A few weeks ago, I read an article about an unusual bird in New Zealand. It featured a kea, a species of parrot that inhabits the higher, colder, alpine regions of the country. Visitors to New Zealand are warned not to feed any kea that visit picnic areas, and to be mindful of the kea’s propensity for using its powerful, hooked beak to shred windshield wiper blades, tires, and any rubberized trim on a car.
Fortunately, my encounters with the New Zealand kea were at a safe distance from those fearsome beaks. But Bruce, the kea featured in the article I read, was unusual in that he was missing part of his beak. He had learned to use other objects such as stones in the essential task of grooming his feathers, or preening. The use of tools by birds and other animals has been well-documented, but kea had never been observed using tools before, which meant that Bruce was demonstrating the ability to solve a unique problem in response to his physical condition.
Research shows that our brains may perceive objects that we touch as an actual physical extension of our bodies. Other studies demonstrate an evolutionary link between language development and tool use. In any case, my many years of teaching science have taught me that there is almost nothing that motivates children like opportunities to use tools. Whether digging, constructing (and deconstructing), launching, spinning, lifting…, if there isn’t a tool that has been invented to accomplish a desired goal, children often figure out a way to create and use it. The process may work in reverse as well. A child finds an interesting object and begins to test out its capabilities. Is it good for hammering? Sharpening? Connecting other objects? Splitting them in half?
We saw this passion for tools throughout the summer at Camp Jemicy, where the younger kids were taught how to use chisels and mallets to carve designs in logs. Those campers who are now attending school at Jemicy cheered as if greeting old friends when they saw the gleam of the new chisels that we acquired, and then promptly put them to use.
Some of the first science lessons for the JE community this fall involved simple machines: wedge, ramp, lever, wheel and axle, pulley, and screw. Each of these was introduced with hand movements, names, and games, so that students would develop muscle memory of the shape, action, and language associated with the machine. Our first project was building toolboxes while identifying the tools used in their construction: saws, sandpaper, screws and screwdrivers.
Challenges followed: lifting a classmate with a shovel, using a stick as a launching lever, racing cars down a ramp, lifting buckets of water using pulleys.
The transition of these concepts from classroom to fort play area was instantaneous.
Kea use their beaks to shred human-made items not necessarily in a search for food or from some destructive urge, but because they are what is known as an “open-program” species. The flexible behavior of such animals “has less to do with the ability to learn than with the animal’s orientation toward learning. Such individuals actively seek out opportunities for acquiring new skills and making use of novel materials…. [The] environment presents a set of continually changing circumstances – a situation in which play should evolve in its most striking form.”* This sounds a lot like the human children I know.
In 1964, Abraham Kaplan declared, “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” While this, too, is true of many children, it implies that we need to help diversify the toolkits that they are equipped with. Given the “open-program” nature of childhood, the more opportunities kids have to discover, create, play with, and pursue their affinity for diverse tools, the more options they will recognize for future action.
*(Kea, Bird of Paradox: The Evolution and Behavior of a New Zealand Parrot, by Judy Diamond and Alan B. Bond)
That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
It starts in April with trees that stand outside the science building, their thin, arching, alternate branches rising from multiple slender trunks. They are tipped with oval, finely serrated leaves and delicate white blossoms promising some sort of fruit. The bark is relatively smooth, mottled gray and olive green. We note all of these characteristics, and then I tell a story about how this tree traditionally served as a clock, its blossoms and fruit signaling the arrival of spring and summer, warmer weather, fish spawning, and opportunities for people to travel and gather. Serviceberry, shadbush, and juneberry are some of its common names, but the students focus only on the berry part. “Can we eat it?” “Yes, when it turns dark red, in a few weeks.” The primary affordance, or opportunity for interaction, of this tree for these kids is its edibility, so that is what they latch onto and remember. If they were to come up with their own meaningful (if lengthy) name for Amelanchier canadensis, it would likely be “Berries by the science building that we can eat when they’re red, hopefully before school is out.”
The goal of challenging fourth graders to learn to identify 50 plants in a matter of weeks is less about names and far more about meaning. Renaming plants to increase the likelihood of recognizing them again increases the fun of learning them. My goal is for students is to really look at plants, to see their differences and unique qualities, to recognize how they live in their habitat. Are they in a wetland? Creeping up a tree? Smothering the forest floor? Sensory experience is key, and beyond the obvious visual clues, we utilize smell, taste, and touch whenever it is safe to do so.
