Knowing trees

How do you get to know a tree?

“Meet a tree” is one way – a classic introductory environmental education activity. In a wooded setting, a blindfolded student is led by a partner to a nearby tree. The blindfolded person examines and becomes familiar with the girth of the tree and the texture of its bark, and is then led back to the starting point. Once the blindfold is removed, the student attempts to identify which tree they “met.” This exercise involves considerable tree hugging; by the end, many students claim a personal bond with “their” tree.

By prioritizing a different sensory experience than we usually rely on when we encounter trees, being sightless for this activity mitigates another, more pervasive kind of non-seeing, often referred to as “plant blindness.” Plant blindness quite simply refers to the inability or tendency not to notice the plants in one’s environment, with direct implications for lacking awareness of their vital importance on a larger scale.

I know this phenomenon firsthand, though it took leaving the country to realize it. During and after college, I spent time living, studying, and working in Germany. However, it wasn’t until I returned as a tourist 20 years later, with a very different set of experiential lenses, that I realized I had been blind to the natural history of the place I felt I knew so well. My apparent fluency stopped well short of being able to name even the most common plants. I felt lost hiking well-worn trails beneath unfamiliar trees, and immediately purchased field guides to orient myself.

Something similar happened again when I traveled to Tasmania and New Zealand, with the added disorientation of being on islands in the southern hemisphere. My problem in these places was not just in failing to see trees; it was that everything I saw was utterly new and demanded constant attention and research. I was visually overwhelmed.

By the time I left New Zealand, I was beginning to recognize common species and enjoyed walking about practicing the names of trees and shrubs.  Back in the US now, without this daily habit, those names have faded, but the sensory impact of the tarata, the cabbage tree, and the pōhutukawa remains. I have no doubt that if I were to return to New Zealand, I would still know these and many other trees. This recent article on a local naturalist’s experience of tree blindness shares truths that I can attest to: once truly seen, trees remain a part of you.

One of my favorite ways at school to encourage the process of seeing and distinguishing plants is a game called Leaf Hunt. The class is split into teams that compete to scour the schoolyard for the greatest number of different species. Before we go out, I ask the class to predict how many species they think we might find. Then the hunt is on.

Only teams that bring in new species get points, so there is no replication between teams. I use my role as judge to teach as specimens come in: i.e., the same plant can produce different shaped leaves, what does and does not count as a leaf (grass and pine needles, yes; flowers, no), the difference between a leaflet and a leaf. The results far exceed the highest predictions of plant diversity.

Yellow buckeyes are the collectible products of trees that have perpetuated a visceral way of knowing trees among Jemicy students for years. They play a central role in the unique woods culture that exists during fall recesses, when kids flock to the places where they know these treasures can be found, collect them by the fist and shirtfuls, hoard and trade them for other goods.

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“Buckeyes – No money” (free)

There is a fascinating progression in buckeye identification skills as newcomers learn to first look up – to recognize the telltale hand-like compound leaves and yellow-orange colors that signal the sites where buckeyes fall – run to those spots, and then look down, to spy the shiny brown nuts hidden among the fallen leaves. Buckeye lore has raised the stakes for fort real estate located beneath buckeye trees.Their value becomes so pervasive that it extends well beyond the woods.”We’ll sign you for 10 buckeyes!” I heard some 4th grade boys offer a potential new player for their touch football team, as they headed in for lunch.

Acorns are another widespread collectible, but their numbers are usually so large that their value is diminished – until it’s time to process them for acorn pancakes. Then, kids have to learn how to distinguish the white oak species that produce “sweeter” (less bitter tannic acid) nuts from those that are higher in tannins. They chant “Quer-cus al-ba” while tracing the outline of their fingers, representing the finger-like lobes of the white oak. White oak acorns are collected by the bucketful, cracked and sorted by hand, then boiled, roasted, and ground into flour. Topped with syrup, sprinkles, or plain, the pancakes are, as one kid described it, “The best tree food I’ve ever had!”

