Depending on who’s doing the talking, and what they’re talking about, either god or the devil is said to be in the details. The astounding and sometimes horrific nature of the insect world is one of those situations where both may be there at the same time.
This past summer, in particular, insects have had their share of headlines, from tick borne diseases to mosquito induced West Nile Virus,and flea driven Bubonic plague . Okay, technically ticks aren’t insects, they’re arachnids, but they’re arthropods of note and notoriety. Almost everyone’s heard of Lyme Disease now, which is caused by tick bites as are a number of other illnesses. But the tick bite illness in the news this summer – tick induced delayed anaphylaxis -is one I first heard about a couple of years ago when I was working on my book, the Florida Allergy Handbook .
I was actually in the middle of a draft review and was double checking some facts on tick allergy when I came across an article citing research about how the bite of certain seed ticks predisposed some victims to a severe allergy to meat.
I did a double take.
It got weirder. You only developed the meat allergy if your blood type is other than A or AB. The first
reports hailed from Australia but were eventually confirmed by University of Virginia researchers who found that some individuals bitten by “seed” ticks–the tiny larval young of adult ticks–experienced severe anaphylactic reactions three to six hours after eating beef, pork or lamb.
As I reported in my book, “Patients first experienced an increasingly intensifying itching that spread across the skin’s outer and deeper layers, and escalated to swelling, intestinal distress and finally symptoms of anaphylaxis. “
The culprit turns out to be an IgE antibody that binds to a sugar molecule known as alpha-gal, a finding that further disrupts what we thought about allergies, which are typically caused by proteins in food, pollen, dander and venom, not sugars .
Every time we think we’ve got a handle on things, it turns out we’re just holding a branch connected to a whole lot of other branches – and it’s full of bugs. We rarely really know what we’re talking about, and even when we do, the little things still rule.
West Nile Virus is nothing new, but this past summer the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, reported a record 2,118 ill and 92 dead of the disease, across 44 states. Mother Earth News is not alone in suggesting that climate change might be causing the increase in insect borne diseases.
“The best insecticide ,” says Mother Earth News.”… is cold weather. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record occurred between 2002 and 2011 with 2012 likely becoming the hottest year ever recorded! We are having earlier springs and hotter summers which mean mosquitos can breed earlier and longer.”
And that’s exactly what they’re doing. Throughout the Florida Allergy Handbook, I cite instances of climate change as a likely contributing factor to everything from larger, more virulent poison ivy to record size wasp nests. This summer in Florida alone, we’ve had nine inches of rain above normal, making for larger and longer areas of standing water that provide prime breeding ground for mosquitoes and other pests.
An intriguing article in Wired this month observed, “In the United States, Lyme disease is thought of as the major tickborne bad actor — but over the past two years, health authorities have been coming to grips with the unappreciated toll of other tick-related diseases, including erlichiosis, anaplasmosis, STARI, and babesiosis, which is moving into the blood supply. That’s not even to mention the toll of long-standing insect-borne diseases: malaria, one of the top five infectious killers in the world, along with rapidly rising dengue.
“When we indulge in cultural fascination with scary new diseases, we tend to look to the animal kingdom — bats in the movie Contagion, whose scenario was based on the discovery of Nipahvirus, or monkeys in just about any account of Ebola. Like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, we have difficulty believing we can be brought down by something we can barely see. (In some cases literally: The tick suspected of transmitting Heartland, Amblyoma americanum, is half the size of a sesame seed.)”
And yet arthropods continually fascinate me. The massive global, economic, social and health impact of things in such tiny packages is stunning in its unintended audacity. There is a wasp, for instance – a tiny fairy wasp with the ironically long name megaphragma mymaripenne - that is just 200 microns in size,; just twice the width of the average human hair, and smaller than a single celled amoeba. And yet this creature is replete with organs!
And on these creatures live other creatures in an almost infinite Whoville universe. Click the image below for a remarkable 1 milimeter to 500 nanometer inward zoom at the constellation of life in a humble amphipod.
