Strike

It happens all too often this time of year. A student runs in, breathless: “Emily, there’s a hurt/dead bird!”  A crowd has likely already gathered around a tiny still figure.  Or maybe it’s still fluttering a bit, but its head is cocked awkwardly to one side, one eye barely open. Usually it lies beneath a window.  Today, there were two casualties, a junco and a cardinal. Sometimes I bag and label birds that die and put them in the freezer with the frozen mice.  I pull them out when we are learning about bird adaptations, and we compare feet or bills or plumage.  Or we may bury it, its grave marked with an elaborately decorated stone.

Other times, it is just a scattering of feathers that we find, the plucked remains from a hawk’s meal.  These feathers usually make their way into someone’s fort collection, become decorations, or are attached to a whittled arrow.fort4

A pileated woodpecker with a neck injury appeared mysteriously on the soccer field after a game recently.  No one saw it land there; it was seen struggling to get upright, and was brought to the science room. It was eventually taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center.  No word has yet come as to its condition; we expect it did not survive.

There is something especially poignant about bird strikes, especially when they are committed by an invisible, deadly barrier.  Adaptations to aerial predators are no match for glass.

Lifeline

The stream at Jemicy has no official name.  Sometimes after a dry summer, it is barely a stream at all – just a rocky, damp ditch winding from a sporadic seep at the northern edge of the school’s property and under a broken-down corrugated fence at the southern end.  At some point in the land’s history, well before the original farmland was developed here, the stream must have been a far more powerful force to carve out the deep, narrow valley that now forms the recess play area.  You can still get a sense of this force after a heavy rain, when the banks are scoured clean, the grasses in the narrow floodplain are flattened, and debris gets deposited in unexpected spots.

boysstreamBut most of the time these days, the stream is a benign and beguiling place, its waters an attraction unlike any other. Right now, the stream is strewn with fallen leaves, the water glimmering in the small spaces between them. Many animals are still active in the extended warm spell we’re having.  Every day during recess, I find two new middle school students hanging over a log across the stream, searching for crayfish. Downstream, another group of boys dares each other to vault across the water with a long bamboo pole; at least one always manages to land squarely in the mud to the cheers of his friends. When I introduce children to the woods, we go first to the stream, where I show them that they can orient themselves from its course to all other places.woods3

Disputes over water rights happen here too.  Children with forts downstream frequently accuse those upstream of blocking the flow of water, or of contaminating it with mud.  There is no official policy as to what can or can’t happen in the stream, but when  activities seem to be having a detrimental impact on the ecosystem, they are curtailed.  The discovery of clay deposits after a spring flood scoured a bank launched a frenzy of digging and the creation of a pottery business.6996_394811800596324_1086335970_n  This had to be closed when the fragile bank collapsed.  Just this week, I informed a group of middle school boys that the fort they had held for several years in the middle of the stream would be designated a recovery zone in a few weeks. This came as little surprise to most of them, as they had been asked numerous times over the past year to scale back their dam-building and other activities. “But why?  We’ve been working here since we were 6 years old!  Can’t you please let us stay?” they begged.  I pointed out that when they were six, their activities had little impact, and that with each passing year, they had managed to alter the landscape and stream ecosystem more significantly. It was time for them to acknowledge this and move to a location that was less sensitive to disruption – away from the stream. One tried to argue that they needed water “to do anything fun,” but one of his friends nodded. “No, there’s a lot more things that need that water more than we do.”

The next day at recess, the boys were gone from the fort.  I thought perhaps they had abandoned the woods altogether, but at the lunch bell, as I was leaving the woods, I found them in a new location near the top of the hill.  It was an old fort that had been worked on and left last year, a jumble of old concrete foundation pieces, gravel, and a few perimeter trees.  I complimented the boys on their new location, and pointed out a deep gully worn through the middle of their territory. “Looks like you may have water after all,” I said, and explained that this ditch was an erosion problem caused by storm water runoff from the middle school wing and had never been adequately managed.

“So, it would be a good thing if we tried to fill it in!  Or caught the water to make a pool in our fort!  Or piped it into an irrigation system!”  They headed off to lunch talking excitedly about their plans.

New life for the lifeline?

