Nature Autobiography

R. Hays Cummins, Western Program, Miami University

As part of an assignment in our sophomore Natural Systems course The Nature of Human Nature students & professors alike write a nature autobiography. Here is a first effort, a beginning of sorts, of mine.

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My brother Clay and I.

Nature Autobiography

I grew up in a broken home. My parents eventually divorced, but only after many years of intense struggle and pain. It is in this context that I found my love for nature. I was hooked for as long as I can remember--I am thankful beyond words for this attachment. As I look back, I am convinced that this connection saved my spiritual life and helped in my search for personal identity.

As I look at my career as a scientist, I see several distinctions in my connection and interaction with nature when compared with my childhood. I owe a large debt to my childhood experiences. I am now a scientist because of these experiences. Science was the only choice for me. As a child, though, my connection seemed somehow more complete. More fun. More true. My adult connection has matured. I still feel the excitement while doing research in a tropical lagoon, or while exploring the rainforest or snorkeling over coral reefs. Teaching is special as well. Yet, my enthusiasm has been tempered by life's many demands and responsibilities. As a kid, I was one with nature. As an adult, I only get to visit now and then. I miss it.

Images. Five years old. A spring day. A squall line is moving in from the west. The sky darkens as rich, moist winds are drawn towards the approaching storms. Lightning is intense and getting closer. My friends are running for cover, inside away from harm's way. I'm mesmerized, frozen in place not by fear but by wonder. I want to be in the storm, part of the rising updrafts and streaking lightning. Reluctant to stay outside while my friends are inside, I leave but only after I'm drenched, excited by my boldness.

Images. Hunting for toads on a summer night. Flashlights shining, kids searching for calling males perched neck deep in a temporary pond. Who can find the most, the biggest. Only days before I've played baseball in these very fields--I had pitched a no-hitter. Now they were filled with frantic reproduction.

Images. A Cape Verde storm moving westward across the Atlantic Ocean, formed by a ripple in the steaming atmosphere over Africa. I'm excited by the prospects of tracking the storm across the ocean. Will it become a hurricane and reach New Orleans? Probably not. But.....

Twenty-five days later the storm is moving through the Bahamas only to be blocked by a massive high-pressure system to Betsy's north. Remarkably, Betsy turns completely around aiming is 150 mph winds towards southern Florida and eventually, into the Gulf of Mexico. New Orleans is right in the path.

My mother has me painting a privacy fence the morning that Betsy strikes. "Mom, the fence is going to be history by daybreak" I say as I watch the cumulus clouds- racing, racing from the east. I continue to paint.

Ten o'clock. Dark, kinda scary. Winds about 90 mph from the northeast. Parents withdraw to the showers. Mom, drunk, asleep in the bathtub. Dad, sitting with her, one step behind. Brothers, terrified. A sliding glass door shatters into a billion pieces, fragments whipped into lethal missiles thrown without conscience like buckshot into the living room wall.

Midnight. It's just me and the storm. Beyond fear, without fear. Winds are gusting over 125 mph. Betsy has all eye over 80 miles in diameter. New Orleans is underneath Betsy's eastern wall cloud surrounding the eye--an incredible 80 miles of the most violent weather anyone would ever want to experience. I watch as the privacy fence blows away, section by section cartwheeling out of sight.

One a.m. I gather strength as the winds increase. Winds over 150 mph. I'm outside of the house on the leeward side. I had no idea that the wind could blow that hard. Just when I thought it couldn't possibly blow any stronger, it does. My mind, my life are riding the winds. I'm beyond amazed. I want to know how these storms work. What a night!

Images. Thirteen years old. I told my parents I was at City Park looking for turtles. They didn't want me going to the place I wanted, no needed to be--the woods in eastern New Orleans parish, my own private rain forest. Oak trees hundreds of years old, thick carpets of ferns and spooky, dense swamps. Here, only here my adrenaline flows to the max. Real fear and respect for what I'm about to do, what I'm about to see.

It takes about 20 minutes for me to calm down as I step from the bus into the woods. I accommodate my fear and use it to connect me, focus me to the creatures I'm trying to find. I stop. What was that I heard? Ten feet away a box turtle withdraws into it's shell as I approach. Somehow, I hear the turtle closing it's shell while hiding under the ferns. I find it-- I am one with the turtle. On a good day I might find 10 turtles this way.

My mother was a saint. She hated reptiles but I guess she loved me. At the age of thirteen, my entire backyard was turned into a herpetarium. Cages were full of snakes while the fenced-in yard held upwards of 100 box turtles. My only real problem was the high escape rate of my captive reptiles. Turtles were easy to recapture in neighbor's yards. Once loose, snakes, on the other hand, presented numerous logistical problems. Most were never seen again. A few were spotted by anxious folk who rushed to my home for me to save them, the people that is, from the snakes.

