A thick blanket of snow muffled the usual sounds as I walked outside on this first morning of spring in Maryland. And then, from a protected perch among the holly boughs, came the distinctive, 3-part song of a cardinal that was quickly answered in kind from a neighboring tree: “LOCATION! LOCATION! LOCATION!”
A late snowstorm can’t deter the territorial instincts so prevalent among birds this time of year. I watched both male and female cardinals take turns making forays out from the holly trees to the bird feeder, then dash back to protect their space from intruders. Whether they had already begun nest-building before the storm is uncertain, but they must have selected an ideal location worth defending.
The housing market for cavity nesting birds took a hit this winter in the Jemicy woods. Powerful wind storms brought down several tall trees with hollows that had provided snug nesting sites for local chickadees, tufted titmice and bluebirds. We try to help remedy this loss by building and installing nest boxes around campus every year in early spring. This also gives us the opportunity to more closely monitor the progress of different birds as they raise their families.
Sometimes these houses are co-opted by other animals with their own nesting needs. When we were checking old boxes this week (Rule 1: always knock first), we found one stuffed full of dried leaves and other nest materials. Something was moving around inside: Chipmunk? Mouse? Flying squirrel? We carefully closed the box and left the new resident’s identity a mystery.
Pileated woodpeckers develop much of the real estate that is sought after by cavity nesters. Once a desirable location is identified, a thorough inspection must take place. These bluebirds seemed to have a difference of opinions about this particular site. The male recommended it enthusiastically, hopping in and out, encouraging the female to step in for a tour. She, however, was not convinced, and flew off after a cursory peek inside.
A pair of doves made their decision more readily. After sitting together quietly on a branch by a lake, the male hopped over to a nest that appeared to have been constructed last year by a different bird. It was a neat cup of mud and grass such as a robin might build, but the doves had added a few extra twigs – the perfect renovation. The female dove stepped in and settled herself comfortably into the nest, while the male sealed the deal by giving her a good preening.
Flitting about just over their heads, a mockingbird protested loudly. Had he already claimed this location? The doves were oblivious to his noise. Meanwhile, hopeful sparrows positioned themselves prominently for their own call and response ritual. As soon as one song finished, another sounded off. One young sparrow seemed to find this frustrating; every time he would open his beak, another nearby male would steal his song space. He finally let out a quavery burst of song, then left to try his luck in other territory.
February is a good month for cravings, especially sugar. Flocks of robins and cedar waxwings descend on trees and vines that still hold fruit. Acrobatic bluebirds snag berries on the wing. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers leave rows of holes to do what their name implies.
Jemicy kids follow suit. Sugar maples are uncommon at school, so instead we pay a visit to the red maples (Acer rubrum) and box elders (Acer negundo) that are plentiful on our campus. Maryland’s sap flow is unpredictable and often brief; a stretch of temperatures below freezing at night and above freezing during the day rarely lasts long enough to deliver much sap unless you can collect from large numbers of trees. Last year, we arrived in mid-February with our spiles and buckets only to find that the trees were already beginning to flower. This year, we watched the forecasts closely. Well in advance of the proper temperatures, we had prepared our repurposed yogurt buckets and fashioned bamboo spiles.
On Valentine’s Day, we were delighted to find most buckets filled, and before the temperatures soared into the mid-70’s we had managed to get about 4 gallons of sap. While this would not result in more than a half cup of syrup, the entire tapping and evaporating process was well worth it. Every child claimed to be able to taste the sugar in the liquid dripping from the tree, and as we boiled the collected sap in the classroom, we naturally had to sample it periodically as the sugar became more concentrated.
By the end of the sugaring week, several box elder trees in the recess area started seeping sap from splits and broken limbs caused by winter ice damage. The sap fermented as it accumulated on the bark, attracting numerous insects: ants, flies, beetles, and even butterflies.
