Were you were thinking perhaps of something made from kangaroo or wallaby? They have many such products in the grocery stores, and last night some friends prepared a meal with minced wallaby. “Grass-fed!” Dan said it tasted like hamburger. I’ll let you know what he thinks of the open range, sustainable kangaroo steaks.
I prefer adventures with eating wild plants. When I arrived here, Peter took me on a walk around Windgrove and showed me many different plants that were all new to me. One kind of bush had lots of small white berries, and he told me that it was called native currant.
He popped one in his mouth and offered me one to try. I did (a little nervously, because do you know what Maryland plants have whitish berries that you would not want to eat? Poison ivy and mistletoe!). It was just a little bit sweet, with a small hard seed. Every morning since then, I take a walk down to the beach and eat native currants on the way. The birds also like them, so the bushes are usually busy with breakfast customers. Another wild fruit that I tried is called native cherry. It doesn’t look or taste anything like the native cherries in Maryland, except that it’s red. It grows on a parasitic tree that looks like a pine tree, and its seed is outside of the fruit instead of in the middle.
One of the edible wild greens along the trail is called coastal spinach or ice plant (Tetragonia implexicoma). Its leaves are very salty! There is also a plant with a pink flower called pigface that grows on the rocks along the beach. The leaves and seed capsule are also salty but juicy and tasty.
One day we had a visitor to Windgrove who was an expert at diving for seafood. When he dives, he holds his breath, so he has to know the animals’ habitat and behavior very well in order to catch them quickly. That morning he had caught abalone, crayfish, and butterfish – all new to me – and made a delicious stew for us.
Would you care to try any of these foods? Sadly, I won’t be able to bring them back with me; the airport biosecurity dogs would certainly sniff them out!
My last blog post mentioned two of my favorite new animals that I’ve seen in Tasmania: the duck-billed platypus, and MacLeay’s Swallowtail. Both of those animals are native to both Tasmania and mainland Australia, meaning they evolved here over millions of years.
Nick was wondering “if you will see a koala bear.” Koalas do live in Australia, but only on the mainland. Since Tasmania is a smaller island to the south, and you have to either fly or take a boat and cross 150 miles of choppy water from mainland Australia, koalas would have to be champion swimmers to get here by themselves. People often “introduce” animals and plants to places far away where they can’t bring themselves. Sometimes those introduced species can become a problem, because they don’t stay in balance with the rest of the living things in the place that they are introduced to. Because of the problems it has had with introduced species, Australia is now very careful about what it lets people bring into the country, and to islands like Tasmania. When you fly here, there are specially trained sniffer dogs in the airport that check you and your luggage out to make sure you haven’t brought in any kind of fruits, vegetables, animals, or any products made from them that could be carrying pest species.
I don’t know if anyone has ever tried to introduce the koala bear to the wild in Tasmania, but there is another introduced animal whose name sounds kind of similar: the kookaburra. It is a big bird that is known for its incredibly loud “laugh.” Actually, to me it sounds more like a combination of all of the loud jungle noises you could possibly imagine. Kookaburras live in family groups, so there are often several of them whooping it up at once.
Laughing kookaburras are native to eastern mainland Australia, but people brought them to other parts of the country, where they are now considered a pest. They nest in holes where parrots and owls usually would, and will eat baby birds and other little animals that can’t hide well or escape from them. Watching them in the old gum trees is entertaining, but when they show up, other birds leave. Last week I was hiking through a rainforest where there should have been great habitat for birds, but the only bird I saw or heard for hours was a kookaburra.
So, to answer your question, I won’t see a koala in Tasmania unless I go to a zoo. But I have seen its cousin, the native wombat, which looks like a small bear and has a face similar to a koala’s. It moves faster than a koala, though, so I sneak and spy on it when it is looking for food at dusk.
What native and introduced animals do you think live in Maryland?