“Nature will try anything once,” Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behavior too grotesque. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass.”
All around me things are clacking in the grass. The abundance of summer rains have
produced an abundance of life everywhere you look – and sometimes it’s best not to look too closely. For days I watched a rather amusing little orange insect trundling placidly among the white pentas in my yard. I researched, and ran it past my usual expert sources – All Things Bugs, and IFAS . But because I’m nothing if not curious, I decided to run a “What Kind of Insect is That?” contest at Fine Art America while awaiting an answer, to see what other kinds of interesting critters might be out there.
Nearly 200 entries of amazing insect photos were submitted. It was there that I learned my cute little orange bug was a juvenile assassin bug that would grow up to do just what its name suggests – assassinate other insects.
The winning entries are remarkable things to behold – a yellow and black treehopper, by Craig Lapsley , with giraffe spots on a humped head and an opaque eye; a rainbow colored lantern bug, by Roy Foos, right out of a Dr. Seuss book, with a red elephantine protuberance covered in white spots and sporting green and yellow wings ; and a bulbous cicada, by Shane Bechler , with enormous cellophane wings.
These are in fact the little things that run the world, and will continue to do so long after we are gone. The cockroach repels us, yet because of us it thrives in the ecosystem of our leavings. We’re peripheral to the universe of ticks and mosquitoes, who largely exist on the blood of other animals, and yet they fell us by the thousands almost as an afterthought. Even the bubonic plaque has made a resurgence, contracted by a child in the Colorado this past summer, when she was bitten by fleas on a dead squirrel that she handled.
And yet insects are also beautiful , like butterflies, and successfully resourceful like ants, and vital to our existence like bees and other insect pollinators without whom our food crops would suffer and die. They also aerate the soil, are a critical food source for other animals, decompose dead materials,and fertilize the soil with the nutrients from their waste and remains.
It’s easy to fear and detest – and possibly be injured by – the things we don’t understand. E.O. Wilson said “More respect is due the little things that run the world.” Respect, born of knowledge and common sense conduct in and proper preparation for the outdoors, will protect us better than GMOs and indiscriminate eradication practices.
The god and the devil in these extraordinary details deserve both our reverence and some healthy caution, for they are both terrible and wonderful, like the Creation from which they hail.
Rest in Peace, Steve Jobs.
I’ve been thinking a lot about children, lately, particularly since I spent the day at the SPARC 2011 Conference last Saturday, hosted by the disabilities advocacy group, STAND. This morning, I’m heading out bright and early with a carload of young people to Learning is for Everyone‘s Knowledge Faire 2011 event. I founded Learning is for Everyone about ten years ago – about the same time I wrote the piece below, initially as a rebuttal to a newspaper article I read, and later as an article in Home Education Magazine. My then 12 year old is 23 now, her sister 21, their brother 18. And I still, more firmly than ever, believe all our children have extraordinary abilities.
From the March 2001 issue:
What are the odds your child is “gifted?” Probably slim, if you believe psychologist and author Ellen Winner, who says, “Extraordinary abilities are mostly innate and occur in perhaps one in 10,000 children.” But probably quite high if you believe in your child!
Winner argues that only “profoundly gifted students, with IQs over 160 or prodigious talents in art or music should receive special services.” The other 9,999 – including the just “plain old smart kids” can, for all intents and purposes, go take a homogenous hike in “high standards” classrooms (wherever those might be).
While that argument might make good fodder for public education policy, it’s a social setback of the most limiting kind. It’s a throwback to the days when IQs were (erroneously) considered the best measure of success and potential.
However great a blow it might be for the parents of the “profoundly gifted,” the fact is that the world is not run by the 1 in 10,000 Winner declares have “extraordinary abilities” or “prodigious talents.” The world is run by that neglected 9,999 who are being told they’re nothing special!