This process of learning to see plant differences continues through using classification systems to identify trees. Teams of 7th graders have been roaming the campus recently photographing leaves, bark, and branching patterns of tagged trees, using a key to identify them by common and scientific name. I watched one boy who has been at Jemicy for several years stare into the crown of an oak and mutter, “I know it’s a Quercus, but which one?” One of our tagged trees was a newly planted willow oak sapling, whose small, narrow, unlobed leaves confounded many kids. “Are you sure this is right?” one asked, puzzling over the key. “It just doesn’t fit the oak pattern.” Questioning is an important part of knowing.

In 1937, when my mother was in high school, she took a botany class in which she collected, pressed, and identified numerous flowers, leaves, and other botanical specimens. 40 years later (and 40 years ago) I attended the same school and made a similar leaf collection. I no longer have my own leaf collection, but I have my mother’s, with her perfect script describing trees by name, appearance, location, fruit, etc. I took it to school to show my students. They recognized in it some of the same leaves they had identified, along with many unfamiliar ones.

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“Close your eyes and touch this leaf,” I suggested, when we got to one of the final pages. “It feels like sandpaper!” they exclaimed, learning in that moment a way to know slippery elm just as my mother and I had generations ago – by a tactile sensation completely contrary to its common name. When I close my eyes and run my finger over the leaf, the roughness transports me back to Ohio, to the edge of the school parking lot, to the spot where I first met this tree, now unforgettable.

Life from life

Warning: yuckology ahead.

If you spied sandwich bags hanging from the branches of trees near the science building recently, you might wonder, “What’s going on here?” Maybe your curiosity would lead you close enough to discern mouse-sized lumps of semi-liquid matter in the bags. And then, you would probably detect movement, a squirming in some of the bags. You might wish you hadn’t been so curious.

Or maybe you would be intrigued enough by this overt display of decomposition – a process generally hidden and infrequently discussed – to inquire what in the world was going on here. A seventh grader would tell you that this is a Jemicy-style replication of the first known controlled study done by Francesco Redi in 1668. Redi was trying to disprove the then-popular theory of spontaneous generation, which held – among other wonders – that flies were produced by rotting meat. It’s a simple experimental design: take two pieces of meat (in our case, frozen mice that we use as snake food), put one in a bag that is sealed, and one in a bag with holes, hang them outside, and observe for a week or so. The results are striking, and usually unequivocal. As the mouse in the sealed bag slowly decomposes, it is amazing to see how much liquid it contains. The mouse in the bag with holes also decomposes, but the process is aided by flies, which are attracted to the smell, enter and lay eggs, which hatch into larvae. Any variation on these results forces us to consider what variables we might not have controlled.

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Most years, the smell of rotting mouse is enough to make us bury the results of the experiment immediately. This year, though, several students asked if we could dissect the decomposed mice to see what had happened to the mouse internally, and if, by chance, the control mouse contained maggots. “Please? It’s my birthday!” begged one girl. And so the team of yuckologists held its breath and did just that. When we were finished with confirming the theory of biogenesis, we buried the remains in the compost bin, where other decomposers will complete the job of returning the mouse to its mineral components and enrich the garden soil next spring.

The cycling of matter from life into death, and back into new forms of life, creates gripping narratives and inspires rituals that memorialize the former life and celebrate the new. Impromptu funeral services traditionally celebrate deceased animals at school. A dead squirrel found in a fort received a burial with handfuls of acorns, while a cicada was sent down the stream on a raft, also with an acorn, “so that wherever it lands, it can help make a new tree for another cicada.” The final moments of a goldfish’s life were observed attentively, respectfully; it was eventually buried alongside the squirrel, with its own eulogy.

The youngest students get firsthand experience with decomposition and the life it supports by setting up and maintaining a worm farm throughout the year. They supply it regularly with the composted remains of their lunches: apple cores, orange peels, bread crusts, etc. Every so often, they empty the bin to check the worms’ progress. Last spring’s discovery that the mysterious golden cases in the farm were worm cocoons set off a flurry of activity: sorting and counting them, establishing a nursery, keeping watch until the tiny wormlets finally emerged. “Babies! We have babies!”

The “yuck” factor is balanced and often overcome by this fascination of witnessing complex, dynamic living systems and the new life that emerges from them. One young girl called out to me from the playground one day, “Come see what I found on the climber! I think you’ll like it, because it’s kind of gross!”

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Sure enough, there was a jumping spider (Phidippus audax) with a recently caught stinkbug – and at least two species of flies imbibing bug juices. As a friend put it when he saw the photo, “The small flies have bloated abdomens like they just slurped up some liquid. This looks like a scene in the African plains where the lion has taken down a gazelle and the vultures are starting to gather.”

It’s a big lesson played out vividly in miniature: Life cycles intersect with and depend upon the decomposition of other living things.

 

 

 

 

 

Empathy

Last Friday we launched Jemicy’s all-school fall unit focusing on Japan. Instead of regular classes, kids paired up with buddies to participate in a variety of activities. To learn more about Japanese culture, geography, and traditions, students role-played, made holiday decorations, listened to stories, and placed themselves virtually in another country.

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As I watched the 8th graders collect their 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade buddies and head off hand in hand for the day, I heard a hum of conversation between the buddy pairs, an exchange of questions, perceptions, ideas. And, for those feeling anxious or uncertain, this: “I know how you feel.” These words of assurance came from kids who not so long ago were brand new or the youngest partners in the buddy group, now offering their experience as solace to newcomers. I wasn’t the only teacher that day moved by these interactions throughout the school. We marveled: such caring, such trust.

These scenes helped to reinforce one of my primary goals for this school year in my role as a naturalist and science teacher: cultivating empathy with the many living things around us. Animals don’t exist in order to teach us things,” asserted Helen MacDonald, author of a recent article in the New York Times. However, she continued, we can learn a great deal about ourselves from them.  I thought about this article as the new school year began, and children flooded into the science room during morning recess, clamoring to hold animals. I thought about it again during afternoon recess, when kids streamed down the hill into the woods and began searching for frogs, salamanders, and crayfish in the stream.  What is this powerful need to see and touch other creatures? I am often dismayed by this initial frenzy not only to encounter animals, but also to capture, to hold, to show others, to elicit a reaction from a creature desperate to be left alone.

I decided that this fall, I would make empathy a central theme in my teaching. Like Helen MacDonald, I have only to look back into my own childhood as an inveterate collector of animals both wild and of the pet variety to recall both how vitally important they were to me, and how poorly I understood what each of them truly needed to thrive. I can only hope that over the years I have gained insight. “The more time spent researching, watching and interacting with animals,” says MacDonald, “the more the stories they’re made of change, turning into richer stories that can alter not only what you think of the animal but also who you are.”

When I arrived at Jemicy 30 years ago, I was delighted to find a thriving culture of animal care as part of the science curriculum. I gladly embraced the role of caretaker, believing that as children closely observe the empathy  that adults show for other living things, they understand that students will be well cared for here, too. This caretaker role often requires negotiating between children’s desire to engage with animals and advocating for the animals’ needs.  “Just imagine,” I hear myself saying, when a child doesn’t understand a guinea pig’s reluctance to be held, “that you are as small as this guinea pig. You are calmly eating your hay when suddenly a giant hand comes down and grabs you. You run. It chases you. Will you ever trust that hand?” Most kids concede this point, if somewhat reluctantly. The challenge, I tell them, is to teach them that you and your hand bring something they want, rather than fear.

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MacDonald emphasizes the importance of this kind of lesson. “The only way to know what it is like to be a bat is to be a bat. But the imagining? The attempt? That is a good and important thing. It forces you to think about what you don’t know about the creature: what it eats, where it lives, how it communicates with others. The effort generates questions not just about how being a bat is different but about how different the world might be for a bat. For what an animal needs or values in a place is not always what we need, value or even notice.”

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Dozens of virtual reality products now exist for the express purpose of helping participants do just this: understand the perspective of other people, animals, and even entire ecosystems.  I welcome new tools that can enhance empathy while stimulating wonder and curiosity, but nothing can ever replace “I know how you feel.”

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Camp

The five weeks of Jemicy’s summer camp rank as one of my favorite times of the year. While the campers have a full and varied schedule of classes, I get to focus my energy on woodshop projects and the outdoors.  When the kids come to us, we take advantage of the extensive woods, wetlands and stream on the Upper School campus for exploration and discovery.

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First sight of the stream

Students from Jemicy and beyond attend this camp, making it a crew of diverse experience and knowledge of outdoor settings. This campus is not my home territory, and I am just as excited as the kids each time we head out to find new treasures.

I have to acknowledge that the thrill of new discoveries, and the delight of spending time in nature with kids, are tempered by the realities of human impacts, ecological changes, and direct hazards that we face every time we go outside. A new gas pipeline left a wide scar that has just begun to regrow. The woods has a thick diverse tree canopy but virtually no understory plants, thanks to heavy deer browsing. And a warmer winter has increased the threat of ticks, so extra precaution and vigilance are required.

While these aspects of outdoor experiences may cause me concern, for the campers who bound out the door in their boots and bug repellant, ready for anything, this is simply the new normal. A few are veteran stream-waders and woods-wanderers, and they make their way over, around and through obstacles with ease. They focus their attention on the pursuit of minnows and crayfish, the collection of interesting rocks, or things that stand out as unusual – a leaf gall, a coiled grapevine tendril, a feather. They seem at home, confident in handling whatever encounters they may have here.

Then there are the kids who are new to this kind of experience. Sometimes they are nervous, unsure of what to expect. Will this be like the wild nature they’ve seen on TV?  There is a lot to process with that first step into a place where plants and animals follow their own rules. Yesterday, one boy immediately found a big stick and began slashing at anything that grew within 2 feet of the path, while another slid his hand into mine and held on tightly as we made our way down a steep hill to the stream.  Some kids are overwhelmed by sensations that bombard them, from gnats buzzing in their ears to the unpredictable slipperiness of stream rocks, to the motion of branches in the wind. Navigating this territory, with its accompanying unfamiliar names and shapes and movements, can feel like being in a foreign country.

With each group of children that I bring into the woods, I am reminded that any introduction to a new habitat can leave mutual lasting impressions.  The living things that we encounter – from the ringneck snake lying across the path, to the water striders effortlessly maneuvering around our boots, to the ferns (“Jurassic plants,” one kid called them) where ebony jewelwings perch as we pass by – are affected by our presence.  The kids’ experience will further shape their encounters with various elements of other places they visit, including whether they will want to continue exploring and how they envision their role as a caretaker of such places.

Even if natural spaces feel like foreign countries, all children’s native curiosity and sense of wonder are the common currency of discovery, and they will seek out and draw attention to the unusual wherever it occurs – like this crew of girls at camp who have made it their mission to inspect the windows and walls of the cafeteria where their group gathers each morning. You just never know what you may find.

I treasure the moments that transport me personally back into the role of puzzled traveler. On each of the five trips I made yesterday with different groups down through the woods to the stream, there were new discoveries. “What is it? Why is it like that? What will happen?” When I reply that I don’t know, and we discuss possibilities, I am – happily – a fellow camper.

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Moth Ball

Just before dawn in late May, it’s time to head out with my camera to document a party that’s been going on all night on the far side of our shed. It’s a quiet affair, no music to keep the neighborhood awake, just some very attractive lights in an assortment of wavelengths and temperatures to suit the tastes of my guests:  mercury vapor, blacklight, incandescent, fluorescent.

Photo: Dan Bailey

Some nights, when it’s chilly or wet, no one ventures out. But when the temperatures rise, they’ll pack the house. Or sheets, rather. I’m never sure who will be there. Will tonight bring the badwing, a pale beauty, a morbid owlet, or a confused meganola? Maybe I’ll see the cloaked marvel, a distinct Quaker, the Laugher, or even a pleasant dagger.

It’s guaranteed there will be many who are completely unfamiliar. The paparazzi will be busy.

I’ve been hosting backyard moth parties for the past 5 years or so, ever since I discovered that there was an entire nocturnal set of creatures that I was missing out on. As a kid, my only association with moths was the smell of mothballs. My mother kept precious fabric heirlooms and bedding packed tightly away with those pungent white crystalline nuggets in a wooden trunk. Because my grandmother also used mothballs, that scent always meant family, antiquity, heavy flannel sheets and hand-loomed wool coverlets. Now the old wooden trunk is mine and the mothballs are gone, but their scent lingers. Opening it delivers an immediate and direct olfactory summons to memories of early childhood. This is just how I visualize a female moth’s invisible chemistry working, pheromones wafting through the warm spring night and luring a distant male.