Here at Windgrove, Peter has created the Gaia Walk – a 1.2 km trail that winds through land and time, each meter representing 500,000 years of evolutionary history. There are markers showing significant events, along with plaques depicting life in that era. His objective is to help walkers of the trail feel time unfolding, to embody the distance that has brought life to the present. If you walk the trail backwards from the present, humans show up almost immediately, after only 3-4 meters. The first mammals are a good distance beyond that, in the Triassic period. Peter’s Forest Bench is a good place to contemplate where we mammals sit in this span of time.
Tasmania offers a unique window into evolutionary time, and what it has meant for mammals and their divergence. When this mammal takes a morning walk down the Gaia trail to the beach, I invariably startle large creatures who thump loudly and then vanish with a quick rustle into the brush.Usually this happens before they are even visible, but face-to-face encounters with wallabies and pademelons (a smaller version of a wallaby) have the same result. The thump is akin to a deer’s warning stomp or snort. With the exception of their hindquarters and tail, wallabies look, act, and eat very much like deer, pruning shrubs into topiary shapes and grazing grasses down to a few millimeters, leaving scat everywhere. Wombats show up at times too, looking like a cross between an overgrown groundhog and a bear cub with a cute koala nose. They dig huge burrows and tunnels that would be the envy of any groundhog, and when they spot you, they scoot away with a funny hopping gait. “A wombat eats, roots, and leaves” is true with or without punctuation. Brush-tailed possums are an abundant nocturnal marsupial, with thick fur and a winsome expression. They are also the scourge of Peter’s gardens, being acrobatic and incredibly persistent, necessitating multiple layers of fencing and baffles to keep them at bay.
I finally managed to see Tasmanian devils, also marsupials, by visiting a sanctuary down the road (the “Unzoo”). It acts as a rehabilitation center for animals afflicted with or at risk of contracting the viral cancer that has caused recent decline in their population. Since they are mostly nocturnal, I have yet to see most of the other marsupials that live here, like bandicoot, betong, potoroo, or quoll. The names alone are intriguing, but I am also fascinated by the evolutionary divergence of marsupials from placental mammals. Here, the only native placental mammals are rodents, bats, and sea mammals. How did North America end up with so many placental mammals but just one marsupial – the opossum? What made it so successful to give birth to tiny, undeveloped young and then nurture them in a pouch, as opposed to keeping them inside and attached to the mother’s body until they have more equipment, yet are still fully dependent on milk and protection? It’s easy for those of us more familiar with the latter mode of child-rearing to consider marsupials a strange and less significant sidetrack of evolution, but it’s hard to argue with their obvious success here.
And then of course there are what seem the ultimate bizarre mammals: the monotremes, the duck-billed platypus and the echidna, which split off the mammal trunk well before marsupials and placental mammals diverged. They produce young in soft-shelled eggs and feed them milk when they hatch by way of specialized mammary tissue. I’m still hoping to see a platypus when we travel north next week, but echidnas live at Windgrove. We’ve come upon these spiny anteaters a few times now, lumbering along poking their long, snorkel-like noses into loose dirt, under sticks, anywhere that their tongues can snag a few insects with sticky saliva. They have poor eyesight but keen hearing, so the click of my camera shutter usually makes them freeze and tuck themselves into a ball of quills. One alarmed echidna scooted over to a patch of tall grass and immediately began digging itself in at the base of the plant. With backwards facing hind feet and strong front claws, it was able to excavate a deep pit in no time, and soon only its prickly back was exposed. I was not tempted to dislodge it. If the quills weren’t deterrent enough, the males also have a venomous claw on each hind leg.
There is another group of mammals – the ones like rabbits and feral cats introduced by humans – that has had a profound and often devastating effect on Australian ecosystems, but I will save discussing them for another time. Meanwhile, even though I know it’s futile, I can’t help hoping that I will round a corner on the trail one day to discover a dog-like marsupial with a striped back and wide jaws devouring a rabbit. It’s been officially extinct for almost a century now, but there are those who believe that the Thylacine, the Tasmanian tiger, still roams in wild places here. Windgrove seems like a perfect spot for it.
