Find Your Place: Musings from the Bear Creek Greenway

Bear Creek Greenway in the fall

In the summer, insects drone loudly beneath a thick canopy of riparian vegetation and ripe blackberries, while white fluff falls like snow. The future of Black Cottonwood trees along Bear Creek is certain. My wheels whir a harmony with the insects and the breeze down by the water is refreshing, a meditation to combat the southern Oregon heat. In the fall, cottonwood leaves dance pirouettes in the air, yellow-brown hearts strewn about the trail. School has started now, and I begin riding to Medford each Wednesday for my graduate teaching classes. A weekly celebration of bikes and the seasons and learning. Winter is stark. The rains are cold, but the path is clear of ice near the water, and the Great Blue Heron nests are now visible high in the trees. Bare branches reach for the sky, as I-5 traffic barrels past. cottonwood- The School for Aromatic StudiesThe path smells musty, like decomposing leaves, and we hope that spring will come again soon. Like clockwork it comes, with its sweet smell of lilacs and warmer days. The mornings come sooner and the rains are less chilling. Cottonwood buds emerge by the thousands coating the path with little brown bullets, resinous and fragrant. The smell is overwhelmingly delightful, like warmed beeswax inside a busy hive.

Riding my bike has always been a way for me to connect to the world around me. Everything seems so alive from my saddle: smells, sights, sounds, the feel of the air…all of it is so close, so present, so tangible and alive. I have traveled to great lengths and accomplished much on the seat of a bike. I have climbed mountain passes, slogged through three inches of snow, ridden from city to ocean, found hidden paths inaccessible to cars, and regularly glide by “rush hour” traffic in Ashland.

This past year, I have had the joy of getting to know the Bear Creek Greenway, a 20-mile trail that connects Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Medford, and Central Point with a single, concrete track. It meanders its way alongside Bear Creek, a tributary of the Rogue River that originates near Emigrant Lake. It is home to deer, salmon, and countless birds, including a notable Great Blue Heron rookery near Phoenix. During my rides along this path, I have written poems, had conversations with friends, watched the creek rise and fall with the seasons, and am always able to experience the world in the raw, even if I am riding through the pouring rain.Greenway

Riding a bike is just one way to feel connection with the natural world in our busy, technology-driven lives. As Karelia wrote in “The Water Ouzel,” a previous post, finding places to go back to again and again is essential for all humans, but most of all environmental educators. If we are to teach our students the importance of caring for and conserving beautiful places around them, we must practice what we preach.

NatureAwarenessI leave you with my favorite environmental education activity, “Secret Spots,” a classic EE activity written up by world-renowned environmental educator, Joseph Cornell. He encourages his audience of educators to feel connected to the places around them and pass this along to their students. Cornell’s bestselling book, Sharing Nature With Children, has now been updated 35 years later in an all-inclusive book called Sharing Nature: Nature Awareness Activities for All Ages. In this practice, the instructor allows his/her students to find their own “secret spot,” away from all other students. They return to this spot day after day, to write, draw, and observe how it changes. It is likely that we will never know every spot in our yard, our neighborhood, our town, or our favorite wilderness area, but it is important that we do form those connections as a modeling practice for our students, the future stewards of wild places. After all, as Jane Goodall reminds us, “Only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help. Only if we help shall they be saved.”




The Sea within My Soul

“We all leave home to find home, at the risk of being forever lost.”  -Philip Hoare from The Sea Inside

I recently went out to dinner with a couple members of Cohort 8.  I always enjoy spending time and sharing a meal with the cohort outside the classroom.  It helps us strengthen the bonds we have formed throughout the program.  Additionally, the food is always delicious.  When I paid for my meal during this particular outing, the waitress noticed that I had something quite non-Oregonian about me.

“You are not from around here.  Where are you from?” the waitress asked.

“I’m from North Carolina,” I tell her.

I have introduced myself as a North Carolinian numerous times throughout my graduate school experience in the Master of Science in Environmental Education program at Southern Oregon University.  Although I originally hail from Illinois, North Carolina has been home for the past eleven years.  I drove over 2,900 miles from my hometown of Greenville, North Carolina, to start a new chapter in Ashland, Oregon.  With that long distance move came sacrifices.  I traded longleaf pines for ponderosas and coastal plains for mountain views.  The hardest topographic sacrifice I had to make, though, was trading the Atlantic Ocean for the Pacific.  On my first trip to the Oregon coast I asked myself, “This doesn’t seem right.  Where are all my sea oats?”