Those “plain old smart kids” who don’t qualify for accelerated learning programs or special science labs are the ones who will grow up to help out in soup kitchens, volunteer in nursing homes and homeless shelters. They will rally for clean water and healthy environments, read and appreciate good literature and often write it, work hard in jobs that strengthen our economy and raise new generations of ordinary, good people. They will be members of Doctors Without Borders and Green Peace and the Sierra Club. They will also probably be the ones with the surprising start up companies that wow Wall Street, who invent a new fuel source or rescue someone from a fire or an automobile accident.
I’m not the jaded parent of failed children saying this. I’m the mother of at least one gifted child, and probably three. When my oldest was six years old and her eccentric behavior was driving me nuts, and one of her grandmother’s was calling for a child psychologist to look into the matter, I took a chance and had her tested for giftedness. I figured she was probably no odder than Mozart as child, or Einstein, or Beatrix Potter boiling down fox carcasses in her backyard.
She scored one point shy of admission to the gifted student program at our local elementary school. Because she didn’t hurry through a timed portion of the test – indeed, has never hurried through anything – a score sheet said she wasn’t The “profoundly gifted,” but just a “plain old smart kid.” I was invited to bring her back in a year and have her tested again. The school was sure she would make it on the second round. I decided it wasn’t that important.
Of course she’s gifted. Her IQ measures in the 120 range. She’s twelve now, a magnificent artist, with a mature flair for cartooning and a deep and abiding love and understanding of nature. But she can’t do grade-level math to save her soul. Her sister, whom I never had tested, is also gifted. At ten, she shows “prodigious talent” at the piano and works well above grade level in math. But she gets confused with word problems on paper and her giftedness takes flight at the sight of any kind of “test.” The girls’ seven-year-old brother would probably be stuck in a learning disabled class. His giftedness is somewhat hidden behind a gregarious, fun-loving nature and an abhorrence of reading, although he loves to be read to and has the focus and maturity to enjoy listening to long novels with his sisters.
My friends’ kids are gifted, although not all of them notice their gifts. These children are wonderful skaters, artists, inventors, budding scientists, amateur filmmakers, young architects, and more. NThem have ever been formally tested for giftedness. As far as the public schools are concerned, these plain old smart kids have to tough it out in crowded classrooms with everyone else. Fortunately, many of these friends homeschool and they don’t have to worry about that.
I’m sure your children are gifted too. When my children were very little and we spent time with other friends who had children the same ages, I would watch in fascination and wonderment at the skills and talents they all showed at those tender ages. I couldn’t figure out why those other parents didn’t seem to see their children’s talents. Indeed, over time, a lot of those talents went unrealized because they were never recognized.
How many brilliant scientists have we lost? How many doctors, how many possible cures for cancer, how many magnificent compositions and great works of art, how many inventions and cosmological theoretical advances have never seen the light of day because throughout their youth, our possible saviors were told they were nothing special? Genius isn’t relegated to the domain of high I.Q. Genius, said Thomas Edison – who was considered “addled” in his youth and probably wouldn’t have qualified as GSP material today – is one tenth inspiration and nine tenths perspiration. It’s the result of the blue-collar work ethic, not white-collar elitism.
I am grateful that homeschooling allows me to nurture the unique genius and gifts of each of my children. I mourn the genius lost in public schools because a child hasn’t yet realized his or her potential at the age of 5. I believe we get what we expect from our children – and from one another. At least, I believe we do if our expectations consist in belief in one another’s highest potential. If we treated all our children as the geniuses they can be, and nurtured their innate gifts of kindness, charity, understanding, and compassion, as well as their hoped-for academic gifts, then 9,999 children out of 10,000 could brighten our future and theirs with their own “extraordinary abilities.”
What are the odds your child is gifted? Probably pretty good if you believe in your child!
Today, on a day when we commemorate sadness and loss, 500 people in Denver are doing something good for others , as they embark on the Denver FAAN Walk to help fund food allergy awareness, advocacy, education and research . Food allergies may not be anything you think about if you don’t have them, but for 15 million Americans, nearly half of them children, food allergies are a serious and sometimes life threatening problem. When your need for sustenance is also a serious threat to your health, then life can become pretty complicated, for you and your family.
