Discoveries, Interview

What’s in Your Backpack?

By Kelly Finan –
Rattling My Bones


Dripping with cultural history and utterly unique, the objects cradled in Connor Stedman’s excited hands burned with sentimental value. Their glow reflected in Connor’s eyes and didn’t flicker for an instant upon the delivery of my first question.

“So, what are they?”

To the untrained eye, they were two pieces of wood roughly the size and shape of tongue depressors, but slightly heftier and square at the ends. Connor explained it was a set of bones: A historically Irish one-handed musical instrument that is played by holding one bone stationary while rattling the other bone against it.

While the traditional instrument was made from sheep’s bones, Connor’s version originated as the South American tree palo santo, or “holy wood” in Spanish. Palo santo’s use as a good luck charm and a cleanser of bad energy dates back to the Inca era. Connor says that he’s never heard of another pair of bones made from palo santo.

Connor carved his bones in anticipation of a local visit by Irish bard Gerry Brady, who described bones as “the only instrument you can play with a pint in the other hand”. Gerry blessed this set of bones himself.

Dripping with cultural history and utterly unique, Connor had produced an item that was quintessentially Connor. I was pleased to find that I was not the only Field Naturalist with a very special item in my backpack.

Lovin’ spoonfuls

The “What’s in your Backpack?” project began with an orange spoonfork. No, not a spork. “Spork” implies tiny tongs on the end of a spoon. My beloved spoonfork has a spoon on one end of the handle and a fork on the other.


The spoonfork lives in my backpack for the obvious reason: It is saving the ocean. Just one glance at my special utensil harkens memories of a sunny but barren office overlooking a harbor in northern California. Here, a captain and a lawyer can still be found toiling over the designs for a device that will remove plastic debris from a floating garbage patch so expansive that, when discussing the size of it, scientists can hardly agree on an order of magnitude.

I worked as a graphic designer for The Clean Oceans Project for a year. From my vantage point on a folding camp chair, I learned that the food service industry is one of the leading contributors to the Pacific Garbage Patch. Coffee stirrers, used creamer cups, and of course, plastic utensils escape the clutches of humanity and migrate there by the millions. Despite my physical move away from the ocean, I can’t bring myself to use a piece of single-use plastic without guilt that borders on self-loathing.

By my estimate, my spoonfork has prevented me from using and discarding at least 56 plastic utensils since I acquired it in August of 2012. Perhaps not many of those would have journeyed from northern Vermont to the ocean, but it’s nice to know that they’re not in a landfill, either. Spoonforks were dispatched by the hundreds as a welcome gift from UVM, and I’m comforted to know that there is a militia of reusable utensils stationed in backpacks around campus, protecting our dumps from an onslaught of plastic picnicwear.

Art and soul

Should you need to do some coloring in the field, Clare Crosby has your back. Clare’s backpack boasts not one, but two sets of mini colored pencils, ranging in size from small to ridiculously small.clare

The constituents of Clare’s first set of tiny colored pencils resemble the oversharpened stumps of normal-sized colored pencils, but Clare admits that they came that way. She purchased them for field journaling in a vertebrate natural history course, the class “that made [her] fall in love with birds”.

The pencils in the second set are closer to the size of matchsticks. Clare has had them “for forever”, but recently rediscovered them for the purpose of sketching in and out of the field.

Clare has noticeably worn down her pink pencil by coloring birthday cards for her friends, so it’s obvious that she is a lovely person and would gladly share her pencils. However, philanthropy is not the reason that she carries both sets of them. “The big ones are easier to draw with,” says Clare, “but the small ones have more colors.” As a nature artist, Clare needs a broad selection of greens, browns, and other earth tones; it’s a requirement that can be satisfied only by two sets of tiny colored pencils.

What’s in your backpack?


Now, dear Reader, I implore you to invert your backpack and explore the contents. Is there something with a backstory? Something normal that you use in a unique way? Something totally off the wall? Send an email to You’re in good company…


Kelly Finan is a scientific illustrator from Hop Bottom, Pennsylvania. When she’s not entertaining comments about her hometown’s silly name, she can be found in the woods, on a snowboard, or in a thrift store cultivating her unusual interest in other people’s stuff.

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