Sunday, May 27, 2012

Deception is Beautiful

I always like being surprised on snorkeling trips. We form opinions based on how things look from the outside, often without considering what is inside, and when I look inside streams, I am usually surprised by the beauty, drama and ecology of even our most familiar and unsuspecting creeks.

Coopers Branch is like that. It is a suburbanized stream, surrounded by houses, roads and shopping centers. It isn’t much more than a trickle and it just doesn’t look like there should be much to see beneath the surface. I have been here before but was too busy running a trip to really notice the ecology of this stream. I looked beneath the surface of Coopers Branch while I waited for students to arrive.

Two distinct schools of rosy sided dace shot from rock to rock and congregated on two different clean gravel patches to spawn. It was an incredible sight for two reasons: rosy sided dace are some of the most ornately colored fish we have living in our streams, especially when they are spawning, and rosy sides usually need water that is less fouled by sediments. Their presence here in suburbanized Coopers Branch indicates that maybe this creek isn’t as impacted as I initially thought, based on my observations from the surface. A whole lot of other life was present too and together they compose a complex functioning ecosystem. Water striders skated on the water tension of the surface to eat other insects. Crane fly larvae munched on the decaying leaves on the bottom and crayfish scavenged. Tadpoles wriggled by the hundreds in the shallows.

Students arrived and my focus shifted to help kids see and connect with the life in Coopers Branch. This was part of the deceptive beauty. We often perceive middle school students as disengaged, uninterested. But Betzy Willis’ 7th grade class from Catonsville Middle was anything but disengaged. They immediately took their task of documenting the diversity of Coppers Branch life seriously and soon I heard students calling out ID’s. They didn’t know what everything was, but that didn’t matter. They were finding a wide variety of organisms all dependent on the water quality in Coopers Branch. At the end of the trip the students understood that the quality of Coopers Branch not only affects all the animals we saw in the stream, but it affects our health and the health of our communities too. We are all aquatic, as Jeremy Monroe from Freshwaters Illustrated says. Betzy Willis’ students understand that, and are ready to act to improve water quality in Coopers Branch.

There is a saying on bumper stickers from the organization We Love Catonsville…Life is great in 21228. Yes it is. Even the unexpected, unnoticed, underwater life. Looks can be deceiving and that is beautiful.

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