High School Zoology on the Coast of Maine

2015 09 faculty mcws MR-28A peer ‘from away,’ asked this question of a Maine Coast Waldorf senior last fall.  Perched on a rocky outcropping, he held a notebook, a dry set of questions from a distant teacher, and a soggy guidebook. This was the first day of our invertebrate zoology intensive on Hermit Island in Phippsburg. A coastal backyard to us – but it might have been Mars from the perspective of some of the dozens of seniors from inland Waldorf schools.

The student from Maine answered easily, and kindly: “Barnacles are those sharp bumps we had to climb over to get down here to the tide pools – see there above the seaweed.”

As our students grow up, they make other observations about barnacles: they foul lobster boats and harbor pilings, their dull dried out colonies streak white on the rocks. Barnacles are easy to find; they are where they are and they don’t move.

Or do they?

Later in the week, still at Hermit Island, barnacles came up in a discussion on arthropods -all jointed feet and molting cuticles and metamorphoses. Larval 20150923_142950 barnacles drift in the open ocean for months. Then they change into crawling critters that creep along wood, stone and hull before finally cementing their heads forever to their chosen homes and spending their adult lives eating with their feet.

Those little feet can be coaxed from their shells if a barnacle perceives high tide has returned – or if their rock is immersed in seawater in a petri dish. Delighted students have told me that the waving cirri look like combs or feathers or eyelashes – sweeping food into hidden mouths – frenetic and vital.

My student has since shared with me that she now has a bigger answer to the Barnacle Question- a living answer full of new questions. Those white bumps will still scrape your knees and mark the beginning of the sea, but there is more to see. Being asked to point them out to a novice prompted her to look at them anew – where do they actually live in the tidal zones? Why do they form exclusive colonies in a bright white band where the high tide crashes, and nestle in tiny pockets between mussels and seaweed holdfasts? How can it be that their closest cousins are lobsters and butterflies and spiders? Why did that barnacle chose that place to lay its head?

20150923_121911 Barnacles, like our ideas about the world, sometimes build up and get stuck. But they can move – and so can we. At the beginning of their senior year, through the study of zoology, Waldorf students are encountering the familiar in a whole new way. Tide pooling becomes time travel, when we map the rhythm of tides and the subsequent zones of life. Spineless animals, with belly side nerve cords and exoskeletons, hold an inverted mirror our own anatomy. An evolving understanding of barnacles invites an evolving understanding of ourselves. We can place our feet more clearly upon the earth, and look to the sea with fresh eyes.


When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” – John Muir