Kinda gross, kinda cool

At the end of the day during aftercare, someone came running, shouting my name with such urgency that I was sure a child must be hurt.  Instead, it was “Snake!  Eating something!” I followed him to the pine woods where a ring of kids had formed.  In the middle, writhing slowly among the leaf litter, a garter snake gripped the posterior end of a large toad. The snake’s mouth was already distended, as if it had been working on consuming this meal for some time, yet the toad moved only slightly, holding three of its legs (the fourth wasn’t visible) firmly planted as it faced forward with an incongruously placid expression.  There was blood, and what might have been intestines leaking from a wound in the toad’s belly.

I braced myself for the kids’ reactions; this is about as grisly as it gets, and there was something so pathetic in the toad’s utter calm, its bright eyes, its living consumption. But there were no squeals or gasps of horror, no begging to help the toad or to force the snake to let go.  There were questigartersnaketoad2ons: “Is it using venom to kill it?” “How long do you think it will take to swallow it?” “Is that the same toad that we found last week?” “Could it hurt us?” I wondered at the kids’ apparent acceptance of this process.  Was it because they have helped me feed mice (frozen and thawed) to classroom snakes, and we casually talk about which end gets eaten first, and how fast they get to “the spaghetti part,” where just the tail is sticking out of the snake’s mouth? This protracted live-toad-eating seemed very different to me somehow.  After we had watched for a few minutes, it was time to leave for carpool.  I followed them out of the woods and saw several relating the snake-toad tale to the other teachers. “Oh no, how terrible!” one exclaimed, to which a child responded, “Well, snake’s gotta eat.”  And another added, “Yeah, it’s kinda gross – but also kinda cool.  Mostly cool – at  least for the snake.”

Last call

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 playgfroground.  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.

mouseOn 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.”

Monkeybrains, buckeyes, and turtleheads

A flurry of activity filled the woods at Jemicy this week.  During the first month of school, kids wshirtload of buckeyesould stare up at the bright green monkey brains hanging heavily from the lone Osage orange tree, waiting impatiently for them to fall.  Some middle school students using bamboo poles were able to knock a few buckeyes loose for instant wealth.  Finally, the weather cooled, the fruit ripened, and children squealed and scurried up and down the steep hill, filling their shirts with buckeyes and clutching monkey brains under their arms.

I stopped a few kids to photograph their bounty, and to video the trading of goods. Several older students were advertising “Monkey brain sales – today only!”holding the fruit high in the air as they ran down the trails.  A younger child stopped one of them to ask about the exchange rate. “One monkey brain for two buckeyes!” they answered.  After some consideration (“How old is this monkey brain?” “Fresh today!”), the trade was made, and the new monkey brain owner headed off to stash his prize in his fort.

christopherThis is the sort of transaction that I have been documenting in the Jemicy woods for many years.  The value of certain items waxes and wanes, often depending on relative abundance, but also on the experience and perspective of a particular year and group of kids.  Some years, monkey brains are hoarded jealously, heated arguments erupt over supposed thievery, and only when the fruit has become intolerably rotten is it dumped out of a fort.  This year, I overheard an older student dismissively say, “Why would anyone want monkey brains?  They just rot. You should just hunt for buckeyes.” Such value judgments also apply to collectibles such as garnets and quartzite, bamboo and other particular types of sticks. What merits attention and possession is not always apparent to me, but as soon as just one person finds value in something, that value seems to expand rapidly and inhere in every similar object throughout the woods, year after year.

While I was watching the kids go about their collecting aturtleheadnd trading, one girl paused beside me, and said, “Hey, there’s a flower!” I looked where she was pointing, just beside my foot, and gasped, “What?! White turtlehead?” As soon as the kids saw my reaction to the flower, a crowd gathered.  I showed them the signature white flowers, explained that this plant is rare here, that it is the host of the also rare Baltimore checkerspot butterfly, and that it was amazing the deer hadn’t already eaten this to the ground.”We should protect it with a flag,” one boy suggested, and so we attached a fort flag to a stick, and stuck that in the ground to guard the plant. Every day after that, a few kids would go to check on the plant.  They were alarmed when the flowers began to fall off, but were reassured when I showed them the developing seed capsules left on the plant. “Well, that’s good,” said a girl. “So there will be more next year, right?” And with those hopeful words, I could feel the burgeoning value of that single small plant.

Emerging

“Where are the bees and butterflies?”

