The Environmental Volunteers – Part Three

What can I do?

Energy and Natural Resources

I used to follow my granddaughters from room to room turning off lights in their wake. All the while I grumbled about kids nowadays not understanding the importance of conservation. That was before I found the Environmental Volunteers and discovered that kids nowadays do understand the importance of conservation when it is taught to them.

The Energy and Natural Resources Service by the Environmental Volunteers introduces fourth or fifth-grade children to the importance of energy in our lives, renewable and sustainable sources of energy, the impact of those sources on the environment, and ideas for reducing that impact – including ideas that the children themselves can promote and implement!

My favorite Kit in the Environmental Volunteers arsenal for the Energy and Natural Resources Service is the “Carbon Footprint Game.”

The Carbon Footprint Game is a board game. The children usually play the game in pairs, each with a board the size of a placemat. Each placemat is “pre-loaded” with descriptions of general living conditions such as the size of the household in which an imaginary family “lives.” These conditions determine how many “carbon” pieces the children earn (little plastic chips that represent given units of carbon). During the course of the game, the children draw cards that specify the type of cars their fictional family drive, their travel habits, what foods they eat, their recycling habits (or lack thereof), and any number of lifestyle choices which impact their carbon footprint. Each choice is associated with a given amount of carbon. The object of the game is for each pair of children to collect the fewest number of carbon pieces as they progress through the game. The children have no control over the content of the cards, so they are not really making the lifestyle choices. However, during the course of the game the reasons that some choices generate more carbon than others become evident – and the children cheer each other on when the choice outlined on the card results in fewer carbons or, sometimes, a subtraction of carbons from their possession.

The game can get noisy and the children rarely want to stop! However, by the end of the game, they are well aware of decisions they themselves can make to reduce their carbon footprint. Like turning off the lights when they leave a room.


The Environmental Volunteers – Part Two

The Earliest Environmentalists – Early California Indians

Unlike Californians of today (like myself), the indigenous people of California such as the Ohlone (the tribe that inhabited the area now known as Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties) lived “gently” on the land.

In their Service dedicated to Early California Indians (third grade and up), The Environmental Volunteers help the children of today understand what “gently” means: harvesting acorns so as to adequately feed the tribe while preserving the trees for future generations, creating tools and houses to enhance their existence while remaining respectful of the environs, crafting weapons to aid in the quest for adequate food without wholesale devastation of the sources, and making toys and games that were both fun and instructive for Native American children.

My favorite among the many Kits presented at an Early California Indians Service is the “Games” Kit.

Since the Ohlone didn’t have a Toys R Us in their neighborhood, the Games Kit is filled with toys that have been fashioned from things available to the tribe: tops made from acorns, dolls made of the native grasses and reeds from the marshy edges of the San Francisco Bay, balls made from wood or animal hides stuffed with seed, and hoops made from willow switches through which sticks are thrown as the hoops are set in motion.

The games of the Ohlone were instructional in nature – some translated easily to hunting skills, others were designed to teach cooperation or fairness or politeness. In the Games Kit, we play the games just as the Ohlone would have! The kids participate in these ancient sports with as much enthusiasm as they give to any video game.

One of the games, a guessing game, is constructed as follows: The children (usually 5 or 6 in number) kneel in a circle and place their hands in the center. An animal skin (or sometimes just a cloth) is placed over everyone’s hands and one child is given a small bone or rock to hold. A different child is chosen to stand outside the circle and observe as the kneeling children pass the object around the circle, hidden under the skin. Calling for the participants to stop, the standing child then guesses which child is left holding the object. The children have a great time with this and the other games and beg to continue playing. As each game is concluded, I ask the children what skill they think this particular game was intended to teach the Ohlone children.

Once, after having played the guessing game described above, I asked my usual question. Without hesitation, one girl said: “They would learn to spot animals moving in the grasses, so they could hunt them for food.”

Modern-day children playing ancient games and understanding the intended lessons — what a treat!

Also: The Environmental Volunteers – Part One

The Environmental Volunteers – Part One

“Inspiring a Love of Science and Nature”

On the eve of his first inauguration, President Obama asked the nation to find our individual voices and champion local community causes closest to our hearts.

Closest to my heart is the environment, animals and children (not necessarily in that order).

I had been thinking of volunteering for some time, but our new leader’s speech was just the impetus I needed. I had procrastinated long enough.