The butterflies were eastern commas (Polygonia comma), the first of our spring butterflies, and the earliest I had ever seen. The attraction to fermented sap reminded me of a similar phenomenon that I had seen in New Zealand, where red and yellow admiral butterflies would cluster and feed on oozing tree trunks. In fact, red admirals apparently preferred fermented tree sap or fruit to flower nectar. Honeybees, (an introduced species in New Zealand as they are in the US) often joined them.
During the sap flow, I was also taking a weekend beekeeping class. My winter insect deficit had induced a craving that was slightly appeased by listening to Steve, our instructor, talk for hours about social insect behavior and biology, and about early spring nectar sources.
During the second class, he demonstrated how to extract honey, pausing every so often as he slid his knife over the drawn comb to lick a drip from his fingers.
A stray bee appeared from somewhere in Steve’s equipment and flew around him. He chuckled and assured us that the bee would surely be accompanying its honey back home. That urge to collect sugar, whether to feed a colony or one’s own sweet tooth, is hard to deny.
Some of the most challenging things to teach in biology are those that we can’t easily see. Maybe they are microscopic, at the cellular or molecular level. Or, they exist in an inaccessible place, such as inside an animal’s body. Finding ways to bring such concepts to life, to create projects that animate and demonstrate their relevance is a vital part of teaching.
Back in my grandmother’s time, students of natural history kept meticulous notebooks detailing their observations and reflections.
In her “National Biology Note-book” completed by my grandmother in high school, a preface explains the importance of developing inductive reasoning skills through structured laboratory exercises rather than using the “verification method” of simply memorizing facts. While facts are quickly forgotten, asserts the author, “training the young mind to see accurately and think clearly” should result in deeply-ingrained scientific habits of observation and logical reasoning.
To find amoeba or paramecia, the note-book suggests, scoop some old leaves from a stagnant pool, boil up a hay infusion, and see what shows up. The same strategies work 100 years later. And, if DNA had been known in those years, I bet they would have used the same “pea soup” extraction that we do today.
Working at the elementary level, I am always searching for fun projects that can help teach anatomy. Last year, students made life-size skeletons from recycled materials while learning the name for each of the bones. Related learning opportunities often arise serendipitously. We recently decided that it was time to disinter the squirrel that we had buried in the pine woods last fall, and carefully collected the bones. We are now in the process of reconstructing the squirrel’s skeleton, naming the bones as we go. It’s a treasure hunt for puzzle pieces.
This year in the younger classes we are focusing more on the “squishy bits,” the internal organs. We are taking a comparative approach to this project, so that we can understand how the same or similar organs look and function in different organisms. To do this, we are creating “Operation” games; each student selects an animal, researches and draws its internal anatomy, and then cuts the organs out carefully from a recycled pizza box.
Because we have also worked on creating simple electric circuits, we are wiring the animal anatomy boxes so that, as in the classic Operation game, each organ must be removed very carefully so as not to set off an alarm buzzer.
When my grandmother graduated from high school in 1909, she wrote an essay entitled “Learning by Doing,” in which she described a progressive philosophy that would soon inform her own practice as a teacher. I’m not sure what she would think of all the new-fangled technologies that I am using with my classes, but I hope that she would see them fulfilling the final words of her essay: a child “who formerly could see nothing in anything now sees something in everything…”
The old “MR DUCKS – MR NOT” joke has just taken on new meaning for me. Over the winter break, I kept an eye on rare bird alerts, hoping that one would pop up in my neck of the woods. I went to a nature center looking for a red-headed woodpecker, to a local pond in search of a snow goose, and a new location – a recently redeveloped lake-filled quarry – hoping to see an out-of-season orange-crowned warbler. None of the hoped-for rarities appeared.
But at the last site, I was watching the flocks of Canada geese taking off and landing when I noticed smaller waterfowl scattered among them. Whether these were rare, I had no clue. All I really knew for sure was – as they say – MR DUCKS.
