was considerably taller than he. Mike was just 5’7” tall, but filled the room with his dynamic presence.

He was always talking about “the store”, the neighborhood market where he worked in addition to his full class schedule as a Biology major. Like I said, I don’t know what sparked our relationship, I remember riding down the hill from the suburban campus into downtown Covington with him and Chris, who were getting local jobs for the summer and looking for an apartment. It may have detracted from their appeal to a potential landlord to have a woman tagging along with them, but they did get the place, a run down second story flat on Russell Street in an old neighborhood.

I was surprised by a piece of mail that I received at my summer job at Girl Scout Camp. At first, I couldn’t tell who had sent it! I couldn’t tell if it was a joke, either!  There in an envelope was the back of a Cap’n Crunch cereal box emblazoned with a treasure map or some game appropriate for the back of a cereal box. It was enhanced by a personal note that I finally figured out was from Mike! He wanted to visit me at camp! “That’s pretty cool,” I thought. “Someone from my school community wanted to connect with me!”  I contacted Mike and we arranged for him to meet me at the camp, about 2 hours’ drive from his Covington apartment. I had 24 hours off.

He was disappointed to learn that no visitors were allowed to hang out at camp during our time off. I think he had planned on getting a nice day off in the woods. I had wanted to get away. We didn’t really have a plan, though, so he drove me back to his place in Covington. I hadn’t been prepared for being so tired after my first few weeks at camp!  To his increased dismay, I just wanted to take a nap! And I slept for a few hours, there in his hot apartment! Eventually, he suggested that we go out for a movie, which we did after he showed me around Devou Park, his favorite place in town, where he had created a summer program for kids. We spent a couple of hours in a movie theater, watching a movie I don’t remember, before Mike drove me back out to the camp, making his second 180-mile round trip of the day.

To my surprise, Mike still wanted to spend time with me when I got back to school late in August! That’s the time my mom had refused to take me. Mike was busy with a major project. He had initiated a festival on the campus that would take place in mid-September. He was basically single-handedly directing a weekend long event called the Music and Arts Fair. I didn’t get involved with it. I didn’t even volunteer to help with it, just watched him buzz around organizing and getting things done.

Somehow on the Saturday evening of the event, I wanted to wait for him and say, “That was amazing.” So I did. Then, we spent the night together in his bed – with our clothes on! The next day, I had to get up early and get back to my own room because my parents were visiting and going to Mass with me!  After Mass, we walked around the Fair together, and I bought a beautiful, carved candle as a gift for my mom. She cherished it, lighting only when someone special was visiting, making it last many years!

Mike started including me in his life. We visited his family a few times, and I got to see “the store”. Mike also introduced me to the science teacher at the nearby girls’ Academy where he was doing some student teaching. That semester I had added Education classes to my schedule, realizing that I did NOT want to choose laboratory work or pre-med for my Biology specialty. I wanted to be with PEOPLE!

Classrooms, however, made me feel claustrophobic and limited.  I wanted to be outdoors! It was a great coincidence that at this same time, Mike was getting excited about his conversations with Dr. Tibbetts, the new Dean of Education. He would get into long descriptions about how Dr. Tibbetts was designing a new way of designing lesson plans using his NCOA (Needs, Competencies, Objectives, Actions) assessment. That was all a bit laborious for me, but within it was something that caught my attention – the growing opportunity within Education to have “outdoor classrooms.”  Now, THAT was an idea I could go along with.

Mike and I spent some time dreaming up outdoor education ideas, which I could enhance with my experiences at Girl Scout Camp. Mike helped me set up an internship with his science teacher friend at the girls academy. During the next few months, I borrowed Mike’s car once a week and drove over there. The teachers turned me loose with their classes to go learn outdoors. When I look back, I am stunned that they let me take their classes outside, walking around the pond and through the field, with no other chaperone! At the time, I thought nothing of it, though, just how wonderful it was to get to teach the kids outside!

Once, Mike’s car wouldn’t start when I was ready to leave. Fortunately, another student teacher, Chris, was there at the same time, and I could get a ride back to the College with her. That evening, Mike and I borrowed another car and went back to get his vehicle. He showed me how he got it started by making sure some wires were connected! Now why couldn’t I have done that?!!

The following year, when Mike was a senior, we wrote up a proposal for using the back acreage of the campus for an outdoor education program that we thought would be the most fantastic thing ever! We presented it to a panel of professors, probably the College Board, which was a pretty monumental thing for me to do! I felt honored to be a colleague with Mike in one of his projects, because he was an impressive innovator. This was one time that his innovation was not supported, however, even though several of the faculty liked the general idea. We didn’t realize that the campus had already been destined to be populated with office buildings, a much more lucrative use than our nature preserve.  Now, when I return to visit the TMC campus, I remember its alluring beauty and fascination as a natural area. All of that is just a memory covered over with office buildings!