The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) is a nonprofit organization based in Fairfax, Va., with approximately 25,000 members in the U.S., Canada, and 58 other countries. FAAN provides information and educational resources about food allergy to patients, their families, schools, health professionals, pharmaceutical companies, the food industry, and government officials.
When we were trying to figure out my son’s vague and seemingly intractable health problems a dozen years ago, FAAN resources were vital, and I also drew heavily upon them when putting together my book, the Food Allergy Field Guide: A Lifestyle Manual for Families. Today, the Food Allergy Field Guide is part of the Denver FAAN Walk, and I’m happy to be hosting a month long FAAN fundraiser here, with 20% of book purchases made through my website benefitting FAAN.
Before we discovered my son’s food sensitivities, we never thought about food very much. Our family simply ate the foods we enjoyed without giving the source of our health and well being much consideration. After we learned about gluten intolerance, we began learning about food, its beautifies and complexities, its most essential qualities and its least essential ones. Our son was instrumental in raising our health intelligence quotient , in a way that was ahead of the national learning curve at the time. Many of the families whose stories I share in the book reported similar experiences.
If there’s a silver lining to living with a food allergy, it’s that it forces us to reexamine our lives from its most basic and fundamental aspects to its most sublime. Having access to resources and information like FAAN makes available helps those with food allergies live more intentional lives of health and safety, and their research based efforts are also helping pave the way for better labeling, treatments and practices for those with severe food allergies.
More than 80% of every dollar donated to FAAN is spent on research and education and awareness programs. Since 2004, FAAN has funded more than $4.6 million in research. And in education, which remains the single most important component of staying safe while living with food allergies, FAAN has funded nearly $175,000 in Community Outreach Grants since 2006 to local support groups throughout the country. Some of those local groups will be holding our own Tampa FAAN Walk at Lowry Park in Tampa, on November 12, for those interested in making a local impact.
For more information about FAAN, and to find great resources about food allergies, please visit www.foodallergy.org.
I went for a Labor Day walk in the woods with two of my grown children on Monday, one of whom was celebrating her 23 birthday. We thought we’d go to her favorite place for her birthday – which is, conveniently enough, outside, in the woods.
As I walked with my two big kids, I remembered nature walks with them when they and their sister were much younger, and felt gratified that they still loved being outdoors, quiet, curious and observant. It was lovely walking with them, enjoying the simple pleasures of easy conversation and shared discovery – bobcat tracks, a blush of Florida poinsettia, a branch thick with oakworms. My adult children are good company; warm, good-natured, thoughtful, unpretentious, kind and focused individuals. They are, in short, nice, well-adjusted, successful young people, possessed of healthy measures of executive function.
Executive function and its role in our ability (or lack thereof) to focus on tasks at hand, was the topic of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. Executive function, explained columnist Jonah Lehrer, in Learning How to Focus on Focus, is “a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to exert control over our thoughts and impulses.” Teaching children to resist the urge to run blindly out into the street after an errant ball, to wait their turn, to keep their thoughts about others’ appearances or behavior to themselves, are all examples of ways we help children develop and strengthen their executive function.
Besides keeping us safe and building manners, research has shown that executive function also helps develop our focus and, ultimately, our success. Lehrer cites a New Zealand study that found that children skilled at regulating their impulses and attention were significantly less likely, as adults, to have criminal or drug addiction problems and less likely become single parents. Further, said, Lehrer, “In many instances, the ability to utilize executive control was more predictive of adult outcomes than either IQ scores or socioeconomic status.”
That’s saying a lot about what’s clearly a critical human skill. The article goes on to talk about ways to help children develop executive function, via activities that are “both engaging and challenging” like martial arts, yoga, complex board games and computer memory and skills games. He also laments that, despite the evidence of the importance of fine tuning executive function in children, schools do little to support it, and funds are being cut in the very programs that help develop it, from the arts to physical education.
