The peppers we call Hawaiian look like little red lipsticks but are more like capsules of fire. I was talking smack in Waipio Valley fresh off the jet about how I just love hot food and I can eat anything and not even blink. I ate one and within three blinks of an eye was on my hands and knees under a mango tree, sucking rotten fruit like they were life savers. I've handled them with great respect ever since that uncomfortable day.
In garden class the 5/6 grade boys are first to find the pepper bush, four years running. Even boys that have been in gardening class, cruising around that same pepper bush since they were in second grade, get to fifth/sixth grade and start secretly daring each other to eat ripe peppers. I hear them whispering even though they don't have to: "I can eat four." "I can eat more than that." "You go first." Depending on who is in on the daring, I usually don't interupt. I figure boys that dabble in daring must be prepared to suffer their own consequences. This is just chilli peppers and an impactful few minutes may teach a lifetime of a lesson. Sometimes I don't hear the dares and trash talk that makes a person gobble a pepper. Everytime though, quick as a bite, red-faced contenders are running to the hose, gasping for cool air, promising an unseen angel they'll never do that again.
Yesturday, I witnessed one boy who is usually on the cusp of social scenes, get in on the red-hot action. I jumped in with a gentle warning, "Hey guys, that is super hot. Even touching it is dangerous. You'll forget it's on your hands and touch your eyes later and it will hurt."
All heard my warning and even nodded in understanding. None headed. Three boys tumbled out of the garden like flames were in pursuit. The boy who is often alone was included in their group, covering his eyes with his folded-up, watered down shirt, bemoaning "Oh why did I touch my eyes?!!" The boys all took turns with various spiggots and picked each other starfruit to stop the sting. One of the barrel chested ring leaders said, "I thought I was stronger than a pepper." Another said, "No way. Never again." All walked away from garden class complimenting each other on surviving their great pepper adventure. The boy usually not included in the banter was shining center stage.
I had a break down at work yesturday. There I was, after three glorious garden classes teaching kids about safe and propper tool usage, retrieving the wheelbarrows for bed in the shed after a long day's work. I bent down to nibble a nugget of mint, and spotted the spikey stinging nettle caterpillar smack dab in the middle of the mint. I looked closer and saw its younger, rice-kernal sized cousin, just a few leaves away. I searched for more but came up empty so I picked the intruder's mint branch. My heart felt like it suddenly weighed so much the whole thing sank to my stomach. I didn't even try to stop the flood of tears from erupting.
For the last four years, (heck, since I've given birth 10 years ago), I've done everything I could to protect children and give them a safe place to be outside. To teach them to grow their own food, to think before they throw away rubbish, to protect all the inhabitants of a garden.
I can't protect them from this damn caterpillar. It's here now. This paradise now has a caterpillar whose sting is sharp for a week where there was wide open, wild spaces with out them. Unlike jungles of Thailand or the Amazon, where thousands of snakes and insects can seriously sting, even kill humans, the Big Island was free of injurous leaf-eaters. Not anymore.
I join the unknown numbers of earth workers who have undoubtedly witnessed capitalism and globalization and colonialism spread deadly virus, invasive insects, maurading plants and wipe-out pure ecosystems. Another imported caterpillar that can hurt people delivered to a foreign land and blending in until it just is. On my watch.
I spent the last hour trying to call Dept of Ag folks and actually got "this number is no longer in service" after dailing our "Plant Industry Hotline" correctly. You would think a garden teacher would get a return call.
But I don't get a friendly call instructing me step by step on how to make the caterpillar go away or how to get the red fire ant off the island or the fire weed that is killing grassfed cows and horses to go back or the coqui frogs thats causing a rukus to be quiet. Because there is no way. We import insect and plant terrorists with every passing boat and airplane.
I am so sad that our garden is now a battlefield. I don't want to know this enemy. I didn't have to think of any caterpillar as enemy until now. Competition maybe, but never enemy.
A sweet second grader saw my tears last evening as I walked through campus with the stinging nettle caterpillar in a bottle and my baseball hat pulled down as low as possible. She said, "I think you should treat it like any other caterpillar and take it over to the field over there and let it go." Then she skipped away.
I didn't know what to say.
The Stinging Nettle Caterpillar drew First Blood last week. I've never wanted to obliterate, until it's completly gone, a life form before. Until now.
A formitable enemy, Darna pallivitta is about the camoflauged length of a thumb nail at it's most venomy, comes from fuzzy brown sacks loaded with 480 eggs at a time, each one morphing through seven different life phases. Eggs and larvae slipped security into the Big Island via ornamental raphis palms imported from Taiwan to a nursery in Hilo.
I was told by some students the Stinging Nettle Caterpillar was a mile mauka of our school last year. Over the summer, the painful bugga was discovered at Pua Lani Park - half mile straight south. Last week, I found one of the potent pests in my own garden just a mile north and makai of our school.
I can only now bring myself to write about the darn thing because we finally came up with a solution that helped me get some sleep. It took a few days to ask the right wise farmer, and of course, it was Nancy Redfeather who reminded me of it's nocturnal egg-laying stage.
