Wetlands 201

October 4th, 2010 by Arboretum Education Supervisor, Patrick Mulligan

So I had the pleasure of leading a group of 5th graders from Emerson today on a Wetlands 201 fieldtrip. It was a first for both us, as this was one of the fieldtrips that we re-vamped over the summer, and my first time trying it out on live victims.

Over all it went really well. Great kids, gorgeous fall day, bald eagle sighting, plenty of macros in the aquatic dip…

Surprisingly, it was the first time some of them had heard the terms “producer, consumer, & decomposer”, or if they’d heard them, they’re understanding was fuzzy. It gave me something to think about on my bike ride home this afternoon.

Recently, one of my veteran garden guides asked me, “why so much emphasis on producers, consumers, & decomposers?” (the concept has been added to pretty much every program we do). My immediate response was something like, “b/c I’m an ecologist at heart, a big-picture kind of guy, and these are the essential ingredients of the big picture…that, and P,C,D’s were pounded into my head at Islandwood”.

But now I have a much better answer…

“If you look deep, deep into nature, you will understand everything.”  Einstein said that, and Einstein was a smart dude.

If we can get kids to understand the basic concept of a food web – that producers make food that consumers consume and decomposers decompose so that producers can make more food, then kids will grow up to understand how this world works, and by extension, how to best live in it.

The Industrial Revolution ushered in the era of “humans as producers”.  Since then we’ve found myriad ways to harness the energy of the sun to make stuff. The ability has become so engrained in our societies, that to stop making stuff would be to crash everything.

Consuming all this stuff we make is 2nd nature, and nobody owns this “humans as consumers” concept better than we Americans. (An old slogan keeps running through my head…”why only eat just one, we’ll make more”.)

The era we’re only just starting to enter (I hope) is the “humans as decomposers” era. Perhaps b/c we’re surrounded by it, trash is starting to look valuable. There’s big money in taking junk and re-producing it into something consumable. If the titans of industry from back in the day were better ecologists, this would have been a no brainer, and we might not have overflowing landfills and islands of garbage.

In nature, nothing is wasted. This is the simple truth that teaching kids about food webs and the relationship between producers, consumers & decomposers gets at.  And if those 5th graders took away one thing today, I hope it was that.

Who knows, maybe one of those kids will go on to invent the trash-powered DeLorean from Back to the Future, and may be he/she will remember that fieldtrip they took in 5th grade and decide to donate a bunch to the Arboretum to replace the golf carts…one can only dream.