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.”

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