PEEC Amateur Naturalist: Mud Is Important

Deeply mindful of mud.Photo by Michele Altherr
PEEC Amateur Naturalist: Mud Is Important
By Robert Dryja

Particular thanks to Michele Altherr and the Nature Odyssey

“Holmes, I have been thinking about our little expedition the other week to observe harvester ants. You quite clearly already knew that the ants built their nest entrance to face to the east or the south. I, on the other hand, needed to look at nest after nest before realizing what direction the entrances faced. How did you know so quickly what was going on?” 

Holmes paused for several moments, thinking deeply and creating great drafts of smoke from his pipe. “You were partially on the correct path. Remember, you were practicing how to really observe. Once you had observed a number of nests, then you identified a pattern. In a word, you used inductive reasoning to reach a conclusion.”

“Very well.” I said. “So what kind of reasoning were you using?”

“Actually, I did something different. I played with ideas.” Holmes replied. “You know that I have been observing ants for years. I also have been observing many other things that may apply to ants as well. I could bring several areas of knowledge together.”

“Really? Like what?” I asked.

“Well, I have an interest in heat radiation,” Holmes replied. “I also have interests in geometric angles, astronomy, and volumetric analysis. All of these came together quite clearly to show which direction the nest entrances should point. To wit, I used deductive reasoning.”

Holmes began to puff harder on his pipe. “For example, did you notice the slope of the nest mounds? The slopes typically were twenty-three degrees. The inclination of the earth to the sun also is twenty-three degrees. Is this a coincidence or are the ants building their nests to be at the best angle to the sun? The nests seem to be built to receive the most heat radiation. Geometry and astronomy point to this deduction.”

“You have lost me, Holmes.” I said. “Can you give another explanation?”

“Ah, too much detail and too many perspectives. You need to return to your childhood. Let us plan to join the Nature Odyssey next week. You can learn from the children,” Holmes said. 

And so we joined the Nature Odyssey.  I carefully watched children each day for a week as they went to different places along the Rio Grande. A wastewater plant, petroglyphs, ponds, frogs, a dinosaur dig, fossils, sedimentary rocks, holes in the ground, and a lake—the children saw all of these.  Holmes then warned me about the last day. “Tomorrow is the most important day.  They will be playing in mud at the Chama River.”

When we arrived at the Chama River, one little boy smiled broadly and said, “This is my perfect place.” Another three children were quickly covered from head to toe in mud. Children kneaded the mud into sinkholes and then waited for someone to step in it by “accident.”  A little girl dug down and at the water line said, “That’s the saturation point.” There were well diggers reaching for the “bedrock” and reservoir builders using various kinds of mud to contain water. There were artists who used the different clays and a pizza cutter to create pictures in the mud.   

I was most surprised at the end of the day when I waded back from my post on an island. A group of 10 or so children had worked together to create a map of the week’s odyssey on a bar of mud. There before me was the Leonora Curtin Wetland, the Orrs’ farm on the bosque, the winding Chama River, the Abiquiu Reservoir, the many-layered mountains and of course the wastewater treatment plant. The children used the words picked up from our experts in various fields from the prior days.

“Do you understand now?” asked Holmes. “The children have been exposed to and observed many bits of knowledge from earlier this week. This is like your observations of the harvester ants.  But they soon will forget much of it unless they have some way to put their own meanings on it. Playing in mud is the way they learn for themselves, not just store facts.  They play to learn.  Mud provides many ways to learn.”

I then had an insight about Holmes. “You played regularly in mud when you were a child–am I correct?”  “Why yes, a good deduction on your part.” Holmes replied. “My mother patiently washed mud off of me every week. Playing with mud as a child now allows me to play with deductions as an adult.”

Never underestimate the power of play.

Absorbing factual information. Photo by Michele Altherr

Reflecting on the many meanings provided by mud. Photo by Michele Altherr

Explaining a topographic mud map. Photo by Michele Altherr