Mike and I drifted apart, and he dated Faye during his senior year. He graduated a year earlier than I did and followed our passion for outdoor education by joining the staff at Glen Helen Outdoor Education Center for a couple of years. The following Spring, he and his colleagues hosted another innovative event, a New Games Tournament, a crowd event featuring the cooperative games described in The New Games Book. The Glen Helen staff had invited thousands of people, including all the other Outdoor Education centers for miles around.  My colleagues at Woodland Altars wanted to go, of course, so we all showed up together to play group games where “everyone plays, no one gets hurt.”

During a lull in the games, Mike pulled me aside and said, “There’s someone here I want you to meet.” He introduced me to a very tall, dark curly-headed man, seated on the ground in his denim overalls. “I want you to meet my friend, John Reiter. He’s a reporter at The Kentucky Post. He’s really interested in solar energy, like you!”  I talked with John for a few minutes, and got his address. Over the next several weeks, we exchanged letters about our mutual interest in the Solar Energy movement.

Later that month, I had more conversations with Mike, and let him talk me into coming to Covington for the summer to lead another brainchild of his – the Youth Conservation Program. Together with his friend from Glen Helen, Miriam, I fulfilled his dream to have teenagers from the inner city working and learning in the 500-acre Devou Park on the outskirts of town. Mike had already started his Master’s work at the University of Cincinnati, so he turned the program over to us to facilitate after he set it up with the City of Covington.

He also suggested that Miriam and I share the house with the same John Reiter I had met at The New Games Tournament. The house John rented from another reporter, Tom Scheffey, was conveniently located just a mile from Devou Park. There was plenty of room for us and John seemed congenial, so we moved in.

Mike continued to support us during the summer as we managed our group of 20 or so teenagers. We successfully built a nature trail, taught the kids about Nature and conservation, and helped them earn a little money while spending time outdoors. He couldn’t spend unlimited time with us, however, because in addition to his classes at the University, he was also spending time with a very special woman, Beverly.

Meanwhile, John Reiter and I started playing Scrabble together, cooking meals, and going out for breakfast at a restaurant called The Saucy Crepe. By the end of the summer, we were a couple, and I cried when he dropped me off at the house I would share with Nan DeWire for my continued employment at Woodland Altars.

Mike had introduced us, and 18 months later stood as our Best Man at our outdoor wedding. Mike, and now his wife, Bev, have remained a lifelong friends, even though we have lived  and worked in different parts of the country.  I have him to thank for nurturing the spark of outdoor education and drawing me into his innovations at just the right times!

Mike has continued professionally in his innovative leadership. He has his own company that trains, supports, and coaches leaders in the healthcare industry.

And, he’s put his wisdom about leadership, that I experienced in its development, in a book:


Gratitude Celebration 30: Waltzing with Blue Eyes

“Someone who met you wanted you to have this.” Dr. Gerry, whose last name I can’t remember, was handing me a piece of paper, inscribed with a short verse. “Blue eyes, 98⁰ Fahrenheit” or something like that, it began, then unfolded in the words of a modern Shakespeare in love. What I couldn’t fathom is that these words, according to Dr. Gerry, had been written by another student at the table the day before. “Do you mean, John?” I asked. “I hardly even talked with him! I was just saying hi and being friendly!”

And yet, here in my hand was a poem that revealed the infatuation of a man smitten. I laughed to myself, asking an imaginary Eros, “You mean real people write these kinds of words? About me?”

It was true. A very real person had written those words and continued writing them in songs for the next several months while I reveled in the magic of having a boyfriend.  Apparently, I was not confused about my sexual orientation anymore because I had attracted John. He had just entered the college as a junior at 25, having bounced around in jobs before deciding that what he really wanted was to become a chiropractor.

In 1975, Chiropractic was derided as nothing short of quackery and I was leery of getting to learn much about it myself. John invited me to come with him to a weekend conference on the topic, however, and I was intrigued. In John’s company, I learned that Chiropractic was indeed a valid modality of healing, worthy of consideration along with Modern Medicine.

 For the next two months, John’s infatuation delighted me.  I would go over to his room in the men’s dorm after studying and watch him as he came out of his Transcendental Meditation sessions, another strange and new practice that John introduced. He loaned me his copy of Autobiography of a Yogi, which I timidly read with only minimal comprehension of a worldview radically different than my Catholic one.

I learned, probably from Mark, that the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was hosting a Strauss Birthday Party, featuring waltzing in the foyer after the concert. I didn’t know how to waltz, but I imagined that waltzing with John Kurtz would be a dream evening fit for a movie! He accepted my invitation and admitted that he didn’t know how to waltz either, but he was willing to learn!

For the next few weeks, we taught ourselves how to dance. At the time, I was doing a project for my Embryology class that had me taking hourly photographs of developing fish eggs. I had a key to the Biology Lab so I could go there through the night for the week of my project, and I borrowed a record player (remember those?!) from the college library. In between photography sessions, we figured out our waltz steps in the spacious lab. By the evening of the concert, we were ready.  I, of course, had sewn a new dress, this time borrowing a pattern from a dorm-mate Faye. I believe this was the only other time I had occasion to wear that maroon corduroy cape I had made for my date with Dan Patterson five years before, but it was perfect for the evening!

