Nature Adventures for the Risk-Averse

Have a Safe Day on train station announcement board
“Have a safe day!” At Fairfield Metro-North Station by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015)

I have a voice in the back of my head. I think Freud might call it the “superego.” It’s the little voice that shouts:
“Don’t run in the hall!”
“You’ll poke an eye out!”
“If you open the drawer, something may jump out and bite you!”
“Someone’s going to end up crying!”

This voice is actually very useful. It keeps me driving the speed limit, wearing appropriate clothing for the weather and helps me maintain my physical awareness of my surroundings so I don’t fall into holes or get eaten by predators. In short, it helps keep me safe.

I don’t know how much the strength of my superego owes to parental messages I internalized as a kid or to my temperamental preference for risk-aversion. (Probably both. This requires further study.)

“Risk-aversion” is a description of behavior in economics and psychology, the upshot of it being that risk-averse individuals prefer a predictable outcome over a potentially better (more beneficial/greater utility), but less certain outcome. Most of the studies seem to assess the willingess (or not) to risk losing money in gambling activities, but this willingness to engage in potentially “dangerous” activities is also a factor.

At any rate, when I’m in charge of children’s health and well-being, my protective instincts kick into overdrive. My aversion to danger (or my perception of danger) remains high. My superego voice becomes my actual voice.

As a Teva educator, this was both a strength and a liability. When taking children into the woods, it is important to be aware of the many physical mishaps that you may encounter. These include tick bites, hypothermia, dehydration, being whacked in the head by a rock or stick tossed by a hyperactive child, falling from a height or having an allergic reaction.

As Teva educators, we are trained in the prevention of these possibilities. By wearing proper shoes and clothing (hats, layers, rain gear, tuck your pants into your socks! By carrying a first aid kit and walkie-talkie to summon a medic. By carrying a sufficient amount of water on in your backpack. By enforcing various rules about respecting the forest (Don’t throw stuff. Someone might be living where it lands), respecting other members of the group (If you use that stick for anything other than a walking stick, it will go back into the forest), and your group leader (If I tell you NOT to do something, it is for YOUR safety and well-being!). By having access to an epi-pen and benadryl for kids with known allergies.

On the flip-side, it is also important to let kids explore and experience consequences of their actions. Especially when the consequences are unpleasant, but not necessarily dire. How will a kid know that balancing on a log in a puddle may result in wet socks unless you let her try it? How will a kid find out that climbing on lichen-covered rocks may be slippery and result in ripped pants, but can be incredibly fun if you do it with care? What about touching coals from a fire that has just been banked? (Maybe use tongs.)

My challenge as an educator is assessing both the probability of an event and the general magnitude of the “badness” of an event that might occur, and what (if any) precautions are necessary.
(Legal folks may recognize this balancing act as Judge Learned Hand’s formula in the calculus of negligence).

For example, wet socks and splinters are likely, unpleasant but not seriously dangerous. A kid falling off of a cliff is very unlikely, but invariably fatal. For the first, we tell the kids to bring an extra pair of socks and might have to make a stop by the medic on the way to snack for splinter removal. The latter, God forbid!

Handling my own preparedness for the stuff that falls along the continuum in-between is a continuing process for me, as I balance my own native aversion to danger with the opportunity for my students to explore and learn. The age group of kids I have taken into the woods have been 5th-7th graders. They have at least a somewhat-developed sense of self-preservation and classroom-based conditioning to follow procedures. (Granted, there are always kids like the one who managed to climb a tree and fall out of it, breaking his arm, while I was dealing with another issue in the group.)

My comfort-level with increasing the amount of freedom I allow my students has grown in proportion to both my confidence as an educator and my increasing familiarity with the trails. However, compared with what some of my colleagues allow their group to handle, I’m still incredibly risk-averse.

After spring Teva, I headed out to New Haven to meet up with a friend. Another woman in her office asked me what I had been doing when I explained I had been working as an environmental educator.

I replied nonchalantly, “Running up mountains with 5th graders in the woods. It’s a lot of fun.”

“That sounds terrifying,” she responded.

I paused for a moment. “Yes,” I agreed, smiling ruefully. “If you think about it, it is kind of terrifying.”

Springtime Suburban Sababa Hunt

In Hebrew, the slang word sababa means “great” or “cool” (from the spoken Arabic tzababa, “excellent” or “great”). In Teva, we use the word sababa as a noun to describe “really cool thing we found in the woods.” Finding sababas is an everyday exercise in awareness and wonderment. It does tend to slow the pace of one’s walk to a very, very slow meander as once you begin spotting sababas, you see them everywhere.

This afternoon, as I took a walk around a suburban neighborhood in Southern Connecticut, I marvelled at the amazing selection of springtime sababas I encountered with my senses. I am completely an amateur when it comes to taking cell phone pictures of nature, but I had a very good time uploading the photos into a gallery.

