By Carrie Komesch, Educator
Sometimes, when my gaze wanders into the trees surrounding the cabin, I see deer. A quick flicker of white in my peripheral vision where there was previously none, a puff of smoky breath, the sudden ripple of hide that otherwise camouflages as rock—it never ceases to thrill me.
There are two bucks that have hung around our site this fall—one with a single, straight prong of an antler, the other with a mighty, multi-pointed rack. They frequently travel together, sometimes in a larger group that includes females (or at least un-antlered individuals).
Even when we don’t see them, we know the deer are around, and we know they are playing a robust role in the Greenbelt food web. We find green saplings stripped of bark and branches. We find scat. We find footprints. Twice we have found shed antlers. And we find bones. So many bones.
When older students find or interact with bones, their cognitive frameworks tend to be sufficiently robust to process the artifacts within a growing contextual understanding of predators and prey. Their questions for me and for one another frequently focus on how the deer died.
For younger students, however, it can be difficult to reconcile their (frequently anthropomorphized) understanding of a wild animal with the role it plays in a larger ecosystem that unfeelingly metes out death to charismatic megafauna as easily as to deciduous leaves. In these cases, the questions frequently focus on why the deer died. The answer I have leaned on of late is an attempt to convey the pragmatism and necessity of biology and trophic levels in language a preschool- or kindergarten-aged child can understand: