This is actually me in Venezuela, hangin'
with one of Hugo's Vacas
THE FIRST SIGN OF SPRING
March 11th. 9 am. I’m hosting a field trip
in northern central park, as part of my Greenteam
initiative. Today, I have a pleasantly energetic,
super-smart high school class from Lincoln High School,
students show, some from Russia, the Caribbean, China
(This is New York, right?) with their two chaperones,
Yolanda and Christine. Plus a friend, Amy, who has
just been hired to run the Nature Center at Crotona
Park, in the Bronx. Not to forget my wife, Valerie,
who shoots all the cool nature videos you see (and
enjoy) on the nnyn website.
we’re out looking for the first signs of spring. Phenomena,
behaviors, smells…It’s a beautiful warm, precociously
sunny day for New York and the Park is a good place
to be, especially the northern section, a combination
of lake (Harlem Meer), stream (the loch and ravine),
and some seriously steep slopes leading up to a forested
hill bristling with maple, elm, oak and beech trees
and yes, even a small wildflower meadow.
first signs of spring are obvious: it’s getting warm
out, somewhere in the 60’s and there’s crowds of people
in the Park. T-shirts and shorts abound. New Yorkers
are warming up for the long hot summer ahead. Personally,
I even feel like I’m beginning to get some sun.
that’s human nature. What about that other ‘nature’
of New York ? The 3000 plant species, the 10000 animal
species... As my friend and colleague Andy Bernick
likes to quiz his students – “how do you think those
other 99% live ?”
use a telescope to show the students a raft of Ruddy
Ducks floating on the Meer. “See, the males, they’re
in full molt. They’re ‘turning color’. They’re trading
in their grey winter feathers for something a tad
sexier: a ‘ruddy’ plumage. A month from now, when their molt is complete, they’ll be flying north
and west, back to their summer breeding grounds on
the Plains. My last dollar the females will be looking
for the ‘ruddiest’ males in town.”
“What do you mean ?” asks Dezshonna
“Well the brighter the plumage, the healthier and more fit the bird, right
? And the less parasites. Females invest a lot in
their eggs and they want to make sure they get the
right partner. That’s called ‘female choice’. Naturally,
they want what’s best for their offspring. Now you
can say that males compete for females, that’s one
way of looking at it, or you could rationalize that
females need the males to compete amongst themselves
in order to make up their mind.”
“That’s just like at school!”, says Jimmy, triumphantly, who is from Hong
Pushing buttons. Dialogue. To teach and to learn.
We continue to scan the Meer: there are Buffleheads, too (another sort
duck). And the local Canada geese are plentiful as
always, only this time some of the males seem stoned
on testosterone. “This is a sure sign of spring !
I explain to the kids. You see, birds like to remain
light, for the purpose of flight. So in winter, their
gonads atrophy. Their “cojones” shrink. Then,
come spring, increasing day light triggers the production
of luteinizing hormone in the pituitary gland, which
in turn prompts a prompt renaissance of last year’s
testicles; enter the production of testosterone, which
in turn turns many individual geese, ducks and grouse
into irate, quasi paranoid bullies that yes, will
even attack humans. So watch out!”
Actually, one such goose IS pumping his head and hissing in our
direction. “You know those little dogs that bark as
if they could take you out ?” I ask the kids. This
is the equivalent in the bird world !”
(Intermission: Before the students showed up, Val and I were privy to some
avian sex. A pair of local, home grown mallards decided
to fornicate in public (like Jesus, ducks perform
miracles on water). Male and female swam around each
other, in slow circles, facing each other, pumping
their heads up and down alternately. Then the straw
colored female swiveled and presented her hinder to
the dapperly hued male, who then jumped her, sat on
her – their cloacae touched- and held on by bighting
her neck and nearly drowning her.)
I relate the episode to the students. Giggles all around. Some predictably
obvious questions surface : “Doesn’t that hurt the
female though ?” (I find kids to show more empathy
than the average adult). “Well, luckily for female
ducks, this avian whoopee-makin’ doesn’t last very
long, a few seconds max. And that’s also a
good thing for the males. What’s worse than a sitting
duck? A copulating duck, right ! Too much time in
bliss there little fellah and ZAP ! - along comes
a Peregrine Falcon, out of nowhere, and nails you
big time !’”
Quick sex is an adaptation, a survival strategy, prolonged intercourse
a luxury - the stuff of cavemen in suits.
We circle the Meer and contemplate another sign of spring. Red eared Sliders
are out in droves, sunning themselves on rocks along
the shore. They’ve spent long months in breathless
hibernation at the bottom of the water. They compete
for sunlight on the rocks so occasionally you get
turtle traffic jams on some stones with smaller turtles
seen squatting on top of larger ones. Females can
be told by their longer claws.
The students learn how these cold blooded turtles will be out warming themselves
through March and April until the water reaches a
good 20 degrees or more (centigrade); then it will
be warm enough for them to reproduce as well.
