True colors

Tomorrow is Halloween, and the basket of candy is ready for trick-or-treaters. But for me, it’s eye candy time of year, when the leaves are irresistible.  Each seems more lovely than the last, and before I know it, my hands are full of them. My recess companions feed this compulsion, spotting and gathering the ones I’ve missed, generously offering them to me. How can you say no to these pinks?


Last April and May I was confounded by the autumn foliage of New Zealand.  It was certainly striking: rows of tall, golden Lombardy poplars, red dogwoods, orange sweet gum, and many other familiar tree species represented in the leaf pigment spectrum.  But somehow it felt wrong to celebrate these colors at that time of year, in a place where almost no deciduous plants had evolved, but had been imported to make European colonists feel at home: “acclimatized.” Certainly the trees are now themselves well naturalized in NZ, an accepted fixture of the landscape and ecosystems where they live (although I am still curious as to how oaks there get their acorns dispersed without squirrels, jays, and other co-evolved wildlife). Enough generations of Kiwis have experienced autumn colors that this is the new normal, and foliage-seekers flock to locations like Queenstown, where the crystal blue skies and water provide contrast to the changing leaves.


With October winding down here in the northern hemisphere, temperatures in Maryland are slowly edging toward freezing. I’m feeling a celebratory rush of delight in these leaves, the colors of home, that are beginning their deciduous journey into humus. My leaf press is almost full, but there may be room for just a few more…



Tree time

We planted saplings at school yesterday: oaks, maples, redbuds. Kids vied for the chance to carry the potted trees, shovels, buckets of water and compost down the steep hill, across the soccer field, to a location where we hoped the trees would thrive. Digging proceeded enthusiastically, unearthing rocks and roots and sometimes mysterious objects as the holes deepened. It took a long time – hours spent with several different classes – to get past all the obstacles, to prepare the soil, but no one complained. The day was warm, the fall foliage vibrant. If you weren’t digging, you were finding rocks to encircle the base of the tree, or clearing away vines.

When at last the young trees were taken out of their pots and fitted into their new spaces, they received names. Some reflected the immediate planting conditions, like “Root monster” (with an impressive root ball) and “Heart Tree” (for the shaped rock that was found in the hole). “Darrell”  and “Beyoncé” were named for a grandfather and a favorite performer. Naming a tree does more than elevate its status; it confirms a lasting relationship with the namer.

Then came the questions born of new stewardship:”When can we come back to check on him?” “Can I bring her water during recess?” “How can we keep deer from eating him?” Walking back, talking about how long it takes for trees to grow, we realized that if these tree-planters someday had children who came to school at Jemicy, the trees might by that point have offspring of their own. “They can be cousins!” someone said.


“Where did you get the trees?” a JE student asked. “Can I plant some at my house?”

The trees came, I told them, from a nursery in the Middle River area – a round trip journey of a couple of hours. The county had sent out notices for its Fall Tree Giveaway: ten free tree saplings to any county resident who showed up to get them.  Oaks, maples, and several understory species were available, a golden opportunity to help replenish the local natives.

I arrived just after the nursery opened at 8 AM, joining a line of vehicles waiting to enter. On this exquisite fall morning, I turned off the engine and got out to enjoy the quiet and sunshine – but not for long.  The fellow in the car in front of me, windows down, was shouting at his phone: “They said FREE, but apparently they’re NOT REALLY FREE, because we have to WAIT FOREVER in this LINE to get them!” After haranguing the volunteer who was directing traffic, he gunned his engine into a U-turn and roared away.  Five minutes later, the line had moved, and I was loading a small forest into the car. Heart Tree and Root Monster. Beyoncé and Darrell.


We plant trees – the longest-living beings that we know -as memorials, as windbreaks, as things of beauty, as habitat for others, as erosion control, as a food source. Watching kids plant trees is like planting time itself, time that expands as they grow, year upon year and ring upon ring of sturdy sapwood. I concluded that maybe we were lucky when that man left the line – because we got to plant his trees.

The kids looked relieved. “Right! And who knows what he would have named them?!”






