What is green, shows up every spring and can make you miserable?
"Poison oak," chorused a band of kids on their weekly nature walk.
What looks like a stick, lies in the sun and may bite?
"A snake," the children chimed in unison.
Who knows the name of every plant, animal and kid in Eaton Canyon?
The kids know that one, too: Larry Shaffer, whose natural habitat is the canyon at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains at the eastern border of Altadena and Pasadena.
Shaffer gives nature lessons to people of every age in the canyon that was home to him long before the county built a nature center there in 1963.
As a part-time nature specialist for the Community Services Department of Pasadena, Shaffer leads hikes and conducts classes, many of them in Eaton Canyon. He also conducts natural science classes part time for the county Parks Department and at a small private school in Pasadena.
Most afternoons he can be found on the trails, pointing out wood rat nests, anthills, granite rocks, flycatchers, heliotrope--any and all phenomena that continue to fascinate a man who has spent most of his 36 years probing the mysteries of nature.
Every time there is a full moon, Shaffer leads a night hike. Every summer he has sunset hikes, during which people can see and hear the plant and animal life as light gives way to darkness. Every spring he teaches children as young as 2 some of the rudiments of nature and takes senior citizens on wildflower-viewing excursions. The public is charged a small fee for most city-sponsored events. The moonlight hikes, for instance, cost $2 and tiny-tot classes (with mothers) cost $5.
"I go with the environment. I go with what's happening," said Shaffer as he led a hardy band of 5-year-olds along a rocky trail. He warned of spring's emerging dangers (poison oak and snakes) and delights (heliotrope and flycatchers). He knew every child's name, interest, mother and, in some cases, life history. "These are my friends," he said.
Just a week earlier the moon shone so brightly that 20 adults seemed to reflect its light as they climbed along silent banks and hills. There were no animal sounds, Shaffer said, "because we're glowing. They can see the light bouncing off of us."
He has led moonlight hikes for more than seven years, even when only two or three people showed up on freezing winter nights.
"I'd never cancel," he said. "Why cancel a good thing? People know Larry Shaffer will always show up."
People have learned something else about Shaffer: The weather usually does what he says it will do. A descendant of farmers in Pennsylvania, he inherited their trust of the Farmer's Almanac and now he plans most of his major outdoor events according to its predictions.
"You remember that sudden storm a few weeks ago?" Shaffer said. "Remember there was no sign of it coming? Well, the Almanac said there would be a good amount of snow in these mountains that weekend. I planned a family hike and there it was, right on schedule. We had brand new powdered snow with animal tracks."
Said Kathy Blomo, a community service representative for the city of Pasadena for whom Shaffer works part time: "Larry is always excited about his work, so everybody working with him gets excited along with him."
When he was a little boy growing up in neighboring Sierra Madre, Shaffer said, Eaton Canyon served as a giant backyard for him and his friends.
"There was such abundance," he said. "My friends and I would catch snakes and bugs and butterflies, and then always let them go. I knew there would always be more."
Later, when he studied communications at Cal State Long Beach, he kept returning to Eaton Canyon as a kind of home base. Now he and his wife, Anita, who is a nurse and another naturalist, live in Sierra Madre with their baby daughter, Erica. Shaffer says he intends to present the wonders of nature to people all his life, and hopes to write a book.
He said he feels an urgency now. Encroaching civilization has produced a constant roar from the Foothill Freeway less than two miles away, hillside erosion from houses built on the canyon's rim, debris, people who don't respect nature, polluted air and other threats to wildlife.
"My goal is to get as many people involved in nature as I can. Maybe we can save the environment," he said. "I've led blind people who could smell an herb and come back a year later and identify it. And deaf people who can see things that I can't see. I've learned from them, how they've worked with what they have.
"There's so much going on and I don't want to miss any of it."