When the concert ended, we glided into the foyer waiting for the dance to begin. To my surprise, I actually saw someone there I knew! There was Kathy Spinnato, my old neighbor! I said a quick hello, but was soon whisked away by my ambitious dance partner, John. We discovered that we could waltz out on our own on the balcony, then even further from the crowd into the back of the concert hall. We didn’t miss a step as the usher escorted us out of there. We didn’t want the dancing to end, and stayed out on the dance floor til the last note faded.

That night, John squeezed into my single bed with me, and we slept soundly, not even noticing that we had forgotten to blow out the two-foot high candle that John had given me. Luckily, all it did was burn down lower, but the glow in my heart remained.

After the Christmas break, I moved from the dormitory out to the Cincinnati Nature Center for my internship. John visited me just once out there, driving his red sedan out to the woods to tell me that he had decided to try to make up with his former girlfriend, Mary. After he left, I cried for a while, and then wrote the one song I penned during my friendships with my two songwriters, Linda and John. I was sad and disappointed, but soon realized that those few months of song, dance, and infatuation had been a satisfying chapter to heal my heart and assure me that I could indeed have a relationship that felt “normal” to me.

I thank John Kurtz for that fairytale relationship, and always smile when I remember waltzing on the balcony.

Gratitude Celebration 29: Romance Confused

When I told my high school boyfriend, Chuck, that I couldn’t marry him because I needed to meet other men before settling down to marry, I envisioned that unfolding rather neatly. As it turned out, I met a variety of lovely friends who lit me up with romance, friendship, song, and heartache too.  I had not anticipated being confused about sexuality, though!

On the very first day of orientation, I met a guy whose voice wafted over me like a warm southern breeze.  His Memphis drawl made me want to ask him endless questions, so he would keep talking to me. I didn’t do that, of course, but I wanted to! I was happy to learn that he was a Biology major like me, so I would likely meet him again. Mark would become my best friend in college, the man I most wanted to be with, and yet my most challenging relationship of all!

Our common interest in wandering the old farm fields of the campus afforded us many hours of companionship, often with more sensory delight than conversation. Mark also introduced me to Saturday evening classical music concerts at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Music Hall. The first concert we enjoyed found us in the front row watching – and feeling – the cellos pulsing the base line in the Mars movement of The Planets.  I had never experienced such vibrant music and jumped at the chance to go to more concerts with Mark, and sometimes another mutual friend, Mike.  After the concerts, we would stop at the Drawbridge Inn café and snack on cheesecake and coffee.

Throughout our freshman year I could always count on Mark for a good walk, an inviting intellectual conversation, or an evening of beautiful music.  Sometimes, we would skip Biology Lab, avoiding the crowded room with the plan of coming back later when all the “commuter students” had gone home. Don, our mutual friend, would drive his Toyota Corolla across the Ohio River bridge to the Conservatory where we could surround ourselves with “real” plants. Mark’s developing interest in orchids was satisfied there, and I enjoyed learning more about orchids and bromeliads from him than I could have ever done in the classroom!  Then, we would go back to the lab and get it all done in peace.

In May, we said goodbye for the summer and he went home to Memphis. I went off to work as the Nature Lady at the Girl Scout Camp in Ohio where I had taken my troop (see Gratitude Celebration 24) on a winter adventure the year before. All summer long, I loved leading the girls in sensory explorations of Nature, hoisting them up to get a bird’s eye view of the tree tops on a “Bosun’s chair”, and sitting out thunderstorms in the Nature Cabin. I also made a fast friend in the director of the camp’s swimming program, Linda. She would come meet me at the Nature Cabin and we would walk to dinner together. Since neither of us had groups of scouts to manage we had many evenings free to spend time together singing. Linda was a master guitarist who played Tennessee Williams songs and wrote her own.

As the summer waned, Linda’s songs became touchingly suggestive of a deeper love than I had realized was there. I accepted her hand to hold while we walked, not understanding that she meant something I did not. When camp was over, we were both exhausted and we took a nap in my attic bedroom.  I was  enjoying the warmth of a good friend who had touched my heart with song and whose companionship I would miss when we went separate ways for the Fall.

I was oblivious to her intent, however. Perhaps you can forgive my naivete, and my surprise, when my mom said the next day, “You need to find someone else to take you back to school. I don’t want to. I can’t accept what you are.”

It finally dawned on me! My mom thought I was gay! And I didn’t even know for sure what that was! True, I loved being with Linda, holding hands, sleeping next to each other, making music that reverberated joy through my whole body and soul. But, I didn’t think that made me gay! And so what if I was? Did that make me wrong and unacceptable?!  My brother drove me the two hours back to school, loaded with newly dyed bedspreads and a wall hanging for my room with Kelly. I was stunned, and sad to feel so separate and misunderstood by my mom, rejected in a way I had not experienced before, confused by the notion that loving someone could be wrong.  Well, at least I had my friends at school and a full schedule of classes to keep me occupied.  There could be more walks in the woods with Mark.

