Making marks

Back in my teenage years, I attended a school that had a lovely, ancient beech tree with a full crown extending well out over the edge of an adjacent sports field.  In the late fall, hockey balls would get lost in drifts of yellow leaves. The trunk of the tree was a graffiti wall, its bark inscribed by hundreds of students over possibly a hundred years to reaching height, with names and dates and hearts and the rare epithet, including one that I carved there. It was a challenge to find an empty space. I gave only a moment’s thought to the marks that I would carve, but not to the fact that they would be there until the tree’s death, a tattoo on another’s skin bearing testimony to my brief emotional state.

In the Jemicy woods, we have several American beech trees, none nearly as old as that one from my high school.  Their diameter is a foot or so, their bark still relatively unscarred.  These are the trees that I can’t help hugging whenever I take kids out there.  I get funny looks, but sometimes they try it too, and then they understand.Mayabeech The beeches are so reassuringly solid, so accepting of human touch, and when you spread your palm across the thin, smooth bark-skin, you can almost feel the active vascular system beneath it. “Like squeezing an elephant’s leg,” is how one student tried to describe it. One of the trees nearest the stream bears an inscription: “Jesse.” When I point this out to my students, they are horrified.  “Who would ever do that?”

Some trees scar and recover almost without a trace of trauma, like an elm sapling planted as a memorial to a friend, that was shredded in its first fall by buck antlers.  Only a thin strip of bark was left intact and we were sure it would never survive.  Somehow it rallied, that thin strip grew new tissue, and today the elm stands 30 feet tall, the original scars now buried in healthy wood. I use this tree as an example when teaching my students about the amazing power of the cambium to regenerate new tissue. But beeches are different.forever

Yesterday I hiked at Oregon Ridge, past an old tree clinging to the side of an eroded path. Within the human-high band of scrawlings on its trunk, none of the marks looked fresh. The old ones still hurt.

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?

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.”

Edibles

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Finding and sampling wild edibles at school is something I’m willing to bet very few schools would allow, let alone encourage.  I can’t recall exactly how I got started teaching kids about sour grass (oxalis), making acorn pancakes and dandelion fritters, and collecting wineberries; it seems like it was always a part of being and learning outdoors.  Actually, they introduced me to wild onions, coming back from recess happily reeking. I didn’t grow up doing this, I am fairly certain.  Though I spent a great deal of time playing in woods and fields, my palate was not adventurous.  But when I started teaching science, I came across  several foraging books that intrigued me, and I began to experiment myself with safe, easily recognized plants. Kids quickly became curious, and when I was confident of my ID’s, I let them try sour grass (“no more than three hearts”), shell and nibble on an acorn, and eat garlic mustard and plantain leaves. Sometimes, the taste would make them spit with disgust (an acorn’s tannic acid, or a spicebush berry’s powerful flavor).  Along the way, I provided cautions regarding hazards: location (“Stay away from mowed areas, roads and paths) and plants to avoid (poison ivy, pokeweed, most berries). I was amazed at their accuracy in quickly distinguishing edible and poisonous species.

That spring day when, much to my astonishment, I found a morel mushroom growing in the Jemicy woods, I knew that10258374_661305690613599_6396863428621363374_o I would have to draw a line between the kingdoms of plants and fungi in terms of eating wild foods with kids. Mushrooms demand a different order of attention and respect. The kids could see my excitement, and my concern, and seemed unfazed when I explained that they would be unable to eat these – unless their parents requested that they bring some home for them to prepare – but that they held great value for me. For the kids, the pleasure was in the hunt, and the delight of discovering another “brain on a stick” hiding on the hillside.  They guarded the site and warned away anyone who seemed likely to trample chickensthe mushrooms.
This same protective attitude emerged the next fall when we found a dead log near the stream sprouting a wealth of bright orange sulphur shelf mushrooms: chicken-of-the-woods.  Again, I exclaimed over this bounty, and the kids seemed both curious and glad that I would be able to enjoy them. I hope that they will bring this enthusiastic attention to fungi along into their own adulthoods.

When we take hikes specifically to search for plants, “Is it edible?” is almost always the first question asked.  Curiosity about which wild plants can be safely eaten would seem to be an inherent trait, essential to survival. It also powerfully supports the notion that every plant can be regarded as affording some sort of human action, further stimulating the desire to know, to learn, to recognize what that affordance might be.

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.

Artifact

TDSC_0036his week, my JE classes are looking for artifacts, to try and piece together the mystery of Jemicy’s history.  An artifact, I told them, is something made by hand.  Maybe a piece of pottery, a chunk of metal or glass, or a stone shaped for a purpose. Jemicy’s wooded hillside leading down to the smattfeatherstream is loaded with artifacts, having been backfilled with the construction refuse of prior tenants, including a dairy farm and another small school. We headed out with collecting bags to search the woods.  Immediately, old bricks and chunks of clay drainage pipe were discovered.  Pieces of thick, oddly shaped glass surfaced, and large slabs of concrete protruded from a half century’s collection of forest detritus.  It seemed impossible to account for all the pieces of human activity strewn around us. We spent an hour hunting, spreading out through the woods, and when we finally gathered to share our finds, “artifact” had expanded its meaning.  Here, among the scattered clay and glass shards, were spherical garnets and chunks of sparkling mica schist, jagged pieces of quartzite, a handful of scarlet spicebush berries, some wild apples, a black crow’s feather, and a red-tailed hawk’s red tail feather. In these woods so altered by humans, many of the most attractive artifacts are those that are not shaped by hands.  They are the collectible bits of evidence that other animals have been here, fruits announcing ripeness, and the gleaming, perfectly pocket-sized rocks that weather and time have revealed.