Ticks & Their Mysterious Microbes

Borrelia burgdorferi by NIAID (2011) CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
Borrelia burgdorferi by NIAID (2011) CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

While I’m browsing Facebook, I sometimes glance at the topics in the “Trending” column in the upper right hand corner of the homepage. While they are usually related to celebrity gossip or disasters of some kind, today I was intrigued a geographically relevant piece of click-bait: “Powassan virus: Rare Virus Spread by Ticks Found in Southern Connecticut.”

As an environmental educator in the woods of Connecticut, I have encountered my share of ticks – those shameless, blood-sucking arthropods that are carriers for a veritable zoo of exotic microbes. Our usual practice to avoid ticks was to wear long sleeves and long pants, tuck pants into socks (aka “cool pants” or “forest pants”), and do nightly tick checks before going to sleep. If we did locate a tick (or one of our students did), there was often a panicked rush to the medic to remove the critter in an appropriate and safe manner.

Our primary concern with tick bites was the transmission of Lyme disease (caused by the spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi). When I was an Adamahnik farmer in the Spring of 2013, I was pretty sick with symptoms that presented as extreme fatigue, fever and joint pain. When I went to the local ER, they ran a test for Lyme, which came back as negative. However, the doctor explained, due to the high prevalence of Lyme in the area and high rate of false negatives for the lab test, they were still going to put me on a 2 week course of antibiotics (doxycycline).

At the time, I think the side effects from the doxy made me feel sicker than I did initially! I was still sick a week later (when antibiotics should have started to have some effect), so I went back for additional testing. Those blood tests also came back negative, and the doctor discontinued antibiotics. I was still pretty tired, but eventually started feeling better.

I can’t say if I had Lyme or one its tick-bite-transmitted fellow travelers (also treated with doxycycline) or an even more mundane human-transmitted bug. I am really, really glad I eventually got over it.

The presence of emerging tick-borne viral infections such as Powassan virus strikes fear into the hearts of campers, educators and parents (not to mention the “ick” factor associated with being bitten by creepy-crawly critters.) You can’t treat them with doxy – medical treatment for this potentially fatal virus is limited to supportive therapy such as IV fluids and respiratory ventilators. There are also potential neurological side-effects of the virus.

Before panic sets in, it is helpful for me to remember a few things: “Emerging” doesn’t mean that the viruses are particularly new – they’re just new to being detected by science. Lyme Disease was described as a distinct disease in 1976 when doctors identified a cluster of kids with arthritis symptoms around Old Lyme, Connecticut. Borrelia burgdorferi, a spirochete shaped kind of bacteria, was identified as the infectious agent in 1981. Modern DNA analysis on ticks gathered in the 19th and 20th indicated infection with B. burgdorferi, and it is likely that the bacteria has been around in ticks and their bitees for thousands of years (Steere, Coburn & Glickstein (2004)).

The oldest known human infection with Lyme is Otzi the Iceman, a 5300 year old mummy discovered in the Alps. Scientists have detected bacteria of Borrelia sp. in a 15 million year old tick fossilized in amber.

Emerging tick-borne infections are not limited to the Northeast US. Back home in KS, a Bourbon County farmer came down with a mysterious virus, which later turned out to be an exotic-sounding Thogoto virus new to science, which researchers linked to ticks.

The Cary Insitute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY studies the ecology of emerging infectious disease. Climate change and human land use changes all impact ticks, their microbes and other hosts, than can affect the spread of these diseases to humans. Check out their resource section for fascinating information on the ecology of tick-borne diseases!

For now, I’m tucking my pants into my socks.

Tangents for this post:

The History of Arthropod-borne Human Diseases in South Carolina (I know it’s not CT, but it’s still fascinating.)

The Outdoors Hates You (Wired Magazine, 2012)


Stacked colorful plastic storage boxes
Storage Boxes by Valerie Everett (2007) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

“It is very hard to be brave,” said Piglet, sniffing slightly, “when you’re only a Very Small Animal.”

Rabbit, who had begun to write very busily, looked up and said: “It is because you are a very small animal that you will be Useful in the adventure before us.”

― Benjamin Hoff, The Te Of Piglet

Now when I made my reservation for this working vacation, I had more than a source of potential blog fodder in mind. In fact, I planned to be Useful. As a very Useful Auntie Bat, I can entertain my nephew, make chicken soup and hard-boiled eggs, go grocery shopping and be trusted with a variety of assignments. I also ensure my sister eats food and gets some sleep. This is especially crucial this week because my sister, after a week of working nights at the hospital, is moving into a new house this weekend.

Yesterday, I upped my utility when I was able to wait at the new house for the delivery folks to bring the washing machine and dryer. Strangely, the laundry room is on the second floor of the house (something new to me). The delivery guys had it covered, though. They used this contraption called a shoulder dolly to carry the appliances upstairs. If you haven’t clicked on the link, a shoulder dolly is a kind of 2 person harness system that allows you to sling something heavy between you. Now that’s Useful!