“Turtles are very sensitive to temperature, I add, so much so that their
eggs, when incubated in the sand at cooler temperatures
will produce mostly male offspring. Heat those eggs
up 10 degrees Fahrenheit more and you get mostly females
“Wows!” all around. Eyes wide open. Faces alert. This is why we teach.
“Why are there so many turtles here in the Park?”, ventures Jimmy.
“A lot of them are released…by Buddhists actually. Its part of a religious
ceremony. NY is cosmopolitan, and a lot of its nature
ends up reflecting that.”
We enter the woods. There’s a stream, a waterfall, a slope. Up we walk.
The water is gushing downhill, as if we were in a
ravine in the Adirondacks (I’ve read that that is
the intended effect, as planned by Olmstead and Vaux,
the park’s creators). I explain how this stream bed
is probably the only wild stream bed left over from
the original Mannahatta, or “island of many hills”
as the native Lenne Lenape used to call New York.
Except that the builders of Central Park sealed off
the original source of water and brought in a pipe
with water from the NYC watershed, from the Catskills
“This stream turns on with a tap, in order to keep the water always at
a certain level.”
“But that’s not right !” complains Shaniqua
“Water should be left alone to do what it wants!”
Water rights, for water. The intrinsic right to exist, as water. Empathy,
again. I figure we teach not to learn, but
to remember. To be re-minded.
Here I’m reminded that as children we intuit words that later, after years
of labor and ‘merit’, might resurface in exchange
for a peace prize. Just maybe. Confer the work of
Albert Schweitzer, his words on the inherent value
of ALL nature: its right to life. Or confer the words
of Shaniqua Green, one student from Lincoln HS, Coney
We continue to walk up through the woods. Some early blossoming red maple
trees have opened their delicate flowers to the world
and for all their protruding stamens and pistils look
like little red-orangey puffballs glued to the trees’
silver branches. I show the students how to eye the
sexual parts of the tree microscopically, using my
“Sexual parts ?” stutters a shy, inquisitive voice.
“Well yeah, that’s what flowers are, sexual organs, right ? Ever smell
a rose? It’s the male and female parts of the plant.
And that scent is the sweet smell of botanic intercourse.”
measure, I ask Chris, their chaperone, if its ok to
be talking in these terms about plant ‘reproduction’.
She and Yolanda have been teaching these students
for years - an animal science class. They take care
of rabbits, turtles, rats, mice…
go ahead, she smiles, at least that way you’re sure
So I continue to elaborate, exhausting both the subject and myself: “actually,
when you’re older and handing out flowers on your
first date, think about it – you will actually be
giving your prospective mate the ultimate, sweetest
smelling symbol of reproduction there is.”
A delightful effusion of high-pitched enthusiasm ensues as we continue
to walk up the hill, through the woods, inspecting
the understory for more signs of the “the unfolding
sexual orgy of spring.” Meanwhile a tiny chickadee
is following us around furiously, landing on branches
a feet above our heads and checking our hands for
sunflower seeds - the bird has obviously been hand-tamed
before and keeps buzzing around like a disgruntled
tax-collector wearing a doo rag. Or a bandana from
the Corsican Liberation Front.
We find elm flowers, too. And the squirrels are busy eating the new blossoms,
i.e.: the plants’ sexual parts. And cardinals are
singing, blue jays ranting, crocuses crocusing…even
an insect flies by. Yes, spring is early this year.
Not only that, the sun is shining hard and I have
a feeling my face is beginning to take on the first
stages of periwinkle pink.
“How do the flowers have sex ? I mean.. reproduce?, comes one nutty voice
from the back. With themselves?”
“Sometimes they’ll self-pollinate, yes, I reply (feigning some sincerity),
but mostly… here… look at the colors we have here
(I reach to show them another red maple blossom)..
this red color, it’s an attractant ! It says ‘look!
I’m over here!’.”
Generally speaking, plants want insects and birds to come along
and drink their flowers’ nectar. The nectar (like
fruit) is actually a bribe, a way of getting animals
to unknowingly take the plants sperm (pollen) and
cross fertilize with another flower of another tree
of the same species. “That’s pollination. I explain,
and it’s a co-evolution, a form of mutualism,
a partnership between showy, flowering plants and
animals that’s been going on for 120 million years.
In the Amazon, you’ve even got bats that specialize
in nectar and have become important pollinators of
rainforest trees. And as we said before, flowers will
also use smell, like the sweet-smelling perfume of
a rose…as an attractant!”
Flowering plants are also called angiosperms, which basically translates
as “plants that have seeds in their ovaries.”
along the path, another fascinating flower: A witch-hazel.
I’m pointing at the spider-shaped, saffron-colored
petals peppered across the shrub’s bare, brown branches:
“These guys start flowering even earlier, in like,
early February, when its still cold out. Anybody want
to tell me why ?”
they’re retarded!”, mumbles Kevon.
