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Return of the Redwings


David SobelDavid Sobel is a regular essayist and contributing editor of Community Works Journal and is a Senior Faculty  in the Education Department at Antioch University New England. He also coordinates Antioch's new Nature-based Early Childhood program. Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, David plays a major role in what has become a national movement promoting place-based education, an approach that has blossomed—from studying biology in the school yard to creating mapping businesses, and other neighborhood services. Each is an exercise in changing the way students learn about the environment and their place in it. David advocates using students' home turf to study topics and issues related to sustainability, not just ecology but also local history, culture, and the economy. David is the author of a number of books including Children’s Special Places and Beyond Ecophobia.

Developing a sense of place was not a high priority in any of my education experiences up through college. I grew up in Westport, Connecticut, a well-to-do suburb of New York City. My high school, at one point, was named one of the top 10 high schools in the country—lots of students went to really good colleges. But understanding the ecology of where we grew up, the history of Connecticut, the socioeconomics of suburban development, the arts and theater traditions of our community?  Nada.  Hardly a word ever spoken. I romped and crabbed and explored in tidal meadows all around my neighborhood only to realize, ten years later, “those were salt marshes!?”  

Same thing in college. I took The History of the City, African Politics, Buddhism and Hinduism, 19th Century Literature, Existentialism, Biology, but there was little emphasis on understanding local history or the geography of the mountain corner of New England we were nestled in for four years. Outside of class, however, I dove whole-heartedly into the landscape.  Discovering topographic maps (how come I’d never seen one of these before?) climbing Mt. Greylock, tramping the Taconic ridge, ferreting out swimming holes, exploring one of the longest railroad tunnels in the country under the spine of the Berkshires, filled my afternoons and weekends. I learned where to buy the crispest Macs, the sharpest country store cheddar, the crustiest French bread, the cheapest Mateus Rose to picnic on the warmest south facing ledges in October glow. There was a great, big, wonderful new world out there, but there was never any orchestrated connection between the ivory tower and the mud below.  

Until I took Animal Behavior, a psychology course, my junior year. I had started college wanting to follow in the footsteps of Sinclair Lewis’ hero, Martin Arrowsmith. I, too, was going to be a biomedical researcher, saving the world from the next plague.  (Little did I realize, in the late 60’s, that there were indeed going to be plagues to save the world from). 

Freshman year I took Advanced Chemistry along with all the other premed majors. In the spectroscopy lab, the task was to energize tubes of gas with very high electrical charges. You then took a picture of the light the gas emits and the unique spectroscopic pattern allows you to determine which gas it is. (This is a way of identifying the composition of far-flung stars). During this lab, I mistakenly touched one of the electrodes connecting the electrical source to the gas tubes. 5000 volts surged through my body, shattered glass and broken equipment erupted from our lab bench and I think my hair stood on end for the next three hours.  This was the turning point in my biomedical career. Research science was just a bit too stressful for me. Hence, after brief stints as a History, then Anthropology major, I settled into being an English major. All the Prairie Home Companion jokes apply. But I was still interested in science, so therefore Animal Behavior. 



Of course, there was a research project. I perused the list of possibilities, rats in mazes, color recognition in dogs, territorial behavior in red-winged blackbirds? Maybe that would mean I’d get to do some science outdoors. What a novel idea.  My friend,  Tom Jones,  and I took on the project together. I had no idea what a red-wing blackbird looked like, I had no idea how to find one, I had no idea what kinds of territorial behavior they would demonstrate. But a couple of Journal of Animal Behavior articles later, we started to understand that male red-wing blackbirds establish clearly delineated territories, on the shrubby edges of marshes, as part of attracting a mate in spring. The professor encouraged us to head out to find a suitable study site. 

We rambled around campus. It was early March, the snows were slowly receding and, lo and behold, down there on the road from the freshman dorms to the soccer fields there was a small pond, surrounded by a marshy meadow, with a border of eight to ten foot shrubs around it. I’d passed it a hundred times and never given it a second glance. Today I know that that shrub border was made up of speckled alders, red maples, probably some red osier dogwood mixed in. At that point, I didn’t know an alder from Adam, but it didn’t matter. And sure enough, flitting from one side of the marsh to the other were shiny black birds with shockingly brilliant red shoulder patches.  Looked like the get-ups the Italian guys who picked on me in my high school wore. There were some other non-descript brownish birds hanging around too.