When I first ask the class to name the plants they see as they look around our schoolyard, they say, “Grass and weeds.” This launches several questions. For “What’s a weed?” I offer my favorite definition: A plant in the wrong place. Box elder is a fine tree in the woods that we can tap for sap in the spring, but its helicopter seeds create weeds when they land in the vegetable garden. Then I ask them to pick a piece of what they consider grass. They show me a variety of leaf blades, and then I hand them another part of grass: the flower. “What!? Grass has flowers? Mind blown!” That is a direct quote.
Looking closer at the plants that we are sitting on, I wonder aloud, “Shouldn’t plants with leaves this different have different names?” Holding up one of the leaves, I ask them what the margin reminds them of. “Sharp teeth,” they agree. Then I ask a member of the class who speaks fluent French how to say “Tooth of the lion.” “Dent de lion,” he replies promptly. “Oh, dandelion!” the others chorus. “And the flower looks like a lion’s mane!” From then on, dandelions are “tooth of the lion.”
One of our favorite spring plants in the woods is Galium aparine, aka cleavers or bedstraw. But neither of these common names has obvious meaning relative to what it affords a 4th grader, so instead we call it simply “Velcro.” Beyond creating wearable fashion statements from its super-sticky stems, it has sparked a tag game: secretly attach a strand to another person, then dash away yelling, “You’ve been Velcroed!” before the victim can retaliate by Velcroing you.
“How about THIS?” I asked another day, handing each student a long, pointed leaf from a species of tree whose crowns tower over all others in the woods. “Crush the leaf. Now take a deep breath.. and then tell me its name.” Some kids gagged, others looked surprised. “Peanut butter?” “Disgusting!” “Pumpkin!” “Yuck!” I admitted, after their reactions had calmed, that my personal name for this tree is “stink tree,” but some people really like the smell. In fact, its common name is tree of heaven due to its height, which also allows its wind-borne seeds to float away and colonize wherever they land, even in a sidewalk crack. “So it has superpowers!” one student declared. An apt description for the ubiquitous Ailanthus altissima.
For years, I have habitually paused to hug certain trees as I lead groups through the Jemicy woods. “Why?” the kids ask. “Well…, because they are just so…huggable. Try it!”
I should have known that these American beeches with their beautifully toothed leaves and smooth gray trunks would forever bear this name. As in, “I think I’ll build my fort under this huggable tree,” and “I think I found a baby huggable tree!”
At Jemicy, multiflora rose is known as “the living fence,” (and gingerly tested for its ability to contain large mammals).
Giant burdock is “elephant’s ear.” Also “salad plate.”
Tuliptree is “foxface.”
Oxalis is “sourgrass.”
Jewelweed is “the unsinkable leaf that can stop poison ivy.”
Poison ivy needs no renaming. It is one plant whose common name alone can stop an impulsive hand in mid-reach.
Even plant pests can find themselves renamed. Upon meeting the hemlock woolly adelgid, a student promptly dubbed them “Fuzz bugs,” and the name stuck.
In probably my favorite naming moment this spring, I was introducing students to a lanky understory tree, some of whose leaves were oval, some mitten-like, and some had lobes that one person thought looked like small green ghosts. Yes, we all agreed – it was a remarkable resemblance.
Once again, I handed out leaves with instructions to crush and sniff them. This time there was no gagging – just wide eyes and a look of delight. “It’s Froot Loops!” someone shouted, and the entire class joined in: “YES! FROOT LOOPS!” Then, in a ghostly voice, someone whispered, “It’s Froo-oo-oot Loo-oo-oops!” Who knows – maybe next year’s class will decide that this tree should be called something entirely different than Spooky Froot Loops, but (with apologies to Shakespeare) I wonder: If I had insisted they call it “sassafras,” would it smell as sweet?
The plan was for our rock unit to last two weeks – half of my most recent stint in the JE Neighborhood. I should have known better. Doesn’t everyone go through an obsessive rock-collecting phase at 8 or 9? For the past thirty years or so, haven’t I heard from parents weary of emptying backpacks and pockets of rocks picked up by this age group during recess? “Please, can’t the rocks just stay in the woods?” they beg. Didn’t I have my own vast childhood collection of significant rocks, and don’t I still habitually pick up pebbles from whatever trail I’m hiking, pondering them as I walk?
The rock unit could have lasted all year, fueled by enthusiasm that grew as we dug deeply into minerals, volcanoes, erosion, fossils, and crystals. My own pockets bulged once more with stones that kids found during recess or outdoor classes, or maybe just on their way from their car to their classroom, and gave me for safe-keeping. We hunted for interesting rocks, named them (cake rock, marshmallow rock, fake gold, coal, chalk rock), sorted them, and put some of them in our tumbler. While playing in their forts, kids cracked open rocks, finding garnets and quartz crystals that quickly became currency.
We learned about the rock cycle and how igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks form, erupted volcanoes with baking soda, vinegar, and dry ice, and formed our own sedimentary rocks with layers of clay, silt, pebbles and sand.
We squeezed and pressed colored layers of model magic to create metamorphic rocks, melted marshmallow magma and combined it with edible “minerals,” and examined crystals under a microscope to see their different patterns. Using clay that we found and dug by the Jemicy stream, we made fossil prints of ferns and shells and fired them in our fire pit.
We also joined “Skype a Scientist” and met Amelia, a graduate student at the American Museum of Natural History, who shared her research on mosasaurs and toured us around the fossil halls via Zoom.
Rock on, all you budding geologists, paleontologists, volcanologists, and rockhounds!
Why did the George The Skeleton laugh when he hit his funny bone?
Because it was humerus!
George The Skeleton stands – or hangs – just 4′ tall, a bit smaller than most of my JE students, and has been introducing kids to his 206 bones for more than 30 years. He is not the least bit creepy; on the contrary, children find his personable smile and articulated limbs irresistible. George has withstood innumerable kids shaking his phalanges and has patiently endured indignities at the hands of mischievous 7th graders (pencil “cigarettes” clenched in his movable mandible, hastily scrawled speech bubbles demanding “No homework!” stuck to his skull). Aside from worn out plastic cartilage and a few bits of hardware I’ve had to replace over the years, he has held up remarkably well.
Why is George The Skeleton so calm? Nothing gets under his skin!
Why didn’t George The Skeleton go to the dance?
He had no body to go with!
The JE students launched the unit by drawing what they thought their own skeleton looked like. George joined us to oversee every following skeletal activity. And, because George is such a humerus kind of guy, we made sure to share jokes with him at every opportunity.
What does George The Skeleton order at a restaurant? Spare ribs!
Playing “Science Says” is a fun way to learn the names and locations of the bones. When Science says “skull,” you rap on the top of your head. For “sternum,” pound your chest; “ulna,” cup your elbow; “femur,” slap your thighs. To introduce “pelvis” I show old footage of Elvis doing some of his signature moves, and we imitate him while singing “Elvis shakes his pelvis!”
What song does Elvis sing on Feb. 2? You ain’t nothin’ but a GROUNDHOG!
We have an extensive collection of bones donated by families who find deer, raccoon, fox, or groundhog skeletons, among many others, enabling us to compare the anatomy of a wide variety of vertebrates. This year we were also lucky to come upon the remains of an opossum out in the woods, where we examined the vertebrae, ribs, and mandible left behind by scavengers.
Why didn’t George The Skeleton cross the road? He just didn’t have the guts!
In most years, each student would have constructed a detailed, life-size skeleton out of a variety of found objects. This year, we reimagined the natural history museum and created dioramic fantasies with human and other animal skeletons.
What is George The Skeleton’s favorite musical instrument? The trombone!
Least favorite? The organ!
George administered this year’s final exam by having students label the bones they had learned over the past month. A teacher passing by stopped to ask what we were doing and was immediately grilled on his knowledge. “Do you know where your scapula is?” the kids demanded. He shook his head. “Your phalanges?” “Nope.” “How about your humerus?” “Uh…, no.” “It’s right here!” they all yelled, slapping their upper arms and shouting “HA HA HUMERUS!” while George smiled proudly at the latest generation of Jemicy anatomical humorists.