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If the neighbors wonder at the mysterious lights shining through the night, they are even more baffled when I explain what I’m trying to attract.  Instead of packing away bedding with chemicals intended to repel moths, I’m hanging sheets as welcome banners.  Big, bold-colored moths like polyphemus or luna, the charismatic megafauna of the moth world, arrive in stunning regalia and offer the sensation of holding a fairy on your finger.  Even the tiniest moths are fantastically decked out, though often hard to spot.

Often other nocturnal animals – beetles, flies, tree hoppers, lacewings – get wind of the festivities at the lights. Spiders are notorious party-crashers, as are mantisflies, toads, and parasitic wasps.

Mothing brings a nightly treasure trove and is a notoriously addictive hobby (especially if your idea of fun is hours spent trying to discern the identity of a 5mm mystery by digging through field guides and online arrays of bugs). Thankfully, there is a large online community willing to help out and cheer on each new discovery.  National Moth Week, an international celebration of moths, supports amateur enthusiasts and uses citizen science data to gain a more complete picture of these obscure creatures.

The event breaks up before daylight to avoid predation by early-rising house wrens. The lights go off, guests are shaken from their light inebriation and sent fluttering off  to more protected places. Sometimes they return with the darkness, but usually each night is a whole new Moth Ball.

For more photos of the moths I’ve photographed over the years, please visit my Flickr album.

Insect rules

What are insect rules? Ask Jemicy’s JE students, and they might start singing new lyrics to a familiar tune: “Head, thorax, abdomen, abdomen! Head, thorax, abdomen, abdomen! Six legs and wings and antenna, head thorax, abdomen, abdomen!” These features (wings optional) are insect rules. Beyond that, almost anything goes:

from coiled mouthparts to pinchers,

wings of lace to those with eyes,

legs for jumping, and legs for skimming the water,

and antennae from feathered to beaded, long and short.

What’s been especially gratifying this spring as the younger kids have studied insects is how they have applied their knowledge of human skeletal parts – our winter unit – in this new arena. Eyes light up when they see that an insect, even with all its differences, can have a mandible, femur, and tibia – all words that they learned studying vertebrate anatomy.  Creatures that appeared completely alien now seem more familiar.

To further personalize these concepts, students designed and built their own bugs. From the basic insect rules, fantastically diverse forms and adaptations emerged, along with stories describing the insects’ natural history.

Our classroom insects help to illustrate adaptations for particular functions, but they also help build empathy for the world of wild insects that we encounter outdoors. Many of the first encounters that people have with insects are unpleasant, leading to a lasting perception that all beings with more than four legs are pests. I was not much of a fan of insects myself until I began teaching science and realized that what bothered me was based on misunderstanding or unfamiliarity.  Scariness usually serves its purpose: deterring a potential predator.

What looks like a long, pointed “stinger” on some crickets turns out to be the females’ ovipositor – a harmless tube that they insert into the soil to lay eggs. The hissing cockroaches appear to have gigantic heads and protruding eyes, but this is actually the prothorax, a plate that covers the tiny head.

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And that hissing noise? What better way to scare off the monster that has just picked it up? Mealworms are not worms at all, but the larvae of small, dark beetles that scurry about in their bin amid the rolled oats, potatoes, and pupae that are still undergoing metamorphosis. These insect ambassadors teach us how to look more closely at, behave more respectfully toward, and ask better questions about a group of animals that is both ubiquitous and often intentionally ignored.

Observing insects through their entire life cycle is particularly illuminating. We recently received silkworm eggs, and over the course of the week or so that it took for them to hatch, we talked about what the new baby caterpillars would need to grow.  Mulberry leaves are the only food they will eat, and there is one mulberry tree at Jemicy whose leaves the kids can reach. The day soon arrived when a single black caterpillar the size of this line _ came crawling out of its egg. silkwormOne child ran to get a leaf for it, we put it under a microscope to observe, and instantly it began to chew while the excited audience cheered. A day later, nearly all of the 100 eggs had hatched.silkworms

Within two days, we had to move the babies (which had doubled in size) into a much larger container. We considered: “If a one-day old caterpillar can eat one leaf in one day, how many leaves will we need to feed 100 growing caterpillars for a month?” This will be an interesting lesson in exponential consumption and growth. Fortunately for the silkworms, mulberry is an abundant invasive in this area.