Her words made me buck up and think like a Nettle Destroyer. We will stalk and kill it's night-marching moth with a iron zapper. I will take plastic-jarred prisoners and talk about it near and far, so distant garden teachers can protect and defend their outside-exploring students.
But before this light at the end of the garden, I was stressing. I thought of the Stinging Nettle Caterpillar as a garden class game changer. I had a bad feeling about a sense of strangling brought to our worry free garden classes. Sure, there was always bees, wasps, and centipedes to keep a close eye on but these potentially harmful critters seem routine in the minds of most. Everyone knows a bee sting is sure to disappear by recess.
'Lil Nettle is different. Reaction varies, but I know adults that felt two weeks of itchy pain. My mind flashed to a million things: a child's first garden experiences tarnished by a tramatizing sting. I could imagine some children completely freaking out. Would parents be supportive? How to eliminate a invasive species without damaging our school's nutritious and beautiful edible ecosystems? How to treat a painful sting when I can't legally administer the suggested calamine lotion and benedryl?
My nightmarish thoughts prevented four solid nights of sleep. There goes carefree days in the garden. I know I've been helping students discover vital knowledge that will help them survive in a questionable future but I never pictured myself doing physical armed battle for beloved students against a maruading leaf-eating refugee.
Yesturday a strapping eighth grade boy that lives on a farm was the victim of a stinging nettle caterpillar that fell from a banana he was machette-ing down during garden class. It landed square on the back of his hand. I was standing a foot away, saw it, and brushed it off. I had him wash it with soap (as instructed) and put ice on it. I called his grandfather while the boy stated with calm conviction, "It hurts. It definitly hurts. Burns." He turned down the pick-up his grandfather offered in a brave voice and lunch/recess was the next subject.
One day later his hand is swollen and sore and jr.highers are false sighing stinging caterpillars by the garden tent.
Why are we importing transplants from Taiwan? How are these things inspected? What are we going to do as invase species get more dangerous for humans? Have I become my enemy to when I destroy a caterpillar that is really just following it's instinct?
I can sleep tonight because bug zappers are within my reach. The Stinging Nettle Caterpillar has seven life phases; seven different opportunities for a savvy gardener to attack back.
As Nancy said, "Krista, you know this is a great educational opportunity."
The new year wound down Week 1 with a school-wide assembly about our awesome recycling system. IPCS' wonderful School Services Coordinator asked me way back in the beginning of summer to create a game/presentation that would introduce recyling IPCS style, so that's exactly what I was up doing until midnight on Thursday's eve.
I couldn't let the opportunity go by without infiltrating the masses with some info about WHY we recycle. Why we recycle just happens to be inextricable linked to our school's new, two-year theme - survival. I fascilitated questions about where, why, what plastic, paper, aluminum, and capri-suns we recycle talk-show style, darting around to students so they could rock the mike with brilliant answers.
I asked the audience, "Why do we recycle aluminum?" Answers ranged from "because it's good for the Earth" to "so we don't have to use new stuff." While their answer's content was solid, I dream of hearing, "We recycle aluminum because using already mined and combined aluminum ingredients consumes 95% less energy and prevents new natural resources from being extracted and manufactured."
I asked the entire school body, "Why do we recycle paper?" A brand new first-grade boy said into the mic: "So we can plant a money tree and get money" Giggles. I said, "Exactly. We need many of those." I asked again, "Where does paper come from? What is it made from?" Answer: "Trees. Paper is made from trees."
"And why are trees so important for survival?" I could see light bulbs going off above many heads. Answers: "Because they clean our air." "Trees help us breathe." I followed up with, "So when we recycle we let the trees live and use trees that have already been harvested. Right?"
After the question segment, time for a fun activity 7/8 graders made up last year. Students loved The Recycling Game again. I placed students in four lines of six, each with a tin of trash, then the school's recycling bins in front, facing the audience. Recyclers had to pick up a trash item and run to place it in the propper recepticle. They asked the audience for help if they needed it. Everyone was shouting about where to recycle what while Gloria Geynor's "I will survive" made at least the adults groove.
When the recyling assembly was all over, I didn't know how it went. The kids were amazingly attentive; curious minds or deep first week of school depression? I've had three parents say they learned alot and my boss said it was "a good assembly Krista." Of course, I couldn't help but think of a few things I could have done better. Can't wait for next year.
What happens when 65 garden educators from every Hawaiian Island get together to share ideas, conjure the directions, and eat local food? REVOLUTION.
More seeds of ecoliteracy revolution were planted last weekend at Mala'ai in Waimea. We were treated to a global perspectives of the amazing progress that can happen when children get to grow their own food at school by the folks at the Ecoliteracy Institute. Schooling for Sustainabiltiy is so now.
Ms Krista says:
Everyday encounters with real garden sprites; tortuous panorama of the surf; old-growth collards; machete lessons; mantis rehab; pesto pasta. Days as a public school garden teacher on the Big Island are filled with unexpected gems of wisdom and infinite inspirations. Introducing my life as a school garden teacher...