Every winter, M Groupers spend a few weeks immersed in oceans – virtually. We begin by studying ocean geography and topography, and then do a quick survey of marine biodiversity. This year, the first part of the unit was presented entirely on line, with students logging in for a quick introduction to each topic and then practicing research skills by looking for information. The constraints of distance and time in this pandemic year are always frustrating, but they were mitigated by my favorite part of this exercise: learning alongside my students as they discover new marine features and species that I have never heard of.
A case in point: zigzag coral, or Madrepora oculata. At the end of our virtual 2 weeks, before heading off for winter break and then reconvening in person for the new year, each student chose a marine species as the centerpiece for a multi-faceted research project. While most students selected animals that were familiar to me – orca, blue whale, sea otters – one boy chose this striking coral. He worked diligently during class to unearth facts about its range and habitat, diet, life cycle, and conservation status, arranging these into informational slides for his report. During recesses and group walks, he shared his new knowledge with me: “Did you know that this type of coral doesn’t live in tropical places? It likes deeper, colder water.” And new concerns: “I’m really worried about the coral’s survival. Fishing nets that drag on the ocean floor are ruining colonies!”
The art teachers and I have always collaborated on the ocean project, with students creating beautiful shadow boxes that featured their animals. This year, we were fortunate to be teaching M Group during the same time, but for the art component, Sean introduced students to a new animation technique using Google Slides. Students drew their research animals, along with habitat features like aquatic plants, prey and predators. They then photographed and imported them into the slides program, where they learned how to design a virtual fish tank and develop action involving their drawn figures.
Students who completed their research and animation projects devoted their final classes in science to making 3D dioramas that showcased animals in their habitats.
One of the final highlights of this collaborative ocean unit was a virtual field trip. We would normally take this group to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, but this year we were able to schedule an hour for a personal tour of the Aquarium’s Maryland Mountains to the Sea exhibits. This enabled both virtual and in-person students to get an up-close view of terrapins, hogsuckers, groupers, and other Maryland species, while being able to ask the Aquarium staff a multitude of questions.
As has become our custom this year, M Group celebrated our final class of this science rotation with a fire pit and marshmallows, talking about what we had learned in the past few weeks. While some marveled that they had never expected to be able to create their own animations, others reflected on the animals that they had gotten to know virtually through their research. Several of these species were threatened or endangered. Would they ever have the chance to see them in real life? The boy who studied zigzag coral has already told me that he hopes to someday be a marine conservationist. I think he’s on his way.
After more than three decades of teaching at Jemicy, I thought I’d pretty much seen it all. Enter Spring, 2020. The coronavirus completely upended any semblance of normalcy as we pivoted abruptly to teaching online. It seemed impossible that we could maneuver our way through the thick tangle of COVID restrictions and concerns of families and staff to actually reopen this fall. But here we are, restructured into smaller, isolated groups -“neighborhoods” – each with its own dedicated spaces and faculty. And, in a strange twist, one of my long-held dreams has finally come true: getting to teach entirely outside.
My science classes have always seen plenty of outdoor time, but this is different. This year I am intentionally restructuring the curriculum to prioritize and fit outdoor spaces – those places that I have always described as the biggest, best classroom in the world.
The JE neighborhood started getting to know their larger neighborhood by asking, “Where in the world are we?” We mapped our campus, walking the perimeter through weeds and woods, along streets and streams. Our moose mascot (who wears a mask and also a cool spiderweb beard), situated at the top of our front circle, conveniently aims north. It became the reference point for orienting ourselves wherever we happened to be. We identified notable landmarks (“Does a pile of deer poop count?”) and topographical features while adding to our biodiversity checklist.
Screen tents, the outdoor pavilion, and any place where we could find some distance, sit or place a yoga mat, became gathering spots. Along with lessons on animal classification, adaptations, and seasonal changes, we coordinated science and art classes to study the distinct characteristics and beauty of the leaves that surrounded our outdoor neighborhood.
Class time was also regularly devoted to letting kids play in the woods and develop their own unique communities there. We took trips to Jemicy’s bamboo forest where we harvested poles for fort construction. A new barter system quickly developed: “I’ll trade you this part with leaves for that short, fat stick.” “Will anybody trade me one long bamboo for two bricks?”
