“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”
Rachel Carson (1907-1964), renowned biologist and writer, is most well-known for her career as an activist, taking a brave stance against pesticides with her publication of Silent Spring in 1962. She is a prime example of how science can be used to educate the public and effectively change attitudes about the environment. However, Carson was also a sensitive nature writer and mentor to her nephew Roger. Her book, The Sense of Wonder, chronicles their adventures in the varied terrain of the Maine wilderness, through intimate and sensory accounts of their findings. As environmental educators, it is important for us to follow Carson’s example, using our strong background in scientific principles to strengthen the messages of our lessons. However, she also shows us the other side of the coin: the importance of fostering a sense of wonder in children.
The Masters of Environmental Education program at SOU does an excellent job at finding the balance between these practices. We integrate ourselves into deep scientific study of natural history, botany, ornithology, herpetology, etc., but we also recognize that it is our job to practice Carson’s advice: “rediscover with [children] the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” The educators of Cohort 8, in all of our diverse experiences and geographic homes, were already united around this common purpose before we arrived in Ashland this July. We all seek careers in which we can make a difference while spending most of our time outdoors. But why now? Why Environmental Education?
Some of us have worked in wildlife research in the past and are now looking for a more direct way to impact conservation. Some of us have worked in schools and are looking to diversify our skills teaching outdoors. Some of us seek more scientific knowledge. Some of us are fresh from undergraduate degrees, eager to continue learning. And some of us intend to work in nonprofits, seeking experiences in management. We arrive from homes all over the country: Upstate New York, rural Washington, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Maryland, Colorado, San Francisco, Hawaii, Maine, northern Michigan, Oregon, and fishing boats in Alaska. One of us even arrived in Ashland by foot via the infamous Pacific Crest Trail! We come together united by a common goal: how do we transmit information to people of varying contexts, attitudes, personal histories, agendas, ages, and skills? And how can this program prepare us to do this?
It all began by immersing ourselves in our new place. We spent a weekend together when we first arrived, camping, hiking, swimming, eating, camp fire-ing, and identifying new plants with our professors and Cohort 7, at the nearby Cascade Siskiyou National Monument. We then took a four-week place-based Environmental Issues class, in which we were introduced to six quintessential ecosystem types and their flora and fauna that we will encounter throughout our studies in this area. We practiced critter catching and collected data and dreamed about the environmental education programs we would soon begin designing. And we hiked to the tops of stunningly tall peaks where we could see the entirety of our new homes from a new vantage point.
The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, practically in our backyard, is a place of unmatched diversity. It is a mystery of colliding mountains, where ecologically distinct regions coexist in the nexus of the Cascade, Siskiyou, and Klamath ranges. Pygmy Nuthatches and kangaroo rats, typically found east of the Cascades, share habitat with western species such as rough-skinned newts and Northern Spotted Owls. Bigleaf Maple and Eastern Juniper grow on the same bluff, as do Manzanita and White Fir. All of these species coexist at the CSNM, along with the highest butterfly diversity in North America.
During this summer’s orientation weekend, we hiked to the top of Hobart Bluff, one of the tallest vantage points in the CSNM. Its high elevation reveals unique plants that exist in exposed, wind-swept areas. One such species is Curl-leaf Mountain Mahogany, or Cercocarpus ledifolius, a hardy specimen with bending branches, uneven bark, and small, indistinct leaves. But its ability to take root in a harsh, rocky environment is its true wonder. How does it do it? The answer is in the seeds. Spiraling out from the base of each leaf cluster are countless numbers of corkscrew-like seeds, whose fine hairs allow them to leap into flight at a passing breeze. And if they are lucky, each will find a piece of damp Earth in which to uncurl, drilling themselves into the ground, rooting their way to nutrients and new life.
Like the CSNM, our cohort is one of great diversity: age, experiences, and career trajectories. But for eighteen short months, we come together to learn. We will dream up and facilitate a program of our own creation. We will learn how to work together in close quarters, practicing life-long skills of conflict resolution and program planning. For eighteen short months, we will ground ourselves in the Rogue Valley like the curl-leaf mountain mahogany, wind-dispersed from our home places, and rooting ourselves into this new place.
Stewart Janes (Environmental Education program director) reminds us continually, “In a year, you will be the experts.” And we will. We will study the land and its diversity, acknowledging the unnoticed and marveling at the big picture. We will look closely, taking it all in as we ask new questions. And we will discover the mysteries of where we live, reminding ourselves of the inevitable stories of some of our future students: What would I do if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”
If You Want to Learn More:
- Rachel Carson website
- US Forest Service Database: Curl-leaf Mountain Mahogany
- Bureau of Land Management on the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument
- Friends of the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument