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How Are We Connected?

by Arianna and Frank Grindrod

John Muir observed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Let us take a moment to shift out of the Nature-Culture dichotomy paradigm and recognize that humans are part of Nature and that as a very young specie we have much to learn from our co-habitants.

Life is interwoven, interconnected, interdependent. We humans need what the land has to offer, just as other species do. In a very real sense, we all need one another. Humans would not exist without plants and other animals. We need them for food, resources, companionship.

In exploring our interdependencies, let’s see how many connections we can see in the web of life right here in our beautiful home of Western Massachusetts.

Take a look in the mirror. There is you. You are one, whole being. But wait, there are several systems within you, as within all multi-celled beings, that help to keep you alive and functioning. One example is the digestive system. In the intestines are bacteria. Intestinal bacteria are helpful to the elimination process. Yes breaking down the waste for pooping is important. This is a “nested system”; a whole within a whole, as a bacterium is a whole being in and of itself. Review another nested system, your family; several whole beings existing together and relying on one another for their wellbeing. Consider, why do your parents cook for you? What is their motivation? Parents, think about this? Why do you care? Why do you feed your children? Caring is innate trait in many mammals. A baby cries, a pup yips, a kitten mews and there a “switch” in the adult’s brain that turns on in a need to provide, to nurture, to nourish. Extend this nested system into the community realm. You may not always LOVE your neighbors, however, there are times when you may rely on them. Relationships are about discovering ways to live in a habitat together; helping one another to get through tough times and celebrating one another in triumphant moments. Extend outwards into the environment and observe your wild neighbors…no, not the humans down the street throwing a party, the other animals; raccoon, beaver, dragonfly, ant, hawk, sparrow, minnow, trout, toad, salamander, turtle, snake. Take a moment to think about how you are part of the habitat you inhabit. What connections in your life do you notice between your family, your friends, your school environment, the foods you eat, the water you drink, the wild neighbors you see and affect? At each level, from the body to the family to the community to the environment, there are a plethora of interactions and though each system is whole in and of itself, it is also interdependent with other systems.

As educators and parents we can encourage our youth to not only notice and observe these connections but also to celebrate them. As children feel their connectedness to life around them, they are empowered to more actively participate in living in agreement with the environment in which they live. When does a child feel empathy? What was that first moment, when you remember your heart reaching out? Was it a neighbor who just dropped his ice cream on the pavement; a pet whimpering for attention; a wriggling worm you held in the garden; a dead raccoon you saw on the side of the road; a deer and fawn who stumbled upon you in the woods before racing off the path?

There are several engaging ways to access this concept of interdependence with children. The following are a few fun activities to explore with your child or students.

Ravens & Wolves, Crows & Coyotes: Crows and ravens recognize coyotes and wolves as “carcass openers” (yes, like a can opener) and will actually caw in these predators to a prey or a dead animal. The canines recognize the corvids cawing and will pursue to the food and consume it. The corvids know that eventually they will have their turn at the carcass and get a meal too. Wolf researchers observed the behavior and thought it curious as to why two very different species, a bird and a mammal, would take advantage of each other’s skills and work together. But the observations do not end there. These corvids and canines will also play tag with one another; chasing each other back and forth. Really, play tag with a known predator with sharp teeth? Yes! So here is the game. Team up in pairs. Decide who will be the crow (or raven) and who will be the coyote (or wolf). As this game can be played between a parent and child or a classroom of students, it is very easy to adapt. To start, the crows run down the field and pretend they have found some delicious dead deer. Crows will then caw to the coyotes and coyotes, run down to the crows, pretend to eat their fill of the deer and then the crow will tag a coyote. The coyote will then chase that crow and tag them and then the crow will turn around and chase and tag the coyote and so on. When partners are pooped out, the crows can then eat their fill. The parent or teacher can then discuss the dynamics between these two incredible wild neighbors.

The Special Biology of Lichen: Crows and coyotes are interdependent; at the same time they don’t need each other. They can hunt and forage on their own. Lichen on the other hand are mutualistic; they do need each other. Lichens are composite, symbiotic organisms made up from members of as many as three kingdoms. And they live their lives so close, in such a cooperative form, that scientists needed a name to describe them, hence, lichen. The dominant partner is a fungus. Fungi are incapable of making their own food. They usually provide for themselves as parasites or decomposers. Lichenologist Trevor Goward, describes the relationship thus; “Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture”. Fungi are the farmers, and algae or cyanobacteria (formally called blue-green algae) are the livestock.

Lichen are easy to examine in any season. They can be seen with naked eye and though hand lens are helpful for focusing in on these small beings, they are not necessary. They grow in the leftover spots of the natural world that are too harsh or limited for most other organisms. They are pioneers on rock, sand, cleared soil , dead wood, animal bones, rusty metal, and living bark. Able to shut down metabolically during periods of unfavorable conditions, they can survive extremes of heat, cold, and drought. There are four basic lichen types that can be found in New England. Take your child or children out into the woods and examine these fantastic examples of interdependence.

o Crustose lichens form crusts that are so tightly attached to the rocks, trees, sidewalks, or soils they grow on that they can’t be removed without damaging the substrate.

o Foliose lichens are somewhat leaf-like, composed of lobes. They are relatively loosely attached to their substrates, usually by means of rhizines. Their lobes have upper and lower sides and usually grow more-or-less parallel to the substrate.

o Fruticose lichens are the most three-dimensional. They’re usually round in cross section and most are branched. They can be like little shrubs growing upward, or they can hang down in long strands.

o Squamulose lichens have scale-like lobes called squamules that are usually small and overlapping. Lichens in the genus Cladonia have squamulose bases and often have fruticose fruiting structures called podetia.

Lichens are indicators of healthy air quality because they get their nutrients right from the air. So here is another example of interdependence – if lichens are indicators of healthy air and we see them, we know the air quality is probably pretty healthy. On the other hand, if we are not seeing many healthy lichen, than we know that it is time to make some changes in the way we impact the air quality around us. Cause, we breathe that air too, so it is our best interests to change our impact – good for us and for the lichen. So we are likin’ those lichen.

The Nested Systems Search: Find a bird’s nest or hold up a photo of one. Any one will do. What is this? Yes, a bird’s nest. What is it used for? Yes for holding eggs and chicks. You can see the boundaries and yet, this little nest is only one part of the birds’ home. The nest is nestled into a bigger system. What is this nest part of; where did the bird’s parents find these materials? The forest. So the nest is nestled in the forest. What is the forest nestled into? You can name the town you are in; the watershed, the state, the bio-region, and continue to extend outward until you include the whole Earth system. Now briefly let’s go backwards from the nest. It holds a bird and the bird itself is not only one entity, it is also made up of many living cells. There are other minute beings, such as bacteria, also living on and in the bird. Systems living within systems. And each level interacts and is interdependent with other systems. Challenge your students to explore woods and look for examples of interdependence and nested systems. Ask them to share their findings about how systems fit together.

Song “We’re All a Family Under One Sky”: A sweet way to end your experience for the day is to sing about what you found. Have participants interject various species. Repeat song several times.
“We all a family under one sky, a family under one sky!
We’re chickadees! We’re maple trees! We’re gray squirrels and lichen too!”

Think about what you eat, where you live, how you get around. All these things come from the Earth. Human culture is not separated from Nature; we are part of it. We exist because of it. And – we are all a family under one sky, a family living within this incredible system – Earth!