While I have learned over the years to identify many birds, there are gaping holes in my waterfowl knowledge. Never having lived nor spent significant time near freshwater or marine habitats, I had less impetus to learn to identify their residents than the ones in my own backyard. Other than the mallards that I raised and released on our small farm pond as a kid, and the ubiquitous Canada geese, I really don’t know waterfowl.
But now, staring out at all these unfamiliar birds in a place almost in my backyard, I felt a challenge rising. 2018: Year of the duck.
For me, close and persistent observation – preferably accompanied by photography, so that I can study images in depth – is the key to really learning species. On my first excursion to the quarry, distinguishing different species was mostly a matter of playing the “One of these things is not like the others” game. In a flock of hundreds, could I discern through binoculars who was different from anyone else?
Some were divers, some dabblers. Markings were clearly different, but were these due to sex? Age? I photographed lots of birds, hoping the images would help reveal identities.
Back at home, a field guide helped me sort out the various species: bufflehead, hooded merganser, ruddy, ring-necked and redhead ducks. The next day, I went back. This time, armed with clear search images, I was able to quickly spot and identify all of the same species. The mergansers, tufted hoods prominent, swam and dove in male-female pairs, while the buffleheads dove, popped up, and joined small groupings of other ducks. The ruddy duck bobbed about among the geese like a tiny bathtub toy, head tucked under its wing.
The birds observed me from a safe distance, moving away whenever I tried to get a closer vantage point, diving and never reappearing where I expected them to be.
Maybe as they grow accustomed to seeing me, I will become less of a threat. While some birders aim to spot as many species as they can in a year, I am hoping simply to move my knowledge beyond MR DUCKS – MR NOT. The challenge is on.
At 11:28 AM on December 21, a long shadow fell across the frozen surface of a shallow pool. Solst…ice.
There is a magical quality to ice, its translucence and shimmer immediately attracting kids who then, of course, need to slide and jump on it, shatter and collect bits of it.
Ice captures and preserves pieces of the past, brings death to some things and new life to others. In the Jemicy stream, frogs, salamanders and aquatic invertebrates wait out winter in the mud below, though sometimes we find them tucked under a log or in a shallow hole, seemingly frozen solid, one with the ice.
In my solstice shadow today, I spied movement. There were a few tadpoles wiggling sluggishly in the mud, but other creatures were swimming about just under the ice. A diving beetle made forays back and forth to a submerged log, while backswimmers scooted by near the surface. They slid along the underside of the ice, displaying their greenish ventral side, and then quickly dove away, startled by movement.
There were dozens of them active on a day when the air never got much above freezing, when the great blue heron kept one foot tucked near its warm belly as it ate lunch.
The cold wasn’t stopping the spiders either – they were hunting small flies along the bank. I wondered what the water temperature was, and how invertebrates could summon the energy to move at all, let alone actively forage there.
As Sol begins the long arc back up to summer solstice, I’m glad to see ice mark the beginning of winter.
For the past several weekends, sunshine and mild weather have lured me to the fields and forests of Irvine Nature Center. It has been a favorite haunt since the center moved to a state-donated expanse encompassing several hundred acres of former cropland, low-lying woods and wetlands. The land had been logged, drained, and cultivated over the past century for farming, then abandoned.
Every time I visit this site, I recall my first time there in 2001, volunteering with a group making preliminary baseline species counts prior to the planned nature center relocation. It was a sunny spring day, red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures circled overhead, and red-winged blackbirds made their raucous territorial displays.
We walked for what seemed like miles through old corn fields, many overgrown with multiflora rose and bordered by drainage ditches. Species counts were low, reflecting the lack of habitat suitable for the butterflies, amphibians, and birds you’d expect to find in open, wet landscape like this. How, I wondered to myself, could this overworked, depauperate tract of land ever provide the rich diversity of living things central to a nature center’s mission?
Then, directly in front of us, a bird I didn’t recognize made a gliding pass across the field, its head lowered to spot small prey, its white rump visible as it banked and veered off at another angle. I was transfixed; it was my first time seeing a northern harrier. If this bird was hunting here, I thought, then there must be more to this place than I could see.