The question was, could we determine if these red-winged blackbirds really demonstrated the kind of territorial behavior described in the research journals? One of us had the bright idea that we needed a moveable, macho redwing blackbird model that we could use as an intruder on territories. This got me onto  familiar turf. I’d been an expert plastic airplane model builder in my youth and specialized in accurate paint jobs. I went to the Hobby Shop (remember those?) bought a generic bird model, then painted it with redwing plumage. Pretty easy actually since it’s only three colors—black, red, a trim of yellow. 

By this point, through frosty early morning field observations in between our other classes, we had figured out that there were about ten male blackbirds who had staked out roosting areas around the marsh. And we had realized, somewhere along the line, that the non-descript brown ones were the females waiting to get lured in.

In order to figure out the exact boundaries of each male’s territory we’d place Butch, the macho, plastic intruder in different locations and, on a tape recorder, we’d play the shrill, cheerio-ka-lay-dee call of the male. If the nearby resident male attacked the intruder, (and I mean attacked, often knocking Butch to the ground), he was inside the territory. If the resident male ignored Butch, he was outside, but then often perilously close to the next adjacent resident male. Through doing this over and over around the pond, we were able to draw a very tidy map delineating the shape and size of the all the territories.  

It’s striking to me that I’ve got such striking visual and intellectual memories of this experience. I can remember precious little from my Latin American Anthropology class or my winter term independent study of the political theory of Frantz Fanon.  But my study of redwings served as a turning point for me. So many things opened up after this. 

Some Insights:

*I realized there could be connections between college courses and the real world.  And doing something real in the nearby landscape didn’t mean I was slacking off.   This was real science with real content.

*Up until this point, I thought birdwatching in particular, or ornithology more generally, was, well,  for the birds--kind of geeky. Now I started to sense that the natural world was made up of all these unique creatures with interesting life-styles.

*Phenology? What’s that? You mean these red-winged blackbirds show up every year, right around the same time, following a very predictable pattern, like lots of other plants and animals? Way cool. 

*I recognized that knowledge didn’t have to be about things that were at least 50 miles away. Knowledge resided in all the organisms and buildings right around me, and the nearby knowledge was both more accessible and more engaging.  

To this day, I am attuned to the arrival each spring of redwings in the beaver meadow down the road from my house. The cheerio-ky-lay-dee is one of those sure, first signs of spring, even when it’s still in the single digits in the morning. I feel a bit of kinship with red-wings, like we share a little secret. The flash of scarlet on their wings brightens my day, puts a little bounce in my step.

Studying redwings that spring finally connected me to my place in the Berkshires in a new way.  Before that, my connection had been mostly exploratory and visceral. Now, the feeling connection was enhanced with a cognitive component, and the patterns of floral and faunal seasonality were starting to make sense. Though a friend taking a Botany course at Bennington, I got turned on to wildflowers and I discovered the lush spring ephemerals in the McCullough Woods in North Bennington. I wanted to know the names of trees, the phases of the moon, the unique attributes that made the northern Berkshires different from other places. I devoured May Thielgard Watt’s Reading the Landscape and Ernest Seton’s The Seasons of America Past. My sense of place flourished.   

Alan Gussow defines sense of place as “geography claimed be feelings.” My place in the highlands north of Monadnock is strongly claimed with feelings that have their roots in that Berkshire marsh. And I bring that same feeling of connectednss to every new place I travel. As my daughter said recently in a letter to me about her sense of place, “This connection to the earth, which is everywhere and always nurturing, is one of the greatest gifts I have ever received; it allows me to feel at home anywhere that I can plant my feet in the soil and hug the trees and it helps me to find solitude and peace within myself and the world around me.”

If we want to cultivate adults who feel connected to their places, then good teaching, from pre-school through graduate school, should take advantage of the nearby learning opportunities. Students who develop a sense of place, will have a commitment to protecting their places, whether it’s the shrub marsh down the road, the urban park, or the spruce/fir biome that stretches across northern New York and New England. 

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