Insects are both opportunistic and exquisitely adapted to very specific niches. One afternoon, I was called over to the big hollow tree trunk situated next to the playground. This trunk, the remains of a beloved oak named Erma, lies gracefully decomposing while serving as a popular climbing and hiding structure. The boy who called to me was jumping up and down with excitement: “There’s a gigantic beetle in the bark!” Sure enough, a shiny black abdomen protruded from a section of thick bark. We pried the bark up to find a magnificent Bess beetle working to dig herself deeper into the wood. When I picked her up, we could both hear her give a characteristic squeak of protest.

bessWe examined her carefully, noting her short but sharp curved mandibles, the lines on her abdomen, her six strong jointed legs. We released her back under the bark, but it wasn’t long before I was called again – this time to see several pale insects under another section of bark: termites. I visited that old trunk at least five more times over the next half hour, as this one curious child discovered numerous species: ants, a weevil, a lady beetle, the hollow abdomen of a long-dead  beetle, and some unknown larvae working their way through the century-old sapwood.

Insects show up virtually everywhere at school. Inside, brown marmorated stinkbugs have slipped into corners, light fixtures, bookshelves. In the stream, we find aquatic larvae of dragonflies, crane flies, mayflies, fishflies, and stoneflies in the spring and adults in the fall when we return to school.

On the playing field, we see butterflies nectaring on clover and dandelions. So far this spring, we’ve spotted sulphurs, cabbage whites, American ladies, tailed blues, and spring azures. Security lights and white exterior walls attract moths, and caterpillars show up as instant furry fort pets.

Of the 260 species (including plants, animals, and fungi) that the Maryland Biodiversity Project has recorded for our school site, 160 are insects. This high percentage of insects reflects, I believe, not only the general abundance of insects in an area with multiple conducive habitats, but also the growing awareness and appreciation that my students and I have for the amazing diversity of insect species. We now routinely document any and all sightings during regular searches while exploring and playing in the woods.

Every time we find a familiar insect, we reinforce what we know about its habitat and behavior. With each discovery of a new species in its particular niche, it feels as though we’re the visitors to a new planet meeting one more intriguing inhabitant. And on this planet, insects rule.10278860186_2fdef6436f_o

Mistaken identity

Maryland has been my home for 30 years, most of which I’ve spent under the canopy of an enormous tree. It is a gnarly, lumpy beast with a trunk five feet across that splits off into massive limbs large enough to be trees in their own right. Buried deep in one of those is a cable – attached, we suppose, sometime back in the 1940’s or 50’s – that still anchors all of the utility poles on our street. It is a tree whose impressive presence is so central to our local landscape that I can’t imagine living here without it.

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The gigantic tree was one of the first features that attracted me to this property. My first glimpse of its patchy, camouflage-patterned bark, scalloped leaves, and furry round seed balls told me its name immediately: sycamore. The tree’s behavior confirmed this.  In summer, it litters the yard with ragged strips of shed bark: sycamore. The brittle, irregular limbs grow quickly and are prone to breaking, often getting hung up in the crown: sycamore. Small branches sprout from the base or at random spots along the trunk: sycamore. One of my neighbors up the street refers to this and other trees like it in our neighborhood as “London plane trees.” I always dismissed this as Maryland vernacular for sycamore.

Last week, the Maryland Biodiversity Project announced a “Facebook Blitz” to document sycamores throughout Maryland. There was plenty of cautionary instruction about making sure that a tree was really an American sycamore.  Wild American sycamores grow almost exclusively along streams. The bark on their trunks is rough, and the branches display the striking camouflage pattern, with a bone-white background. The seed ball fruits grow singly. These are the features, they emphasized, by which one may distinguish the American sycamore from a close look-alike that is often planted in urban settings.