I was happy to see him! And glad that now we could develop our friendship. I was also spending time with new friends, like Donna, Mary Jo, and Chris. To my surprise, Chris asked me to go to the Fall dance with him. As usual, I sewed myself a new dress. This one was a luscious royal blue, chosen to be noticed by Chris’ colorblind eyes. I was honored to be his date, since he was a popular upperclassman. The evening turned out to be a disturbing one, though because Chris seemed more interested in exploring the adjoining breezeway, walking out on the street, and avoiding the dance! When we retreated to my sister’s empty apartment for a post-dance dinner and romantic time, he pulled away and acted sullen. He drove me back to the dorm and I said goodnight to my roommate Kelly, giving only quick answers to her questions about my night. I had no clue what had just happened!

Well, I could spend time with Mark, at least when Linda wasn’t visiting me on weekends. By now, I was more aware of the kind of relationship she wanted to have, and I obliged her affectionate warmth, reveling in the music and singing. We went exploring with Kelly, who wanted to visit the University of Cincinnati in hopes of transferring there.

My confusion about love and affection magnified one evening that Fall when I quietly laid my head on Mark’s shoulder as we listened to the Pachelbahl Canon, a resurfaced tune from the Baroque era. I was jerked out of my reverie when Mark bolted up off the couch and walked off!  Startled, I collected myself and slipped back to my own room in the women’s dorm in another building. The next day, I found a note on my bed that clarified Mark’s action, and woke me up to the reality that I had been missing.  Mark had needed to inform me in direct words that he needed me to know that he was “a homosexual”.

I was devastated, and ashamed at the same time! I walked out of the dorm and cried my heart out to the stars in the black night of the farmstead campus of Thomas More. I had been so sure that Mark could be a partner and now I didn’t know what to do. I felt so stupid for not recognizing his orientation, mostly because I honestly didn’t understand anything about being gay.  At that time, in the 70’s, no one had ever talked openly about that before, and I couldn’t think of anyone in whom I could confide or inquire.  I thought I had to keep it to myself, and protect his secret, so I didn’t say anything to my roommate, Kelly, and was glad she didn’t ask.

Fortunately, Mark’s friendship truly was lasting, and after a few days avoiding him, I discovered that I could enjoy relating with him platonically after all. But, I was so baffled and confused about this whole notion of sexual orientation now!  Here was Mark, a man I felt very attracted to, telling me I couldn’t be with him, and then there’s Linda, a woman I enjoyed being with for singing and having fun, saying she did want to be intimate.  To top it off, one night I went over to my friend, Donna’s, room, and she’s having a heart-to-heart with Chris, my mysterious dance-avoiding partner.  When she was finished, she came by and shared that Chris, who I had thought was her boyfriend, had just told her that he was – you guessed it – gay!

“What’s going on?” I asked God, since there wasn’t anyone else to ask, ”This is so messed up!”

Somehow I managed to weather the quagmire, keep studying Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, and go off to Canada for a second magical summer of canoeing in the kettle ponds of the Canadian Shield. The camp season ended a week after the start of my senior year, so I proudly returned to the campus late, confident that missing the first few days of classes would be just fine. I was all tanned and fit from my summer outdoors, glowing with happiness in a yellow top I had made myself.  I was determined to focus on studying and not drown in the frustrations of relationships.

What I didn’t know, however, was that the young man sitting across from me in the dining hall as I joked with a Sociology professor, was composing an ode to my blue eyes. And that’s tomorrow’s tale of gratitude.

My deepest gratitude to Mark, however, comes from a realization much later in my life.  After our graduation from Thomas More in May, 1976, I have only seen Mark a few times.  He has remained a true friend of my heart, however. It was Mark to whom I ran for comfort when I ended my relationship with Linda, setting my boundary of intimacy with her.  He understood.

Years later, as I longed for his companionship as a fellow Nature lover to whom I needn’t defend my yearning for the outdoors, I realized that there really is such a thing as a spiritual relationship that can be as real and nourishing as a physical one. Since then, I have allowed myself to feel close to him in my thoughts and connections with Nature. We’ve met up a few times, enjoying cheesecake and easy conversation, picking up where we left off the last time we talked as if we’d soon be walking into Biology class together.  At those moments, I was glad that I had not relinquished our friendship, choosing to follow my mother’s words when I had divulged my 20-year old broken heart. She had said, simply, “I don’t know what to tell you. If you love him, then love him.”

I’m beginning to understand how that can be.



Gratitude Celebration 28: Old Friends

Dr. Bill Bryant could find anything he wanted on his desk, even though it was piled high with papers, books, and scientific journals. For me, he was the quintessential professional botanist. He could talk about plants, forests, and ecology any time.  He loved his homeland of western Kentucky, and he loved the forests even more. I took most of my electives in Biology from him because he was teaching the classes that attracted me most. I wanted to be outside, not in a laboratory, so I picked Botany, Field Biology, and Aquatic Biology for my electives.  He taught Genetics, too, which didn’t include any field work at all.

It was Dr. Bryant who taught me to look at plants as my “old friends.” I can still hear him describing this in his southern accent. “When you go out in the field, it’s like seeing all your old friends again. The more you see them, the more you get to know them, where to find them, and when you might see them each year.  And their names become familiar too, just like old friends.”  I never forgot that, and I still enjoy seeing wildflowers blooming in their turn and take a certain delight in learning their scientific names, like a special trait I know about my “old friends.”