Sunset on the barrier island of Bald Head Island, North Carolina.

I felt out of place during my visit to the coast because it was so unlike the North Carolina shores and barrier islands I have grown to love.  Barrier islands along the coast of North Carolina are shaped by the wind and rain of storms that constantly change the landscape.  They serve as protection to mainland coastal communities during hurricanes.  One typical ecosystem of these islands includes the dunes.  The dunes may seem sparse of vegetation, but sea oats and other plants have deep roots that stabilize those systems.

View from a hike along Oregon’s coast.

The most striking contrast between the dunes of North Carolina’s beaches and Oregon’s coast is elevation.  While the dunes in North Carolina may resemble rolling hills, they do not compare to the majesty of the tall coastal mountains in Oregon.  The vegetation on these coastal mountains is comprised of coniferous forests and includes stands of Douglas firs and cedar trees.

Observing the tall stands of conifers along the Oregon coast greatly confused me, especially when I could hear the roar of the ocean.  The stark differences between the natural history along the coasts of North Carolina and Oregon also presented an opportunity for a personal study of coastal ecosystems.  I felt like Philip Hoare, author of The Sea Inside.  Hoare traveled across the globe detailing the world’s oceans and the personal connections humans have with the water.  From Southampton Water in England to New Zealand, Hoare presents natural, cultural, and personal histories of the ocean.  I dove into his prose while I read his book, and I took reflections of his travels to heart.  Hoare felt at ease in the water and the coastal communities he visited.  Like Hoare, I began to reflect on my own experiences.  I realized that I too have a connection to the sea.

From Philip Hoare:

In his book Hoare writes, “The sea sustains and threatens us, but it is also where we came from.”  I lived and worked as an Environmental Educator on the barrier island of Bald Head Island, North Carolina, during Summer 2014.  It was full of amazing, and sometimes contradictory, experiences.  The crashing waves and high tide of a hurricane brought stormy weather to the island, but when the storm moved, the sea was calm, plovers ran along the tide line, and tide pools exposed the intricate design of shells.  Bald Head Island changed me, just as the winds and storms constantly shaped the barrier island.  Those experiences are a part of me and have helped mold me into the environmental educator I am today.

I continue to return to the coast because I know that it is forever a part of my soul.  The roar of waves crashing on the beach is a familiar noise whether on the East coast or the West coast.  When I visit the beach and close my eyes, I am unable to differentiate between the shores of Bald Head Island and Cape Sebastian on the Oregon Coast Trail.  I return to what is familiar, and the coast forever represents home.

Whenever I introduce myself as a North Carolinian, such as I do to numerous people who fancy the conversation, they usually mention that I am a long way from home.  They are correct in that statement.  Home is not one place, though.  I left North Carolina and found wonder in Oregon, and I continue to do so every day.  I look towards the coast and listen to its sounds to remind myself that I am not lost.  I am home.

The Water Ouzel

Out of the corner of my eye I catch the flit of a dark, buzzing bird flying low over the water of Ashland Creek, just above Lithia Park. I’ve caught the melodic babbling brook song over the breeze (Click here for song and another). I pause, and search the riffles and tops of boulders for my favorite denizen of the sky and water, the Water Ouzel.

The Water Ouzel (ouzel) Cinclus mexicanus, or American Dipper (AMDI, dipper), as it is recognized by the American Ornithologist’s Union, is a small dark bird that lives a relatively secretive life in the Western United States’ clear, fast-flowing mountain waters. Being closely related to the wren family, the ouzel is most easily recognized by its slender insect-picking beak, upright-angled tail, and erratic flitting and foraging.

