It had been dry and cloudless for many weeks in Maryland when the earth finally spun into equinox. A tiny spring peeper was discovered clinging to a wall, and a large toad took up residence in the hollow climbing log on the playground. Both had swollen bellies, as if they were maintaining their body moisture from within. The kids found an imperial moth caterpillar moving sluggishly under pine trees and brought it to be photographed. In the garden, a black swallowtail caterpillar munched its way along carrot leaves, along with the tiniest isabella moth caterpillar I’ve ever seen.
When I teach a lesson on winter adaptations, it’s hard to impart to kids the simultaneous urgency and inevitable slowing-down that these creatures must experience at this time of year. This week, early fall storm systems have brought drenching rains and cooler temperatures, reinforcing the cues of diminishing day length and angle of sunlight. Torpor, the entry into suspended animation of body systems that cold-blooded animals rely on to survive freezing temperatures, will begin to occur – ready or not. Many of the young mammals who are my students continue to race around outdoors in apparent disregard of metabolic challenges. Some decline to wear extra layers for insulation, claiming – and who could refute it but the animal herself? – that they don’t feel cold. They will happily go about their normal, carefree play activities while others (including their teachers) huddle nearby in heavy coats or abandon these flimsy insulation efforts to seek heat indoors. It is a season of differentiation, a time when human perception of affordances includes a new array of sensory information and leads to a self-sorting at different levels of resilience and opportunity.
On one of those last warm days of September, a cry went up from the pine woods: “A mouse!” By the time I arrived, a protective barrier of rocks had been placed around the pile of stones and leaves where a young deer (or white-footed?) mouse sat hunched and quivering. “It’s cold! We should take it inside!” one child offered. Another replied that she thought it was just scared, and a third commented that it couldn’t be cold with a fur coat. We watched it for a minute, talking about how well it could manage on its own out here. They concluded that if it had to remain outside, they could at least provide it with some better shelter, and set to work constructing a mouse house from sticks nearby. 20 minutes later, when I dropped by to see their progress, I was informed that the mouse had disappeared, but that they intended to complete the house anyway, and to keep it stocked with seeds from the sunflowers in the garden –“So it can choose what it wants to do.”