One of my favorite authors, Barry Lopez, once gave advice to an aspiring writer, concluding with “Get out of town.” Only when you get far away from home do you face the necessity of learning new languages, meeting new people, understanding new cultures. It stretches you in unexpected ways.
I’m out of town now – way out. So far out that moss grows on the south side of trees – trees that never lose their leaves, that cast a lovely pungent scent, and that bear odd names: she-oak, black peppermint, coastal wattle, banksia, prickly box. I am so far out of town that Orion has tipped upside down in the night sky, wallaby and pademelon are the local, equally common and voracious version of deer, and the constant roar of surf plays background for utterly unfamiliar birdsong and the chatter of cicadas. When I catch sight of something that I think I know – say, a weeping willow – it is usually, just like me, introduced. Likewise, in the midst of all this strangeness, it astonishes me to come across a butterfly that I instantly recognize – a painted lady. But an Australian Painted Lady: Vanessa kershawi. How did that happen?
I knew that being in Tasmania and New Zealand would provide a different view of biodiversity, but what I didn’t anticipate was becoming a three year old again. I am continually asking Peter, our patient host at Windgrove (www.windgrove.com), “What’s that? What’s that?” And, because virtually everything is new to me, I have no filters for the uncommon, the extraordinary. When your senses are trained and attuned to a particular context, the slightest sound or movement doesn’t put you on alert. Here, not yet knowing the significance of anything, everything becomes significant.
With Peter’s help and some Tasmanian field guides in hand (building the toolkit), I’ve begun the first steps of learning what’s here. I am, in effect, undergoing the very education in biodiversity that I want to explore during my Fulbright project. This is an unexpected benefit, and one that is beginning to yield insights into what it takes to become familiar with an unfamiliar ecosystem. One of the most important is understanding the dynamics of the landscape and the environmental effects of variables like climate (this area is experiencing drought right now) or invasive species (that kookaburra sitting in the old gum tree just off the deck in the welcome rain, laughing).Even though English is spoken here, I feel like I’m learning a new language: individual species are the vocabulary, while how they fit together within their ecosystem is the grammar.
And, speaking of language, I am doing that other three-year old thing: inventing names. Bottle bird, toilet seat skink, flame butt, sugarberries. Eventually maybe I’ll figure out their real names.
I’ll be putting lots of new photos up on Flickr (sidebar), identifying and commenting on them as I am able. Feel free to visit Dan’s site as well, www.panopicnic.com. It’s not every traveler who gets to have a professional photographer-spouse tagging along, but I got lucky.
On sunny late fall days at school, as the aftercare kids busy themselves with fort business, or whittling, or a tag game on the playground, someone invariably pauses, points up, and cries, “TV!” And sure enough, there they are, circling in the late afternoon thermals on the pale blue screen of the sky above us. We watch, we count, we speculate as to why they are there and how long they might stay, or what they might be sensing. The TV’s command attention, and then they sail away.
It is one of the first acronyms that kids learn in science, when we are taking a walk outside and I suddenly say, “Let’s watch TV!” They pause, puzzled. Some cheer, thinking that we will be going inside to see SpongeBob or whatever it is that kids like to watch these days. “Look up!” I tell them, and then they spot the enormous wings sailing overhead, the heads bent low, the effortless gliding grace. “It’s just a vulture,” one student will usually inform me, and I will add, emphasizing the sounds,”But it’s a Turkey Vulture. Here we are, outside, watching TV!” Then we will sit or lie down and spend the next few minutes watching TV, noting how they will tip to one side, then right themselves, how they seem to have fingers that help steer, speculating what dead thing they might be looking for, are are they just having fun up there, looking down at us?
I have seen kids get into their car at carpool and announce to their baffled parents that they watched TV during aftercare. I smile, nod, close the car door. Let them wonder.
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 that 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 the 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.
A flurry of activity filled the woods at Jemicy this week. During the first month of school, kids would 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.
This 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 and 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.
Today 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.
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.
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?
This 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.”
That 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?”
But 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.