Magazine article Natural History

Private Choices

Magazine article Natural History

Private Choices

Article excerpt

The kick screen was weighed down with a slime of wet, fallen leaves and hairy algae.

The children hauled it from the creek bed onto a level place along the bank. There they eagerly knelt beside it and, with forceps, began to grasp anything that moved, transferring their finds to white plastic ice-cube trays filled with creek water. The fourth-graders, from the town of Saint George in northeastern Kansas, were taking part in a project called Streamshot, and our purpose was to measure the environmental health of Blackjack Creek. Our assessment would be simply an index of its macroinvertebrates, a sampling of small but not microscopic animals widely used as indicators of freshwater quality.

The children's trays began to fill with mayfly nymphs, aquatic sow bugs, and the larvae of blackflies, caddis flies, and bloodred midges. And clinging to the slippery underside of the very last leaf was a leech. Teased from its tenuous hold, the leech slid into one of the tray's compartments and immediately sensed a change in its surroundings. Suctioning itself to the bottom of the tray, it accordioned its way around the confines of the strange white room, then reared up like a rising periscope to take a look around.

The kids shrieked with joy, awe, and horror. "Watch out! It'll suck your blood!"

I assured them that this was a vegetarian leech.

"How do you know?"

"Well, it was on a leaf, wasn't it?"

Finally they calmed down to watch its sinuous movements with fascination.

I usually released our captured "macros" at the end of our surveys, but on that day I had agreed to preserve them as specimens for the school's reference collection. Sometimes we have to make tough choices. I dumped the contents of the ice-cube trays into ajar and screwed on the lid.

Later that afternoon I deposited the jar in the refrigerator of the education department office. But the fridge wasn't working properly, and when I returned to retrieve the jar several days later, the water-and everything in it-was frozen solid. …

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