“Well, no, (stifling my own laughter), ‘retarded’ would imply that they’re
slow, late. I’m saying these guys are quick to flower,
they’re the first to flower, in late winter,
or early spring, in one species even, the previous
fall ! Why would that be?”
Dead silence. Interrupted by the barely audible snap, crackle, pop of brain
cells firing off.
Then the girl in the front row : “oh yeah I know, its one of those, wait,
yeah (she adds a little dance for emphasis,) its one
of them ‘early biiiiird gets the early worm things!”
“Dead on! Dezshonna, you’re right ! It’s the result of competition… and
natural selection. You see some plants (I ramble on,
ever the nerd), in order to avoid competition have
evolved a means of blooming at different times of
the year in order to take advantage of different pollinators,
in this case, a winter moth. By flowering when other
plants don’t, or can’t, the witch hazel
ensures it will be the only flower in sight
(and range of smell) to be pollinated. In this case,
it’s ‘the early flower gets the early insect’.”
stumble on two mallards, a male and a female, dabbling
in the waters of the stream, a few feet away: “now,
why would the male and female have different colors,
the female be all dull brown and the male all bright
green and chocolate brown?”
!” they all shout.
“Think again!,” comes the authoritative voice (mine, again). Give me some
“The female is dull for camouflage”, spurt two of the boys, in sync.
“Because she take care of eggs!” asserts young Jimmy, his cheeks bursting
“And so then the male is colorful because…”
“yeah, we know, so they can s-h-o-w-o-f-f-t-o-t-h-e-f-e-m-a-l-e-s…”sighs
When people speak their minds. Most of my female students end up truly
disenchanted by the evolutionarily entrenched realities
of the opposite gender. Spoken like a biologist.
“Now why, I wonder, would a male do something like that…?” I ask
“To advertise he has right genetic
material” comes the educated reply of Vlad, the tall,
young Russian, a senior just recently accepted into
“Ok Vlad, I argue, but if you’re a colorful bird and you’re attracting
females, who else are you attracting ?”
A slight pause, as brain cells continue to connect...click, snap…
“..Predators ?” he queries.
“Bingo! But do you honestly think that’s a smart thing, to also
attract predators, is it really worth it ?”
Silence. Redefined. An audience nonplussed.
“It’s called the Handicap hypothesis. Sure a male is using color to communicate,
he’s communicating that he can be a very colorful
sitting duck and still get away with it. If he can
impose a handicap on himself and still survive, then
he’s got good genes, right? Like a peacock sporting
a long heavy tail in lion country – not smart, right?
- when you’re actually supposed to be quick to fly
away from predators! Or, say, take an antelope flashing
a lion on the Serengeti plane - as in ‘eat me!’ or
‘eat at Joe’s!’. You see, these traits evolve because
they enable males to convey their worth, as in ‘Look,
says the male mallard with his bright feathers, I
can be a total ass and still get away with it ! I’m
totally the man !’”.
Laughter all around.
We finish climbing the hill. We reach the old stone fort on top, the one
left over from the war of 1812, overlooking most of
Harlem. It’s a small structure capped by an American
Flag and looks like its tattering on the brink of
a cliff. It is.
Without thinking I begin to walk (or rather rock-climb) around the edifice,
holding on tight to the stone wall and avoiding the
precipice (and the fall!) on my right. Jason, Aarif,
Kevon, Vlad, Jimmy - all 5 boys are right behind me.
Watch out ! Don’t fall!
We make it around the other side. All young woman are waiting for us...eyes
wide open… Playful shrieks of delight.
“Handicap hypothesis!” I suddenly realize. “You see boys, we’ve have just
played out the handicap hypothesis ! We’ve taken a
risk and survived. We’ve also been caught in the act!”
all round. The girls are teasing the boys, having
a field day. Aarif, who is wearing a bright yellow
hoody, denies he has anything to do with us.
connecting, braincells laughing, braincells having
a party. Context.
dig when kids get the chance to learn outdoors. They’re
using their bodies to understand the world. Better
yet, they’re using the world around them to understand
their bodies, themselves, their emotions, their own
behaviors. How they fit on the planet. Another reason
why I teach, outside, on field trips. Another
reason, if not the reason, for the Greenteams
return home. I do not see myself but a very ripe tomato
in the mirror. Sunburn, the first sign of spring*.
you next week !
*And a major handicap, but with absolutely no reproductive
advantages what so ever.
1. Brief, honest, disclaimer: I don’t
really like the word “Greenteams” but when I suggested
‘Greenclan’, or ‘Greentribe’ to my colleagues at NNF
and IVE, I was promptly reminded that this was not
California but New York and that a name with a little
more edge was requisite. Oh dear.
me, Val and Don Riepe on his boat in Jamaica Bay