Perhaps the most amazing feature of this small bird is its prowess in the air and water. Much like me on a tropical vacation, the ouzel spends much of its time with its head underwater, looking for its audubonAMDInext meal (though I’m only a silent observer). American Dippers feed on macroinvertebrates, the aquatic larvae of insects, like the stonefly, mayfly, and caddisfly. This unique ability is facilitated by the AMDI’s transparent nictitating membrane, a protective longitudinal moving extra eyelid; an insect eating wren-like beak; strong legs; long, grasping toe-nails; and short powerful wings. While snorkeling, the ouzel moves along on underwater stones and cobbles, searching for tasty morsels. When satisfied with its gleaning in an area, the ouzel flits upstream or downstream, landing on the occasional mid-stream boulder to sing and call. When just the right riffle has been found, the ouzel returns to its feast.

On the walks that I am lucky enough to spy my favorite bird, I know that I am blessed. Nature reveals its secrets to the patient, brave, and passionate. As I sit and watch what I have now come to call my Water Ouzel, the worries of the day, week, and month drift away. I watch this small being in wonder. Alone on the boulder in the big riffle, the little soul sings its heart out in trills, whistles, and buzzes, then flits to a small riffle and begins searching for a bite to eat. In its little niche, the dipper has found its place. Flying up and down this quieter reach, away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Ashland, this dipper is wild and free.


Walking Home

We cowered under Joshua trees during a hailstorm in the Mojave Desert, ran out of food just past Mt. Whitney, had a fight over whose turn it was to carry the tent on Mt. San Jacinto, and struggled through endless snow-covered mountain passes. We baked in the desert; we froze in the Sierras. We carried too much water near Kennedy Meadows; we didn’t carry enough water over Hat Creek Rim. We earned painful blisters from the wrong shoes; we chafed on our thighs, armpits, and shoulders. From Mexico to Ashland, my boyfriend, Andrew, and I hiked the infamous Pacific Crest Trail.

pic whitney
The top of Mt. Whitney

But amidst all the inevitable struggling that comes when two Midwesterners who have never backpacked before decide to walk 1,726 miles on a remote 18-inch wide path
through the wilds of the west, we witnessed so much beauty. The sunset over Mt. Shasta, coyotes yipping in the desert twilight, cerulean alpine lakes near Yosemite. We watched a down-wind bear rip apart a log for grubs, fell asleep under the clearest sky we’d ever seen, and ate lunch on carpets of wildflowers.

But through it all, a single question kept arising:

“What the #&^* is that!?”

pic shasta sunset
Mt. Shasta sunset

I grew up in northern Michigan, Andrew in southern Ohio, and we went to college in North Carolina and Ohio, respectively. We both moved around quite a bit after undergrad, living in New York City, Washington D.C., Madagascar, Utah, Mississippi, my native northern Michigan, and aboard a Semester at Sea vessel. I did briefly live in Davis, CA, but never really got outside the Central Valley. So, we had effectively never before been in the mountains of California and Oregon prior to our PCT adventure. We honestly didn’t know a ponderosa pine from a Douglas fir or a Steller’s jay from a scrub jay. The first time I saw a marmot, I jumped back in astonishment, quickly announcing to Andrew that I had just seen “a beaver without a beaver tail.”

pic marmot
They do kind of look like beavers, right?

When we arrived in Ashland in July, Andrew continued hiking the trail north, while I stopped to begin taking the requisite summer courses with my cohort, one of which was Stewart Janes’ Environmental Issues class. In this class, not only did I learn the difference between pines and firs, I learned to look at the cones to tell the difference between ponderosa and Jeffrey pines, the buds to determine Douglas firs from white firs. I learned that the tempting red berries with the maple-like leaves I saw everywhere along the northern California PCT were called thimbleberries, and that they were edible. (I could have been eating them the whole time!)

pic lupine
Lupine in northern California

I learned that what Andrew and I had called the “devil plant” due to its sharp spines was actually called yellow star thistle, an extremely virulent invasive that can cause a neurological disorder in horses if consumed. I learned that the trees that reminded me of the southern magnolias on Duke’s campus were called Pacific madrones and that they store energy in an underground lignotuber as a fire adaptation. The plant I thought of as holly on the PCT was actually Oregon grape (the state flower) and those grooves in fallen trees were made by bark beetle larvae. The carpets of wildflowers we walked through were lupine, and the blue-bellied lizards skittering beneath our feet were called western fence lizards and could rid a tick of Lyme disease.

pic 1,000 miles
Celebrating a milestone!

