Kids dig in to local ecology

A cluster of little kids was milling beside a stand of cattails when their leader, a young woman in a flannel shirt and a flaxen braid, motioned for them to gather round. “You’re the luckiest group of all!” she announced.  “You get to see an endangered plant!” Eight small faces turned to where Larkin Guenther was pointing at a late-summer stalk. “This,” she said dramatically, “is a Nelson’s checker-mallow.”

It was late September and the checker-mallow (which has deep pink blooms in summer) had pretty much gone to seed. But the children didn’t seem disappointed in the least. Its endangered status gave it the cachet of any rare find. With interest, they examined the plant and then studied their clipboards to find the proper box to check off on their lists of native and invasive flora.

These fourth- and fifth-graders from Corvallis Waldorf School were taking part in a field trip at Evergreen Creek Farm just west of Philomath.  The Marys River Watershed Council — along with the Greenbelt Land Trust (which owns a portion of the Evergreen property), Corvallis Audubon and the Institute for Applied Ecology — was giving local schoolchildren a hands-on lesson in watershed ecology. This place offers diverse ecosystems in close proximity — wetlands, riparian woodlands and oak savanna — making it an ideal outdoor classroom for students from area schools. Kings Valley and Muddy Creek charter schools were on the site earlier in the week.

Corralling 30 elementary-age kids and catching their attention is no small feat. Despite the exuberance that at times diverted the boys and girls from the curriculum, they managed to absorb a wide range of knowledge and skills. Under the direction of Kathleen Westly, the Council’s education coordinator, they wielded clunky metal weed wrenches as they learned to identify and root out invasive species like  Himalayan blackberries that choke off natives. They learned to distinguish an invasive English hawthorn from a native hawthorn, both of which bear “big, pokey thorns.”  They learned to tell an ash from a willow (“The leaves on an ash are opposite, but on a willow they’re alternating,” one boy explained with confidence).

Besides ID’ing plants, observing birds, and investigating animal sign, the students mapped the site for a long-term restoration project. In February, they will come back to help plant trees and shrubs. In May, they’ll return again to monitor their work.

“Because the students return to the site several times during the year, many of them form a deep attachment to the place,” says Westly. “Active learning about the plants and animals that live there, along with hands-on participation in ecological restoration, helps enlarge their view of themselves and their role in the stewardship of the watershed. It’s a privilege to work with them.”

For more information about the Council’s educational programs, contact Kathleen Westly, [email protected].