Images. Eighth grade. Thirteen years old. Danger. Genetic memory. Copperheads, water moccasins, pygmy- and canebrake- rattlesnakes. They're here, under a bush or beside a tree. I want to see them, find them, fascinated by their danger and beauty.

May 30. Memorial Day. My best friend Eddie and I get on the bus early on Saturday morning. We're on the way to our "hunting" grounds. Its cloudy, temperatures in the 80's. By 9:00 a.m. we'd caught over 25 box turtles to put into my backyard herpetarium. It was going to be a heck of a day.

I couldn't believe it. A large, no huge canebrake rattlesnake lay on the ground before me. There it was, over six and a half feet long of reptilian splendor. Fangs about an inch long. It's head was bigger than my fist while it's body was as big around as my upper thirteen year old thigh. The rattles were over three inches long. It showed no fear. As I admired the snake, it slowly crawled away. I called Eddie to come see it. The snake had almost gone into the brush when Eddie--for some reason known only to him--grabbed the reptile by the tail. A trophy. About twenty rattles detached as it disappeared into the woods.

Later, toting the turtle sack along with us, we caught a magnificent king snake. These constrictors make wonderful pets and we were proud to have found it. While walking in a transition zone between the upland hardwood forest and lowlands swamps, I came across a copperhead. The snake was a splendid specimen. I kept my distance as I admired its remarkable beauty. I called Eddie over to see it. The snake, not wanting to wait for my friend, quickly attempted it's get-a-way. Eddie, convinced of his adolescent invincibility, grabbed the snake and tried to throw it out into the open so he could get a better view. He had done this trick one hundred times before and had always succeeded. Eddie was fourteen, quick and could outwit any snake. Well, almost any snake.

The snake turned and bit him on the top of his right hand. First shock, then pain and fear bonded us. We couldn't believe it. He let out a scream as two puncture wounds were blossoming on his hand. I took off my shoe laces and tied off his circulation at his wrist to prevent the spread of poison. Soon, I scrambled through the brush to Paris road to flag down a car for help.

I stood in the middle of the highway to stop the first vehicle I saw. Two young men, about 18 years old and boat in tow, stopped. They were on their way to go fishing. They wouldn't go fishing that day. Their day was taking a turn for the worse.

I asked if they could take us to the nearest phone so that we could call the police who would take us to Charity hospital. Eddie had alternative plans. He asked if they would mind taking us to the hospital rather than calling the police--he didn't want his parents to find out what happened! It sounded like a reasonable plan to our young fishermen.

Proper snakebite procedure in those days was to make incisions on the wound to remove snake venom. I asked the rescuers if they had a knife for the job. They looked in their tackle box and came up short. The best they could do is offer me a very dull butter knife.

Eddie was beginning to go into shock. As we were speeding to the hospital, I cut his hand with the butter knife. I pressed down hard but couldn't break his skin. The driver's companion by then had come up with a razor blade. I began to cut again. This time the razor blade cut into Eddie like a knife through butter.

Blood was everywhere. I could peer into his hand--tendons were where the puncture wounds used to be. Eddie slipped deeper into shock. We sped faster to the hospital.

I was frightened. We were going 70 mph in a 40 mph zone. Traffic was heavy. I asked if we could slow down. Please slow down. The driver would not, could not, he only went faster.

I saw the pedestrian standing on the neutral ground. I knew he was about to make his move. "Please don't do it" I said to myself. He was looking for an opening in the heavy traffic so that he could cross to the north side of the highway. We were in the middle lane of three. He made his move. He crossed the first lane, hesitated, then darted across ours. He didn't have a chance. Our right bumper struck him propelling him high into the air. He was dead before he hit the ground.

A frozen moment The car lost control. I can still see the faces of eleven people at a bus stop looking up in horror as our car swerved towards them. We stopped before we struck them.

Eddie, bitten by a poisonous snake, cut with a razor by his friend, and involved in the death of another human, slipped deeper into shock. We were lost in the shuffle. Dream time. No one knew who we were or why we were there. I walked to where the body lay on the highway. It was surrounded by spectators and policemen. I told an officer all that had happened leading up to the accident. At first he wouldn't believe me, the story was so bizarre. Eddie and I were soon on our way to Charity hospital.

Images. Swamps. Primeval in their splendor. Moss draped across cypress limbs. Bayous meandering through the submerged jungle. Majestic blue herons. Alligators. Sacred.

Images. Marshes. Up at dawn. Bonded with friends. Excited about the day. Fishing. Exploring. Prehistoric Indian sites. I love it.

Images. Seventeen. A summer adventure. I get paid to do this! I'm an ordinary seaman on a freighter, the Rice Queen, off the coast of Central America. I'd just sailed through the Panama Canal. Crew members-- tough people who took me in.