And yet the age in which we live, Lehrer points out, is filled with a “surfeit of information” that can feel overwhelming instead of enlightening, especially if we don’t have the focus to filter through it with discerning intelligence. It’s an example, Lehrer says, of Herbert Simon’s observation that “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
Walking in the woods with my children, though, it occurred to me that executive function – essentially self-control and restraint – are things our children can and should learn at home, and in the everyday world outside of schools, in ways that don’t require a budget, nor suffer when said budgets are cut. And one of the best ways to develop self-control is through a low-tech, highly focused walk in the woods.
My children have been walking in the woods -and along shorelines, and mountain paths, and canoeing and kayaking , and any combination thereof - almost since they could toddle. We taught them to walk quietly, so they’d see things, and to sit still, so the things they saw would stay a while. For a small child, there are few rewards as great as a small live animal remaining near them. A child with self-restraint gets to enjoy the wildlife. An impulsive child doesn’t. Executive function rewarded!
Over time, children trained to the ways of the woods learn to see things others miss – tracks, flowers, strange wonderful awful amazing things like imponderable insects emerging from impossible places, or the delicate grace of a deer almost within reach, the rare bird singing at eye level, the otter fishing along the bank. Those same children are more patient out in the world. They know the virtues of waiting because they’ve experienced the rewards. A child who’s waited out a thunderstorm in an open forest, camped or kayaked along a wild river, fallen over roots and gotten up again to keep walking to get to camp before dark, can often better distinguish between real problems, and simple inconveniences.
Lehrer says “it’s not enough to drill kids in arithmetic and hope that they develop delayed gratification by accident. We need to teach the skills to develop executive function directly and creatively. If we want our children to succeed in the age of information, we need to give them the mental tools that matter.”
I believe one of the best places to exercise those mental tools is right outside the door. Lehrer says the world has changed and that, commensurately, “the mind can’t stay the same.”
But I think what’s actually required is a return to observational and self-restraint skills that hail back to the beginnings of human development. Only when we embrace our most basic human abilities, can we fine tune our minds to rise to the challenges of the information age, which is, when you get right down to it, just a different kind of wilderness.
An interesting piece ran in the St. Petersburg Times this week, syndicated from the New York Times, with the intriguing title: Lawyers, Goats and the Wilderness.
Of course, you have to read something like that. Sometimes the headline is better than the article, but in this case, on the heels of my celebratory lauding of Hog Island in Maine, the article provided some serious food for thought.
The writer, Timothy Egan, had come across a sign while hiking in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington that read, “Aggressive mountain goats have been reported. Use caution and move away.”
Apparently a hiker had been gored to death by an irate mountain goat in Olympic National Park last year, triggering a $10 million lawsuit by the victim’s family, and commensurate reflections by Egan about what appears to be our increasing need for “lawyer-vetted” nature. Signs everywhere warn against the obvious: Not wearing flip-flops while hiking, staying out of strong currents, remaining on the safe side of guard rails, not feeding or approaching wild animals – all cautions necessitated by events like the recent deaths of several people who got swept over a cliff in a water fall at Yosemite.
“Many of these people aren’t used to nature,” a Yosemite park ranger is quoted as saying in the article. “They don’t fully understand it. We’ve got more than 800 trails and 3,000-foot cliffs in this park. You can’t put guardrails around the whole thing.”
And indeed, suggests Egan, the more we warn and try to protect, “ the more careless, and dependent, people become. There will always be steep cliffs, deep water, and ornery and unpredictable animals in that messy part of the national habitat not crossed by climate-controlled malls and processed food emporiums. “
That’s why I think we need more places like Hog Island, and more beginners outdoors experiences like my friend Jeanene Arrington offers, with her Not a Clue Adventures company; opportunities for a people increasingly distant from nature, but with an often innate desire to be part of it, to become safely reacquainted with our natural heritage.
