Last week was a radical, radial experience for campers at Sanibel Sea School. It was Sea Star Week and we explored the group of animals that belong to the phylum Echinodermata – the spiny-skinned animals. Common members of this group are sea stars, sea urchins, sand dollars and sea cucumbers.
Echinoderms are fascinating creatures for several reasons. They are the only animal phylum that contains only marine representatives – there are no freshwater or terrestrial echinoderms. As adults, they exhibit a body arrangement known as pentaradial symmetry. Their body is typically arranged in five sections radiating from a central hub, much like the spokes of a wheel. This unusual symmetry is only found in the adult life stage – as larvae, they exhibit bilateral symmetry that is typical of most other animals.
To help explore the idea of symmetry while working the right side of our brains, we designed and created a mandala. Mandalas, whose origins are in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, are ornately detailed paintings that exhibit exquisite symmetry.
Tibetian Buddhists commonly make mandalas by ‘painting’ their highly detailed images through laborious placement of different colored sands. The pinnacle of the endeavor is the ceremonial destruction of the image upon its completion. The exercise is to remind us that many of life’s treasures lie in our processes, not in our outcomes.
All week long we participated in the creation of a sand mandala based on radial symmetry. We designed it, we planned it, we drew a template, we dyed beach sand with food coloring, and with that sand palate, we created a beautiful, radially-symmetrical mandala three feet in diameter. On Friday afternoon, we reveled in the beauty of our creation, before systematically wiping it clean in an entrancing ceremony and returning the sand back to the Gulf of Mexico. Ultimately, we realized that the beauty of our creation was in the labor and the fellowship it engendered; the destruction of our mandala somehow set us free to move on – with great memories and a better understanding of symmetry.
But of course, this is Sanibel Sea School summer camp – we could hardly spend all our time on an art creation. We spent hours snorkeling and seining – did you know there are a lot of tiny young seahorses out in San Carlos Bay right now? We picked up litter on the beach; we had an epic canoe paddle, followed by abandon ship drills and a long swim back to our island home. We observed sand dollar movement and behavior – they are animals, after all. We surfed on a gentle swell on the east end of Sanibel. Our surf-paddling race was close and hard-won by the Red Rastafarians team. And, we ended it with a soulful celebration of art, symmetry, the ocean and good times with good friends.
Not bad for a week at summer camp. What a way to wrap up a summer.
Sanibel Sea School is a non-profit organization that invites you to share our vision of a world where all people value, understand and care for the ocean. Join us at sanibelseaschool.org.