Nature Table for June

Nature Table for June

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new nature table whose contents inspire learning along a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. A tradition carried out by teachers, environmental educators, and nature-curious families, nature tables bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. The idea behind a nature table is to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves. A nature table can include a variety of items, and is often accompanied by a set of books and/or field guides so that children can take part in further learning at their own will.

I like to intend my nature tables to echo the out-of-doors, their contents shifting and changing as the local landscape changes outside. My classroom nature table is no exception to this description: our collection ebbs and flows constantly, evolving alongside both the seasons and our interests. This month’s nature table, however, defies the season-specific nature of such tools. Our collection of lichen samples certainly speaks to our current curiosities, but its contents could have been collected in essentially the same condition during any time of year – which is just one of the many fascinating qualities of this amazing living thing.

Lichen can be found almost anywhere within our local landscape. Here in our small river valley, it’s plentiful in the woods and on the rocks by the river. Searches in similar places throughout western Massachusetts will reveal a wealth of lichen in similar locations. It’s incredibly resilient, fairly plentiful, and comes in far more varieties than most folks would imagine. Though its crispy (and sometimes green) lobes and layers seem plant-like, lichen is actually both a fungus and an algae at the same time, and exists thanks to a symbiotic relationship between the two. 

So what’s so great about lichen? Well, on top of its unique classification, it is a great indicator of air quality. Citizen science projects at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute have allowed curious naturalists to count and identify lichen species in order to monitor Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s air quality, and have resulted in the discovery of multiple undocumented species of lichen (thanks largely to teen volunteers!). While this project takes place far from the hills and rocky rivers of our home, the project can be easily replicated here. Diverse and plentiful lichen means healthy air; low diversity paired with scarcity indicates less healthy air.

Another great selling point for lichen studies is its ability to survive in space. Lichen is, so far, the only living thing on earth to survive unprotected in outer space and then continue to survive as normal when brought back to earth. Even more fascinating is the survival of the microscopic water bears (also know as tardigrades) who live on lichen. These tiny, lumpy creatures not only ventured into space upon the lichen that they call home, they laid eggs in space, and the eggs hatched when they returned to earth! And as if that wasn’t enough, both lichen and its water bear guests have the ability to go dormant when the landscape doesn’t offer them favorable conditions for survival. They’re both incredibly resilient!

Our nature table this month is made up of a wide variety of samples, all collected nearby. This month’s nature table includes:

  • Crustose lichen that we’ve discovered on stone walls, rock faces, and stone steps
  • Foliose lichen found on the sides of trees and on fallen bits of bark
  • Fruiticose lichen clinging to dry sticks and hanging onto mossy nurse logs

Some books to bolster lichen studies include:

Robin Morgan Huntley, Community-Based Education Correspondent

A native to Maine, Robin joined Hilltown Families in early 2011. She is a graduate of Antioch University with a masters in education. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her undergraduate project at Hampshire College, Robin researched the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. Robin lives and teaches 5th grade in the Hilltowns of Western MA and serves on the Mary Lyon Foundation Board of Directors.


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