Most people naturally love the outdoors, and clearly our pale human landscape of obesity and urban sprawl would suggest we really need to get out more often. For the more outdoorsy among us, it’s easy to make Darwin Award jokes about fatally clumsy attempts to be one with nature. But that doesn’t address the real problem, or offer practical solutions, any more than do silly litigation-jumpy signs making bids for common sense conduct in the wilderness.
With more people than ever visiting our parks and wild places, this is a great opportunity to provide some real outdoors education, from works like my upcoming Florida Allergy Handbook that’s as much rudimentary outdoor health and safety guide, as allergy guide, to places like Nature’s Classroom , guided hikes with groups like the Audubon Society and others, and reacquainting people with some of our greatest outdoor writers and their literature, from John Muir and Henry David Thoreau to Annie Dillard and Bill Bryson.
If we want “the outdoors” to be something more than an annual – and potentially dangerous – summer excursion experience for more people, it needs to be something we think about more often, even when we can’t go out; something that we read about with interest, consider daily, and find small scale opportunities to enjoy in our urban and suburban communities.
Maybe, instead of warning and protecting, we could simply better educate and inform. Then perhaps a whole new generation of people might be inspired to enjoy the outdoors more intelligently and with a greater sense of appreciation and intentionality, rather than litigated caution.
This past weekend, Audubon Hog Island Camp, on Muscongus Bay in Maine – one of the most wonderful, successful, and, to our family, personally enriching and warmly memorable, environmental education facilities in America – celebrated its 75th anniversary. In the summer of 2007, my middle daughter, then 17, was awarded an Audubon Society Scholarship to a Hog Island residential camp. Always an outdoorsy child but only cautiously adventurous, Hog Island was her first – and only – “sleep away” camp. For ten days, she would bunk with other high schoolers from around the country and learn about birds, and local ecology.
For those ten days, the rest of us journeyed around coastal Maine, touring lighthouses, geocaching in fragrant balsam forests,
exploring Acadia National Park, and a variety of scenic and historical areas. We fell in love with Maine. Our daughter fell in love with birds. We all fell in love with Hog Island.
Our daughter came back confident, excited, and an avid birder. She started a blog – Earthbird: Diary of a Teenage Birder- which
eventually became the diary of a college birder. She wrote an article for the Audubon Society about her experience at Hog Island: Summer Camp Salute , and wrote her college essay about how Hog Island set her on the path to both environmental and self-discovery. She headed to college with fresh focus, new ideas, and a yen for travel that has since taken her to London, Wales and Ireland for a semester, and to Puerto Rico for service learning projects.
This summer, her final summer before she starts her senior year at Eckerd College, where she’s an Environmental Studies and Anthropology major, she interned at Shaver’s Creek , the nature center of Penn State. Among other things, she worked with the Raptor Center there , coming full circle on her journey from fledgling birder to bird of prey handler. Midway through the summer, she journeyed to Tuscson, AZ to join 79 other students from around the nation as a Udall Scholar, which recognizes young leaders in environmental fields.
As much as all of this is a tribute to my daughter’s own drive, curiosity and interest in the world around her, it is equally a tribute to the place that set her mind afire in first place. On Hog Island, my daughter walked in the footsteps of some of the nation’s leading environmentalists, scientists and naturalists, including Roger Tory Peterson, Rachel Carson and Dr. Stephen Kress. Since 1936, campers have experienced the transformative beauty, abundant wildlife and deep serenity of Muscongus Bay under the studied guidance of teachers like Peterson and renowned birder Kenn Kaufman, who turned my daughter’s eyes heavenward.
Environmental education in the classroom is one thing. Experiencing the living wonders of a place as rich in beauty and biodiversity as Hog Island, and rich, as well, in the people who understand it and eagerly share its wonders with others, is something else entirely.
Author Scott Weidensau said of Hog Island, “Hog Island takes hold of you. There are many beautiful places, but this one will change your life.“
Our daughter would probably agree. I know we certainly do! Happy Birthday, Hog Island!