At Jemicy, we found several sycamores growing in their classic habitat, along the banks of the stream, white limbs stretching high into the canopy and standing out against the darker tulip trees and oaks. The rough, dark, lower bark contrasted with the upper limbs, which bore a few single seed balls.

Back at home, I went out to photograph our sycamore as well. As I searched for a good angle to capture the immensity of the tree, I paused to examine its features more closely. The gigantic lower trunk was a lumpy patchwork of colors and peeling layers, but the bark there was not uniformly rough like those trees at school. Its upper branches bore the same palette of colors in greens and yellows – but without the signature stark white base color. To top it off, dangling from some of those branches were last year’s seed balls – paired, not single. This tree, and several others just like it in this dry, upland area, were clearly planted here intentionally. This was not an American sycamore.

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My neighbor was right: it appears to be a London plane (Platanus × acerifolia), a hybrid cross between the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and Oriental plane (Platanus orientalis). This species has been planted extensively in urban and suburban settings due to its tolerance for pollution, root compaction, and resistance to diseases that affect the native sycamore.

Does my 29-year-long mistake even matter? The tree certainly doesn’t care. it is just a classic case of assumptions superseding research. I had never heard of a London plane tree before coming here, so I went with what I knew: sycamore. The differences between the two species were never apparent to me, because I wasn’t looking for them. Even when traveling in Italy a few years ago, seeing a row of massive trees in Florence’s Boboli Gardens that looked just like my tree at home, I assumed that they were sycamores.

“Science loves a good mistake!” I often tell my students. This tree that I love has not changed, just because I now know its true identity. In fact, my awareness now prompts me to examine apparent sycamores with a more discerning eye, and to ask new questions about our tree: What caused those odd lumps on the trunk? Does this hybrid share the same pests with American sycamore? Do both species shed minuscule, highly aggravating hairs from their leaves? Why does it have a spring leaf drop? Are its seeds fertile? After all these years, there is new opportunity to learn from the giant in my yard.

 

 

Fly away home

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The first migratory creature I ever knew was my mother. She was born and raised on a farm in Canada, but during her teenage years she traveled back and forth to the US to attend school in Ohio. When she eventually married my American father and settled here, she retained her Canadian citizenship and would proudly display her border crossing card when we went to visit my grandparents and cousins in the summer. Even after becoming a US citizen later in life, her identity was solidly Canadian, the maple leaf was her symbol, and snow was her element. Every March, she would tap the two maple trees that stood in our front yard, send us out to sled and play in the remaining snowdrifts, and skate with us until the ice melted on our little farm pond.

My mother also loved birds, though she clearly distinguished between those native ones that she deemed good, and those introduced ones that were pests: grackles, house sparrows, starlings. She encouraged me to find the nests of pest birds and add their eggs to my collection. A purple martin colony house sat on a high pole near the garden. Every spring before the martins returned, my father would empty out the nests of opportunistic house sparrows and starlings (while I attempted – usually unsuccessfully – to secretly rescue and raise any hatchlings). My mother set out bluebird houses, too, but these beloved birds were locally rare from years of intensive pesticide use in the orchards that surrounded us. A feeder was kept filled throughout the winter so that she could keep an eye on bird activity from a window while she did housework. She often shooed away the voracious blue jays who mobbed the feeder so that the smaller chickadees, woodpeckers and nuthatches could get their fair share. Many years later, in her assisted living apartment, my mother made grudging peace with house sparrows, the only birds that visited the small window feeder that she was given. “So messy,” she complained, but she always made sure that the aides kept the feeder filled.

Though I can’t recall them ever visiting our pond, I imagine that my mother’s favorite bird of all was the Canada goose. She called them “Canadian” geese, making sure to ally her nationality with these avian compatriots even as their increasing abundance and residential status made farmers and golf courses regard them as a nuisance. When my parents moved to a retirement center with a lovely lake surrounded by manicured lawns and gardens, my mother was delighted to find that it hosted a resident flock of geese. Complaints from residents and groundskeepers about the mess they made on the banks and sidewalks led to numerous strategies – from border collies to my father’s Model T and its klaxon horn – to drive them away. I think my mother was pleased by the geese’s stubborn persistence. Even though she might not recognize people, she could always distinguish the forms of geese on the lake from the windows of the dining room. On walks by the lake, we would bring her wheelchair as close to them as we dared. She acknowledged that these particular geese no longer migrated – but then, neither did she. They were still Canadian kinfolk at heart.