Clearly the U.S. government (as has been too painfully evident for decades) couldn’t or wouldn’t do it all when it came to saving our planet. I wanted to do more than sign petitions requesting laws be passed or existing regulations enforced. I wanted to be part of the parade to educate the next generation of human beings about earth’s beauty – with the hope they will grow to cherish it, repair and preserve it for generations to come.

In my search for an organization that would touch upon each of my heartstrings I found the Environmental Volunteers – a San Francisco Bay Area organization dedicated to inspiring children to love science and nature – and ultimately our earth.

A Great Organization

Bay Area schools invite the Environmental Volunteers into their classrooms (and beyond) for subject-matter-specific sessions and outdoor activities, including field trips to local areas of interest such as Stevens Creek Park, Jaspar Ridge Preserve, and Palo Alto Baylands (which focus on local flora and fauna) and the Los Trancos Earthquake Trail (with a focus on the fascinating geology of the region). There is a minimal fee associated with these “Services”- but despite the cost, most years a waiting list develops quickly.

Usually, the Services are conducted over a ninety-minute period of time during school hours (field trips are longer, of course). In the classroom, an initial presentation is given in a large group setting. This is followed by hands-on, interactive instruction in smaller groups of 6 to 8 children where each volunteer presents a “Kit” – a game or demonstration designed to spark interest. Over the course of each Service, 3 or 4 Kits are presented. With the Service presentation and the Kits as guides, students discover first-hand how nature and the environment work. It’s fun for the children and it’s certainly fun for the volunteers.

In this series…

This is the first of a planned eight-part blog post dedicated to the Environmental Volunteers. In each post, I will concentrate on one Service – so that you will experience what the children are exposed to and the joy those bright eager young minds bring to the mix.

Join me for the second of this eight-part blog post:  The Earliest Environmentalists – California’s Ohlone Tribe

Featured image is courtesy of

January 24, 1848: A Golden Moment in History

Gold’s Formative Impact on California

Gold was discovered in California on January 24, 1848. How significant was that discovery to the history and evolution of the state?

Author Robert Cowley has compiled the writings of several prominent historians into a book called What If? in which historical events are re-imagined: What would have become of Christianity if Pontius Pilate had spared Jesus? What would the United States be like if Abraham Lincoln had not issued the Emancipation Proclamation? What if the Chinese had “discovered” the New World rather than the Europeans?

Interesting questions all (with more explored in the book).

Although not a historian, I decided to explore a “What If…” scenario of my own. Because I believe that the advent of the California Gold Rush of 1848 made the state what it is today, I wanted to know: What if gold had never been discovered in California?

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Background to the Golden State

With or without gold, it is safe to assume that California was destined to be a possession of the United States and, eventually, a state.

Prior to James Marshall’s discovery of gold in the American River on January 24, 1848, California was a remote outpost belonging to Mexico. But the Mexican-American War (fought for U.S. possession of the territories that include current-day Arizona, Nevada, Utah, California and portions of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming as well as final confirmation that Texas belonged to the U.S.) had ended months before the gold that triggered the rush was found. California’s value to the U.S. government was not due to precious metal.

Then-President James Polk (and many of his time) believed it was the providence of the United States to expand its reach from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans (and beyond): a concept called “Manifest Destiny.” Spurred on by Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s accounts of the untapped riches and beauty of California in his non-fiction work Two Years Before the Mast (published in 1840), California was considered a worthy prize well before any gold. Land, in general, was a worthy prize for the young United States.

At the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, California was to be just another territory. Like all other U.S. possessions, California was expected to go through the normal evolution toward statehood: the territory would be opened to homesteaders whose numbers would expand until they reached the critical mass necessary to apply for statehood – a process that could take years, perhaps decades to accomplish. In time, the State of California would be admitted to the Union by a careful and plodding Congress, and all would be well.

But gold changed all of that for California. The discovery of gold triggered the most massive human migration in history and altered the course of thousands of lives, disrupted politics as usual in Washington, D.C., and transformed the complexion of the would-be State of California forever.

Gold rocked California just as surely as any earthquake. It was gold that had a direct influence on California’s Statehood, Society, and, unexpectedly, Slavery.

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California was the 31st State admitted to the Union.

The standard progression toward statehood at the time was that the United States government would acquire a territory (like the Louisiana Territory, for example), opening that up to homesteading Americans. Once the population of any given area reached critical mass (60,000 at the time), the territory could apply for statehood and, at the next session of Congress, the application would be accepted or denied.