Because we were mystified most of the time on the trail and didn’t have names for the plants and animals we saw everyday, arriving in Ashland by foot primed me for learning post-trail more than any other mode of travel could have. Yes, I arrived in Ashland with the strongest legs and the most sun-bleached eyebrows I will ever have, but most importantly, I arrived with my eyes wide open to the natural world. I came wanting information, hungry to feel grounded in the strange world through which I had been walking the last few months. The PCT taught me so many things, from how to feel pretty without makeup on to how to feel comfortable relying on just myself and one other person. But the most important thing the trail gave me was a sense of wonder for the new environment in which I found myself, a craving that let me learn about this place. To learn how to call it home.

Zoos and Environmental Education

Throughout this holiday season, thousands of people flocked to their local zoo in hopes of immersing themselves in the lights, sounds, and smells of Christmas that many city zoos displayed as “Zoo Lights.” While this is a seasonal event that zoos provide as family-friendly entertainment, throughout the year, zoos also provide numerous environmental and conservation education opportunities. Many zoo visitors may only see the entertainment value in zoo visits, but it is almost impossible to go to a zoo without being educated about the environment and wildlife conservation. As David Grazian explains in his new book American Zoo: A Sociological Safari, zoos can be “centers of environmental education with the potential to mobilize audiences around issues of great import, from ocean pollution to climate change.”1 According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), zoos and aquariums are visited by 183 million people annually. This is just in the United States and only includes the approximately 220 zoos and aquariums accredited by the AZA. With this many visitors, zoos have a large platform upon which they can cultivate an environmentally literate community. In fact, this is a key focus for the Oregon Zoo located in Portland, OR.

ZoologoV130gold.pdfI had the pleasure of speaking with Alison Heimowitz, School and Teacher Liaison at the Oregon Zoo, who gave me some insight into the zoo’s innovative environmental education programs. Alison serves as the interface between schools and the zoo and coordinates the programs that go into Portland schools. One of the most recent programs is the Salmon Habitat Restoration Project. This program, which the zoo created for a Portland elementary school with a sustainability focus, teaches students about the biology of salmon, with each grade level focusing on a different aspect of salmon biology. For example, kindergarten learns about habitat, 1st grade learns about adaptations, 2nd biodiversity and so on. Students in 3rd grade study the life cycle of salmon by actually raising salmon from eggs and eventually releasing them into a nearby stream. Students also restored salmon habitat by planting trees along stream banks to create much needed shade, as salmon prefer cold water temperatures.


In addition to the school programs developed by the Oregon Zoo, there are a number of other education programs that take place within the zoo including zoo school, zoo teens, ZAP teens, and exhibit interpretation. Oregon Zoo’s commitment to education has led to the expansion of the education center, which is currently under construction but should be opening in 2017.

Many zoos are situated smack dab in the middle of urban metropolises. This is not coincidence but by design. David Grazian explained that the first US zoos were created as “oases of nature” as a way to escape the industrial and urban development of the 19th and 20th centuries.1 Just because these zoos are in urban environments does not mean that there is not still potential for environmental education. John H. Falk, Sea Grant Professor of Free-Choice Learning, states in his article “Evidence for the Educational Value of Zoos and Aquariums” that “many members of the public do see zoo and aquarium experiences as vicarious wilderness experiences, and…for an increasing number of urban dwellers a visit to a zoo or aquarium may be the only ‘nature experience’ they have.”2 

Tracy-Aviary-LogoTracy Aviary, one of only two aviaries in the US to be accredited by the AZA, is situated in urban Salt Lake City, UT. The aviary has embraced its urban location and created an environmental education program entitled “Nature in the City.” Free and open to the public this family-oriented education program provides opportunities for participants to explore the nature that is all around us, even if we’re in the city. The programs take place in locations all around the city to show just how much nature is out there that may have been bypassed. In addition to “Nature in the City,” Tracy Aviary also offers Birds of the Great Salt Lake Wetland Tours. These daylong trips give participants a greater understanding of the significance of the Great Salt Lake as migratory bird stop over and nesting habitat. Although it may not take place directly in the city, this program still shows the urban dwellers of Salt Lake City that there are significant natural areas in close proximity that need our protection.3

