A Review of Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv

(I wrote this review several years ago for the newsletter of the DFW Herpetological Society.)

When I was about ten years old, the girl from across the street asked if I wanted to go Last-childsnake hunting.  We spent the day wandering the fields in our little part of a suburb of Denver, caught a garter snake, and a lifelong passion for nature and herpetology was born.  I still remember a vacant lot where sunflowers grew tall and dragonflies hovered.  This was the kind of childhood that allowed for unstructured time spent in nature, and Richard Louv argues that there is less and less of this contact between kids and nature.  He argues unstructured play in natural areas is important not just to cultivate love for nature, but also for our well-being.  He refers to what happens when kids are cut off from nature as “nature-deficit disorder.”

Louv draws a distinction between nature on TV or nature as an intellectual exercise and direct experience of nature as kids (or adults) play in an unstructured way, building forts or wading in creeks.  None of us would say that nature on TV is a bad thing; he simply argues that it is not the same as time to lie in the grass and watch the clouds, or climb trees, or catch snakes and frogs.  He also says that exposure to nature has benefits even if it is relatively undeveloped spaces in urban landscapes.

Regarding nature-deficit disorder: the author makes clear he is not saying it is a recognized medical disorder.  However, he does quote studies showing how hospitalized patients recover more quickly when there is a view of trees through the window, and how seeing images of nature result in people calming more quickly after a stress.  Louv talks about the relationship between the epidemic of childhood obesity and the indoor and sedentary ways of modern children.  Taken together, there is a noteworthy association between contact with nature and various measures of social, emotional, and physical health.

He also speaks of conversations with children and adults, illustrating the importance of a particular place or experience.  One fifth-grader spoke of a particular place she had, where she could recover from being mad or just be at peace.  She said she dug a hole near this creek and waterfall and sometimes would sit in it and watch the trees or the sky.  She said that one day, they cut the trees down and destroyed the place. She said that it was like they “had cut down a part of me.”  On the other hand, some interviews reveal children’s separation from nature.  One boy said that indoor play was best, because “that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

This is certainly not a pessimistic book.  It is filled with descriptions of places or classrooms where individuals or small groups of people have come up with creative ways to encourage greater connection with nature.  He talked about how, in recent years, a movement has begun with the aim of addressing nature-deficit disorder.  There is an organization called the “Children & Nature Network” to document and encourage this movement.  You can visit the website at http://www.childrenandnature.org/

Those of us who love to share reptiles and amphibians with others, and who hope for a greater appreciation of nature, wild places, and wildlife, will be glad if this book reaches a wide audience.

Richard Louv (2008) Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder (updated and expanded). Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books.

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Flowering despite the drought

The good news is: flowers have been able to rally and bloom some, despite the dry conditions. A few, seen at the Southwest Nature Preserve in Arlington, included indian paintbrush and blanket flower.

Blanket flower (Gaillardia)

Blanket flower (Gaillardia)

 

Indian paintbrush

Indian paintbrush

These flowers attracted a host of butterflies and moths (insect order Lepidoptera), including a magnificent monarch butterfly and the fascinating sphinx moth that hovers like a hummingbird.

Sphinx moth, hovering at a flower

Sphinx moth, hovering at a flower

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The bad news is: spring is staying dry and the NOAA forecast is less optimistic. Here’s the latest:

Drought forecast through July

Drought forecast through July

We’re now in an area where the drought could remain but improve, just east of that big brown zone where the drought intensifies. I’m not very optimistic.

…but I’d like to be!

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This Spring and the Drought

A quick look at data for north Texas from the National Weather Service shows that while December rainfall was okay, things have been very dry since. The January rainfall total was 0.33 inches, which is 1.8 inches below normal. February’s total was 0.41 inches, and that falls 2.25 inches below what we should typically get. What does that mean for opportunities to wade in the creek this spring, or walk through the woods and fields looking for wildlife? Drought has been with us to one extent or another for a number of years, and it has taken a toll. The smell in the air after a long rain, swift running creeks, and the thick growth of vegetation after a wet spring become longed-for memories.

NOAA map showing drought conditions

NOAA map showing drought conditions

However, the drought map provided by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) contains a little hope for our part of Texas. For the period ending in June, it shows areas of north Texas in which drought may improve or even disappear. It seems a little hard to believe, but I would love to be surprised!

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Salamanders at the San Gabriel River

Two forks of the San Gabriel River meet in Georgetown, Texas (a little ways north of Austin) and the resulting river flows northeast and then eastward. Back in 2010, Clint King wrote about taking his young son to see slimy salamanders along the banks of the San Gabriel, and we had talked for some time about visiting this spot and turning up a few more. This weekend we did just that.

