Science and Soap Opera : From Nuts to Trees to Skunks, Children Learn About Nature

Times Staff Writer

The nature hike was over. The children were gathered around, as attentive as they would ever be. It was time for a secret of life.

From a khaki pocket, assistant forester Barbara Chalton pulled a pine seed, just like the one she had handed each child, and cracked its shell in her teeth. She squeezed the soft white meat apart and there it was, a pine tree embryo less than a quarter of an inch long.

Simple and elegant, its first four needles swept back like tail fins on a missile, and its tap root formed a point like the warhead.

Eating Embryos

"Now I want you to take your seed and your tree embryo and eat it," Chalton said.

The children opened their embryos and ate.

In the rough-and-tumble world of nature, some things produce and others consume.

Almost every day, children from across the county go to the Los Angeles County Fire Department's Malibu Forestry Unit in the Santa Monica Mountains south of Agoura.

When the bus pulls up, Chalton, a canvas homburg strapped stylishly under her chin, suspends her duties of planting and caring for 2,000 seedlings to greet the youngsters.

Chalton has carved out a specialty introducing children to the laws of nature. She tells it like it is, part science and part soap opera.

"OK, everybody. See that squirrel?" she said, pointing up a tree where some sort of squabble was in progress. "That squirrel and that crow have been fighting for more than a month. You know why? That squirrel went up in that crow's nest and ate an egg, and that crow has been attacking it ever since. That crow has a long memory."

The Las Virgenes Road site is one of five county nurseries producing saplings that go to county facilities and homeowners for erosion control and windbreaks.

As the primary grower at the Malibu unit, Chalton spends her days planting seeds in greenhouse flats, transplanting saplings into pots, fighting mice and gophers, and watering the young trees. She goes on excursions with the women of the county's nearby detention camp to maintain groves at the Calabasas dump and Baldwin Hills Recreation Area.

Although she originally trained as a forest ranger and worked on trail crews fighting fires, Chalton seems to have found her niche as an interpretive guide, a job that makes use of her subtle sense of humor.

First Woman Forester

"I am the first woman forester in the county," Chalton said. "We have some very brilliant foresters in this county, but they didn't know what to say to the children. So they decided maybe it was time for a lady."

She said it took her a month to figure out what to say to the children.

As the tour of second-graders neared its end, Chalton stopped the group outside a small green shack that contained the stuffed animals for her wildlife lecture.

What children all want to know, she told them, is, "Are the animals real?"

"Yes, they're real," she said. "But they're dead real."

She explained that the animals were killed by disease or cars, not by rangers, then taken to someone called a taxidermist who removed everything that would decay.

"Things like the heart and the lungs and the kidneys," she said. "It all goes."

"Uuuh, gross," the kids said.

"Everybody asks, 'Are their eyes real?' " she went on. "No, these are marbles that are made to look like real eyes."

Inside, she told them why the bobcat is called Bob instead of George (for his short tail, not because his mother named him that), why the raccoon is called a bandit (for its masklike markings) and why the skunk is such a good friend to man.

The skunk, she explained, eats crickets, grasshoppers and cockroaches.

"Uuuh, gross."

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