Oceans bluer than robins eggs. Flying fish stranded upon the ship's deck 20 feet above the water--What drove them there in the night? Dolphins by the hundreds leaping, racing towards the ship's bow. Manta rays, filter feeders bigger than Volkswagens, breaching the ocean's surface. Sea turtles lounging in groups. Making love, patiently waiting in line. Sea snakes. Whales. Tropical storms.

On lookout at 2:00 a.m., alone and content. Mystery. Looking for other ships in the dark night. Stars from horizon to horizon. Searching--lost and found in the river they call the Milky Way.

Images. High school. Little in-class interest, less inspiration. Mr. Tregg, math teacher extraordinare. Sports. What happened outside of school more important, more vital than school could ever be.

Thirty years later. I'm a college professor teaching a field course in the Bahamas on San Salvador island. Flashbacks to my childhood. As the students and I were admiring the panoramic view from the lighthouse, I noticed a thunderstorm developing to the south. The storm was not as large as the ones we had recently experienced. Nevertheless, I immediately told the students to come down from the lighthouse. Soon afterward it began to rain, but the lightning was still in the distance. Instead of walking back to the uncovered, open flatbed truck to return to the field station, we moved from the lighthouse to the lighthouse keeper's home, which is located about 20 meters south of the lighthouse. We knocked on the front door but received no response, so I decided the group should stay on the covered front porch, reasoning that this would be a relatively safe spot to wait out what seemed to be an average storm.

The rain came down harder as we gathered on the large, deep porch, and as the storm moved closer, I experienced a sinking feeling. A narrow band of intense lightning was advancing directly towards us. I told the group that we would be in a "lightning danger zone" in about two minutes and I suggested that everyone sit down away from the front of the porch. Then we waited. Joe, sitting against the front wall of the house, said: "If one of us gets struck, we all get struck." We laughed nervously. No one really expected to be struck by lightning.

After that things happened quickly. Lightning lit up the sky. Three seconds later thunder followed. One km away. In the next moment more lightning. Closer. Then, lightning, thunder and shock hit all at once. Electricity flowed through the group. We were thrown into the air. My body was numb. I couldn't speak. I lost any sense of time. A frozen moment. And then I looked to my left, and locked eyes with John, a student. We both screamed.

Everyone screamed. A strong, peculiar odor of burned rock, hair, and ozone permeated the air. Barely able to move, I banged on the front door, trying to awaken the lighthouse keeper. Students banged on the door, too. The lighthouse keeper, who had been sleeping after a night's work, let us in. We stumbled and crawled over one another onto the floor of his living room until, with four walls wrapped around us, we felt safer. We stayed until the thunderstorm was over.

Was anyone hurt? Was everyone present and accounted for? I couldn't bear the thought that any of the students might be dead or seriously injured. The electric field of the lightning strike had enveloped us. One student had been knocked unconscious but quickly recovered. We compared peculiar star-shaped burn marks on our thighs, arms, backs, buttocks and shoulders where electricity had entered and left our bodies. Eight students, upon returning to the field station, required a visit to the doctor's office with problems ranging from sore muscles and electrical burns to hearing loss.

Being a reasonable professor, I put the syllabus aside and gave the class the afternoon off. A few students and I completed field work on a research project in Grahams Harbor, San Salvador. While on the boat ride to the transect location, I broke into uncontrollable laughter. It was impossible to take the work at hand seriously. I laughed till I cried as tension left me. It was great to be alive.


Brief History

I received my Ph. D. in Oceanography from Texas A & M University in 1984 and have been at Miami University since 1988 where I am Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, an affiliate of geology, affiliate and Fellow of the Institute of Environmental Science, Director of Discovery-Oriented Science Instruction in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies, and Founding Science Editor for Dragonfly. My research and publications are in the areas of ecology, paleoecology, and science pedagogy and I teach a wide variety of subjects, including field courses in tropical ecology in Costa Rica and the Bahamas. I play sports with my friends and children, especially basketball. I love to fish and look through telescopes and I enjoy all outdoor pursuits and explorations on land and sea. I also play a mean game of poker.

As Director of the Julia Rothermel Center for Science Discovery I have the responsibility of overseeing the use of inquiry in our core science courses. Various labs that we use in our core courses focus on geologic time, earth-moon realtionships, the sun, taxonomy, and statistical analyses. Our Natural Systems Core faculty have articulated a teaching philosophy. which you may be interested in reading. My vita contains info on my publications, published abstracts, undergraduate publications here at Western, presentations, and grants.

I am absolutely obsessed with the weather and I teach a course on Global Cimate Change. Each fall, I teach another course in the geology dept., Evolution of Past & Present Ecosystems. I also enjoy working in the tropics where I have taught a total of 15 field seasons. These tropical courses are Tropical Ecosystems of Costa Rica and Tropical Marine Ecology of the Florida Keys, Everglades, and San Salvador, Bahamas. I take lots of pictures on these trips. So, take a look!!

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Learn more about the Mysteries of Lightning at Hernan Cortez's Excellent Website The Strike.


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