In our Botany class, our semester project was to collect, identify, and press fifty herbaceous plants. It was Fall in northern Kentucky, and I had fun riding my bike around on the back roads within a mile or two of the campus searching for specimens to collect. Many were familiar from my childhood walks with my parents, but I had never collected them for a scientific herbarium before, so I was learning something new. I actually enjoyed keying them out and pressing them carefully between sheets of newspaper. Adding their scientific names, tantalizing mouthfuls of letters like Polygonatum, Helianthus, or Solidago, really did seem like getting more intimate with old friends, and getting to know some new ones too!

My favorite classes with Dr. Bryant, however, were Field Biology and Aquatic Biology. As their names imply, both of these were rich with forays outside. Both were offered in the month-long session called May Term. With Dr. Bryant’s guidance, we explored streams, marshes, and the shores of the Ohio River. We got to live for two weeks at the Biology Field Station on the banks of the Ohio River. I concluded that being a Field Biologist was the best career for me and studying Nature could delight me for a very long time!

Dr. Bryant’s influence provided a couple of lasting brushes with philosophy. During a test, I had no answer to one of his essay questions. I simply had not studied what he was asking. In a moment of bravado, I wrote, “I don’t know much about this, but I do know something about Leaf Abcision.” I proceed to describe the process of a deciduous tree leaf falling off and the formation of the leaf scar. Well, Dr. Bryant was not impressed and did not give me credit for that answer.  I pondered that situation, and formed the opinion that in the “Real” world, there would probably be all sorts of instances when one could legitimately be an expert in one thing and not another.

Another time was during a semester project in Genetics. The gist of the assignment was to look at a handful of genetic characteristics in my family and determine the phenotype and genotype of everyone relative to those traits. It seemed like a rather pedantic endeavor to me, since the only references available to us, in those archaic pre-internet days, were two or three books that were being passed around among the 30 students in the class. While perusing the library shelves in hopes of finding more reference material, I discovered a book about genetic engineering and started reading it.

I was fascinated, and incredulous about the moral implications of this practice!  I devoured that book and wrote an essay relating what I had found out. I included it in my presentation, along with my family genetics charts that just basically fulfilled the assignment. Again, Dr. Bryant did not share my wide-eyed epiphany about genetic engineering and gave me a “B” on the assignment. I shrugged it off, however, believing that the direction I had gone with it was much more rewarding than what he was grading me on.

Even though I haven’t created a career as a scientist, my years under Dr. Bryant’s tutelage gave me a scientific foundation that girds the more artistic and sensory approach that I have used as a teacher, hiker, and Nature guide. Thanks to Dr. Bryant, I can always rely on my “old friends”, the plants, to evoke a sustainable sense of Wonder and fulfillment in the outdoors.

Gratitude Celebration 27: Salamanders

I’m celebrating my 60th birthday with 60 essays of gratitude for significant people in my life. Today, I’m remembering a college professor who planted a seed of Nature Exploration.

I was excited to return to Thomas More College for my sophomore year. I had spent the previous summer mostly outdoors, working as the “Nature Lady” at a Girl Scout Camp. As a sophomore Biology major, I would take the next required courses in Anatomy and Chemistry.  I looked forward to another year with my roommate, Kelly, my Physics friend, Donna, and my favorite Biology buddy, Mark.

Mark and I both lived in the dorms, and usually had weekends free. Our Comparative Anatomy teacher, Bob Williams, invited us to go with him on weekends to help him find salamanders, Gyrinophilus porphyriticus his study species. We would go to Pike and Adams Counties, OH and spend the day turning over rocks to find and collect these unique salamanders. As we walked the southern Ohio forests, Mr. Williams would also teach us the spring wildflowers, rolling off their names like old friends. My first awareness of the subtle beauty of Blue Cohosh and the golden blankets of Barberea vulgaris (Yellow Rocket)  delighted me and headed a growing list of tantalizing Latin names and the even more fulfilling relationship with the woods and hills that supported such lush diversity.  Those walks with Mark and “Buck” grounded me in my love of Nature and its exploration. Although I was not a top-notch salamander finder nor really interested in examining them back at the lab, I reveled in the beauty and diversity of the plant world that Mr. Williams made available to me on those trips.

A year later, as our field trips continued, we badgered him to create a course in Field Biology that could be offered in the month-long May Term. He did! He and Dr. Bryant, another Biology professor, led us for a whole month on field trips in Northern Kentucky. We explored marshes, fields, and a forest preserve I visited often for several years after college, Boone County Cliffs. What nourished me most was the sensory immersion in the wondrous natural diversity of Northern Kentucky, while I respectfully digested the intellectual nomenclature and scientific language of the Mixed Mesophytic Forest and its Geologic Substrate.

Mr. Williams only taught at Thomas More a few years and then moved back to his native Illinois. On our drives in southern Ohio, he would often reveal with a touch of melancholy that his wife, Becky, wanted to move back to her hometown where Buck could team up with her dad in his sporting goods company. I don’t know if he did that, but I sure am grateful to have been a recipient of his passion for Nature exploration while he was active in it himself.

