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Posts Tagged ‘invasive species’

As a part of a committee exploring the topic of “sustainability” for our current re-accreditation self-study, I helped to deliver a workshop on sustainability education during our Faculty Forum in-service days at the beginning of this school year. While other committee members gave tours of our new greenhouse and organic garden and introduced the solar photovoltaic array we installed last spring, I (re)introduced my peers to a little pocket of campus woodland and, in doing so, offered some thoughts about best practices in environmental education.  What follows, the first of an occasional series about “reinhabiting campus,” is both a distillation and an expansion of the thoughts I had to offer my colleagues on that sweltering day in August.

On my school’s campus, a paved walkway through the trees connects an older structure known as the “Gym in the Woods” to our state-of-the-art elementary school building. Every day, scores of youngsters and their teachers walk this path on their way to P.E. class, descending a forested slope and crossing a tiny tributary of Nancy Creek on a footbridge at the bottom.  I wonder what our students see as they traverse this space.  Do they know and love these woods as part of “a community to which we belong,” to borrow Aldo Leopold’s famous phrase, or does this leafy corridor pass by as a green blur, mere backdrop to their transit?  Students and faculty alike, we are proud of our 180-acre campus, but how well do we know its stories?  For most of us, this little cove forest is a forgotten corner, one among many.  But if we really took the time to get to know our campus, what might it have to teach us, and how might it change us?

Several years ago, as our school planned for construction of a new Junior High building, this particular hillside was considered as a possible site. However, the tract was eventually rejected because it is home to some sort of threatened or endangered plant species, I’ve been told.  I don’t know any details about the plant in question, and neither, so far, does anyone else that I’ve asked. And yet here’s a real opportunity to make learning about endangered species, which is (I presume) a part of our curriculum, more experiential and less abstract for our students.  First-hand experience in an increasingly virtual world—here’s an opening not to be missed.  In an age when kids can easily research far-flung examples like pandas and tigers and seas turtles on the internet, we run a high risk of making important ecological concepts too abstract and disconnected from their everyday lives and surroundings.  At its heart, good environmental education should be experiential, should work to reverse this tendency toward abstraction and disconnection (which lies at the heart of all of our environmental problems), not perpetuate it.

Even though I don’t know any specifics about the plant in question (being in need of some experiential learning, myself), I’d speculate that this particular population’s future is cloudy at best.  Even if this pocket of woodland remains safe from future development, it (like many of the forested areas on campus) is being steadily overrun by invasive species—English ivy and Chinese privet and some sort of teeming bamboo.  Left unchecked, these alien invaders will steadily crowd out native species, both rare and common alike—that’s what invasive species do.  And yet here’s another opportunity—with hard work and commitment and the right expertise, invasive species can be controlled and even removed. Forests can be restored to health, as Trees Atlanta does around the city with impressive results. Given the flood of bad news regarding the environment faced by youth today, good environmental education includes service learning to encourage a sense of possibility and empowerment where there might otherwise be despair and withdrawal. Our students could work to research, design, and implement a restoration plan for this little watershed.  In doing so, they would personally take part in the protection of an endangered species and develop both the connection and the commitment to the natural world that effective environmental education should foster.

And from there?  Lately I’ve become a regular reader of the blog Blue Jay Barrens, a daily chronicle of a property in Southern Ohio that is “managed to improve the integrity of the special ecosystems found here.” Author Steve Wilson shares a wealth of information on local human and natural history and ecology, the result of careful and sustained attention to his natural neighborhood. In Steve’s blog I see a possible model which our students might emulate, providing the impetus for their own careful and sustained observations as well as an opportunity to write for and connect with an authentic audience. Sharing their experiences of getting to know this place, documenting its richness in words and images, they’d be both reinforcing their own connections and helping to educate the wider school community. Moreover, such a project moves environmental education beyond it’s Science Department beachhead, and good environmental education is transdisciplinary. The current educational paradigm of rigid disciplinary separation is one that denies the basic ecological principle of interconnection, one that inhibits our students’ ability to productively participate in a rapidly changing world beset with challenges that are transdisciplinary by nature.

Update: Middlewood Journal is another blog (featuring beautifully illustrated nature journal entries) that I follow.  It’s also a great model for the kind of transdisciplinary work our students could do.

Ultimately, we have much to learn about this community to which we belong, and I entertain a vision that we might reorient segments of our curriculum around becoming informed and engaged community members. We can start by learning about our campus’ history, both natural and human. We can gather scientific data to document and monitor its biodiversity. We can conduct meaningful restoration work and track the results. Networking with audiences near and far, we can share our story of learning to meaningfully and responsibly reinhabit campus.

Exactly how this all happens—well, I don’t know exactly.  For starters, the metronomic fracturing of the standard school day presents an obvious barrier, as does the reality of well-entrenched departmental curricular aims.

But those are topics for other posts . . . I don’t want to give up the vision just yet.

Want to hear more?  The thread continues with reinhabiting campus: a starting point.

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On Sunday, the boys and I went to visit one of the most important places in the landscape of my youth, a little woodland in my old neighborhood called Alexander Park.  This undeveloped tract preserves some twelve acres of forest in a steep creek valley, a linear greenspace mostly hidden from view behind houses.  Driving past on East Wesley, you wouldn’t think much of its tiny bit of road frontage, might not know it was there at all except for a single grave-like granite monument at the edge of the trees.  During my early years in that neighborhood, I thought the Alexander Park headstone monument simply marked the little clearing of grass at the roadside, and I thought “that’s not much of a park.” Nonetheless, there came an age when my friends and I were destined to follow the creek that ran behind Garden Hills Pool and see where it went, and so we crossed over East Wesley and entered into another world.

