Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Life, Christmas Eve, hornworms, and fishing

Christmas Eve...time to curl up by the tree.
Even the yeast are resting--not a bubble from the carboy. (Don't think Clement Clarke Moore mentioned that, but it's true.)

Snow covers the ground--if I dig into the compost pile, I can find a few worms still going about their business, but most of the activity here has stalled until the sun returns. The only mammals still rarin' like it's July have an overrated cerebral cortex. Even the possums have more sense.

Our class spent a day or two in September discussing what "life" means--we mostly stuck to the textbook definition.

Textbooks vary on which 7 or 8 characteristics kids need to memorize, but I bet they all list reproduction as one.

Life does, indeed, reproduce. This network of complex beings busy catching sunlight, consuming each other, and banging on keyboards seamlessly moves on, cell into cells.

I keep hoping a student will ask the epistemologically obvious: I'm 15, I never reproduced, and I'm alive.

I'm ready for the question. If I ask it aloud myself, though, I look like just another addled adult in their lives. Their educational path is littered with addled adults.

Last August I found a tomato hornworm adorned with white cottony appendages. I pulled it off the tomatoes, then left it behind the garage with a sprig of tomato plant. I did not want it to starve.

The braconid wasp that had stung it a few weeks earlier had no such qualms--each white puff on the caterpillar's back was a wasp pupating, slowly using up the energy of my tomato plants chewed up by the hornworm. I bet the caterpillar wasn't feeling well enough to do too much damage in my garden. I probably should have left it there.

It was never going to reproduce any moths, but it did have a hand in reproducing wasps. Not sure life gets any more clearly defined (or messier) than that.

We divide life into organisms, but the definition of live goes beyond individuals. If it did not, sterility would be tantamount to death. (Oh, relax, my overbearing geneticist friends--life is more than just allele frequencies.)

Life does reproduce, but reproduce is too limited a word. Give life a source of energy and a way to capture it and it will squirm its way into crevices and mountaintops.

We are trained to separate "human" from the rest of life. We come up with definitions we expect our pupae to memorize, even though the words make little sense.

My pupae were bouncing off the walls this week--we, the teachers, blamed Christmas.

(I noticed the teachers were a bit bouncy themselves--I blame a culture that worships electric light more than the sun.)

So you want to teach biology.

Ask how many kids are tired, feel leaden, are sad, have an inexplicable craving for French fries and Doritos and bread and pasta.

Ask this during first period, 7:45 AM, less than a half hour after sunrise here.

Then ask what a mammal is.

Let them connect the dots.

You want to teach biology? Teach it in June standing waist deep in the local mud hole, picking off the leeches from your calf when you emerge from the cattails.

Sitting in front of a Smartboard in a class without windows will get them through the state test, but it won't get them to what matters.

I will be spending part of my break writing a grant application. The New Jersey DEP Division of Fish and Wildlife offers a "Physh Ed Grant Initiative" (cute, eh?).

If I can tie fishing to my curriculum, I have a shot at taking kids to the edge of a pond, hooking real fish, then slaughtering them.

Part of me finds the whole idea repulsive--what right do I have to subject a fish to the whims of a sophomore who will nervously laugh as we pull out the entrails of a creature doomed to die?

And I think of my hornworm--its back cluttered with was babies, draining its energy, still feeding on my tomatoes, taking away energy meant for the fruit.

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.


So I will apply for the grant, and if I get it, will lead a small band of kids to the edge of a pond, where we will slaughter our food, and eat it.

I will, of course, satisfy state curriculum requirements, and I will, of course, cause the suffering of another creature.

Still, when we eat the flesh of a being whose existence depends on the sun we are reminded that life is not about individuals.

A few kids will get a better idea of what "life" means.

Why else teach?

The infected hornworm is from the Reynolds Tobacco Company slides, taken by Robert Anderson, USDA Forest Service, United States
St. Nick by Thomas Nast


Betty said...

As usual, you always make me think. I have had similar thoughts about fish and insects. Today I scooped ants from my bathroom counter and washed them down the drain. I'm not sure how they get into the bathroom, but I feel sorry for them. Strange thoughts on Christmas Eve.

Sean Nash said...

You make me think far less than you make me sigh.

And you make me think a lot.

I just wish I has been able to read such things as a twenty year old. Not one person on Earth taught me a thing about writing.

A small band of amazing men did more for my quest to learn biology.

Though even back then I had the desire to write. I had the desire to write and I felt the planet quiver with the sun's magnificent wavelengths. I needed your words then. I wonder who does now?

We need to talk. we need to talk about programs for those who are thirsty. We need to talk about programs outside those funded due to NCLB. We need to talk about lining up the kids in your school dying for your insight... with the proper carrots they need.

I am talking about the carrots they need to want to spend time with you... sometimes in a classroom... sometimes in a field.

They want to. This I know. Find those kids. Find them before something else does.


doyle said...


I almost walked back to the ocean's edge today to return a shell that had a few more critters in it than I first knew--then I realized my tromping back would have killed countless more. Not sure that helps, but I know what you mean about the ants. Not so strange thoughts on Christmas Eve--in June we're so ramped up we don't notice these things (at least I don't). Christmas Eve, in an odd way, is about endings--we know how the baby we worship ultimately dies.

We pretend otherwise, but we know.


We do need to talk--if you don't mind someone deaf as a freakin' door-nail, I'll be glad to send my phone number, or street address if letters work better.


We have work to do.