Before he left Thomas More, though, Mr. Williams was able to introduce me to someone who rolled out a red carpet for me to dip my toes in my own professional passion.  In the Fall of my senior year, I was experimenting with my friend, Mike, in the young field of Outdoor Education. Bob Williams suggested that I talk with Paige Burke at the Cincinnati Nature Center. I called her and went out for an interview, landing a position as an intern for the Spring Semester. It worked out great, because I had completed all my classroom course credits and could use the internship to satisfy my student-teacher credits for my Secondary Education Certification. Thanks to Mr. Williams’ referral, I had the opportunity to live on the grounds of the Nature Center, work alongside the full-time naturalists, and even create teaching materials to add to their huge book of lesson plans. As far as I was concerned, it was perfect! So, thanks, Bob Williams, for taking me under your wing and helping me fly!  Whenever I see Blue Cohosh, I think of you!


Gratitude Celebration 26: Sustaining the Sense of Wonder

I’m celebrating my 60th birthday by writing 60 essays of gratitude for significant people in my life. Today, I respectfully remember and thank a favorite college professor for her inspiration and integrity, her enthusiasm and dedication in the field of Biology.

Sister Mary Laurence played a large role in my development as a Biology student, not just in her physical stature but in her intellectual and personal guidance. She taught my first class, General Biology, in my major. That was pretty straightforward with three weekly lectures and two labs. Studying science at the college level was new to me, so I had to study diligently. But, I did ok and pulled through with consistent B’s.

Where my enjoyment of Sister Laurence, fondly if irreverently nicknamed, “The Big Nun”, blossomed was in my junior year in a semester of Non-Vascular Plants. We studied all the families of plants that lacked veins – algae, fungi, mosses, and liverworts. She ran the class as an independent study, having us learn with her guidance, articles, and labs all that we could on our own. I was fascinated with the topic, especially encountering these plants mostly through a microscope. I had never realized that there were so many kinds of algae, fungi, and mosses all around me! I started seeing them and enjoying them everywhere! And liverworts were like a whole new Lilliputian world that I could never have imagined!

As I recall, we had to choose one phylum as a focus, and I chose mosses. Sr. Laurence arranged for me and my friend, Mike, to go over to the University of Cincinnati to visit a bona fide “bryologist” who lived and breathed mosses. He showed us how to distinguish certain species by examining microscopic parts on the tiny bracts. The spore capsules, with their crown-like caps that split when they dried to release the fertile spores filled me with wonder at the intricacies of Nature. What a delightful world, I thought!

Two times of particular gratitude stand out for me in my four years with Sr. Laurence.  Sophomore year brought relationship questions that baffled me. I just wanted to get away from there! My escape route from school was the Greyhound Bus station in Cincinnati. I could reach it via the local bus that stopped near the college on Turkeyfoot Road. The two-hour bus ride to Dayton, Ohio would take me to the downtown terminal. From there, I could either walk a couple of miles or call my dad to pick me up.

This day in my memory, though, I took a detour to the fabric shop in downtown Cincinnati. I loved fabric, especially imagining what could be made with it! Certain colors, patterns, and types of cloth caught my eye and begged me to make something!  That day, what called me was a vibrant, tightly woven plaid of red and turquoise. I got enough to make a blouse, choosing a pattern with a western-style yoke. I added pearl-faced snaps instead of regular buttons. With delightful fabric in hand and lifted spirits, I decided I’d rather get back to my dorm room and start sewing than ride the bus home, so I headed back to the Dixie Terminal building and caught the Turkeyfoot bus.

The next day, I met Sr. Laurence in the hall outside the Biology Lab. No one else was there. She handed me a book, and said, “I noticed that you looked sad yesterday, so I wanted to give you this.” It was a book of poems, all about seeing the blessings in things and letting troubles go by, that sort of thing.  I was amazed, “How did she know?!, I wondered. And then, “Did she know what I was going through?” She didn’t ask questions, or offer advice, or even invite me into her office for a chat, she just gave me that book. At that moment, I knew that I had someone compassionate watching out for me even when I didn’t realize it.

Another time that stands out for me is our Field Trip to the Smoky Mountains for the Wildflower Convention. Just a small group of us went, and my mom went along as a chaperone and car provider. All of us students camped, and as I recall, Sr. Laurence just met us at the Visitor’s Center for the walks. Nonetheless, I enjoyed getting to be with her outside the classroom and introducing her to my mom, who was equally fascinated with the plants we were discovering on our walks. I believe this was the first time I had ever seen Liverworts, those unusual primitive plants that thrived only in the moist, thin soil of shady, rocky glades so prevalent in the Smoky Mountains. I’m so grateful that Sr. Laurence set up that trip for us to open that door into yet another world of enticing diversity.

