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Luskin: Learning To Read Nature

02/01/11 7:55AM By Deborah Luskin
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(HOST)  Commentator Deborah Luskin has been learning how to read nature.  She says becoming fluent in the language of the woods involved finding a teacher, doing some reading - and taking lots of field trips.

(LUSKIN) It's easy getting around mid-town Manhattan.  There's a street sign at every intersection telling you exactly where you are. Not so in the woods, where I stick to blazed trails and can still get so lost in my thoughts, that when I look up and don't see a street sign - I panic. I'm language-dependent; I look to words for directions. But living in Vermont, I've discovered that nature has its own vocabulary, like a foreign language I'm beginning to learn.
Books help, as do role models, and I've been lucky to make the acquaintance of someone who provides both. Lynn Levine was born and raised in Brooklyn, before moving to Vermont in 1974, where she became the state's first female forester. Over time, she has also become a passionate naturalist and educator - to insure that there will be a new generation to appreciate the northern forest she tends.
On a recent walk across my land, Lynn showed me how to read the winter woods: sugar maple, white oak, slippery elm, hemlock and white pine. Now that I know their characteristics and names, I no longer see just trees at the edge of my field, but individual species. In the case of the wild apple riddled with horizontal lines of holes drilled by the yellow-bellied sapsucker, the tree tells a whole story. I'm learning to read nature, whose language is not words, but signs that spell the story of the land.
A few years ago, in her effort to educate people about nature, Levine wrote a field guide to the fauna of the northern forest.  Mammal Tracks and Scat: Life Sized Tracking Guide is used by outdoor educators throughout New England, and it's easy enough for a bookworm like me to use, bridging my comfortable world of book learning with the wild world of nature.
Recently, to help school children who spend a great deal of time indoors and plugged in, Levine developed a Woodland Interpretive Path in Brattleboro. There's an mp3 download for iPod users - as well as printed plaques for old-fashioned types, like me. The narrative uses poems, stories and history to decode the woods.
Most recently, Levine has written Snow Secrets, a young adult novel about two girls who learn to read tracks in the snow. Being outdoors together provides Sarah and Jasmine with adventure and an escape from the mean-girl culture of middle school. Tracking gives the girls a common language. They develop courage and skills, which they use to solve a mystery.
By turning to fiction, Levine deliberately comes indoors, where kids spend so much of their day. But it's still her hope that a story like Snow Secrets will eventually lead readers out doors and into the woods, where instead of being lost, we'll find ourselves in nature.
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