It Takes Caddisfly Larvae to Raise a Child

By SUSIE DENEHY , Staff Naturalist/Teacher, Harris Center for Conservation Education

We stand in the flowing waters of No-Name Stream in Antrim’s McCabe Forest. Our feet rest on the slippery cobble and the brook’s current tugs at us. We are dressed for a raging river, with full body waders, life jackets and mosquito netting. Yet, here we stand in water no higher than our ankles. We laugh, pointing at each other’s new attire. One fifth grader says, “Imagine if you had to dress like this every day.”

I can imagine it. I would gladly don rubber pants and sport high geeky galoshes, just to spend my days exploring the rocky shallows of our local streams. I am hoping that by the end of the day, my students will feel the same way, that they, too, will become stream-walkers and brook readers.
We are on a treasure hunt today, searching for the small creatures who call No-Name Stream their home. With nets in hand, we begin our quest. We dance on the rocks, twisting, shuffling, and squirming. This rockin’ dance loosens the stream invertebrates, sending them downstream to our waiting nets. The bounty is remarkable. Stoneflies that look like small dinosaurs, giant for this small rippling stream; flattened dragonfly nymphs perfectly aerodynamic for dwelling in these currents; even a two-lined salamander, swimming gracefully, swaying like a mermaid. The rat-tailed maggot delights us with its slimy appearance. We are all taken by the delicate beauty of the water penny, a small flat beetle who clings to the bottom of rocks in the fast stream riffles.

Yet it is the caddisfly larva that captivates us. We gather around, watching these small case-builders shyly poke their caterpillar-like faces out of their portable shelters. These distinctive invertebrates construct shelters out of a variety of small objects gathered from the streambed that they fasten together with a glue-like spit or silk. They always have a place to call home, these RV’s of the stream world, tugging their homes along as they wander the benthic highway. Each type of case reveals a different species of caddisfly, and we have a wide variety of caddisfly larvae in our tub. There are cases built from last year’s leaves, rough twigs, slender pine needles and small shimmering pebbles.

As we observe these creatures, I look around at my crew of collectors and am struck by a strange comparison — an inter-species connection, a cross creature metaphor. I think, we are all a little like the caddisfly larva. Like the caddisfly, we build who we are by what is around us and where we have come from. We carry with us our past connections. It helps define who we are and who we grow to be.

For middle school students this seems to be particularly true as they begin their slow and often difficult transition from childhood to adulthood. Like the caddisfly, they construct their portable selves, and although they will emerge as unique adults, their experience in a community can be a home that will always be a part of them, carried with them no matter how far they fly. Experience is the streambed of our lives. For the students at Great Brook School, their “caddisfly cases” are being built with the best the community has to offer. At Great Brook School, the unique COSEED project is winding up its second year.

The school, working with the Harris Center and Antioch New England Graduate School, has reached out into the community for its learning opportunities. Weaving community members and projects into the school curriculum, students are making Antrim a part of their home and a part of themselves, connecting their learning to the school’s town. The town, in return, has a chance to fulfill its needs while at the same time sharing its knowledge and expertise with these young adults. From designing and re-landscaping Antrim’s Memorial Park, to developing a recycling program in the school, to counting caddisfly larvae in No-Name Stream, students are actively engaged in the community, learning that the world outside of the classroom flows rich with learning opportunities.

We are huddled around the tub of caddisfly larvae. They are being returned to the brook by the students reluctantly. I watch as each child gently lowers the young caddisfly back into the stream’s grasp. I cannot help but feel a fluid kinship. Here I am with tomorrow’s leaders, standing in the cool spring water, watching as they bid goodbye to their little larvae. I hear soft voices whispering to the flies: “Goodbye, little one,” “Don’t get eaten,” and “Grow into a great fly.”

Yes, all good words of advice. I whisper too. The stream washes over our ankles.

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