I have stayed in touch with Sister Mary Laurence, visiting her a couple of times in the past few years. The last time was In December, 2012 when I was driving with my oldest son and my partner between Chicago and Atlanta. With just an hour’s notice, she welcomed us to join her for lunch at the Convent where she lives with her community. With her bright eyes and clear voice, always a teacher, she directed us into the dining room where we were greeted warmly by the other sisters.  She could tell me what many of my former classmates were doing as if it was just yesterday and we were back in that Biology Lab under her compassionate tutelage.

I have a book of hers that I will always treasure, even though I have had a copy of my own since my first class in Botany back at Thomas More College. It’s not the book of poems, it’s A Guide to the Wildflowers and Ferns of Kentucky, by Mary W. Wharton.  She had called me out of the blue one day and said, “Regina, I have a book I want you to have. What’s your address?”

Gratitude Celebration 25: Easy Compatibility

“That leaves Kelly and Regina to be together,” the Resident Assistant was saying as the group of 20 or so freshman women gathered in the dormitory lounge. It was our second week of college and we were all meeting for a roommate shakeup. Although we had each been assigned a roommate who was supposedly chosen for the best match based on our majors, most of us had discovered that we were NOT well matched!

My assigned roommate was a fellow biology major, but that’s about all that Michelle and I had in common. She stayed up late, had a boyfriend, loved talking about clothes and makeup, and wasn’t actually focused on studying. I was pretty much opposite in all of those things.

She got along great with another freshman, Chris, and they made sure to get together in the roommate shakeup. I didn’t really have anyone else in mind, and had not even met Kelly Marts before that meeting. Our rooms were on opposite ends of the the dorm and we were pursuing different majors. We were to share her room, so I moved my stuff down the hall.

Thankfully, we actually got along just great from the start. I don’t even remember having to talk out very many details about how we would manage our lives together in the small room that was home. We were both studious, quiet, gracious, and basically interested in similar things like classical music.  Kelly worked in the Chemistry Lab while taking the Chemistry classes in her major. She spent long hours at the college, and sometimes didn’t even get back to our room ‘til 9 p.m.

I liked studying in a quiet corner of the college library where I could listen to classical music while I studied, or in the dorm lounge where I could talk things over with classmates, or just enjoy the company of others. Our room was empty a lot!

Kelly lived near the camp where I worked the following summer, and we got together a few times on my days off.  I introduced her to my friend, Linda, whom I had met at camp. Linda sang and wrote folk songs and we all loved singing together.

Sophomore year, we moved upstairs to a new wing of the dorm and maintained our compatible lifestyle.  At nineteen, I was not good at sharing my true feelings with anyone, including Kelly, but somehow I think she understood when I quickly left the room one evening after reading a note from a boy I had a crush on. The contents of the note upset me, and I ran out to cry under the stars in the open fields that blanketed the property then. When I came back, all cried out, she didn’t pry, just gave me a warm look. I was comforted without having to say anything.

Kelly didn’t like Thomas More College, though, because it had no women’s sports. She wanted to play basketball! So, she left, and I lost track of her. We didn’t keep in touch, although Linda did, and we went to watch Kelly play once at the University of Cincinnati.

I’ve recently caught up with Kelly, hoping that she had reunited with Linda, from whom we had both  become estranged. She had not, but that got us reacquainted.  We’ve exchanged Christmas cards, and now Facebook messages, staying in touch in a similar fashion as in our roommate years. I learned that Kelly has been working for the past 30 years as a support person for Deaf Blind clients. She’s also been active with Lion’s Club International Service Organization.

So, I’m remembering and thanking Kelly, my only college roommate, with quiet gratitude for being someone with whom I easily got along!  I’m glad we got left for each other! It was a good match!

Gratitude Celebration 24: Leading Women

I’m celebrating my 60th birthday by writing 60 essays thanking people who made a difference in my life.

Today, I want to express my gratitude to three women who modeled inspired leadership in Nature Education, opening doors for me in the field where my heart sang!  Remembering Regina Goode, Patti Haye, and Nell Maloney brings a broad smile to my face and a warm fire to my heart.

With a name like “Regina”, she had to be good!  And she was that too! In fact, her name was Regina Goode and she was a very good catalyst for my initiation as a leader. I realize now, as a mom myself, that she and my mom may have been in cahoots to have Mrs. Goode be my co-leader instead of herself. I was undoubtedly more open to the guidance of Mrs. Goode than my own mom as an 18-year old with ideas of what a fun Girl Scout troop could be.  I did enjoy going over to her house and talking about my ideas and having her agree with them then add her wisdom to make them effective plans.

I was certain that our troop did have the most fun because we went on adventures! Once, we rode bikes to a nearby camp. Another time, we went to the Girl Scout camp lodge for a winter weekend.  I supervised the girls, Junior Scouts in 4th-6th grade, in planning, buying, and preparing their own meals, making #10 tin can stoves, and having fire building contests. We sang and went on long hikes, which were all the things I loved to do! Thanks to Regina Goode (and my own parents), I was a happy leader playing in my creative world. I hope my sister, Mary Rose, who was a member of the troop, had fun too! 