When I consider what brings biodiversity home for me, I credit my mother with instilling in me not only that first deep interest in living things, but also an appreciation for their remarkable resilience under adverse conditions. Her recent passing, just shy of 94, was followed by a late winter snowstorm that she would have enthusiastically greeted as “good Canadian weather.” With sleet and snow pelting my windows, I watched a throng of chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, sparrows, woodpeckers and juncoes work the feeders and snow beneath them, searching for seeds.

Like the geese I’ve observed feeding energetically in other March snowfalls, and the flock that sounded off as they passed over, heading north on this gusty morning, these are creatures whose hardy resourcefulness will continue to remind me of where I come from.

geese flight 2

The toads and the bees

It’s official: spring has arrived in Maryland around 3 weeks early this year. Temperatures in the upper 60’s and into the 70’s brought crocuses into bloom, bees to the crocuses, and mourning cloak butterflies to the meadows.

At school, we tried to tap some red maples, but we were already too late. Their buds burst into bloom, and we retired the sap buckets until next year.

Speedwell, deadnettle, and bittercress showed their tiny blossoms, and clouds of winged ants swarmed over the playground and through the woods.

All this was accompanied by other data from the National Phenology Network, with an interactive map showing the progression of spring to different areas across the US. I really missed spring – my favorite time of year – when I was in New Zealand, but this feels like too much, far too early. But how to tell the serviceberry, the redbud, the spicebush to hold off just a bit longer? redbudThey are compelled to open in response to the warm temperatures around them – and when those temperatures drop back below freezing, as they are forecast to do this weekend, there is no going back.

During recess today, younger kids came running to tell me of a discovery: “There’s a big toad giving a piggyback ride to a little toad!” The middle schoolers grinned knowingly. The toads were in a dry, paved corner near the middle school wing, surrounded by an audience with lots of questions. The older students and I fielded them as best we could.”Why are they doing that?” “Because the smaller one, the male, wants to be right there when the female lays eggs.” “Why?”  “So he can be the father.” “When will she lay eggs?” “When she finds the right pool of water to lay them in.” And so on.

Finally the bell rang for the end of recess, and I placed the toad pair in a bucket. Later, with one of my JE classes, we carried them down into the woods to a shallow vernal pool to release. The kids were impressed that the male had continued to hold on to the female throughout this trip. I pointed out that if we hadn’t intervened, the female would probably have made this same long trip herself, hauling her partner the whole way – a behavior called amplexus.toads-amplexus

We left the toads contemplating their new habitat, knowing we’d be back to look for eggs as this unseasonable season unfolds.

Out of the shadows

Groundhog Day arrived last week, cold but sunny enough, according to legend, to scare the timid rodent back into hibernation at the sight of its own shadow. Six more weeks of winter? Today’s record-breaking 72 degrees belied that prediction. When we discuss this seasonal myth in science class, I ask the kids to think of alternatives that they believe would be more realistic for groundhog behavior in early February. “Don’t come out in the first place. Keep sleeping!” and “Take a sun bath to warm up” are the top choices.

On some of the colder late afternoons, when kids are working in their forts in the pine woods, I personally opt for that second choice. The angle of sunlight beaming through gaps in the trees creates surprising warmth.  “So this is how a solar panel feels,” commented one child who joined me. “Or maybe a vulture?” I suggest.

shadows

vultures-2

Crocus and daffodil leaves are already finding their way up out of the shadows, drawn by the increasing light and warmth. The first few snowdrop flowers dangle from green stems. Pull back the leaf litter, and peony buds show a startling pink. Eranthis hyemalis has begun to spread its invasive yellow carpet, with flowers open for business whenever the first pollinators show up.

The light filling the science building’s greenhouse chases the shadows away earlier and lingers a bit longer every day. We’ll be starting seeds for our garden this week, even as the forecast once again calls for snow. Winter may not be officially over yet, but the light itself issues an imperative: grow!