Hello readers. I’m Karen McReynolds, a professor of science at Hope International University in sunny Orange County, California. Hope is a small Christian university, so small that I should really say “the” professor of science. (Well, we do have a couple of adjuncts this semester.) We offer upper division courses only through our contract program with the Cal State campus across the street, so my full time responsibility here is science for the non-major student meeting general education requirements. I teach biology, environmental science and earth science – quite a broad spectrum for the college level. I like the variety of courses though. My childhood home in rural central California nurtured in me a love for birds and sky and wetlands, framed by the distant Sierra Nevada. Our parents wisely let us kids roam, and even encouraged me by supplying my own Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds, the adult version, when I was eight. Now I do my best to encourage my students to marvel, as I do, at God’s Second Book: the Book of Nature.
I like to tell the students the first day of class that my role model is Ms. Frizzle. It’s always good for a laugh. I hope to share with you occasionally some reflections on nature, teaching, and the intersection of the two, in the indefatigable spirit of Ms. Frizzle.
Some years ago, my husband, my father and I were working as a team on a biological survey of a large property in the northern Sierra Nevada. This was rather like having our cake and eating it too. For three seasons in a row, our teaching schedules permitted several weeks in the summer at 6400 feet, making observations and collecting data on natural history while the heat of the San Joaquin Valley passed us right on by. We found time to jump in the lake at the end of each day, and slept outside on tent platforms under the wide open, star-laden sky each night.
One afternoon I took a path that was new to me and came across the remains of a fawn nestled in a hollow of pine duff. More accurately, it was a fragment of the remains of a fawn: most of the rib cage, a bit of the spine, and the right foreleg of a very small deer. It must have been out in the woods for a while, because the bones were nearly white and free of flesh. The tiny hoof at the end of the leg was graceful and dainty, quite miniature in comparison to the numerous hoof prints of mule deer I had seen through the weeks of this project. It had clearly been dragged in from somewhere else, as there was no sign of any of the rest of the body, but the way it was settled in its spot so tidily suggested that it had seen some seasons pass in that location. The doe that returned to her baby’s ill-chosen hiding spot had made her fateful discovery some time ago.
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I am a rather clunky woman, heavy of foot and inclined to drop things. Perhaps in accordance with this, I frequently need to be whacked over the head by something before I will notice it. I have developed reasonably astute observation skills after years of field experiences and practice, but it has taken intentional effort and is not my default character. Perhaps this is why my discovery delighted me more than it made me sad. It made me realize that if such a delicate specimen could remain, there is hope that I too might leave something behind that could speak of life in the midst of death.
There isn’t much about me that is delicate. That is not a word I would think to apply to myself and indeed it is an adjective I seldom use at all. It certainly would not seem to be an appropriate term to describe skeletal remains. But nature subsists on inappropriate truth. In all its grisly detail, the evidence I encountered that day of the early death of a young deer was indeed quite strikingly beautiful and delicate.