A grandfather teaches his granddaughter of nature's delicacy with a poem about sea otters.
Walking in the crisp autumn air, Gabby asked an innocent question which led to a lesson on the sea otter's sad history. She was fortunate to have her grandfather there to answer; he was — how does one say it — a wealth of knowledge.
“Do sea otters have pretty fur, Grandpa?”
“Yes, very pretty. Soft and warm, too. At one time, it was the most popular fur in the world.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, tell me, how many hairs do you think you have on your head?”
“I have no idea.”
“Around a hundred thousand,” said Grandpa Daniels, answering his own question.
“What, that many!”
“Otters have a million per square inch.” He knew the fact would shock her.
Grandpa Daniels continued. “That made their fur very valuable. So men began to hunt sea otters for their pelts. In the early 1800s, there were around three-hundred thousand in the Pacific. By 1900, that number had dwindled down to a couple of thousand.”
“That's terrible, Grandpa. But now there are more?”
“How did they stop declining?”
“Marine biologists warned governments the otters were about to go extinct. In 1911, countries agreed to the International Fur Seal Treaty to protect them and now there are thousands more.”
“What countries?” wondered Gabby.
“United States, United Kingdom, Russia, and Japan. It was the first international treaty to address wildlife preservation.”
“That's probably why Odin and Yelden are here today.”
“No doubt,” said Grandpa Daniels. “Sometimes men see something wrong and work together to make it right. That's one we made right.”
Arriving at the pond, several ducks swam near shore. Grandpa Daniels took his place on the bench and watched Gabby remove the green tie from the loaf. That weekend she could feed them bread, the grandfather restricting its use to every couple of months or so since white bread is really not good for the ducks; not much nutritional value and it keeps them from eating the plants and algae that give the nutrition they need. She usually brought corn or peas.
Small parcels of bread began to land in the water, and wherever they fell a whirling dervish of white flapping feathers ensued. “Daisy's really hungry this morning, Grandpa.” She had individual names for each duck though sometimes it would not be the same duck. After using up half the bread, she joined her grandfather on the bench.
“Odin the Otter time, Grandpa!” she said taking her usual side on the bench.
“Oh, yes,” and he pulled the folded yellow sheets from his pocket.
“Where's the book, G-Pa?”
“Well, I typed it out so you can keep it. See,” and he showed her the top of the first sheet.
“Thank you Grandpa!” She hugged him.
“Ready for Tale of the Juan de Fuca Strait?”
“May I ask questions?”
“You can always ask questions,” and with that he began.
Odin the Otter stretched out on the water
wrapped in his canopy kelp
when Yelden the Olden popped up through the Golden
beseeching Odin for help —
“Yes?” responding to her raised hand.
“What does beseeching mean?”
“It means begging for something.”
“Like how Aubrey asks me to help with her math homework?”
beseeching Odin for help
Odin knew Yelden, he knew him quite well
as a pup growing up in the bright, cold swell
Yelden had shown him the ways of their home
that very first autumn, he taught him the bottom
where the prawn and the sea urchin roam
in clear, cold waters off the coastal shore
with proficient paws, they caught 'em —
Gabby's mind wandered. “How far do otters go out into the ocean?”
“They don't. They stay in the kelp forests along the coast.”
She was surprised by the answer. “If I was an otter, I would explore the ocean.”
“So you wouldn't mind being swallowed by a great white shark?”
Grandpa Daniels explained. “Sharks like otters for dinner but not kelp forests so much. The otters are safer in the forest.”
“Why don't sharks like kelp forests?”
“You know, we're not exactly sure. It might be they're afraid of getting wrapped up in them, or maybe they can't attack the same way. Now, where were we?” He had to move along. Having stayed up three-quarters of the night, he was unsure of how the morning would go.
“They caught 'em!” said the granddaughter.