If you ask an environmental educator why they do what they do, I’m sure many, if not all, will say they want to help connect people, kids especially, with nature. Well, this is a goal of many, if not all, zoos as well. In fact, there is a recent movement within the zoo community to create what are called “Nature Play” areas. The AZA, in partnership with The Walt Disney Company, are working to help zoos develop Family Nature Clubs. These will be “safe havens for unstructured nature play” which are “child-directed and allow for spontaneous learning” within AZA accredited zoos. There is vast research showing the mental and physical benefits of allowing children to play outside in nature, but much of the learning done by today’s children is so structured and focused on technology. These Family Nature Clubs will allow families to bond and learn about wildlife and nature while also fostering a conservation ethic through self-led discovery and shared experiences. As stated by the AZA, “More traditionally structured environmental education programs serve an important role in cultivating an environmental ethic, but direct experience with nature and opportunities for unstructured play in nature are at the heart of most environmental action in adulthood.”4 

g_ZNElogoOne of the zoos incorporating the ideas of nature play into their park is Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo which is part of Zoo New England. Through campaign efforts the zoo has raised money to build the Nature’s Neighborhoods: Children’s Zoo where families can experience and learn about red pandas through the Bamboo Climber, climb into a giant eagle’s nest to get an aerial view of the zoo, and track animals through the Tallgrass Maze. This interactive and experiential learning opportunity provides children and their families with much needed connection to nature while instilling them with conservation values.5

Nature’s Neighborhoods: Children’s Zoo “adventure play” area coming to Franklin Park Zoo

While many visitors may not realize it, zoo education expands far beyond the interpretive signs in front of the animal exhibits that guests may or may not read. Zoos are creating opportunities for guests of all ages to connect to nature, become environmentally literate, and participate in conservation action. With about 1 in every 10 people visiting a zoo this year, zoos really can and do make a difference in educating people about our natural world.

For more information:

1 American Zoo: A Sociological Survey

2 Evidence for the Educational Value of Zoos and Aquariums

3 Tracy Aviary: Nature in the City

4 Nature Play Begins at Your Zoo & Aquarium Resources

5 Franklin Park Zoo Nature’s Neighborhoods: Children’s Zoo


Featured image from The Oregon Zoo:

Poison Oak, the Lurking Plant

Toxicodendron diversilobum. Until October 2015, poison oak was just another plant with the potential of causing minor irritation to me.

Having grown up in Colorado I had trained my eyes to look for stinging nettle and poison ivy, and though I have had many a run in with stinging nettle, it was nothing a little rubbing alcohol couldn’t cure. So when I first began adventuring in the Northwest woods, a stronghold of poison oak, I kept a weary, albeit lazy, eye out for this unfamiliar, lurking nemesis.

Poison oak grows ubiquitously throughout Oregon, west of the Cascades. It is found in the ponderosa shrub forests, amongst the chaparral shrubs, in the shade of the oaks, and along the coast. Its growth fpoisonoakorm ranges from a trailing vine, reaching high for the sun, to a short and
spindly pseudo-shrub, to a robust grouping of groping, poison stems. Poison oak leaves resemble those of oak in their lobed appearance, and one can recall the foreboding “Leaves of three, leave it be” when setting out for a romp in the woods. Spring and summer will present a display of small flowers and white fruits, called drupes. Starting in early fall, bright green leaves begin to turn a sunset orange-red hue and by early November, they have fallen.

A poison oak rash, when it’s bad, is really, really bad. It’s not just an itch. It’s not just a burn. It’s some terrible concoction of the two that begs to be scratched, rubbed, and iced. It makes you moan in agony as you search the depths of your memory for when you got the few drops of the not-so-innocuous oil on your right wrist and left cheekbone.

The oily sap of poison oak, or urushiol, causes mild to severe contact dermatitis on the areas of skin it touches. And much to the chagrin of the outdoor enthusiast, trace amounts of the oil can stay on surfaces for days, weeks, months, even years, waiting for a touch of naked skin. Urushiol is found in all parts of the poison oak plant –living or dead—including leaves, stems, and roots. In fact, when poison oak is burned, the oils volatilize and can cause severe allergic reactions in the lungs of those who inhale the smoke.

