By Jenny Neyman
When Dax Radtke starts his karaoke show by announcing, “We’ve got a little something weird going on here tonight,” take him seriously.
This is, after all, karaoke. Karaoke at the Down East Saloon in Homer, no less. Where a heartfelt Janis Joplin ballad to Bobby McGee is followed by a grind down into the dirt of Alice in Chains grunge. Where patrons wait patiently for refills while the bartender and sound engineer belt out the entire, full-length, six-minute, 17-second rendition of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” complete with oversized, sparkly glasses as flamboyant as their choreography. Where the regulars include a soulful songstress who classes up the mic every time she takes the stage, followed by a guy only referred to as “Evil Spawn,” who has perfected his Tenacious D “Tribute” knee slide to the point where his black stovepipe top hat doesn’t budge off his head.
Out of the ordinary is ordinary. Still, the natural course of the evening got somewhat derailed Thursday, by, well, nature.
Naturalists, to be precise, and they were very precise — in their rhythms, in their rhymes and in the ecological information they were there to relate.
The Down East karaoke show was the unlikely scene for a meeting of two like-minded ecological educators. Julie Hinkle, a special education aide at Homer Middle School during the school year and nature guide for Alaska Wildland Adventures in Cooper Landing in the summer, has been dubbed the “rapping naturalist” for her tendency to make up rhymes to encourage outdoors good times. (Editor’s note: Keep reading. Their rhyming is much better.) Dan “Dirty D” Pascucci, education specialist for the Kenai Watershed Forum in Soldotna, has a similar reputation for amping educational content with mandolin music and mad rap beats.
Mutual friends have been scheming to arrange at least a meeting of the two, ideally one involving a rap battle of ecologically important proportions. Finally, the stars aligned — Pascucci was in Homer for a school visit to McNeil Elementary last week, Hinkle had the evening free, and Radtke was willing to allow his karaoke show to take a turn down an educational path.
The tour guides came ready to lead the crowd, each with two rounds of prepared material and quick minds poised to freestyle a rap off of suggested topics from the audience.
“Party people in the place to be, you’re chilling with me, Dirty D, on the M I C,” Pascucci greeted the crowd.
Hinkle took a more hometown approach, wielding her local appeal.
“I’d just like to say that you know you’re a Homer girl when you have your rap songs next to which hunting tags you’re going to apply for and your caribou hunt pack list,” she said, holding up the journal she uses for sketching out lyrics.
Round one was prepared material. Hinkle led with her “Ice Ice Baby” ode to glaciation, a la the mode of Vanilla Ice:
“Alright stop, collaborate and listen / Ice is melting from its current position. Something warms the Earth so slightly / carbon gas is going up in smoke not so lightly. Will it ever stop? Yo, I hope so. The ice starts to melt and starts to flow. Alaska’s the scene so you better get a handle / now listen up for more of this scandal.”
By the hook verse, bar patrons who had otherwise been hollering their approval of steamy though educationally devoid lyrics were now whooping and joining in a rap about global warming:
“This is a problem, we can solve it / Get with your community and lets involve it. Glacial ice ice baby / Not so cold, not so cold. Glacial ice ice baby / Not so cold, not so cold.”
To set the mood for his turn, Pascucci busted out his portable beats generator (a boom box noisemaker toy he found in a secondhand store and lovingly dubbed the Big Bam Boom) and fish hand puppets for his “Salmon Rap.”
“I’m anadromous, you anadromous? I’m anadromous, you anadromous? Fresh, salt, fresh, yes!” Pascucci began, to the collective cheers, and a groan or two, from the audience. “I am a salmon, just look and see / if you live in Alaska, you’ve seen a lot like me. You’ll find five species if you look / the first one is the king a.k.a. chinook. Then you’ve got a sockeye which is red you know / did you know that a silver’s sometimes called coho? Pink — humpies, the rivers they clog / and don’t forget chum ’cause they’re my dogs.”