“Oh, yes, with proficient paws, they caught 'em.” He slowly moved his finger along the yellow paper.
in clear, cold waters off the coastal shore
with proficient paws, they caught 'em
and as they explored the silent seafloor
he advised on the use of their pouches —
“Otters have pouches, Grandpa?”
“Just like a kangaroo?”
“Well, yes, but sea otters have two.”
“Why do they have two?”
he advised on the use of their pouches
urchins on one side and stones in the other
then back to the top and with help from the kelp
anchor yourself like a boat to a dock
and open the urchin with your cracking rock —
Gabby smiled and said nothing about the cracking rock. Then she asked, “If otters use rocks, doesn't that make them really smart?”
“Yes. In fact, Odin is especially smart.”
Odin learned fast and in no time at all
he became the equal of Yelden
so one winter day, the sky gloomy and gray
Yelden looked to the north and decided
Odin could lead the otters in these waters
and protect the kelp beneath them
the mentor would move on, having confided
faith in his mentee and thus did bequeath him —
“What's a mentee?”
“A mentor is a teacher, and the mentee is his pupil.” The grandfather's answers were always clear and concise and helped Gabby to understand. She asked what bequeath meant. To pass something on. He continued.
faith in his mentee and thus did bequeath him
a forest the length of a Kansan plain
but in order for it to remain
Yelden issued these commands:
“Grow your population and keep it strong
for the urchins will try to multiply
and infiltrate your bottom sands,
and devour the holdfasts that anchor the kelp —”
“Sorry to keep interrupting,” said Gabby, halfway raising her hand.
“Quite all right.”
“What's a holdfast?”
“It's where the kelp attaches to the ocean floor, like roots. And how high can it grow in a day?”
“As long as it has?”
“See how this poem is making you smarter.”
“and devour the holdfasts that anchor the kelp.
In no time at all, without enough help
the entire forest will come undone.
And the ocean floor that formed her shape,
launched gold-leafed columns toward the sun,
it will be nothing more than a desertscape.
And for those creatures who rely on the kelp,
depend on her food and shelter for help,
from the sunflower star to the great blue heron,
all will be changed by the urchin barren —”
“Urchin barren. When too many urchins are around, they destroy the kelp and the seafloor becomes barren like an underwater desert. Since those spiky critters cause it, we call it an urchin barren. Make sense?”
“So that's why it's important the otters eat urchins!”
“Exactly,” said the grandfather, who had waited for her to discover the answer instead of explaining it earlier. From experience he understood — when done in this way — a person has a better chance to retain the knowledge. “Think about it,” he explained to Gabby, “if we don't acknowledge how nature interacts with itself, there can be drastic costs. Not enough sea otters and urchins devour kelp forests. If countries had not signed that agreement in 1911, we would have fewer kelp forests today. Losing a kelp forest means losing a part of our air. And think of the marine animals who rely on it for food and shelter, think how it would affect their world.” Again, he asked if it made sense. She nodded and smiled proudly having learned something very important about nature.
“Now, where were we?” said Grandpa Daniels, but at that moment a commotion came from behind. Aubrey was hurrying down the trail and hollering, “Jacob fell from the big oak and hurt himself!” The two bolted off the bench.
Tears glistened in Aubrey's eyes, and Grandpa Daniels told her everything would be fine.
“Did they take him to the hospital?” he asked, as they hurried along the path.
“I think Mama said Dr. Galen is coming over.”
When they entered the living room, Dr. Galen sat in a chair beside Jacob who lay face up on the couch. Jacob was awake, but woozy. The doctor asked Dotty for another warm towel. “Hello Dr. Galen,” said Gabby, kneeling down beside his chair. Dr. Galen nodded. “Hey, brother.” She was going to offer advice against falling out of trees but had never seen his face so pale and held off.
Jacob responded faintly, “Hey, Scout.” She took hold of his hand.
Dotty walked in with the towel and Dr. Galen laid it across Jacob's forehead.
“So no hospital?” asked Michael.
