When it comes to things that creep, crawl, or fly, I'm of the squeamish variety, and I well remember a high school science class assignment that involved finding and mounting fifty different insects. My "ick" is seemingly instinctive, but I also remember being enchanted by variations of beetles and the coloration and patterning in them and other hard-shell insects. As an adult, I tend to stick with the "ick", but spend an hour outdoors with a group of elementary school students, and it is hard to remain unmoved by their natural curiosity and fearlessness, by their wide-eyed embrace of the world around them, of things that lurk in corners and under logs, rocks, or piles of leaves. I may not embrace the slime left by a snail in one's palm, but that snails appear all along the hedges in the morning dew or after the rain... is worth noting. The way isopods navigate a hodgepodge obstacle course of blocks and pencils... is cause for excitement. Ladybugs, worms, spiders, ant colonies, stick bugs, beetles, butterflies... there's a lot to explore at ground-level.
In thinking about Earth Day this year, I thought about a profile of Dr. Edward O. Wilson (by James Gorman) that I read in New York Times Science. The piece begins with a description of Wilson, an entomologist and zoologist, on his hands and knees scrambling through the leaves near historic Walden Pond. The essay goes on to depict Wilson as brimming with an irrepressible zest for what Gorman terms the "micro wilderness"— the "wilderness" that can be found when one stoops down and really looks at what's happening on the ground.
There is an old saying that you are never more than a few feet from a spider, whether you see glistening woven signs of them bridging the corners of a windowsill or door jamb or not. For Wilson, the bio-diversity that can be observed a few centimeters below the ground is an endless source of wonder, and the number of creatures in even a square foot of wilderness can tally in the tens of thousands.
A Big-Screen Example
The essay on Wilson came to mind recently when I watched Avatar. I was the only one in my house that hadn't seen it, and I finally watched it, in part, because of an essay I read by another New York Times Science science writer, Carol Yoon. In "Luminous 3-D Jungle Is a Biologist's Dream," Yoon practically swoons over Avatar and the intensely-colored, very blue, lush, and "flowing" world of Pandora. Her review of the blockbuster hit is from the perspective of a scientist, maybe one that has often been cynical of big-screen representations of science and scientists. According to Yoon, Avatar got it right.
"When watching a Hollywood movie that has robed itself in the themes and paraphernalia of science, a scientist expects to feel anything from annoyance to infuriation at facts misconstrued or processes misrepresented. What a scientist does not expect is to enter into a state of ecstatic wonderment, to have the urge to leap up and shout: "Yes! That's exactly what it's like!"
Watching the movie, it is almost impossible not to catch one's breath at the natural world that's been enlarged, given shape, color, luminosity, and a clearly visualized interconnectedness with both the indigenous Na'vi people and other flora and fauna. There are many, many "that's almost like x" or "that reminds me of" moments as you watch the characters traverse and interact with Pandora, and every viewer probably has a different favorite. From plants that curl up at touch to jellyfish-like organisms to the bioluminescence of the ground when it's walked across, Pandora is visually captivating. The quiet moments of natural exploration and revelation in the movie are mesmerizing. And, if Yoon is right, it's exactly the kind of pop culture representation that can both satisfy scientists and make a general viewing audience stop and think.
Earth Day, Once More
For someone who self-describes as squeamish, maybe it's unusual how profound I found the essay on Wilson. Similarly, I love Yoon's giddy response to Avatar, and her elucidation of all the ways in which, for her, Avatar's Pandora does a wonderful job taking what we know and turning it into something mystical and compelling.
Inspired by their stories, I wonder if the perfect way to celebrate Earth Day might be to trek out into the woods, turn over a log, and really look to see the "wildlife" in motion. That there would almost certainly be birds to hear and maybe glimpse would be a bonus. And if you're lucky enough to spot a frog or a salamander, great. Take a notebook, write down what you see, make a quick sketch or two, and enjoy time spent appreciating, observing, and learning about the Earth right under your feet and maybe just beyond the mainstream road in your neighborhood.
A Focused Approach
The following projects can help you and your students turn renewed awareness and appreciation of what's underfoot into a stepping stone for scientific exploration:
- Bug Vacuums: Sucking up Biodiversity
- Worm Hunt: Isolating Soil Nematodes from Your Backyard
- What Is Home Sweet Home to a Bug?
- Squirmy Wormy: Which Soil Type Do Earthworms Like Best?
- Feeding Earthworms: Do Different Diets Affect Them and the Soil They Enrich?
For other ideas on talking about biodiversity with students, ones old enough to watch Avatar, check the "Nature's Call: Drawing Inspiration From 'Avatar' to Study and Create Organisms" teacher's guide from NYT's The Learning Network.
(Science Buddies projects in the area of zoology are sponsored by generous support from The Abbott Fund.)