In the 1800s, reaching a population of 60,000 took time, as is evident from the progress made by the five states admitted to the Union just prior to California:

  • 26th – Michigan. Established as a territory in 1803, achieved statehood in 1837: 34 years
  • 27th – Florida. Established as a territory in 1822, achieved statehood in 1845: 23 years
  • 28th – Texas. Established as a territory in 1836, achieved statehood in 1845: 9 years
  • 29th – Iowa. Established as a territory in 1836, achieved statehood in 1846: 10 years
  • 30th – Wisconsin. Established as a territory in 1836, achieved statehood in 1848: 12 years

The sleepy territory of California, however, was forever changed after the discovery of gold. Prior to 1848, the estimated population was 14,000, mostly of Mexican descent, and 20,000 indigenous Native Americans. Once gold was discovered, California added nearly 100,000 new immigrants to its population in less than two years.

31st – California. Established as a territory in 1848, achieved statehood in 1850: 2 years

Without a doubt California would have been admitted to the Union as a state sooner or later. However, in California’s case, it was sooner than anyone in their wildest dreams could have expected. No other state in the union was created so quickly.

What if? – Statehood Sans Gold

One of the reasons California was barely populated in 1848 (an estimated 34,000 throughout the entire territory, although the 20,000 indigenous people would not have been counted for statehood) was that it was so hard to get to. Even California’s native population had evolved differently from the Indians that inhabited the rest of the continent: physically they were isolated and, therefore, culturally and linguistically they developed in a different way.

By land the only way to California was over towering mountains or through one of the hottest deserts in North America: the eastern backbone of the territory was delineated by the Sierra Nevada, a formidable mountain range, terminating in the inhospitable Mojave Desert. There was simply no easy way around these obstacles — and that would remain true until after the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) when the Central Pacific Railroad finally broke through the Sierra on its way to meet with the Union Pacific Railroad at (or near) Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869.

By sea, U.S. travelers had to either cross the Isthmus of Panama or sail around Cape Horn. The Panamanian route meant risking life and limb as a result of canoeing through disease-ridden swamps and hiking through narrow mountain passes over plunging ravines. The journey around Cape Horn promised some of the most fickle and dangerous seas on the planet.

Had the territory simply been opened to homesteading, as was usual, California’s treacherous remoteness would probably have made it less appealing for most land-hungry American immigrants. Without the promise of great riches, immigrants from other lands would have been less inclined to leave their home countries. California’s path to statehood might have taken as long as Michigan’s had the presence of gold not enhanced its lure.

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I was at a party recently where a woman was talking about America as a Melting Pot. She thought that was the wrong way to look at American society. Her opinion was that “Melting Pot” was just a mish-mash of cultures and ideals, but not something America should strive for. Instead, she suggested we would be better off thinking of ourselves as a mixed salad: each ingredient keeping its unique flavor while adding to the taste and variety of the whole. I LOVED the image this conjured — and have adopted it as my own.

The mass migration triggered by the presence of gold in California was not a homogeneous event: fortune hunters from around the globe flocked to the new territory in the hope of quick riches. These early pioneers were of one mind, but not of one culture or one peoples. They came from everywhere.

The early “Argonauts” – those gold hunters that would become California’s first citizens – were primarily from places other than the United States. News of gold reached Mexico and South America first, then spread to the South Pacific and Asia long before word (and the ultimate proof of the gold) had reached the East Coast of the United States. From the eastern States, gold fever spread out to the Plains States and other territories. The progression of news and the ultimate response was global.

Nowhere else on earth up to that point were so many languages and cultures represented in one place. The society of California during the early days of the Gold Rush was the most glorious mixed salad the world had yet seen.

What if? – Society Sans Gold

If California had been allowed to evolve slowly like most of the other states, it most certainly would have had a less cosmopolitan culture.

The eastern half of the United States of the 19th century was heavily influenced by its European cultural history. By contrast, California started as a Spanish (European, yes, but more limited in scope) then Mexican possession. Her immigrants during the Gold Rush were from Asia, the Middle East, Australia, Mexico, Central and South America, and Canada in addition to Europe. Then came the pioneers from the eastern and southern United States and its Mid-West States and Territories. While some immigrants may have ventured from Africa, because slavery was still legal in the United States, the additional “complications” kept the numbers from that continent low.

The Spanish and Mexican heritage is evident even today in the names of the towns and historical sites throughout the State. For years, San Francisco boasted one of the largest Chinese populations outside of Asia.

This is not to paint a rosy picture of the racism that was rampant in early California (as elsewhere), but only to highlight that the diversity of the population was unique for its time.