Interestingly enough, poison oak is a popular browse for Pacific black-tailed deer and range livestock, as it is rich in phosphorous, calcium, and sulfur, and does not evoke the painful allergic reaction seen in humans. In Native American cultures various parts of the plant were used; both as a basket textile and medicinal herb. Popular American folklore even claims that drinking the milk of a goat that has eaten poison oak will render the drinker immune to the unpleasant consequences of interacting with the plant.

My doctor told me I had very likely picked the oils up from my dog’s fur. And unfortunately, I do not own a milking goat that eats poison oak. After a heavy two week dose of Prednisone and numerous washes with Tecnu©, my face and wrist were home free, but my mind remains a prisoner of this plant.

Yet, like we all must, I continue the trek into the unknown. I do my best to keep an eye out for this formidable plant, but am reminded that even the best intentions can still procure unwanted results. In my quest to make meaning out of all things unfortunate, here is what I learned from poison oak: be grateful for the health you have, because even a few small drops of oil can temporarily take it from you; be patient, even the greatest temptations, like scratching, are sometimes best left alone; and finally, love those that love you for you, because only true love can still kiss someone with puffy, splotchy eyelids and a red, swollen cheek.

The Importance of Human Wonder

One of the most important lessons that I have learned from experiencing and exploring the outdoors is the potential for knowledge in human wonder.

Painted desert 2
Exploring the landscape of the Painted Desert at Petrified Forest National Park

The idea that one can learn from observing their surroundings through exploration is something that my parents instilled in me from a young age.  Family vacations, although a time to be spent together, often became a time for my siblings and me to investigate new surroundings.  Even while walking on the same trail, my brothers and I always saw things that made us feel differently.  On a trip to Petrified Forest National Park, I remember overhearing a conversation from another park visitor about vultures circling in the sky.  I immediately noticed the birds a little distance away.  I was fascinated and frightened by them at the same time.  What if those vultures thought I was a potential meal?  Were they strong enough to carry me away?

Looking back on my naive impression of those raptors, I am still amazed by those two vultures soaring in the Arizona sky many years ago.  What did those birds see as they circled?  How long did they soar before giving a flap to their wings?

A flock of turkey vultures (Cathartes aura). From All About Birds:

I have taken Avian Biology courses and learned about the behavior of New World vultures.  I have read about thermal updrafts and understand why raptors take advantage of the rising air to conserve energy while flying.  I have researched the diets of vultures.  I am glad to say that they do not seek little girls in pink shirts.  None the less, I still wonder what it was that those particular vultures were thinking.

I continue to find myself wondering about the doings of birds.  Even while sitting in the passenger’s seat of a car, I’ll notice the turkey vultures circling above the interstate.  I ask myself the same questions about those vultures as I did their relatives at the Petrified Forest many years ago.

Gazing at the blue waters below

This curiosity, this sense of wonder, is as important to me now as it was then.  My parents raised my siblings and me to question the world around us but to never lose touch of the things that make the world special.  I was reminded of this when Cohort 8 shadowed the Classroom at Crater Lake program this October.  The students who visited on a class field trip learned important ecological concepts that make Crater Lake unique, but the knowledge they gained was nothing compared to the sense of wonder expressed on their faces when they looked over the rim and imagined what lurked in those beautiful blue waters.  Those students identified with that place, and now they are connected to it forever.

As I learn to become a successful environmental educator, I remind myself that some of the most important lessons that I can pass on to students are the same lessons that I learned from my first teachers, my parents.  Just as my parents allowed my brothers and me to explore our surroundings, from the woods in our backyard to the national parks of the United States, I should let my future students explore the world around them.  Although I have faith that these students will be able to identify plant species along the trails they walk, I would rather they expand their mind beyond classifications and imagine what species are the favorites of the animals that call the land beyond the trail home.  Like Rachel Carson, who eloquently described this experience in her 1965 publication The Sense of Wonder, I hope that these children will never falter in their sense of wonder and find inspiration in the everyday.  When they enjoy their time outdoors and have fun exploring, they will be able to better understand the world around them and the additional discoveries that await them.

Encourage your sense of wonder.  Explore your backyard, your neighborhood, your city, your state.  Identify what makes your place unique and how that uniqueness translates into the extraordinary.  Place your feet on a trail outside and see where your sense of wonder inspires you to explore.

Discovering natural wonders with the Siskiyou Environmental Education Center (SEEC)