Apr 22

Happy Earth Day! No Guilt, Just Joy

Holidays are hard. As a kid, you’re always encouraged to pick a favorite. I was never quite able to settle. There’s no Book Day after all (I mean, I’m sure there is now, along with all sorts of other fantastic holidays such as Towel Day, Bring Your Velociraptor to Work Day, World Oceans Day, and Endangered Species Day, but I think we can all agree we’re talking about the more mainstream holidays here.)

Thanksgiving? I don’t like turkey. Nor am I crazy about pumpkin pie, stuffing, or sweet potatoes.

Not a turkey

Valentine’s Day? The candy and hearts at Valentines are nice, but not the resulting stomachache from too many conversation hearts.

Halloween? I startle easily, don’t enjoy the macabre, and can never think of a costume anyone else will recognize. (Even the year I went as Dian Fossey and carried a stuffed gorilla with a name badge clearly stating, “Hello, my name is Digit,” no one got it.)

Fourth of July is fun, and everyone loves a picnic, but again with the startling easily. (And, as I got older, I’m beginning to wonder what chemicals, exactly, all these fireworks put into the air. I should probably actually look into that.)

Easter is usually too cold to really enjoy your pretty new dress and egg hunting (at least in the Midwest).

Christmas is always a safe bet, of course, what with all the family time, as long as you can get through the stress of shopping and planning unscathed. (I am, incidentally, getting better at this).

But Earth Day? This is a day for everyone. It’s a day to celebrate the planet—one of the only reasons we’re all here, after all—and the magnificent awe-inspiring processes that keep us living and thriving. It’s a day to think about all those cool, exciting miracles that happen everyday: the capturing of sunlight by plants, who helpfully turn it into food the rest of us can eat. The marvelous processes that makes our air breathable and our climate livable. The jewel-like multifaceted ecological systems that surround and enmesh us, tying us to the planet, to life, to reality.

This isn’t a day about guilt. Or it shouldn’t be. Of course we could all do better, and we should do better. There’s no sense in yelling at people for being hypocrites or not doing enough—it just makes them sad, discouraged, and grumpy. Instead, celebrate any and all progress toward a healthier planet, and a healthier humanity.

capybara

This capybara wants you to shake off your shame and guilt.

We should do better out of love, not out of shame and fear, as hippie as that sounds.

In fact, there’s no better day to be a hippie. Listen to John Denver. Sing with Kermit about being green. Be unabashedly dorky, and loving, and joyful.

Pick up a piece of trash off the ground, a gesture that’s the same as wiping spaghetti sauce off a beloved’s face.

Take as much joy and pride in caring for a plant as you would in braiding a darling daughter’s hair.

This wood duck demonstrates the proper method of reveling in a sunbeam.

This wood duck demonstrates the proper method of reveling in a sunbeam.

Marvel in the fearful beauty and wonder of a bird, a squirrel, an insect, a mushroom, a dust mite.

Tread lightly, but not out of duty: as part of a dance of joy. Embrace the planet. Revel in your existence as a biological organism, a part of a cycle, a ecosystem of tiny critters yourself.

Love the planet, and let it love you (small, insignificant, grubby, miraculous little you) back.

Wood duck

Happy Earth Day!

Feb 25

Hello, My Name is Brittany, and I’m an Ernst

There’s a moment in the old Disney movie Swiss Family Robinson when the two boys are discussing their reading habits with a young lady named Roberta. It goes something like this:

Roberta ‘Bertie’: Do you read a lot, Fritz?
Ernst Robinson: Who, him? He practically doesn’t ever read at all!
Fritz Robinson: Never really needed to. Sooner or later, Ernst tells me everything he knows.

That snippet has stuck with me since I saw it as a child. Probably because I’m a notable, and incurable Ernst. I do love reading and finding out new information. But it’s not quite enough for me to unearth some shiny, interesting fact and treasure it all to myself. I have to run out and show the first person I can find, so they can revel in the coolness of this new information, too.

At times growing up this meant I was an insufferable know-it-all, because I hadn’t learned the best way of sharing information, yet. And it has also meant that my contributions to dinner conversation beginning “Did you know . . . “ can be met with groaning. In fact, at one point, my exasperated mother had to request that I stop educating anyone who hadn’t asked to be educated. (And she was not interested in my rationale that someone stating an incorrect fact qualified as someone clearly eager to be corrected.)

My sister and I demonstrating the range of excitement about science and learning.

My sister and I demonstrate the range of excitement about science and learning with the help of an elephant seal statue.

But most of the time, people are excited about, or at least interested, in learning the new fact. And sometimes (and this is the most fun) they catch the spark themselves and get just as excited as I am, which means it’s time to go dig up more cool facts together. This insatiable desire to find and share fascinating information is what led me to become a science writer.

See, now did some of you just zone out? I’m told that the word “science” is boring and off-putting. Which is weird, isn’t it? “Science” comes from the Latin (stay with me!) for “to know.” And who doesn’t like knowing things?

Little kids are all interested in science, without having to be inveigled. The problem comes in school when we’re introduced to science as a stodgy, dry list of facts to memorize. When instead, really it’s a living spectrum of stories and unexpected connections. Even myself, a dyed-in-the-wool science-phile was (temporarily) turned off biology by an overly didactic high school teacher.

This is sad, and tragic. For all sorts of political and educational reasons, yes, but also for personal ones. It is so cool and satisfying to understand the basis for how the world works. There are so many surprising and delicious facts and stories to share.

Of course the real tragedy is when subsets of people start treating science as an exclusionary tactic—a door to slam in the face of others. You know these people. They deliberately use vocab and reference arcane concepts to build up their own ego at the expense of others. Science can and should be the most inclusive field on the planet. It’s right up there with communication and psychology in basic human interests, if only we could get over the jargon and the intimidation.

While in grad school, training to be a science writer, we were all coming up with the highfaluting titles we’d call our weekly columns, once we got them. Mine may even have been “Species Richness.” But one of my friends corrected me, “No, of course yours would be called ‘Isn’t That Cool?'” because of the number of times I had, apparently, shared some novel information and appended that phrase.

The world is full of amazing information, treasures to be discovered and shared, and I’ve yet to meet a person who couldn’t be interested in one facet of it or another, especially if the information is conveyed clearly and with enthusiasm.

That’s what I hope to do in this blog: Bring amazing, interesting, isn’t-that-COOL facts to people who will be glad to hear them, and share wonderful stories.