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.

Camo

camolooper-2Today was all about the little things, most of which seem determined not to be seen.  Squatting and peering under leaves, following a tiny moth as it fluttered through the grass, searching for the host of a web spun between pine needles, I paused to consider the brown, out-of-place petals protruding from a flower corolla.  Then I realized that they were moving of their own accord. This recalled another such instance on a hike, when a similar assortment of petals made its way across a daisy, and turned out to be the caterpillar of an emerald moth, or a camouflage looper. This current ragamuffin, which had attached bits of petal to itself until completely covered, was so minute that I couldn’t tell how best to photograph it, or where a head or legs might even be.  Its movements were erratic; it appeared to lift its head every so often and then lower it to resume feeding, blending in with the other petals.

ambushbug3
Rounding the corner into the garden, I looked hard at the zinnias and cosmos, expecting a spider at least, but found nothing.  The joe-pye weed had nearly all gone to seed, but the last bit of pink betrayed an ominous shape: a jagged ambush bug. It straddled a blossom like an apocalyptic insect horseman, its round eyes bulging and its fearsome hooked forelegs ready to pounce. Only a few millimeters long, it tackles prey many times its size.

I wonder if an ambush bug would be fooled by a camouflage looper, or if the looper would notice the ambush bug.

Emerging

“Where are the bees and butterflies?”

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

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

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

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

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.

Rainbow

The old dog and I walked out to the meadow by the house, she to slowly wander about considering pooping, and I to scan the grasses for butterflies.The pile of deer dung lying under the white oak looked fresh.  There are many of these right now where the deer have stood chewing their acorn/yard shrub cud. I decided it was worth flicking this one into the woods with my trowel so that the dog wouldn’t eat or roll in one of her favorite fragrances. The pile was softer than I expected, and split apart when I nudged it, revealing the startling glimmer of a chunky, iridescent beetle lodged in the center.  My first thought was, “Now why was a deer eating June bugs?” Then I saw a large horn protruding from the pronotum, bright green elytra, and ruby red shining over its thorax.  Whatever it was, I needed my camera.  When I returned and photographed its awkward, disoriented journey down the length of the trowel, I was still astounded.  This creature had never crossed my path before.  I could guess at some of its taxonomy, but only up to dung beetle.  And who had ever heard of a beetle that spends its life working dung into balls for the benefit of its young having such incredibly vivid colors?  Why would it?

rainbow1This morning I shared the wonder of this discovery with my M Group students, first showing them a photo, and then asking them to try classifying it.  They all agreed on beetle, but beyond that was a mystery.  I clarified where and how I found it, and then showed them how to search with the terms that they knew or observed – beetle found in deer dung, shiny, rainbow colors, horn. And there it was, the rainbow scarab, Phanaeus vindex, pharaoh of the dung heap.

And why the bright colors? “Because if you lived in poop, you’d want to look all sparkly so no one would think you were poop.” 

Whose home

rbhaistreakvfrit1A day off from school.  I stayed home for most of it, wandering around the yard and gardens with my camera.  Each observed movement of an animal felt like a gift, each moment held still enough to photograph, additional bounty.  A red-banded  hairstreak in the grass slowly rubbing its tails together, a variegated fritillary basking on an apple leaf – these I managed to capture.  I am struck today by how many lives I am privileged to witness playing out here that I am never able to photograph.  This is their home in ways that I can barely fathom.  The phoebe swooping in a perfect arc from dead spruce branch to insect and back, the groundhog lumbering along the edge of the woods, the deer wandering casually into the yard munching apples, the robberfly perched on the top wire of the fence, eyes seeing in every direction. The young squirrel creeps along the stone wall, just a few feet from where I sit, carrying an acorn in its mouth.  It bounds out into the grass, pausing and sniffing until it finally begins to dig at the dirt, stuffs its acorn into the hole, and then pats the small mound down with its paws.  Before it bounds away, it moves a few stray leaves, tidies the grass.

This is my hobby, to watch, to enjoy the watching, to document it when I can.  These creatures, along with the seeds floating on the breeze, and the maple leaves shadowed against dappled sycamore bark, are part of what I consider my home. When the woodpecker taps seeds into the siding, or the deer eat the hosta, the burn weed invades the flower bed, and the groundhog pushes her way under the fence and into the garden, they make themselves at home with an imperative that is hard to deny.

Sustainability scramble

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

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

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

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

Itching to go


mon3It’s been a week, and I am still scratching the chigger bites that I got hiking around Soldiers Delight NEA last week.  Throughout the broiling summer, I would head out to this favorite spot clothed head to toe in tick and chigger-proof gear, spray my ankles and shoes with repellent, and jump into the shower as soon as I returned.  For the most part, I survived these outings unscathed, but I detested being out in the woods wearing chemical armor and didn’t feel like lingering to look around. So last week, I went out sleeveless in shorts and sandals.  The butterflies popped out of the bluestem, lit on boneset and ironweed, nectaring long enough for me to slowly approach through waist-high grasses.  I spent hours out there relishing the solitude, the slight breeze that picked up a lone monarch and carried it to a patch of bright purple blazing star.  The scent of joe-pye weed rose along a grassy stream where I crouched, lifting rocks one by one – here a young dusky salamander, there a tiny coiled water snake.

The chiggers accepted my invitation to dine.  Their bites, swaths of vivid red welts against my pale midsection, will slowly fade. Chiggers are invisible to me when I am out photographing butterflies. I am searching for the bold, the lovely, the striking, the remarkable, while being consumed by creatures tinier than a pinhead.  Also consumed by the need to know more, I have just learned that only the juveniles feast on me, and that at this stage their legs number 6 rather than 8. Their digestive enzymes dissolve my flesh while forming a feeding tube in it.  No animal remains in or on me – only the rankling itch.

My skin still holds the faint scars of last year’s chigger feasts, etched by the elders of this year’s youngsters. I am tattooed with reminders to pay attention, to keep watch for what I haven’t yet learned to see.