Saturday, April 18, 2009

Teachers with Two Legs

Yesterday, I briefly met Dr. Robert C. and Rose Stebbins. Dr. Stebbins is 93 years old, an author, Emeritus Professor and expert on reptiles and amphibians of the western United States. For many years, I have used his various field guides and wondered about the man behind this specialized body of work. His most recently published book, Western Reptiles and Amphibians, 3rd Edition, is part of the Peterson Field Guides. The species illustrated in the 55 color plates are reproductions of his hundreds of paintings from live animals, and they truly bring forth the colors and striking beauty of these varied creatures. His species descriptions are organized, precise, and I am slowly learning to respect their density as I repeatedly refer to them while observing snake, frog, toad, or newt species through the seasons on the Dipper Ranch.

This week, the manager of our open space district mentioned that Dr. Stebbins would be visiting our office the next day and offered to introduce me. This is the only time I have ever been thankful to be stuck in the office on a spring day instead of having field work. I was excited and nervous, and remembered being a little girl bugging my dad with questions about flowers. That night, I fretted about selecting only a few questions to ask Dr. Stebbins out of the many mysteries I ponder at the Dipper Ranch. Late in the night, I finally decided I was going to ask him:
  • Do the eggs and aquatic larvae of coast range newts contain the neurotoxins that are found in the adult newts?
  • How long after hatching do the newt larvae transform into their terrestrial phase, first summer or second summer?
If there was time, I was going to ask him my current burning question:
  • Why do Pacific treefrog tadpoles have camouflage coloration, whereas western toad tadpoles are dark black and not camouflaged? Is it because the toad tadpoles already contain the foul-tasting substances found in skin glands of the adult toads and don't need to hide?
Dr. Stebbins was wearing a dandy field hat as he relaxed in the leather executive chair while his family and friends discussed where to go hiking. He was charming and patiently listened as I babbled on about how I used to be scared of snakes and now I find them fascinating. He very graciously signed my copy of his field guide.

While speaking to his wife, Rose, I discovered that she is the artist who created a beautiful and accurate needlepoint rendition of a dragonfly hanging in this manager's office. I have spent many calming moments admiring this dragonfly and pretending that I was outside, while waiting for executive decrees and trying to grind through the boring administrative tasks it takes to protect natural lands.

I am embarrassed to admit that I didn't build up the courage to ask Dr. Stebbins any of my questions. So silly of me. I promise that the next time I am provided with such a unique opportunity, I will ask at least one question. I am grateful to have briefly met him. I am inspired by his work and how many people he has taught to observe the natural world around us.

<--- My dad and son discussing the physics of old farm equipment on the Dipper Ranch. ---

Teachers and education have been important in my life. My parents are both retired university science professors, and I have a brother, sister and niece who are teachers. I turn 50 years old in a few weeks, and my recent move to the Dipper Ranch has been a big change in my life. I am so grateful to have this opportunity to observe nature up close day after day. I am bursting with observations and questions and, thanks to the encouragement of my sister-teacher, I started the Dipper Blog 6 months ago to share these stories with more people.

Even after studying and working in the biological field for 30 years, every time I write a blog entry, I need to spend time researching questions and learning more about the natural world around me. I am also struggling to learn effective ways to transition from traditional books and classroom lectures to today's blog format as a way to share natural history. Thanks to Dr. and Mrs. Stebbins, my family, associates and all the teachers out there for your inspiration and I promise to stay an eager student for my next 50 years.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this post Cindy...I could see that I would be too overwhelmed to ask questions. I think you're doing a great job using the blog as an educational tool, I just wish more people got to see it. I too made a change as I got close to 50 and here I am..I hope I keep learning too....Michelle


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