By Lonnie Cruse
Recently I asked the daughter of a friend what her plans were, now that she'd graduated from high school. She's planning on attending Shawnee College in Southern Illinois. I attended Shawnee back in the mid-nineties in order to finish the college hours I'd started way-back-when and to get my substitute teacher's aide certificate. I remember a couple of classes I took at Shawnee in particular: Psychology, because I cried my way through it, and Outdoor Biology, because it's the most interesting and the most fun class I ever took, bar none. I recommended my friend's daughter take the Outdoor Biology class and neglected to mention Psychology.
If you or someone you know is about to head to (or back to) college, and if there is an Outdoor Biology class offered, take it! You won't regret it. I took this class nearly fifteen years ago, and I still think of it often. And recommend it often. The class was taught by Tony Girard, an enthusiastic young guy who loves the outdoors and shares that love with his students. Far as I know, he's still teaching it. As an aside, he also had a small part in the movie LAST OF THE MOHICANS as an extra, a soldier in a red coat, but you have to look really fast to see him march by. Where was I?
The class was conducted outdoors by transporting students to one of several southern Illinois hiking areas once each week via a school van in order to view plants and animals in their natural environment. There are no books. Girard points and lectures, and students take notes. In my case, I took a tape recorder, recorded the lectures, then transcribed them into a notebook when I got home. By the way, I was on the wrong side of forty-five when I took this class. So were three other female students. The rest of the students were kids fresh out of high school. Keep that in mind.
The first outing found us zipping down the highway in the van toward our first encounter with nature. All of a sudden Girard slammed on the breaks, introducing a few noses to the back of the seat in front, then he put the gear shift in park, and leaped out, racing down the road while we all stared after him in amazement. From the back, someone mumbled: "Hope he didn't spot a snake." Our silent prayers and "amens" went unanswered as Girard returned to the van, gently holding a black snake. All together now: Ewwwwww!
He insisted we all get out of the van and/or the station wagon transporting the overflow students and admire his find. One of the over-forty-five gals flat out refused. The rest of us were too scared of him (Girard) to refuse. And why wouldn't we be in awe of a man who chases down snakes?
The snake, not happy being part of show-and-tell, used his defense mechanism on our fearless teacher, spraying him from the stink sack located near his tail. The snake was safely returned to his/her habitat and we continued on our way to our first hike, holding our noses against the smell wafting from the driver's seat. I used that lesson in my second book in the Metropolis Murder Series nearly a decade later. We writers are like elephants when it comes to memory. Back to my story.
On one of the hikes Girard took us to an old church building in the wilderness. He parked facing left, explaining that there are two trails to hike there, and hikers are to point their vehicles toward the trail they plan to hike, in case they don't show up at home for their next appointed meal. That way, rescue workers will know where to begin rescuing. We began the hike, walking slowly upward for quite some time, stopping for lessons now and then, until suddenly we entered a clearing in the woods and found ourselves on the edge of a rocky cliff on the side of a REALLY high hill. We could see for miles around. And to give you an idea of the height, two hawks circled slowly in the air BELOW us. Fascinating. Girard taught us about the types of lichen on the rocks, among other things.
When it was time to leave, Girard offered us two choices. Hiking up the hill is the only way to this beautiful overlook, but there are two ways down, the trail we came up, or going down the side of the rocks via a series of ropes. Hmmm.
One of the over-forty-fivers and I walked to the edge of the cliff/hill and looked down. STRAIGHT down. Girard said he always went down via the ropes, but we need not feel compelled to go with him. We could use the trail and he'd meet us at the bottom. The student and I looked at each other. "You know we have to do this, don't you?" I said, nodding toward the just-out-of-high-schoolers. She agreed. We informed Girard we were going down the side of the cliff with him. The other two women joined us. Seeing all the over-forty-fivers determined to climb down by ropes, the youngsters had no choice but to follow. No way could they let us be braver.
We went down at least three sets of ropes that were about thirty feet in length each, with Girard going alongside each of us for safety. When we reached the last area to climb down, we discovered the rope was missing. No problem, it was only six feet down from there to level ground and the end of our decent. Right. The first three parts of the climb down were done by facing the rocks and looking at them, not looking down. With no rope here, we had to jump the six feet, into the arms of one of the younger guys who volunteered to catch us. Girard was bumfuzzled because every single student balked before jumping. Why descend rocky areas in thirty foot increments, on a rope, with no problem, no fear, and balk at the last six feet? Because we had to look down for this jump and trust that kid we barely knew to catch us. And if he missed, we were looking at landing nose-first in another huge rock. I'm happy to say we all survived. And impressed the daylights out of the younger students. And our teacher, since we were the first entire class ever to go down with him. Most took the easy trail.
As I said, there were no books for this class. Girard would point out flora or fauna or frogs and we took notes. As weeks progressed, he'd pass something and shout out a question. I could quickly identify most of the plants but the frogs were a bit of a problem for me. I nearly always wound up down on all fours, checking out the frog, while the other students stepped over or around me, calling out the answer before I could even think. Sigh. But I can still identify a tree frog or a leopard frog. I'm a fan. I think they're cute. Hopefully they feel the same about me.
Since there were no books, tests were done midway through the course and at the end with slides. We had to identify each slide. I only missed one. Red honeysuckle. Who knew honeysuckle came in two colors? Still, I pulled an A out of the class. Not bad for someone on the wrong side of forty-five.
We hiked many of the beautiful trails in southern Illinois. We learned a lot about flora, fauna, and frogs. We also canoed Cashe River. And we hiked to a place where snakes cross at certain times of the year. LOTS of snakes. That time our prayers were answered. None were home. Whew.
As I said, I enjoyed this class more than any I've ever taken. And it taught me a lot about the area I'd recently moved to. Things I should have learned in an indoor biology class and didn't. Nothing like hands on, is there? Well, except for the snakes.
If you ever have a chance, take a class like this. Hike your area. Learn about the area that surrounds you. Have fun, but watch out for the snakes.