I also stopped by the store and purchased 12 large clear plastic bins with lids to aid in packing random stuff. Also, packed some of aforementioned random stuff. (Luckily, my sister is not planning on packing entirely by herself, but has hired a moving company that will also pack up and more importantly, unpack for you.)

I have noticed I need a lot of reassurance as to my Usefulness.
I told my sister, “I am trying very hard to be Useful. I hope this is helping and not making you more stressed out.”
“You are very Useful!” she exclaimed.

(I realized that I also have this conversation every couple of days with Mom, too, when I’m back in KS, upon completing various tasks.)

I’m not sure when being Useful became my raison d’etre in life. I have always been a fan of tangible accomplishment: Getting stuff done, receiving verbal accolades, earning letter grades and stickers. Surely, being acknowledged Useful just another form of “Well Done!”

I also really enjoy the concept of social utility, a la Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. As far as I remember, though, the Utilitarians didn’t require you to constantly justify your continued existence based on your sum Usefulness. (That sounds like a set-up for a particularly grim dystopian SF novel. “So how were you Useful today, atomized widget of the totalitarian state?”)

I was in a relationship for many years with a person who was a strong believer in personal utility as an indicator of human worthiness. (This may have been shaped by his being an engineer, with an emphasis on systematization over empathy as a guiding principle in life.) He loved this joke about college majors:

The scientist asks, “Why does it work?”
The engineer asks, “How does it work?”
The English major asks, “Would you like fries with that?”

The idea being, unless you were producing something of measurable value, you had no value. We only really talked about this implicit value system toward the end of our relationship. At that point, I was beginning to understand that I had unconsciously absorbed many of his attitudes about personal utility and they were making me miserable. I felt like a failure because despite my law degree, I wasn’t a lawyer. I hated the job I had in financial services, I was unsure about my ability to be an effective teacher (my career change)and felt like “a waste of space.” Based on my perceived utility to the world, I was completely unworthy of the oxygen I was breathing, much less happiness or self-determination.

In the years since that breakup, I have begun to re-engage with the concept of what it means to be Useful. I have not completely shed the underlying anxiety that if I’m not being Useful, I am not worthy. Yet, little by little, I am redefining Useful in ways that include intangibles such as love, connection and imagination. So on this trip, I know that I am quantifying Usefulness in extra hours my sister sleeps, extra calories she eats, and extra snuggles I can share with my nephew. It is also measured in the reduced stress of all the parties to this topsy-turvy mode of existence and the strengthening of our bonds as a family. I got your back, sister.

Tangent for this post:
The brand name for the plastic storage containers in the picture: Really Useful Boxes.

Auntie Bat in CT (Springtime Edition)

baby in red hat chewing on stuffed elephant toy
eating the elephant by protopian pickle jar (2015)

So the last time I practiced being Auntie Bat with my sister’s family in CT, it was cold and snowy. The snow is finally melting (just a few stubborn remnants at the edges of parking lots and in shady areas). Friday, I spotted a pair of wild turkeys (!) in the backyard, just hanging out and gobbling.

I arrived on Thursday from Kansas, first via plane to La Guardia Airport, then by airport shuttle to my sister’s place in CT. I had a fantastic shuttle driver, who had to take an alternate route due to a major traffic accident on the main highway, gave me a guided tour of interesting architectural and historical landmarks on the way to my sister’s home.

When I arrived, my nephew and the babysitter greeted me. I could barely believe my nephew was the same kid I saw only 2 months ago – at almost 10 months old, he’s huge and he’s got teeth and more hair ! (Then I passed out for awhile, from travel fatigue, not due to shock at my nephew’s change in appearance). When I woke up, my sister and her husband were on their way home from work.

While this week is also the holiday of Passover, this is a clearly a working vacation. Friday, Mr. Baby and I spent some quality time together: Squishing oatmeal, pondering the mysteries of feet (you have feet! With toes! I have feet! with toes! Amazing!), and engaging in nap-time protest techniques. By the time I put him down for his morning nap, *Auntie Bat* was so tired, I fell asleep on the floor next to the baby’s crib. He fussed for awhile (“You can’t leave me here! Nooooo! Waaaaaaah!… Oh this blanket is so soft, ZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.” ) and then fell asleep. I woke up and transferred myself to the living room couch, with my own very soft blanket.

Friday night, we made to the trek to Grandma & Grandpa’s house for a chill Passover Seder. The baby (who didn’t get enough of a nap in the afternoon) spent most of the first hour overwhelmed and crying (Who *ARE* you people?! Why do you keep wanting to hug me?). Eventually, he warmed up and my sister introduced him to matzah ball soup, which he thought was pretty good.

My sister also has a week of night-call at the hospital, so having an extra grown-up at the house in the evenings will give my brother-in-law a break. To add to the mix of baby care, and sleep deprivation, they are also moving from their apt into a house next weekend. I have offered my services for impromptu baby care, packing and waiting for delivery folks to deliver the washing machine or other necessary items at the house.