Old Ben, a Bird, and the Ice Bear
by Steve Mann, Sidwell Friends School
In the eighth grade at Sidwell Friends School in Washington D.C., my students and I pursue an English/science/ethics interdisciplinary learning unit on the problems of climate change and shrinking habitats. The unit is entitled Old Ben, a Bird, and the Ice Bear. We read closely Chapter Three from Arctic ecologist Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams which describes the life, the habits of, and the challenges facing the “ice bear”—the polar bear—in the world today. At the same time we watch and discuss a National Geographic video entitled “Masters of the Arctic Ice” which, while also focused on the polar bear, attends closely to the plight of the ringed seal, the polar bear’s main source of sustenance. We learn that the ringed seal depends for its very existence—for food and for breeding—on ice floes, and as the polar ice diminishes with rising temperatures and shorter winters in the Arctic, the ringed seals’ challenges increase and thereby challenge increasingly the sustainability of polar bears. Lopez is a gifted nature writer; in his descriptions of the habits of the polar bear he enhances our appreciation for that truly special species, which increases our concerns for the ecological threats they face.
Next we read William Faulkner’s novella, The Bear, which depicts the hunter’s apprenticeship of a young Mississipian, Isaac McCaslin, over the course of his formative years. “Ike,” as the protagonist is called, is mentored by a septuagenarian Native American who embodies the ethos of indigenous American tribes pre-dating 1492 and the advent of Columbus on North American shores. The “ethos” includes the care—but not ownership—of the land, and the reverence and mutual respect for one’s prey, and these principles he models for his young protégé. But as the 19th century population increases over the course of Ike’s second decade, he becomes a witness to the fact that so too increases the demand for farmland for food and for timber to build housing for humans. As the story unfolds, increasingly the loggers make felt their impact on the northern Mississippi wilderness. “Old Ben,” the totemic bear who dominates the “Big Bottom,” is effectively doomed as his natural habitat is exploited by human industry for human purposes. It is a compelling story—the inevitable demise of what Faulkner calls “the immemorial woods,” in which, not incidentally, at one point Faulkner’s young hero hears the hammering of a Lord-to-God bird, nicknamed thus for its immense size: “Lord to God,” one might say upon sighting it, “look at the size of that bird!” The story was written in 1940; the official name of the bird is the ivory-billed woodpecker, last seen conclusively in Arkansas (only fifty miles from Faulkner’s story’s setting) in 1944, according to a 2005 New York Times article, “Much is Riding on Ivory Bill’s Wings.” So, in a piece of fiction with the problem of shrinking habitat at its thematic core, a bird now presumably extinct for the same reason, makes a rare appearance. Students are guided to see that how we treat our environment has consequences about which we need to be making good ethical decisions.
Intermittently while reading the Lopez and Faulkner pieces and wrestling with their themes, we read other selected newspaper articles such as these from the Washington Post: “Scientists Report Further Shrinking of Arctic Ice” (8/27/08), “Oil Group Joins Alaska in Suing to Overturn Polar Bear Protection” (8/31/08), “New Rule Would Discount Warming as Risk Factor for Species” (11/1/08), and “Subsidies Spur Crops on Fragile Habitat” (12/7/08). Then, to round out the experience of the unit, as it were, we also visit Antarctica through a perusal of a December, 2009, New Yorker article on the threat to a species of South Pole penguins: “The Ice Retreat: Global Warming and the Adelie Penguin.”
As the culminating assignment at the end of this five-week unit, students compose an op-ed article focused on some self-chosen aspect of global warming, climate change and/or habitat shrinkage. These op-ed pieces are compiled and made public. They evince strong opinion and generally effective writing whose power derives at least in part from students’ real and emerging concern for what happens to their world. The Sidwell Friends Middle School is a LEED platinum “green” building; students in our science classes learn all about the building’s various eco-sustaining systems. It is our hope that our students will take beyond the exit doors of our building what they glean about environmental issues from their middle school science courses and this English/science interdisciplinary unit, and apply these lessons to the world at large.