Patti Haye showed me how to make “Thank-you ma’ams.”  I wasn’t quite sure of the importance of the ditches she was digging in the trail, but she did it with such enthusiasm and conviction that I knew that the Girl Scout Camp depended on them. I laugh when I realize that the dozens of what I now call “Waterbars” that I have built were all foreshadowed by my forays with Patti Haye, the Conservation Director of the Buckeye Trails Girl Scout Council. My mom had introduced me to her, guessing that I would enjoy going with Patti, and she was right!

We spread woodchips, threw cast off Christmas trees into ravines and walked the trails of Camp Whip-poor-will even before I got to work there the first summer after I started college. I still enjoy doing trail work  and can’t walk on a trail without pulling aside dead branches and cutting small trees that have fallen on the trails. Patti Haye gave me my start as a trail maintainer and I’m thankful for her leadership!

It was Patti Haye who told my mom about her friend, Nell Maloney and her camp in Ontario, Canada. She thought that  my brother, Tom, might want to go there. As she described the Nature Camp on the Canadian Shield that specialized in wilderness  lake canoe trips my brother was unimpressed, but it sounded like a marvelous world of adventure to me! “Does she need summer staff?” I asked. The next day, I was talking on the phone with the director, Nell, who lived within a couple of miles of our house! I wanted to entice my friend, Mark, a fellow biology student at Thomas More College, to apply for a job there too. He thought herding 8-14 year old kids through the boggy wilderness sounded awful, but our friend, Mike, lit up with the prospects of spending the summer in the Canadian wilderness. He was undaunted by the requirements of being a camp counselor.  Nell hired both of us and in a few weeks we were crammed in the back seat of a Greyhound bus, with everything we needed for the summer packed in small duffle bags, riding 12 hours from Dayton, Ohio to Buffalo, New York on the first leg of our journey.

Nell fascinated and inspired me. Here she was, a slight, pre-maturely grey haired geologist who migrated every summer with her two daughters about 700 miles north to run a science camp with 30 kids. The owners, The Fisks, lived in Buffalo. They had bought the hunting camp that they named Camp Blue Heron for their large family of grandchildren. Then, friends came too, and soon they just opened it up as a summer camp! Most of the campers came from either Dayton or Buffalo, arriving all together on the bus, hired from the tiny town of Port Loring near the camp, after an eight hour ride from Buffalo.

What I loved about Nell was her wise awareness of what made camp really fun for kids – a reliable schedule based on a few basic activities. Every day, we could count on the rhythmic flow of the day from the breakfast bell to the family-style breakfast, followed by the hands-on science activity then lunch. The afternoon had only two sessions: rest time and waterfront time, which included swimming and canoeing lessons. When that ended, signaled by Nell’s bell, we all played volleyball until supper. After supper, everyone headed back to the waterfront on the lake for relaxed play, singing, and recreational canoeing. Evening program, usually stories and songs near the living room fireplace was promptly at dark before the mosquitoes came out. Within this rhythm, all sorts of adventures in the swamps, fields, and lakes unfolded with joy and wonder.

Most of the daily adventures would be planned by Nell and the staff as we sat together at the small dining room table, eating leftover desserts or salt and vinegar potato chips and drinking the local Molson ale after the campers went to bed.  This rhythm would continue at the base camp while my co-leader, Ormond, and I would take ten campers at a time on two to four-day canoe trips in the nearby wilderness. She wasn’t adverse to interrupting the rhythm, however, if a valuable experience with Nature called. When the Perseid Meteor Showers arrived, she had all 30 of us camp out on the hill where anyone who could stay awake had full view of the sky.  Alec, our super-excited Canadian counselor, made sure that each meteor was cheered across the sky! Our usual morning rhythm was relaxed the next day, and sleepy stargazers went back to their cabins to rest ‘til brunch.

Nell did all sorts of inspiring things. She netted and banded birds, often bringing a gently handled flash of brilliance into the breakfast room, spreading her own sense of wonder and reverence over the whole room with her quiet introduction to the precious bird. She was the first person I met who could turn rocks into marvelous wonders as well. The granite shield at our feet revealed its beauty, unmasked by her explanations and enthusiasm. By her side, knee deep in swamp water, we discovered amazing creatures and plants like Bryozoans, Pitcher plants, dragonfly larvae, and Blue flag irises. Her camera lens caught their beauty and significance.

One thing that stands out in Nell’s leadership, though, was how she handled crises.  When something disruptive happened, after the initial emergency was handled, Nell would say, “OK. Let’s sit down and have a cup of tea and talk about what to do next.” In that calm, conversational attitude, she, and usually Ormond, would lay out a myriad of options, and then choose the best approach.

I’m grateful for Nell’s modeling of authority that had room for creativity, serendipity, and understanding of children. During my second year as a counselor at Camp Blue Heron, I was the dorm counselor for a handful of “older” girls. They were the 13-year olds who had been coming to camp since they were eight! They needed something different, and for them, that meant skinny-dipping at night! They didn’t know it, but Nell and I, along with the scheming support of the other counselors, had the night all planned out when the girls would “sneak” out for their rite of passage. It went off without a hitch, and by 10 p.m. five giggling girls were slipping back into their beds feeling bold and happy.  Thanks to Nell, they could have their moment of bravado wrapped in a cloak of wisdom!