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How, you ask, did California (way out West) have any influence on the slavery issue in the United States?

Surprisingly, a lot.

In November 1849, a meeting of representatives from across the territory convened in Monterey, California (the previous capital of Alta California when it was a Mexican territory) to produce a constitution in preparation for statehood. The intent was to have this document delivered to the U.S. Congress along with California’s bid to become a state. These new Californians wanted to be prepared.

Among the countless laws and resolutions adopted by the representatives at that 1849 convention, California had elected to join the Union as a Free State – no slavery.*

Californians were not prepared, however, for the reception of their new constitution in the Halls of Congress. When the junior senator from California (John C. Fremont) presented the newly crafted “State” constitution of California to the Representatives in early 1850, they summarily dismissed it. It was not the right of California to declare itself a state let alone elect senators and devise a constitution without sanction from Congress. Nor was it up to California to declare itself a Free State: that was to be determined by existing U.S. legislation such as the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1833 — legislation directly targeted at the issue of slavery.

California’s audacity reignited Congressional debates that had simmered beneath the surface for almost 20 years. Issues between state’s-rights advocates and those calling for strong centralized government, between pro-slavery and abolitionist factions flared. Additional compromises were introduced and hotly debated, resulting in the passage of legislation, such as The Fugitive Slave Act, that satisfied neither side of the issues and only served to open old wounds and cause new strife. The issue of slavery was never again allowed to rest in Congress, finally escalating to a horrific war.

* Before anybody pats themselves on the back for California’s progressive stance, foresight, and egalitarian approach to slavery, be aware that the 1849 collection of lawmakers barely passed the no-slavery resolution and did so primarily based on finances: free men had refused to work the California mines alongside slaves, and the economics of farming and ranching within California did not lend itself to the “peculiar institution.” Then there was the question of free blacks: a resolution to ban ALL blacks from the State, free or slave, lost at the 1849 convention by only one vote.

What if? – Slavery Sans Gold

The American Civil War was probably an inevitable tragedy. California’s entry into the Union as a self-proclaimed Free State only served to turn up the heat on an already contentious issue.

Had statehood been delayed for California (as would most probably have been the case were it not for the Gold Rush), then California’s “right” to declare itself a Free State would not have come into play at all. If California had been unable to attain critical mass before the advent of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, for example, it would not have become a state until well after The American Civil War had ended…with the conflict resolved in favor of California’s original stance.

Gold nuggets dreamstimeextrasmall_31048630

How different would California be now? What if there had been no gold?

War Horse – The Theatrical Production

A Masterful Stage Production

Yesterday (August 12, 2012), my husband and I had the privilege of seeing the San Francisco production of War Horse at the Curran Theater. It was, in a word, magnificent.

I can think of no play and few musicals with which I have been more enthralled, more engaged, or more impressed. It was a moving experience.


The Story

The book of the same name by Michael Morpurgo is told from the perspective of Joey — the horse. Published in 1982, it is billed as a children’s story. However, the subject resonates with adults as well. It is a moving and powerful requiem to World War I.

As a foal, the 1/2 draft horse, 1/2 thoroughbred (called a “hunter”) has been lovingly raised by a boy named Albert Narracott on a farm in Devon (England).

Despite the boy’s attachment to the horse, at the outbreak of The Great War (World War I), Joey is sold to the British cavalry and shipped to France where he must endure an extraordinary odyssey: pressed into service by both the German and British armies. The horse befriends a spirited thoroughbred named Topthorn, and inspires the affection and admiration of horse-loving humans from both sides of the conflict before finding himself alone and trapped among the barbed wire of a place between armies – the place called “No Man’s Land.”

Back in England, young Albert has not forgotten Joey. The boy lies about his age to enlist in the British army, embarking on a dangerous mission to find and bring his beloved horse back to Devon.


The Human Element

Our first clue about the role of humans in the stage play is the program itself. As is common, the cast is introduced in the order in which they appear on stage. However, when the actor biographies are listed, they are in alphabetical order. There are no celebrities here, no persons singled out for “top billing.” The actors with dialogue are equal to the master puppeteers. The actors who use their voices are no more important to the story than the actors who use their bodies and their presence to breathe life into the horses.

The Stage Production

Topthorn & Joey

The Set Direction – a Multi-Media Masterpiece

Before the houselights dim, the audience is accorded a view of the set: a black, empty stage with a single torn banner spanning from wing to wing about 10 feet above the platform. My theater mates and I ventured guesses on what this banner might represent: Brien speculated that it was a page from a book or diary; Matt thought it might represent a flag; I surmised it was a bandage or the wrappings from the leg of a horse.

