On whirligigs and other wild wonders

Foley Mountain

The Foley Mountain Conservation Area sits atop a ridge of the Canadian Shield at the edge of Westport, a picturesque village nestled by Upper Rideau Lake, just west of mid-point on the highway linking Kingston and Smith’s Falls.
I went there in pursuit of wonder. I went because my partner’s students had been there, and had come away enthralled.

My partner is a teacher who has an environmental club at Sweet’s Corners Public School, about a half-hour drive southeast of Foley Mountain.

She and some colleagues took about a dozen students from the club, 9 to 13 years old, on an overnight visit to Foley Mountain. They brought tents and cooking gear, arriving on a Friday afternoon and staying until late on Saturday, and the students came back filled with information about plants used by natives to cure illnesses, and about how the food chain works in a beaver pond.

They learned that dragon flies go back 300 million years, and are one of the most ancient of all living species. That, at one time, their wings were a metre across. That they live in water for three to five year as nymphs, and when they emerge as adults, their gills have become lungs, and they have developed a double set of wings so sophisticated that they are the only insect that can fly backwards, as well as in all other directions.

The students captured whirligig water beetles, whose eyes are divided into two parts, with one set looking upward above the water, and the other looking downward into the water. They marvelled at a brain that could coordinate images from four eyes. And they discovered that whirligigs can see neither ahead nor behind, and compensate by swimming in circles.

They scooped caddis fly larvae from a pond to look at their houses. The larvae can’t swim fast enough to escape predators, so they build tubular shelters, and hide inside them on the bottom of ponds. The shelters are the thickness of your little finger, and about 2.5 centimetres long, made from bits of plants that the larvae glue together with their spit.

They found that even among the most commonplace there is a stunning variety and complexity. And, as McQuay explained that 99 per cent of everything that had ever lived on Earth is now extinct, they struggled with the concepts of evolution and change, and the almost infinite diversity of life.

« One of the things I try to get across to kids is that everything out there is our kin,’’ McQuay says. All life has DNA. The way it is structured differs, but the components are the same, he explains.

McQuay , a large and gentle man, is obviously rooted to this spot. Even his greying beard curls in gentle whorls, like strands of an emerging fern. He and his wife Peri live on site, far from the passing road. He trained as teacher and, after being appointed area supervisor 25 years ago by the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority, he took an additional degree in biology.

He speaks in terms of perpetual wonder of the inventiveness of nature, and tells of an experiment involving spruce bud worms. When the pest arrives, spruce trees defend themselves by producing a thicker sap, he says. In the experiment, spruce bud worms were introduced to a stand of trees a kilometre wide. Normally, it would take three weeks for them to reach the far side of the stand. Scientists found that two days later, trees on the far side were thickening their sap, with nary a spruce bud worm in sight. No one is certain how the trees passed news of the attack to the other side of the stand.

It was a reminder to me of the vast amount we don’t know about our world. And of how important it is to have people such as McQuay not only to remind us of that, but to make room in our imaginations for the transcendent — the unknown, even the unknowable.

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