Counting critters with our ranger from Booker T. Washington National Park
Feeling the cool mountain water
On the rock...connected to the earth
A healthy forest friend
This plastic is not going in our streams!
I wonder if the maker of that hole is still in there!
Knowing this place from our sit spot, where the water comes from the mountain
Mountain top of our watershed
Students in the environmental module at The Gereau Center experience their watershed through a network of activities linking trees and water quality. They often begin at the base of the mountain in the wetlands where they discover keystone species indicating the edge where one ecotone meets another. It is here the diversity is greatest and students locate places where wildlife find water, food, shelter, and a place to raise their young. It is in this place students begin to meet the plants such as the wild rose or blackberry getting their attention as the thorns grab their clothes. They learn the rose hips provide vitamin C for humans and wild animals. Students wonder at the clear, sparkling water flowing from a small waterfall gushing from the saturated wetland soil on its way to the stream across the street. They look up to find the mountain gap where this water springs out of Grassy Hill above them.
This site was donated by a local family to the Nature Conservancy and is now cared for by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. After examining topographic images and mapping their watershed, students learn they live at the headwaters of the Roanoke River watershed which flows through the soil and across the land to the Albemarle–Pamlico Sound in North Carolina. As each student relates their own sense of place within this watershed, stories are shared about the creeks, streams and rivers in which they like to play and fish and swim. These young people know their responsibility for keeping their part of the watershed clean because everyone lives downstream.
After learning about the local history of lightning strikes and fire suppression on Grassy Hill, they see pictures of Menge’s Fame Flower (G3/S1) an endangered plant and other mountain residents like the Carolina Thistle, Blazing Star, and common trees living on the magnesium rich rocks along the path they will hike. Students learn about watershed tea and the importance of tree leaves feeding the streams, and their roots holding the soil in the watershed.
Young faces beam with excitement as they begin the ascent up the mountain trail. One student finds a tree fallen across the path revealing its age. Another curious observer moves to get a closer look to see if something is living in the big hole at the base of a tree. Looking at the whole forest picture, they closely observe patterns in nature that tell the history of this mountain forest while gathering leaves to identify individual species along the way. An heirloom apple collected from the stream sparks questions and peaks curiosity of its origin. Student questions indicate their awareness of the importance of forestlands in maintaining our watershed. Their search gets in depth as they enter the stream looking for salamanders and other organisms; clues for discovering the quality of the water. The students stop to pause and find a sit spot, a quiet time to be with nature and reflect. The only sound heard in the forest is the wind blowing through the trees. One student gently lifts the sparkling stream water between his fingers. Individual students experience the headwaters of the collective watershed and will follow the creek down the mountain to the stream that weaves through the forest near the wetland.
It is in this protected riparian buffer students will sample the stream using the Save Our Streams methods they learned in the classroom. The macroinvertebrates they collect will help them identify the water quality of this stream. Giggling is heard as they check the speed of the water with a tennis ball and stopwatch. They climb down a steep bank to check the pH and lift rocks looking for treasures. One student sighs as they have to get back to school and comments she doesn’t like to end her time in nature. We all agree. As we walk back to school, some of the students make a vow to bring back bags and gloves to clean up the trash around the stream. They share stories of clean ups they have done in their own neighborhoods. One student comments they put fences up on their farm so the cows cannot get into the water. Another student shares the story of the day their manure pond broke loose contaminating the Pigg River. We all remembered that day. The water treatment plant even had to shut down. The connections these students make between their actions, choices and maintaining the quality of their watershed is lifelong learning.
Back in the classroom, the light is turned on as students are asked if they are connected to mountain top coal removal. Most answer no. Viewing parts of Coal Country, students identify the values and beliefs of the people imbedded in this very local issue. Students listen intently as one teacher shares his family history connected to coal and what it was like when his father mined coal and died in a long wall mine in Virginia. Listening to Judy Bonds share deep concern for her community and the black water flowing in Coal River, the students cannot help but feel the despair of these nearby families torn apart by opposing views on this volatile issue. They learn of the inspirational steps she takes to save her river and her beloved mountain. In her passing, they learn it is the Clean Water Act and the endangered critters living in the river that save her mountain, the river and the people for whom it is their lifeblood.
As students experience a holistic watershed journey, they think twice about throwing a bag or bottle from their car into the creek. They know there is something alive in the water they want to protect. They appreciate the trees blowing in the cool mountain air and the rivers that feed the forest and bring life to their community and everyone downstream.