I wonder if… you will try a new food

Missy wondered, “Will you try a new food?”

Were you were thinking perhaps of something made from kangaroo or wallaby? meatThey 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.

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Leucopogon parviflorus

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.

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Exocarpos cupressiformis

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.

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Carpobrotus rossii

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!

 

Biennial

O10669154_743124215765079_3058852150826401368_one late October I was hiking at Soldiers Delight, enjoying the remnants of fall leaf color, but missing the flowers and pollinators of late summer.  I paused by a stream to search for lingering invertebrates among the rocks, and my eye caught a flash of blue on the bank.  A clump of tall, slender plants stood just before me; most bore brown seed capsules but a few waved showy blue-purple petals edged in delicate fringe, revealing their identity: Gentianopsis crinita, fringed gentian.

They were stunning in their audacity.  This is a serpentine barrens, rocky and sparse, with soil uninviting except to the most tenacious species.  And yet, it hosts several of the rarest plants in the state and even region, which appear to thrive in these deprived conditions. The fringed gentian is an endangered rarity that is only found here, and in one other spot in Maryland.  In mid-summer, it is not uncommon to find the rare sand plain gerardia blooming unconcernedly and abundantly along the path.  This lovely pink fuzzy wonder, too, always brings me to my knees.gentian1

Ever since that first encounter with the fringed gentian, I look forward to meeting it again.  This plant is a biennial, its seeds not widely dispersed unless they are carried away by the stream. There is an official information sign posted directly beside some exposed clumps along the stream on on a lesser-used trail, but I enjoy trying to find the patch that I first met by chance downstream. I bend down to the water, just as I did then, let my attention rove the gold-green substrate, to be grabbed by those beckoning blue fingers.

Dispersal

Gliders, dogs, tennis balls, crossbows, inviting packages, blowguns: just a few of the mechanisms devised by the M Groupers to meet the annual Seed Dispersal Challenge.  After the class studies different means of dispersing seeds through wind, water, animals, and propulsion, students create their own way of getting a bean seed to travel at least 3 meters away from themselves.  Use of their own muscles is restricted to one small movement of the fingers – as in, drop a seed or glider, or release a trigger. The seed has to land on a surface where it could potentially grow, and a logical argument must be made for how the next and future generations could use the same technique to disperse their seeds as well.  Attaching a seed to a ball and letting gravity roll it down a hill, for example, only works for one generation, as the next will not have the same gravitational benefit. maggieOver the years, I have witnessed countless ingenious solutions, including loosely taping the seed to the top of a 3-meter long pole, then letting it topple over to release the seed.  This seed would then ostensibly grow into another tall pole-plant, which would disperse its seed in the same way. Or there was the seed attached to a soccer ball, which was left on the grass and eventually kicked away by a passing child who was unaware of the challenge, but who couldn’t pass up the obvious invitation.

During aftercare today, I noticed a dozen or so familiar-looking saplings growing under the canopy of the pines: golden rain tree.  A large, non-native ornamental now considered invasive, a single tree had been planted about fifteen years ago, succumbing to an unknown disease just last summer.  In those fifteen years, it had produced prolific pods bearing wind-borne seeds, but until now I had never seen its offspring.  So many inadvertent plantings, and these were only the visible ones. The saplings were just beginning to reach above a thick growth of other introduced, invasive plants: garlic mustard, wine berry, and burdock. Osage orange and yellow buckeyes, prized in the Jemicy fort culture, are not native to this region either. They join the golden rain tree and other introduced plants in that enormous pantheon of species that humans decided, for one reasonparkerseeds or other, to bring here.  And once established, facing no native controls, most take over dispersal responsibilities with the utmost success.

“Are all introduced species bad?” “Are all native species good?” “But don’t we want more species for biodiversity?” These are questions from students that I can’t definitively answer. What I can say is, “Look around you. Which kinds of plants are there the most of? Which kinds are there very few of? Does it seem like some are growing “out of control”? And then we look for the stories of how certain species got here – why humans decided they wanted them, and the effect that they have on others. I hope from this they will take away at least one message: dispersal doesn’t end with the single seed that we successfully launch; it is just the beginning.

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.

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.