Friends found ways to help each other while staying safely at a distance. A giant beetle larva was unearthed during stone collecting, admired, and safely replaced. Burdock plants dispersed their seeds by using unwitting mammal “fur,” much to the mammals’ annoyance. Adopted tree seedlings found permanent homes.
What will happen when the weather turns cold? We had a taste of that this week as we gathered in the pavilion, shivering, with temperatures in the 40’s. Conveniently, our topics were seasonal endothermic (warm-blooded) and ectothermic (cold-blooded) animal adaptations. Kids immediately gravitated to the sunnier side of the structure, jumped up and down, and ran laps to get warm. “It’s probably too cold to bring the snakes out here, isn’t it?” asked one wistfully. “But maybe the guinea pigs?” We observed crickets, how their behavior changed when we moved them from shade to sun, then released them to find their way to winter accommodations.
Finally, we pulled on our boots and headed to the woods, where the kids took one look at the deep, shaded stream valley and predicted that the water would be too cold for frogs. A fresh shed from a snake confirmed that some cold-blooded creatures were still conducting business as usual.
We did find a couple of spunky young frogs that were still actively elusive in spite of the season officially shifting from summer to fall. Fortunately, it was also too cold for the mosquitoes that had plagued our previous hikes.
I stopped by yesterday to tour a set of forts that several girls were working on, noting that while they had followed this year’s new guidelines not to share close spaces, they had left open passageways from one fort to another. They gave me a tour of newly installed seating, decorations, and the hollow bamboo tube where visitors could put their “money” (large green fruits) for admission. “The money grows on that bush,” they said, pointing out their nearby revenue source, “so really anybody can come in with permission.” And when I asked about their open concept layout, they responded, “Well, we didn’t want to just build forts – we wanted to make a neighborhood!”
When Jemicy decided against having camp this summer due to the pandemic, I found myself searching for a new personal learning opportunity, preferably one that would keep me outdoors as much as possible. An online butterfly class caught my eye, and soon I was enrolled in a seminar that is traditionally field-based and taught in Vermont, but that fortunately expanded this year to include students from around the country. What especially attracted me, beyond the chance to spend hours in the field, was the use of photography and an iNaturalist project for sharing images and helping each other identify species.
Bryan, the instructor, asked about our individual goals for the course. “Skippers,” I answered, though not without misgivings. Referencing a birding term for a group of species whose similar appearance presents aggravating identification difficulty in the field, skippers are known as the “sparrows” of the butterfly world. Hesperiidae is a family of relatively small, often drab-colored butterflies that people sometimes mistake for day-flying moths. They have a plump thorax and large eyes, hooked clubs at the end of their antennae, and a characteristically darting flight.
Common roadside skipper
For years, in spite of their prevalence, I had mostly avoided getting to know these tiny, triangular enigmas. Only a few in this region, like the silver-spotted skipper, are sizable, distinctly marked, and readily identifiable at a distance.
There just didn’t seem to be a way to reliably distinguish one little orange-brown speck from another. “At least sparrows have distinctive songs,” I sighed. But learning skippers, I decided, was a worthy summer challenge. And a good excuse to spend time in some of my favorite places, searching for and photographing a few of the 150 or so butterfly species found in Maryland.
From mid-June through July, I scoured the local parks and trails with a singular focus, finding new appreciation for the beauty of butterflies that I knew well and relishing the surprise of new discoveries. This rather worn, brown butterfly that I was about to dismiss as the ubiquitous little wood satyr? No, wait, there was something different about those spots and how it was flying. Turns out it was an Appalachian brown, a not uncommon species, but one new to me.
The urge to find new butterflies pulled me out of my immediate neighborhood a few times. Remembering a butterfly spotted a year ago at a distant park, I headed there again. Along the same edge of the same field in the same 90 degree heat, a flash of orange in the grass caught my eye – a silvery crescent nectaring on a dandelion, possibly a descendant of last year’s butterfly.
Another time, using the filters on iNaturalist to see where other people were finding certain species, I drove down to the Patuxent Research Refuge. Not only was I rewarded with zebra swallowtails in abundance, but I finally got to see the resident pair of trumpeter swans – two first sightings!