I’m not sure how old I was or whom I was with (though I can make a pretty good guess that I was in 3rd or 4th grade—funny how those two years dominate memories of my childhood), but I’ll never forget our delicious sense of discovery and surprise when we found a narrow trail winding its way back through the trees into a hidden kingdom.  Our kingdom.  It was big, it was wild, it was a place apart from our normal worlds.  I was thrilled to discover later that these woods stretched to within a block of my house (who knew!), that I could access the sanctuary with a couple of judicious backyard cut-throughs.  Perhaps nostalgia colors my recollection, but from that day on it seems my friends and spent every free hour down in Alexander Park.  We built forts.  We climbed trees.  We hunted each other with toy guns (the rule was you had to count to 30 when someone yelled “BLAM—got you!” before continuing).  More than anything I remember playing in the creek—wading around looking for crawdads, staging elaborate amphibious assaults of sandy beaches with our plastic army men, frantically trying to build earthen dams faster than the creek could overtop them.  We never saw other kids back there, much less any adults.  Our parents certainly never came to check on us.

In fact, I wonder now just what they were thinking.  What did they think we were up to?  Were they worried at all?  How can it be they didn’t come check the place out themselves, make sure it was safe?  I’m not saying that they should have so much as I’m wondering what’s wrong with me and my peers now that we’re parents.  Have we become weenies?  If I still lived in Garden Hills, would I let my boys have the same sort of experiences?  Perhaps I can’t answer this question yet as they’re still on the young side, perhaps my mind will change, but my gut says I’d be too concerned about water quality and too nervous about their running into shady characters to just let them run free.  In particular, I find it hard to shake an offhand comment from a classmate back in high school that Alexander Park had become an illicit trysting place, a comment that filled my woods with all sorts of bogeymen over the years.  By that age I was no longer heading for the creek every free afternoon, and so it was all too easy for fear to fill a space that had become unknown again.

I had all of these questions in mind as the boys and I crossed East Wesley and slipped into the trees.  The path is still there—somebody still uses it—and the impression of entering a different world is still there, too.  “This is like the mountains,” Andrew shouted out as he pattered along, the terrain being surprisingly rugged, the trees impressively large.  As a kid, I guess I didn’t give much thought to the trees, but I was transfixed by them on this visit—towering white oaks and massive smooth-skinned beech trees and a few remnant grandfather pines, an exceptionally dense and diverse canopy for intown Atlanta.  I don’t know the technical definition for “old growth” forest, but that’s what it feels like to me.  Growing up, how lucky I was to have this little pocket of wilderness so close by.  And how strange and sad it is that so few people seemed to appreciate or even know about its existence.

Unfortunately, the neglect shows.  On Sunday I was immediately struck by how invasives have taken over in the nearly thirty years(!) since I last visited.  Not that I had naturalist sensibilities at age ten, but I knew already that a thick English Ivy groundcover was a pain in the ass to traverse (we had a big area of ivy in our yard at home), and so I’m confident in my memory that Alexander Park wasn’t filled with it.  Moreover, I remember a mostly open and airy forest, big rooms of space under the soaring canopy, not the dense jungle of privet and wisteria that would have made tearing after each other with plastic guns impossible.  Unfortunately, such is the fate of untended urban woodlands.  Fortunately, this deterioration is reversible; take a look at these pictures from the Forest Restoration page at Trees Atlanta’s website to see before-and-after shots of another Atlanta natural area following an organized privet pull.  (For kicks, I’m going to email Trees Atlanta and see what it might take for Alexander Park to be next.)

And then there’s the issue of water quality.  I don’t know how bad it is—and can’t imagine that it’s any worse than it was when I was a kid—but the orange slime covering all the rocks gave me the creeps.  I picked up a few to look for aquatic macroinvertebrates on their undersides and came up empty, but I wonder what a more comprehensive survey would reveal.  I didn’t find any crawdads, either, but I was admittedly reluctant to reach in too far for bigger rocks to flip over.  And of course there was all the God-knows-what that had washed in from upstream: empty plastic soft drink bottles and flattened aluminium beer cans and strips of yellow police-line tape.  Nonetheless, it was all I could do to keep the boys from trying to baptise themselves as they scurried along the banks, gleefully following leaf boats negotiating micro rapids and searching for flat rocks to try to skip in the one slow, deep pool we found.  Wouldn’t it be great if there really were clean creeks close by for our children to play in?  Nothing could be healthier.  (And perhaps my squeamishness is unjustified?)

Hey residents of my old neighborhood—you have a real treasure in (literally) your back yards!  Take good care of it and it will take good care of your kids.

Update: I had the opportunity tonight to ask my parents about their thinking back then.  My dad’s comment: “I never even thought to worry, figured you were okay.  It was never an issue that your mom and I ever talked about as far as I can recall.”  My mom’s reaction: “I don’t think I knew that’s where you were.  You probably just said you were going to a friend’s house.”  I got the impression it would have been an issue had she known.  Good thing I was sneaky, I guess.

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