Texas Cooters

Texas cooters

In Georgetown, the two forks cut through hill country limestone and in places there are boulders and smaller rocks embedded in the steep riverbank below limestone shelves. It is under some of these stones that Clint had found this salamander several years ago.  This species, the western slimy salamander (Plethodon albagula) is found in Missouri, Arkansas, and eastern Oklahoma, with disjunct (isolated) populations in central Texas. It lives in damp ravines and wooded hillsides such as the areas we visited along the San Gabriel. All the plethodontid salamanders have no lungs and obtain oxygen directly through the skin and lining of the mouth. They are called “slimy” salamanders because when disturbed they exude a slimy substance that sticks like glue and may distract predators or interfere with attempts to grab them.

As we walked along the greenbelt on the banks of the river, we spotted several Texas cooters basking on a log. We managed to get a couple of photos before they slipped into the water. It may be that they were somewhat used to the presence of people jogging or walking nearby, because they were less shy than other cooters often are and only slipped off the log after we continued to watch them for 30 seconds or so.

Although we are still in the final weeks of winter, signs of emerging plant life were flowereverywhere. Trees and shrubs were putting out new leaves everywhere, and soon the path will be covered in new bright green growth. Earlier light rain faded to sprinkles and then just cloud cover, and it felt a lot like spring.

In one section of the river we spotted a great blue heron in the river, standing watchful and attentive to our movement. As I focused for a photo, the bird decided to move to a more undisturbed area and took flight. I managed to capture the bird in the first moments in the air. Great blue herons are the largest herons in North American and can be found over much of the U.S. and Canada.  These majestic birds feed on smaller fish that they stalk while standing in the water, but they are willing to eat a wide variety of small animals that they encounter.

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

 

We also saw Texas spiny lizards, green anoles, little brown skinks, and Clint came across some earth snakes sheltering under cover. And ultimately, under rocks on a fairly steep hillside, we found two small slimy salamanders – juveniles a little over two inches long. We took a few photos and released them, hopefully to grow into adults that we may see some other time.

Western slimy salamander (juvenile)

Western slimy salamander (juvenile)

For a late winter walk, this had been a very productive afternoon, filled with delightful animals and with the promise of the spring season that is just around the corner.

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The Texas Rattlesnake Festival

On the weekend of March 8th and 9th, an event took place that embodies mis-education and cruel exploitation of the western diamond-backed rattlesnake; it was the roundup that took place in Sweetwater Texas. Some 260 miles away, in Round Rock, was its polar opposite: the first Texas Rattlesnake Festival, an event with real education and celebration of wildlife. The festival in Round Rock featured world-class experts (and I was a speaker as well, but not in that league) and beautiful snakes. We can all hope that the Texas Rattlesnake Festival is the start of something that will grow and become better known.

While our neighbors in Sweetwater had been busily spraying gasoline into places where snakes were sheltering and collecting rattlesnakes for the roundup, the festival organizers were busily preparing to display healthy animals that were well cared-for. While the folks in Sweetwater used their poisoned and debilitated snakes for daredevil stunts that model extremely unsafe behavior for onlookers, the experts at the festival did the very opposite. People like Tim Cole used healthy rattlesnakes to show what to do if you come across a venomous snake. Jim Harrison and Kristen Wiley gave a professional demonstration of what they do at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, extracting venom from a number of rattlesnakes and copperheads. They simply did what they do so well, obviously with great skill and therefore with no manufactured drama. Pinning and picking up these snakes, having them bite through a membrane into a collection container and gently massaging the area above the venom glands, Jim talked about what he was doing and how their snakes provide venom over the course of a long and healthy life.

Festival-goers were able to look into safely secured enclosures and appreciate these reptiles with their incredible evolutionary adaptations. No other animal has a rattle, with specialized muscles in the tail to shake this appendage at up to 60 cycles per second to create its sizzling buzz. Rattlesnakes and other pit-vipers have facial “pits” that sense infrared, allowing them to locate a rodent by the heat it produces. The various species have a wealth of different color patterns that may be fairly subtle and are often beautiful.  A visitor can see and appreciate these things while looking at individual animals in secure displays, while at the roundups they mostly see piles of dying snakes. If they see roundup snakes up close, it is in the context of someone holding the snake and parading around with it, or milking its venom, or chopping off its head. Inevitably, the focus is on the human conquering an animal that is simply portrayed as a menace.

What will next year bring? Another festival in Round Rock, building on the success of this year’s event. And, sadly, another festival of cruelty in Sweetwater. However, I was immensely proud to hear a man say, at the end of my presentation in the Round Rock festival, that he and his family had been planning to go to Sweetwater but came here instead, and after hearing me he was glad they did not go. That’s how we will accomplish our goal of having the public seeking out appreciation rather than exploitation: a few people at a time, looking past the myths and fear and seeing these fascinating creatures as they really are.

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Making Our Voices Heard – Again!

Another follow up on the issue of poisoning Texas habitat: After a series of public meetings, the proposed regulation that would ban the practice of spraying gasoline mist into burrows, crevices, and sinkholes is being re-written. It will soon be published in the Texas Register and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) will take public comments on this new regulation. What those of us who care about the land and habitat must understand is that previous comments offered through the TPWD comment page will not apply to this new regulation and we must do it again.

As soon as the comment period opens again, we should respond. It is important not to give up, because if this was all over – if we had lost – TPWD would not be posting a revised regulation. If we don’t respond, it will look like our support was pretty shallow.

As you remember (or as you can read in my post from December 21), some of the people who commercially collect rattlesnakes spray a mist of gasoline into crevices and burrows at the end of winter while the snakes (and other wildlife) are sheltering below ground. The gas kills some unknown number of animals and drives many of the snakes out, where they are captured and sold.  Many of these snakes are used in rattlesnake roundups where I have observed them to appear sick and lethargic, probably showing the effects of being poisoned. After years of prodding from concerned citizens and scientists, TPWD considered joining other states who have outlawed this practice and proposed a regulation banning the use of such things as gas to collect animals.

At the public meeting I attended, I heard that the opposition was floating all kinds of wild and crazy objections. The TPWD staff said that one of the comments against the regulation came from someone who claimed to be afraid that he would be in trouble with game wardens if he used insecticides to poison wasp nests (because of the prohibition on using noxious chemicals to flush out or harass wildlife). As I commented at the meeting, that is as silly as worrying that the game warden would cite them for not having a hunting license to “hunt” those wasps. It is a ridiculous grasping at straws by people who might either be paranoid or, more likely, just want to keep on making a buck and don’t care who or what gets hurt in the process.

Since these meetings, and particularly since the one in Sweetwater where gassing snakes for the roundup is their yearly bread and butter, several press accounts have wildly mischaracterized this as a “rattlesnake protection” regulation and suggested that it is coming from Yankee carpetbaggers and Austin hippies.  In fact, this is about protecting various kinds of wildlife that use crevices and burrows for shelter. Gasoline is obviously toxic to a range of species that may be present, including owls, small mammals, amphibians, other reptiles, and in some cases rare invertebrates. Sweetwater did its best to suggest that the research on gasoline toxicity to wildlife is flawed, but come on, this is gasoline we’re talking about here. A little dose of Texas common sense tells you, this stuff ain’t good for you. (But the research has been done – see my earlier post.)

So keep up the hope that Texas will accomplish something sensible and worthwhile out of this effort. Watch for the newly re-written regulation, hope that in its new form it will still ban the use of gasoline to poison wildlife even if worded a little differently, read it – and then send your comments again!  I’ll provide updates here with links that can be used to post comments, as soon as they’re available.

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Meetings for Public Comment on Gassing

This is a follow-up to my earlier post about the use of gas to commercially collect rattlesnakes. Not only is Texas Parks & Wildlife Department soliciting comments online, but they are providing meetings in Fort Worth, San Antonio, Houston, Sweetwater, and Austin where members of the public can voice their opinion.  The news release with information about this is at:  http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/newsmedia/releases/?req=20131230c. The first one will be held in Fort Worth, as follows:

  • Jan. 7: 7p.m. at Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, 9601 Fossil Ridge Road, Fort Worth.

I hope that those of us who care about unspoiled habitat, and about all the wildlife (not just snakes) that live in crevices, burrows, and caves that are getting gassed, will show up and provide helpful comments.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Stay focused on concern for the harm that can be done by spraying toxic chemicals in burrows and crevices. Yes, this technique is used as part of the rattlesnake roundups, but these meetings are not debating issues about roundups. There is no point in asking TPWD to do something about roundups at these meetings.
  • Comments will be brief, and you do not have to be an expert and you do not have to talk for long. All that is needed is that you have a little information and express concern about protecting wildlife and habitat.
  • Be polite and professional. Yes, we all think something should have been done long ago, but it would be very unhelpful to scold TPWD for not doing something earlier.  We should also avoid talking disrespectfully about anyone who disagrees with us.
  • Stakeholder meetings regarding this issue several years ago were attended by a number of commercial collectors who felt strongly that TPWD should not interfere with gassing. I have no idea who will show up for these meetings, but be prepared for there to be folks expressing views that seem very misinformed or erroneous to us, and stay professional regardless of what is said. (Also be aware that some people on the rattlesnake roundup side of this issue have said that using gas is unnecessary – be grateful for any unexpected allies we have, even if we only agree about a few things.)

Attend one of these meetings if you can. We have this golden opportunity to do something to stop the poisoning of wildlife and habitat with gas, and we have wanted this opportunity for years.  If we do not do all we can to support it, the chance may not come again.

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