As the weeks went by and my vocabulary of butterfly characteristics expanded, it took little more than a glance to recognize and mentally note the low, flat glide of a buckeye, the frenetic dance of an eastern tailed blue, the bounce of a common wood nymph. I often paused not to capture, but to simply enjoy the show: an eastern tiger swallowtail uncurling its long proboscis, a red admiral slowly spreading its red-banded wings to the sun and then snapping them shut to reveal the incredible intricacy of their ventral pattern.
Eastern tailed blue
Common wood nymph
Eastern tiger swallowtail
All this time, the skippers were darting about, teasing my ability to recognize them. Perched at one angle, a skipper could be a swarthy – at another, a dun. Field marks disappeared under both the sun’s harsh light and in dappled shade, and I tried every camera setting I could think of to capture something – anything – that would answer the nagging question, “Who ARE you? Sing to me!”
I read up on voltinism, or the different broods and flights of a species which caused them to show up in numbers, freshly emerged, for a week or two and then disappear. Little glassywings took over entire fields from the previously abundant but now abruptly vanishing zabulon skippers, only to disappear themselves after a few weeks, replaced by a fresh flight of Peck’s skippers and sachems. Meanwhile, there were the reliable constants: diminutive least skippers bobbing in and out of the grass in wetter places, and bold silver-spotted skippers that seemed to enjoy nothing better than zooming into a milkweed plant to spoil my shot of a monarch or great spangled fritillary.
Great spangled fritillary
The skippers flitted about and displayed their nature in ways that were at first incomprehensible. I had to learn which field marks were critical to note and photograph. Was it the ventral side? Dorsal? Under the head? Complicating matters were the differences between male and female of the same species, between freshly emerged and worn individuals, between an early brood and a later one. Some days I would return home with multiple images of the same skipper, try to identify it with a field guide, and then turn to iNaturalist for suggestions, only to have the app give me 3 or 4 different IDs. Obviously I was missing some essential characteristic – but which?
In mid-July, the unrelenting heat and voracious ticks forced me into a 10-day hiatus from butterflies. I worked on indoor projects, preparing for school’s imminent reopening, and tried to let images of all the butterflies I was missing settle into memory. Sometimes while taking the dog for a walk, a shadow would waft overhead, or a tiny orange shape would dart past my ankles and disappear in tall grass. The way that shadow seemed to simply float past – likely a swallowtail. The size, shape, and pattern of that skipper – probably a Peck’s. Not having a camera or binoculars along allowed me to simply observe, to appreciate subtle differences in behavior – how the butterfly moved, what kinds of plants it was using, whether it returned to the spot where I had disturbed it or was gone for good, how it interacted with other insects.
Eventually I was ready to return to hiking, whereupon I found a whole new community of butterflies hard at work nectaring, mating, laying eggs, avoiding predators.
Sachem and Peck’s skipper
Eastern tiger swallowtail
Eastern tailed blue
Many were newly emerged individuals of species I had seen earlier in the summer. The skippers flitted between flowers, landed and nectared, scared each other off and sometimes simply held a pose, allowing me to approach within inches. Their identities occurred to me now more intuitively as I watched them in context, picking up a range of clues. That’s when I realized that skippers do, indeed, have a song. Not in an acoustic sense, but as a suite of qualities that included time, location, weather, behavior, relative size and shape and – for lack of a better word – personality. Bryan, who had spent much of the course assuring us that we would eventually get to the point of really knowing these creatures, captured the essence of a butterfly’s personality in his recent blog post on the mulberrywing skipper. It’s a species that I will likely never see in my neighborhood, but I am certain that his description of its “song” will allow instant recognition if I ever encounter it.
Little wood satyr
Little wood satyr
Having logged over 200 observations of 40+ butterfly species on iNaturalist, I find my motivation for learning has only increased. So, I’m already starting to think about next summer: Who are the sparrows of the dragonfly world, and what is their song?
Along with everyone else facing the COVID-19 threat, I have spent a lot of time trying to both deter and prepare for the possible arrival of the virus in my home. My efforts to delay this visitation through distancing and staying home have become second nature, but the expectation itself diverts energy and attention to something ominous that lurks unseen and intangible.