This is a question that has come up in August for at least the past couple of years. It comes from friends and colleagues who spend time outdoors, especially those who garden. It used to be that we would discuss the overabundance of pests – explosions of brown marmorated stinkbugs, flea beetles, and aphids. Those may still be problems, but now they seem overshadowed by the absence of pollinators, specifically honeybees and monarchs. The question catches me off guard every time, and I find myself quickly riffling through a mental catalog of recent images to see if bees and butterflies really have declined there. I realize as I do this that my catalog – my awareness of this particular sector of biodiversity – probably does not give an accurate reckoning. Just looking at the photographs I’ve taken confirms it. I love photographing pollinators, but honeybees account for a tiny proportion of my images. Instead, there are other types of bees, syrphid flies, ichneumon wasps, moths, ants, and myriad other bugs. Butterflies are certainly a favorite focus, but among these prevail the tiny hairstreaks and blues, the buckeyes and fritillaries. Honeybees and monarchs do get their share of attention, but only in certain quintessential moments: the first honeybee with loaded pollen sacs, delving into the first spring blossoms, the striped monarch caterpillar munching on milkweed, its black antennae waving wildly, or an adult’s orange wings a bold beacon flashing among meadow grasses.

monarchs
People who study pollinators will tell you that honeybees and monarch butterflies are not the most critical for sustaining the biodiversity of flowering plants. But as commonly cultivated species, they have become charismatic pollinator poster children. This fall, a family that raises butterflies at their home brought in several monarch caterpillars in a rearing chamber so that students could watch their metamorphosis. They performed beautifully, eating their milkweed and then climbing to the top of the chamber to affix themselves into dangling J-shapes before almost instantly transforming into lovely jade-green chrysalises. A week or so later, again in the blink of an eye, they popped out of those cases to pump and spread their wings. It is a privileged and wondrous moment to behold. Watching the faces of children who witness this transformation, who let the butterfly step onto their finger and feel that nearly weightless being lift into first flight, is to see an indelible impression being made.

Is the captive rearing of species such as honeybees and monarchs a best practice for sustaining biodiversity? Is it any different from celebrating the recent birth of a giant panda in the National Zoo? To me, the question is less about the well-being of these species, and more about whether the attention they receive detracts from others that are permonarch0730151haps less appealing, but are vital pieces of a larger puzzle whose full picture is still being described. What about the striking saddleback caterpillar with venomous spines that we watch out for in the woods? What about the plump orange milkweed bug nymphs huddling on the milkweed leaves?

When the last of the donated monarch butterflies had emerged and flown, the parent who had loaned us the rearing setup came to retrieve it. She saw that one chrysalis still hung there, mostly green, but with one dark blotch. “Oh, that one will produce a parasitic grub,” she said. “You should just destroy it.” I thanked her and asked to keep it a few days longer. That puzzle isn’t finished quite yet.

Sustainability scramble

warning signThat momentary mental jumble when I am  asked what I will be doing in New Zealand.  Then the slow churning of multiple syllables in my mind as I prepare to deliver them in some coherent fashion: “Looking at how kids learn about sustainability through understanding local biodiversity.”  Sometimes this torrent of sounds registers, and I get an honest nod of understanding; more often, it’s a polite, bemused smile. Too many scrambled word bits.

Clearly, I need to find a better way to express these two primary themes of my Fulbright project, at least for the kids that I’ll be working with.  I have barely begun to broach the topic of biodiversity with M Group, but so far presenting it as “How many species?” is a start.  We began by trying to figure out the biodiversity of the classroom (about 20 species, not counting the wild things that inhabit dark corners), their houses (this was fun when they realized that their fish tanks and houseplants accounted for many different species), and a single milkweed plant outside (at least 10 species of aphids, milkweed bugs, wasps, flies, etc.).  I am hoping to be able to segue this fairly concrete definition into the part that is sustainability by asking, “How do our actions affect these numbers?”

neshamaBut even more simplicity is needed, I think, to make these terms manageable. Breaking biodiversity into morphemes yields something along the lines of differences in living things.  That’s not a bad start.  Sustainability is trickier, assimilated by so many different political, educational, and economic sectors. I like the idea of “to bear” better than “to endure,” since that implies an immediate and personal responsibility.  Endurance heads off into a realm that is too easy to ignore or postpone.  We’ve got a job to do now, vs. we’ll figure that out when it gets bad.  Even more appealing is the idea that to sustain is to care.  In my classroom, I have a dozen small habitats containing diverse living things.  I care about them, so it is my job to sustain their worlds, to care for them.

What kinds? How many? Caring about them.  Caring for them. Biodiversity and sustainability in a nutshell.