students-on-discovery-trail

June 15, 2017 – CORVALLIS, Ore.

6:30 a.m. – I hear a distant jingle gradually increasing in volume. The pestering sound means I have to drag myself out of bed. But today, it’s a little easier. I’m going to the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest for my first overnight trip.

7:20 a.m. – Kari calls to let me know that she’s arrived at Oak Vale Apartments. I walk outside with my breakfast, lunch, coffee, and two small bags in tow. The rain beats down on me, feeling more like winter in the Willamette Valley than mid-June. Kari hops out of the car, asking me to drive for a stretch so she can have some yogurt. An unexpected but welcome surprise. Not only does it give me a chance to test out a Prius, but also, the gesture shows how much she already trusts me.

9 a.m. – I decide to drive the whole way. We slowly creep up in elevation passing homesteads and tree farms along FM 126. The Willamette National Forest begins to engulf us in a sea of fog, dripping conifers, and fluorescent moss. As the road winds and curves, the McKenzie River peaks out to say hello, then goodbye. Clear water rushes down basalt, those parts of thousand year old rock that were annihilated to make way for human progress.

9:30 a.m. – The old growth forest greets us as we enter the H.J. Andrews headquarters. The logging trucks are hauling newly harvested Douglas Firs today. Brenda and Kate station themselves on either side of the one-lane entrance to avoid a school bus/logging truck stand-off.

10:15 a.m. – Our guests of honor arrive. Four teachers and twenty-two seventh and eighth graders from High Desert Middle School file out of the yellow bus. Students look around in awe and a new energy comes over this typically adult-dominated place. Six of us greet them; we’re all involved in various H.J. Andrews education programs, including Mike, Lissy, Mark, Kate, Kari and I.

10:45 a.m. – The students and teachers settle into Quartz Creek apartments. A few hundred feet away, we gather at Salt Salmon pavilion to orient everyone and explain the plan for the next two days. After hearing about safety procedures, Mike reminds everyone that this is a place of inquiry where humans study the relationships within complex, interconnected ecosystems. Kari emphasizes that the Andrews is a place not only for scientific inquiry but also artistic imagining. She wraps up the introduction by reading from John Luoma’s The Hidden Forest.

11 a.m. – We walk about a half mile to complete the final orientation before the students explore the Discovery Trail. Each of them will finish 4 to 5 stops, ranging in activities like drawing canopy critters, grappling with natural and personal disturbances, or mapping forest sounds. Engaging with students through scientific practice and creative reflection, their guides for the day are iPads and their own curiosity. The Discovery Trail iPad program records their answers and will later be analyzed to assess learning, sense of place, and empathy.

11:15 a.m. – I walk ahead of everyone to place clipboards on certain stops where students will draw and write what they see. I open an umbrella to protect the paper, reformulated flesh of the majestic giants around me. The next moments will forever be enmeshed in my memory and seemed to happen in a flash. Bending over to place the materials on the ground, a loud whooshing sound fills the air. I felt the energy of a large being looming over me but looked up to see nothing. My gaze traveled to the forest floor where 10 or more chicks scurried hastily in all directions. As if I had no bodily control, my head jolts to the right and what looked to be a grouse ran ahead of me on the trail. A dozen questions flooded my brain. What flew over me? What was it doing there? Did I disturb a special moment? Did the grouse fly at me then magically appear at my side? Or was a bird of prey on the prowl for a young, delicious snack?

11:30 a.m. – After my moving wildlife encounter, I return to the trailhead and hear the chattering of middle schoolers and adults. I still need to make it to three stops before they start. Jennifer, one of the teachers, graciously took some clipboards to stop 7: canopy critters. I posted up between stop 8 and 9 to give students some space.

12:15 p.m. – Lissy approached me with an iPad. One of the groups were having issues submitting information for stop 6. I find a temporary work around but don’t figure out how to send the answers to the server. I shared my grouse story with Lissy and Kari and later learned that news on the trail travels fast; others waited for their chance to catch a glimpse of the grouse.

12:30 p.m. – Now on stop 8, I loom a few feet away from the students who experienced technical glitches on stop 6. Feeling a bit creepy, I tell them to let me know if they have any issues with the program again. But the awkwardness lingers as I wait for the girls to land on the final screen and try the submit button.

12:35 p.m. – The two girls on stop 8 work through content about forest management and ecosystem services. One of the final questions is: why do you think forests are valuable?  Wood, beauty, habitat, recreation, replenishment. Another question asks them to consider a memorable moment in another forest. One girl recites a memory about a trip that her family took to Belknap Hot Springs. She shares how beautiful and fun the experience was but also struggles with some human-nature relationships. She enjoyed her time there but didn’t like that there were so many people; she was expecting a more remote experience. She recalls a serene, beautiful garden but discounts her connection to this kind of nature because it was man-made. Her struggle is one common in many of our views of nature: as something wild and without humans.

Is nature still nature if humans are involved? Or is there no nature without humans? Perhaps nature isn’t so cut and dry; things are typically more complex than we conceive.

12:40 p.m. – I spend the rest of the time on the trail checking in with students but keeping my distance. I soak in my surroundings knowing that I will soon return to my electronic-saturated life. My Pacific Northwest spirit animal – the banana slug – crawls on the trail near my foot while the red cedars and western hemlocks stand stoically around us. The chirping of birds and dripping of rain fills the soundscape, along with the inquisitive dialogue between humans hoping to discover the forest’s wonders.

1:30 p.m. – We reconvene at the pavilion where Lissy asks the students to reflect on three final prompts. 1) Close your eyes. Imagine one word that describes your experience on the trail. 2) Close your eyes. What on the trail inspired your one word? It can be an interaction, moment, observation. 3) Close your eyes. Think about what else you would like to learn.

1:35 p.m. – Magical. Lush. Beautiful. Like wow! Life-changing. Inspirational. Fun. Green. Peaceful. These are a few of the words that the students share as they reflect on their Discovery Trail experience at the H.J. Andrews Forest. Why did these words come to mind? One student says thinking like a scientist rather than a citizen led to a deeper level of understanding. Another shares their new goals to work in field ecology. Another draws artistic inspiration from the towering trees for their budding interests in architecture. What more do they want to learn? One student’s answer hits me right in the feels. “I want to know more about how to just be. How to be part of this place, part of nature,” he says. “I want to better understand our impacts on this place.” Lissy reminds everyone how the Andrews is connected to other places, to their own communities in Bend and beyond.

As I reflect on the day so far, I think about humans’ obligation to recognize our place in nature and to acknowledge our impact as the most consumptive beings on the planet. For each of us on the trail today, and those in other places, we need to continually discover, to probe, to ponder, to challenge. Discovery of the unique, awe-inspiring organisms and relationships in nature is on-going. We, humans, have the unique ability to contemplate our place in nature. We have a responsibility to act as empathetic members of the biotic community, doing so is to challenge what we consider necessity. We must reduce harm to other living things for the greater good—not just for our global society, but for the globe.

-Sarah Kelly

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