“No,” said Dr. Galen, laying the stethoscope back in his black case. “He's had a very slight concussion, but he'll be fine. No activity though the rest of today and tomorrow.”
Jacob looked up at his mother knowing the next day was a school holiday. “I know that's not how you want to spend your day off,” she said, “but at least you won't miss any school.” He continued to look at her as if she was the only person in the room who knew what was best.
Grandpa Daniels walked into the kitchen to get a glass of water. When he looked out the window he noticed Aubrey pacing back and forth across the porch. Returning to the living room he asked, “Anyone know exactly what happened?”
Michael answered, “Sounds like Aubrey challenged him into doing something,” and then turning to Jacob, “but that didn't mean you had to do it, Son.”
“Michael!” Dotty said, “I don't think we need to go into this right now. Jacob needs rest.”
Dr. Galen agreed. Michael escorted the good doctor to the door, and Dotty went to see if she had an appropriate dinner for her son. She knew lunch was out of the question. Grandpa Daniels and Gabby had remained in the living room and he said to her, “I think your sister is pretty upset.” Nothing more needed to be said.
Michael and Dr. Galen spoke briefly on the porch and Michael thanked him for coming over on such short notice. “Happy to assist. Remember, no activity today or tomorrow. Give me an update, will you.”
“All right, Doctor.” The two men shook hands and Dr. Galen walked off into the late morning. Before Mr. Daniels went back inside, he glanced down the porch and saw Aubrey look over at him from the swing. He said nothing and reentered the house. A minute later Gabby stepped out and crossed the porch toward her.
“You know the big fork in the oak tree?”
“I bet Jacob a dollar he couldn't jump across to the other branch. His legs slipped around the limb and then his hands and the next thing you know, he's falling to the ground.”
“Wow, that's quite a fall.” Gabby said softly.
Aubrey started to cry. “He landed on his side and rolled over and, you know, his head hit pretty hard.”
“Well, I think God made our skulls super hard to protect our brains.”
“I don't have a brain.”
“Come on, Aubrey, don't be so hard on yourself. You probably shouldn't have made that bet, but we all make mistakes.” Aubrey's crying turned into more of a soft sniffling. “Jacob's going to be fine.” Gabby squeezed her shoulder.
They stared out into the yard. Branches of the big oak swayed in strong winds, and the rustling of leaves made the day seem colder.
“Let's go back inside,” suggested Gabby.
“All right,” and upon reentering the house Aubrey went upstairs to her room.
The afternoon passed quietly as Jacob slept soundly on the living room couch. Mr. Daniels, who sat nearby his son reading a book, decided it was time to talk with Aubrey. He figured her guilt had run most of its course and by the time he reached the top of the stairs, he knew what he was going to say to her. He lightly tapped on her door. “Yes,” she said knowing full well who was about to walk in. Her guilt spiked sharply.
In a trait passed down from his father, Mr. Daniels entered the room in a surprisingly calm manner. In no way did he appear like someone about to scold a daughter for misbehavior and said all he needed to say in sixteen words. “That boy looks up to you. Please be careful what you ask him to do. Understand?”
“Yes, Daddy … I'm sorry … I will.” After the door closed softly, the combination of guilt and a father's skill in how to handle the situation left Aubrey with a lesson well learned. And relaxed shoulders.
Everyone stayed inside the rest of that evening. The family always handled trauma in this manner. During a light dinner of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, Michael and Dotty asked Clarence to stay over since the next day was a school holiday. After the meal — Jacob had a few saltine crackers and drank a Sprite — the family played charades in the living room. The game was extremely close with the girls defeating the boys by one point. It came down to Aubrey correctly guessing a movie title on their final attempt. After Dotty read the little piece of white paper, she made her usual face to indicate it would be next to impossible. Then she held up four fingers, tilted her head back, and placed the back of her hand to her forehead in dramatic fashion. Aubrey hollered out Gone With The Wind and the game was over. Jacob watched.