It’s 7 a.m. on a Saturday, and I’m hauling 60 pound jugs of water through thick sand about 100 yards to a picnic area along Sabino Creek.  The water spills on me, and in 50 degree temperatures, the warming I get from carrying quickly dissipates.  In an hour, 80 girl scouts are showing up, and I sure hope there will be a lot of adults with them.  I volunteered to be a birding leader, and I’m wondering what I got myself into. 

The scouts will spend an hour hacking out giant reeds that are a desert invader, sucking up 20 times the water of a cottonwood, an hour learning GPS so that the plants removed can have their root systems identified, an hour at the riparian habitat, since there is a small pool of water still present, and an hour birding with one of us four leaders. 

Everybody shows up, and there is a great deal of singing, energy and all the things young girls do.  I’m now really wondering what I got myself in to.  We start, and the birding is not what it might be, even for early morning.  I’m hearing several species, but hearing birds and seeing them is very different for these girls.  The cool morning and the trails are certainly nice to be out in, the girls are having fun playing with the binoculars, but it would have been nice to be seeing something more than a few nests.  But that’s birding.  Sometimes you see birds, sometimes you don’t.  On the other hand, there is a dead fox near a log, and I am amazed to see how many young girls went up to take a close look at it.  I really expected a very different response.  But, as I was beginning to learn that morning, I was quite prejudiced towards my experience with these girls. 

I had earlier noted a young scout, obviously paraparetic, needing significant assistance to walk.  She came on my third trip, and we didn’t walk too far because of her difficulty moving.  The girl was dysarthric, and looking at her gums, I figured probably took phenytoin as an anti-epileptic.  I diagnosed her in five seconds, and I thought this would be a tough hour, but I was wrong about both the hour and the girl. 

She soon was picking up seeds from the reed, and saying, “Mr. Mike,” look at this.  I didn’t realize where the seeds were in the giant reed.  She had.  Ten minutes later, “Mr. Mike, look at my rocks.”  She showed me a collection of 5 pretty rocks.  “I have one thousand two hundred eighty at home.” 

“One thousand two hundred and eighty-five, now,” replied her mother, as the girl came up and gave me a hug. 

I can count on the past unbroken fingers of my right hand (that would be three), the number of people besides myself who count things just because they can be counted.  I counted the license plate tabs on New York state cars in early 1957.  I know that, because I still have my diary for that year and read it.  I know fairly closely the number of miles I have driven a car.  The night on Isle Royale, when the wolf made it wise for me to leave my campsite and hike 10 miles in the dark, I counted 1000 steps, then every other step 1000 times, every third step 1000 times up to every 9th step 1000 times.  People think this weird.  I do it naturally, just like whenever I hear a four digit number, like a hospital page, I multiply the first two and second two numbers.  I can outdo any calculator multiplying a pair of two digit numbers.  So to know a girl is counting the number of rocks she has was a real treat.  Bet she wouldn’t have thought counting steps weird.  Or seeing a wolf, for that matter.  She taught, too.  One of the other girls wondered if mica came from trees.  My disabled friend, and I use the word disabled cautiously here, told her no, pointing out more of the rock in the wash. 

She made my morning.  At the end of the four sessions, I was putting all the binoculars back in their cases.  I then heard “Mr. Mike!” again.  I looked across the table, and the girl gestured for me to come over.  In a water bottle, with a fern, she had a caterpillar.  I hadn’t seen any ferns or any caterpillars, but obviously she had.  I think I’m a decent observer; after all, I had diagnosed this girl.  Only I had let my prejudice get in the way of seeing what else was inside this girl – a curiosity about the natural world, an ability to see things in the world that many did not, and to collect and categorize them.  I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t sure what her medical situation was, but that this was an incredibly interesting girl who I hope will have a chance to be fully educated.  My advice to teenage guys is to marry a woman smarter than they are.  Fortunately, I continue, that won’t be difficult.  I hope some guy looks beyond the physical impairments of this girl, because he will find an incredibly fascinating smart brain in her head. 

The caterpillar’s name, by the way, was Frumpy.

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