And yet it’s spring, the best possible antidote that I can imagine to this wearisome watchfulness. Though wet and cold (a polar vortex is paying an unseasonable visit at this very moment) this spring has delivered some welcome surprises. One of my favorite parts of Jemicy’s online learning program is that my students and I have been sharing our nature observations, along with the excitement that comes with new discoveries and phenomena that capture our attention. Nature-related stories fill much of our live class meetings and often feature a child exclaiming, “Here – let me show you!” and taking the class along on her iPad to see the nest in her porch planter, a flower blooming, or a tree frog tucked under an edge of siding. Below are just a few of the photos students have shared from their homes and backyards.
Squirrel rescue, nests tucked into mailboxes and garage corners, eggs and hatchlings in many stages of development.
Strange rocks and lichens, animals showing up unexpectedly.
Flowers and trees with new leaves.
Gardening, birding on a bike, exploring streams.
And, one of my favorites: a slug drawing with slime.
For the first time since I’ve lived here, I’ve heard whippoorwills at dawn, seen an osprey carrying a fish to its nest, watched a wet raven preen and announce its presence at the top of a dead tree.
I’ve seen butterflies, fungi, birds, insects, and wildflowers that I knew lived here but had never before found or had the chance to photograph.
Each of these encounters – both mine and my students’ – feels like a gift from a world of biodiversity that still provides a safe haven for wonder.
When I was a child somewhere in those wondrous years between 7 and 10, I was a voracious animal collector. Springtime brought a wealth of opportunities to find frog eggs, red-spotted newts and rat snakes, to set up an ant farm in a peanut butter jar, to capture a mouse and house it in a hastily constructed cage, only to find it gone in the morning. My enthusiasm was fueled by a book whose words and images were so enticing, so perfectly attuned to my passion that I memorized every page and could never part with it: “The Golden Book of Wild Animal Pets.”
When I look through this book now, I am deeply thankful that I was not a very skillful or ruthless hunter. The animals that I did manage to capture invariably led short, miserable lives. And it wasn’t just wild animals. If a stray dog or cat showed up on our property, I would try to hide it in the barn in a kennel made of hay bales, sneaking food from the house. This rarely worked out in any creature’s best interest. One day I made a surreptitious trade of some unused toy for a neighbor’s rabbit, but this time when my mother discovered it, she agreed to let me keep it if I would build it a proper hutch and clean it regularly. “Someday,” I promised, “I will have my own house where I can keep all the animals.”
Little did I know that the title of this blog would fulfill that promise quite literally this week as our school closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Not knowing how long we would be away, I knew that the school menagerie would be coming home with me. Now installed in the guest room, the various cages and tanks house animals that have been at Jemicy anywhere from 30 years (Blotch, the ball python) to the imminent (incubating chicken eggs due to hatch in three weeks). Since I will be teaching my students online here for the foreseeable future, the animals will play virtually the role that they always have in our classroom: species ambassadors helping to impart knowledge and insight into the lives of others.
On the other hand, the COVID-19 coronavirus itself represents a piece of the world’s biodiversity that I am making every effort to NOT bring home. In trying to understand the nature of recent epidemics and pandemics with apparent non-human animal sources, I came across a recent article from Scientific American that highlights this issue. Habitat destruction not only reduces biodiversity directly, but it can also open pathways for new pathogens to enter human spheres. Also benefiting from human incursions into formerly wild, remote areas is the exotic pet trade that results in animals such as the ones now inhabiting my guest room. My view of these beings has evolved from passion to compassion, and to demonstrating for my students what responsible pet ownership entails. It might mean a hurried evacuation. Or soaking a shedding snake in the bathtub.
I started this blog nearly five years ago as a way to share my learning and experiences during six months in Tasmania and New Zealand on a Fulbright award. Being so far removed from my Jemicy students, living on remote islands on the other side of the world, I treasured the online connections that we devised. Our present challenge is to make these same meaningful connections across distance that feels almost as vast, since we are all separated from each other, each in our own home. My goal this spring will be to use these separate home spaces as common ground for discovery and learning. We will be sharing observations of the nature around us, both in terms of living things and the physical environment, experimenting remotely, exploring our backyards, and discovering the heart of bringing biodiversity home.