Harriers are still here, gliding serenely amid the ongoing and monumental endeavor that is the restoration of Irvine’s 210 acres to meadow, wetland and forest. Hillsides once dominated by corn are now carpeted in milkweed, coneflower, and other native wildflowers and grasses. Slow-moving water seeps into streams, trickles into pools, and soaks the soil for new stands of sycamore and red maple. During the summer, a green heron frequented the wetlands, and a solitary sandpiper made a stopover on its journey south. Numerous tree swallows hunted here during the summer as well, nesting in the houses and tree hollows available around the site.
Now, even in the near-dormancy of early December, the place hums with expectation and the promise of abundant diverse organisms ready to make the most of new habitat opportunities. I paused by one of the pools, and my shadow caused several tadpoles to dart away from the sun-warmed water at the edge and bury themselves in the muddy bottom. It makes me impatient for spring, anticipating the wealth of amphibian life afforded by reestablishing a more natural flow of water through the landscape.
As I was passing by one of Irvine’s field edges last week, I was startled by a large bird lifting off just in front of me: a great blue heron. It landed not far away and appeared to ignore me as it peered intently into the brush. I sat and watched, wondering what it was hunting. Small rodents? Its stalking motion was barely detectable.
It flew off again making a low circuit, landed, and resumed its hunting, soon joined by another. It was the first time I could recall seeing great blue herons here. Maybe they, too, were reaping the benefits of the reconstructed hydrology.
One of my personal measures of a location’s biodiversity is the length of time that it keeps me in a kind of hunting reverie, my attention captured and held at every step by the life around me. In the early days of visiting Irvine, I might wander along the forest edges watching raptors sailing over the fields, then leave still feeling unsatisfied. Today, I am left more like the land itself: restored.
“I found a really weird mushroom!” is an announcement heard almost daily during Jemicy’s late fall recesses. Salamanders and frogs have buried themselves in the stream mud for the winter, buckeyes are long since collected by kids or squirrels, and foliage no longer obscures the surfaces and crannies of logs.
There are certain seasons when a “weird mushroom” can mean an edible morel or chicken-of-the-woods that I will likely spirit away to savor at home, but in mid-November, it is something to be wondered at, photographed, used for a spore print, or simply observed.
In the classroom we recently studied fungi firsthand by dissecting mushrooms, experimenting with growing different food molds, and testing yeast’s carbon dioxide production.
The idea that fungi are heterotrophs like us, unable to make their own food through photosynthesis but rather silently gaining nutrients from the environment (which includes other living and formerly living organisms) can make them seem almost insidious. And indeed, the largest living thing recorded is a fungus living in Oregon (Armillaria solidipes) whose mycelium extends for 9.6 square kilometers. It was discovered when scientists went searching for the cause of a large tree die-off and found that the hyphae throughout the area all belonged to the same genetically distinct organism. A truly humongous fungus.
Like the plant blindness that afflicts so many humans living in the industrialized world, fungi are often overlooked, but even more common, it seems, is a reaction of disgust. This may be due to the fact that many fungi are decomposers, and we associate them with decay and potentially deadly toxins if ingested. We also usually notice only the mushrooms – not the primary organism but only its fruiting bodies – which produce spores for reproduction. Fear of poisoning by contact or even proximity prevents many from appreciating the diversity, complexity, and beauty of these organisms, not to mention the unseen but critical role that so many perform in aiding nutrient uptake by plant roots.
As my seventh grade classes were wrapping up our study of fungi, we watched two TED talks that highlighted new perspectives on fungi. The first, by Paul Stamets, described ways that fungi could, in his words, save the world through bioremediation and fighting disease, among other benefits. The second linked our class’s initial study of trees to fungi as Suzanne Simard discussed her experiments with plant communication through an underground fungal network. Both talks kept the class spellbound. I recommend them as one more way to fully appreciate the fungus among us.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”