"What do you see?” asked my field instructor John. “I notice a variation in vegetation composition on opposing aspects,” I replied with uncertainty. While studying Environmental Conservation Studies at the University of New Hampshire, I had the opportunity to study abroad with EcoQuest in New Zealand. We were several days into a backpacking trip exploring the Coromandel Forest Park on New Zealand’s North Island. John probed again, “No, what do you see?” Trying to find the answer he was looking for, I offered, “I notice that as the elevation increases, the amount of light reaching the forest floor increases.” John, with his toothy grin, once more replied, “No, what do you see?” While pondering this series of questioning, I have come to wonder if perhaps there was no particular answer, but rather a lesson in seeing. Ten years later, I have the privilege of venturing into the natural world with CS19, and 64 sets of curious eyes ready to see.
During the first week of CS19, science students gathered in their morning class for a bog walk. Each student was given a laminated card with a photo and description of a bog plant. They entered the Green Trail bog with a simple goal, to look closely and observe. As students explored, the initial unease faded away, and questions began to arise. "Is this a tamarack?" "How do these plants grow in such a wet place?" "Andrew, why are you lying in the bog?"
Traveling gently over the delicate sphagnum mat, students came across the bog plant on their card and shared descriptions of its ecology and cultural relevance. We then discussed the unique cellular structure of sphagnum moss; learning that it is capable of holding incredible amounts of water, keeping the bog saturated throughout the year. Next, they observed tamarack trees being overtaken by the next stage in succession, black spruce trees growing and shading out the tamarack. Students learned that tamarack trees are an early successional species requiring full sunlight to thrive. As succession continues, the bog may support more forest species, transitioning into a spruce swamp. The class period flew by as students investigated cranberries, bog rosemary, labrador tea, bog laurel, as well as many more curiously fuzzy and flowery plants.
Like many lessons in science class at Conserve School, this lesson ended with more questions than answers, an open invitation for us to learn more about the world around us. While western scientific methodologies have sought to objectify and rationalize our understanding of the world through the valuation of empirical evidence, it is essential to remember that other ways of "knowing" exist. In science class at Conserve School, we seek to remind ourselves of the role that our human spirit plays in our interpretation of the world around us. From this perspective, the simple act of observing takes on great significance. Every observation we make is important, each observation is data, and the accumulation of data over time results in knowledge. This kind of knowledge is intimately connected to our lived experience with the land. The bog walk lesson served as an introduction for students to a unique ecosystem in the Northwoods. Perhaps more importantly, this was a lesson in seeing, a reminder to students that their experience has value.
Photos contributed by Andrew Deaett, Science Teacher and Anthony, CS19, Milwaukee, WI.