They had different performance styles — Pascucci more musical, Hinkle preferring a cappella — yet coincidental similarities. Hinkle arrived in a sweatshirt bearing the Alaska Wildland logo to Pascucci’s Kenai Watershed Forum vest, and both wearing knit caps. Indoors attire both happened to be plaid, long-sleeved shirts with pearlized buttons — Pascucci’s snappy, while Hinkle’s were shiny.
More importantly, they share an educational philosophy when it comes to ecology: Use fun to get people learning about and loving nature.
Hinkle said she’s maybe not the norm when it comes to being a naturalist, since she doesn’t bother much with scientific specifics like taxonomic classifications and the proper Latin nomenclature of the plants and critters she teaches about. She can do that stuff if she studies up on it, but experiencing the bigger picture of nature is more important to her, and for her to convey.
“I’m more about just taking people outside and letting them enjoy it. I count the quality of a trip by how many tears are at the end. Like, how many people are sad to leave Alaska. That’s how I measure my trip, not by how many things they can now name.”
For Pascucci, instilling information and a love of nature are like whipped cream and hot chocolate. Both sweet on their own, but much better together.
“If I can do both I have achieved my goal. If I do one of the two then that’s probably all right too. Between appreciation and enjoyment of nature and actual information, I think they’re both fairly important,” he said.
Infusing fun, humor and music into education is a great way to achieve both goals.
“It’s a new way of connecting the information to the audience. Instead of just lecturing, if you can make it rhyme it will at least be more interesting, and if you can make it flow people might remember it,” he said. “If it creates an atmosphere of enjoyment with the information it makes the next time you talk about it a little bit easier to come back to, instead of just being like, ‘Hey, remember that time I talked to you for a really long time about that boring thing?’”
The karaoke audience Thursday at the Down East may remember more than just two science nerds serving hip-hop with a side of Mother Nature. From Hinkle, they may retain some trivia about whales:
“First off is beluga whose name means ‘white’ / they grow up in the sea ice stayin’ out of sight. They are the ones you see in Turnagain Arm / in 2008 they were put on the endangered species to gain protection from harm. Genetically distinct from those in the Bering Sea, only 300 left and they’re lucky to be. Next up are those that travel a long way, come to Alaska in the summer to play / just like Captain James Cook and the Resolution, winter in Hawaii is the perfect solution. Now if you can pay attention and you’re astute, you can tell the individuals apart by the pattern on their fluke.”
From Pascucci, they may think twice about destroying sensitive beach grass:
“Better listen here man, take your beer can, put it in a garbage here can. Clean your waste, yo, clean your space, yo, and a garbage can’s a place where waste goes. / I got my ATV, yeah you know me / Going off the dunes so recklessly. Stop! For just one time, explain to me how on the dunes you came to be. Sure it’s awesome, sure it’s fun, wreck the dunes, it sure is dumb. / Without the dunes, the bluffs are screwed, without the bluffs, you are too.”
After the three rounds — including a freestyle round with Pascucci rapping about salamanders, it was up to the audience to decide the winner.
At first, anyway. Contestants were initially ranked by audience appreciation, including a sudden entrant dubbed, by virtue of hometown, “Anchor Point,” who recited a free verse he’d written on a cocktail napkin in what Radtke designated the “instant, write-him-off-on-a-napkin subdivision.”
But Radtke ultimately put the kibosh on audience influence, deciding that the good-natured group was too enthusiastic to be trusted as discriminating jurors. Instead, he appointed a bar patron to have the final say.
“I just gotta say, these people will applaud for anything,” Radtke said. “Let’s hear it for this table! (The crowd went wild.) The mic stand! (More cheering.) I’m thinking it’s up to you, because we cannot trust these people.”
The designated authority took his position seriously, considering all that had been brought to the mic, before declaring Pascucci the victor.
“He came at it with all three rounds, he also put a lot of enthusiasm into what he was doing. He really put himself out there and I’ve got mad respect for that. Everybody did a lot of great stuff, but give it up for your winner right here,” the judge declared.
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