A visit to Mars

We’ve just finished our fall all-school unit theme of space, in which my classes spent a great deal of time discussing the basic needs of living things.  Could another planet develop life such as we have on earth? What would it take for humans to successfully inhabit a planet that had no other life forms? What could an environment such as Mars afford human beings? Have we evolved into creatures that no longer have niches dependent upon coexistence with other species?

Throughout this unit, I often thought about Jared Diamond’s suggestion that New Zealand, with its large number of endemic species, “is as close as we will ever get to studying life on another planet.” But looked at through the lens of affordances – perceived environmental opportunities for action – the small organisms that we encounter daily at Jemicy present an impressive array of unique characteristics and raise compelling questions. They are other-worldly in the sense that we don’t often perceive them inhabiting “our” world, so we rarely consider how well-adapted they are to their particular niches.

These organisms have colonized tiny islands of opportunity in the sea of buildings, concrete pathways, and planted borders that constitute our built campus. When we come across these sturdy survivors, doing whatever they do, we have to ask questions: Why here? Why this particular action? What affordances are available in this setting for this particular species, or for this developmental stage?

An inchworm making its way across a log reaches out to a waiting finger. What does that finger afford the inchworm in that moment that its log does not? Ants swarming a cracker within a minute of it being dropped: how did they know? Why is this preferred over their native food? Why does a salamander allow you to slide your hand under it and hold perfectly still, then suddenly leap away between your wet fingers? How does it instantly know the precise hiding spot where you can’t find it again? Why did the mushroom grow in the walnut shell?  Will it die if removed from the woods? What are these other mushrooms doing in this sidewalk crack that surely gets stepped on dozens of times each day? What possible affordances exist here for a fungus?

A Carolina wren gave us a lesson on this topic last week, entering the science building during a morning when the door was propped open.  Rather than flying frantically against the windows trying to escape, as other wild birds have done in the past, it busied itself poking around among the plants in the greenhouse bay, perching to preen near the zebra finch aviary. All attempts to net it or guide it toward the door were futile – it simply flew up into the rafters. It discovered the open mealworm bin and flew in for regular feasts. I finally saw it dart out the door one day in pursuit of a stinkbug — and then quickly fly back in to forage once again in the greenhouse. The kids were delighted: “It likes us!” We talked about the affordances that the wren may have perceived in the science building. Were humans themselves one of the more negative aspects, or an enticement?


One day the wren finally decided to leave for good.  “But why?” the kids demanded, missing its activity in the greenhouse. “What’s better out there?”

“I think out there is like Earth, and in here is like Mars,” mused one student. “It wanted to explore in here, and it found some things it liked, but it couldn’t stay.  It just wasn’t home.”


It is an ancient practice: following the main harvest, searching among the remnants of crops to find food that would otherwise rot or be plowed under.  Gleaning requires a keen eye and an open mind, with the willingness to value attributes other than immediate consumability.

The gardens around the science building were planted by some of the younger students last spring.  Over the course of the summer and early fall, the untended beds grew thick with grasses and other weeds, obscuring any intended produce.


With the growing season for annuals coming to a close and foliage dying back, the gleaners have moved in.  The first items discovered usually have the brightest colors: cherry tomatoes, zinnias, the orange top of a protruding carrot.  Size and shape also catch the eye: a gourd, a melon, an enormously overgrown cucumber. The tantalizing scent of mint and basil rises as foragers creep through the tangle.  They learn to watch their step.  There could be a late-season strawberry lurking down there.  Along the way, there are other opportunistic edibles to nibble on – sourgrass, garlic mustard, perilla.

What kids also discover, what their gleaning reminds me of each year when I bemoan the weeds taking over, is the diversity of other living things that utilize these gardens-gone-wild. Caterpillars of numerous species climb the stalks, gorging on leaves, pupating, emerging, adult butterflies and moths nectaring on the remaining flowers. Grasshoppers, crickets, and katydids are abundant among the tenacious, invasive grasses, as are the lady beetles feasting on aphids. I think of these creatures as valuable bycatch in the gleaning process, their presence affirming that a garden can be both an ecosystem unto itself and a valuable component of larger systems – far more than a managed, predictable producer of human foods. These tangled, prolific patches of biodiversity will be left for the winter, to complete their cycles unimpeded until the next planting season.