As the action of the play progressed, each of our guesses became reality. This banner was the only backdrop for the play, supporting action projected on its torn surface. Initially, the wistful drawings of a young cavalry officer surveying the beautiful hills and fields of Devon were projected on it, then troop movements (across the English channel and through the devastated fields of Belgium). Then came the flash of bombs and gunfire, the shrapnel of war. As the fighting onstage intensified, the blood of the battlefield soaked the banner, blooming into the poppies of Flanders Fields.

The creators of War Horse used minimal props, shrouding smoke (at times representing blinding fog and others stifling gunpowder residue), the roar of artillery, and the cries of human suffering to bring the near-realities of war to the theater. The experience was a close to war as I ever hope to get. It was heartbreaking and breathtaking.

Master Puppeteers

The Puppets

To call them puppets is misleading.

We are first introduced to Joey as a foal, stiff-legged and tentative about the new world in which the colt finds himself. He flicks his tails and turns his ears nervously, lifts his head in surprise, and hesitantly stretches his muzzle toward the boy who will come to love him. We soon forget the presence of the three actors both inside and outside the metal and fabric mechanism that has been built to represent this young horse — they have become the horse and their movements mirror those of the real thing. This is no mere pantomime – they have studied young horses — they know how they move. According to the program, the actors breathe as one so as to represent the large and powerful lungs of the horse.

Then comes the transformation from colt to the life-sized hunter that was Joey — it was a feat of theatrical magic that brought tears to my eyes (the first of many) because of the beauty of this creature and the power that emanated from him. I nearly leaped to my feet at the very moment of his appearance to show my appreciation. It would have been completely inappropriate, but that is what I felt. The alteration would have been no less awe-inspiring had Joey become a flesh-and-blood horse.

There are two main horses in the play (and several others with less stage time but no less impact). It is impressive when the pair occupy the stage together. Even more impressive, however, is that each horse is unique — the design team could have used the same mold and simply painted one horse black (“Topthorn”) and one horse bay (“Joey”). They did not. Instead, the structure of each puppet belongs to each character: Topthorn (a thoroughbred) is taller and slimmer than the hunter Joey. Their mannerisms, too, are individual: Topthorn haughty, Joey spirited but steady.

Finally, as if any more thrills are required, the horses are ridden (see the picture for Set Direction). They trot and cantor and gallop with the weight of a full-grown person on their backs.

They are spectacular.


War Horse Facts

  1. The show premiered on October 17, 2007 at the Royal National-Olivier Theatre In South Bank, London.
  2. In March of 2009, the show transferred to the West End’s New London Theatre. It is still there.
  3. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (and husband Prince Philip) saw the West End production on October 12, 2009.
  4. War Horse began its Broadway run on April 14, 2011 (after preview performances that began in March) in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center, New York. It is still there.
  5. The Canadian production opened in Toronto, Ontario on February 28, 2012 at the Princess of Wales Theatre. It is still there.
  6. Tours are planned in the U.S., Australia, and UK in 2012.
  7. The first non-English-language version will open at the Stage Theater des Westens in Munich, Germany in March of 2013.
  8. Awards include: 2007 Evening Standard Awards (Best Design); 2007 Critics Circle Theatre Awards (Best Designer); 2010 Laurence Olivier Awards (Best Set Design, Best Theatre Choreographer); 2011 Drama League Awards (Distinguished Production); 2011 Tony Awards (Best Play, Best Direction of a Play, Best Scenic Design of a Play, Best Lighting Design of a Play, Best Sound Design of a Play plus a special Tony to the Handspring Puppet Company); 2011 Drama Desk Awards (Outstanding Play), 2011 Outer Critics Circle Awards (Outstanding New Broadway Play, Outstanding Director of a Play, Outstanding Lighting Design, and a special award for “Puppet Design, Fabrication and Direction to Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company)

By some estimates, 16 million people (from both sides of the conflict as well as civilians) died in World War 1. According to and other sources, an estimated 8 million horses were killed as well. Can you imagine the horrors these lovely creatures faced? Beings with no stake in the fight, no reason to be in the fray, no understanding of the mechanisms of war — nothing other than their love and loyalty to the two-legged animals that lead them there.

“I couldn’t have written a better anthem for peace” – – Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse, about the stage version

To see a spectacular documentary on the realization of this magnificent stage production, click Making War Horse.