By Larry Gfeller
Q: How is it possible for fifty eighth-graders to have more fun on a weekday than on the weekend?
A: By busting ‘em out of classes, loading ‘em up and heading ‘em out to the Lost Pines Nature Trails/Colorado River Refuge!
That’s exactly what happened in late April when officials from the Trinity Episcopal School in Austin asked Pines and Prairies Land Trust Executive Director Melanie Pavlas to sponsor an educational field trip ‘down by the river.’ Melanie immediately reached out to the local Texas Master Naturalist chapter and sealed the deal. The naturalists jumped on the idea and agreed to host the event.
Then, on the appointed day, two yellow school busses, teeming with barely official teenagers, were met by an escort at Bassano’s Italian Restaurant parking lot, and carefully guided into the wilderness by way of quiet, obscure neighborhood roadways. Retired golfers along the route stared like cattle, no doubt convinced the busses were lost.
For their part, the naturalists were excited to show off recent county improvements to the LPNT but were also stoked at the thought of helping young people discover the treasures of pristine riparian habitat. “And to your left, ladies and gentlemen,” bellowed the M.C., “let me introduce you to our main attraction of the morning, the Colorado River. It originates northwest of here in Dawson County and ambles 600 miles through numerous cities, including Bastrop, on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the only river in Texas to originate and terminate all within the borders of our state.” All eyes turned upon the mighty river, like kittens tracking a light on the wall. After the obligatory warnings about fire ants, chiggers, poison ivy and poisonous snakes, the only audible noise was the gentle rhythm of the river. . .they stared as silent as owls.
For those of us for whom age 13 is but a distant and foggy memory, recall that it’s a time of awakening hormones, ersatz social circles and ill-fitting training bras. To keep this group focused and engaged for two hours—we thought—would require something on the order of a three-ring circus. The group was split, then, into three groups: Green, Red and Yellow (go, stop and caution?). We would be rotating among three learning stations, which required near military precision from a cohort known for the attention span of ferrets. We were stunned. It was an active group for sure, but they demonstrated a thirst for the outdoors no one expected.
Station #1: River Wildlife. On the table in front were arrayed animal skulls, pelts, bird nests and snake photos. As the instructor began asking rhetorical questions, the youngsters bubbled with curiosity, clearly enchanted by the wild things that called this place home. Food, water, shelter and space—the four requirements for survival were served up, along with ample personal experiences everyone shared throughout the session. They didn’t need an instructor, they needed a moderator.
Station #2: Wetlands Ecology. Connections were drawn among plants, animals, weather, terrain and hydrology—a self-contained neighborhood of interdependency—every bit as complex as a modern city. Heads nodded in understanding, hands shot upward overflowing with questions and answers, stimulated by a bowl of candy to reward participation. The impacts of habitat fragmentation, draughts, floods and pollution were juxtaposed against a desperate need for protection and conservation. Rich mental protein for young minds.
Station#3: Nature Hike. Each group was further sub-divided; one of which went east along the river, the other west. The students were like avatars in a make believe world, stopping to examine a small snake, glimpsing a wading white egret, marveling at the ageless towering cottonwoods, contemplating the geology of eons. At one point, we just stopped and listened to the chattering of the forest, brimming with life—an adolescent game of connect-the-dots. The forest and river were exquisitely beautiful. Some narrative was inevitable, but we didn’t have to worry too much about content; good experiences ultimately speak for themselves.
After everyone rotated through all three stations, we gathered for one last group pow-wow for summation and final arguments. The busses rolled into the parking lot. Two hours, exactly! Expecting borderline chaos, we instead received the gift of appreciative enthusiasm. The moral of the story: never underestimate the power of nature! As we left them to their lunch and a short swim in the river, thoughts were going around in my mind like clothes in a dryer. When you know the magician’s trick, the only wonder is in its obviousness: among this group of bright young people no doubt will one day spring doctors and lawyers, scientists and mathematicians, mothers and fathers. Can there be any more compelling mandate to protect and conserve outdoor spaces than to provide a lifeline to our starved urban culture? It may be the most effective way to illustrate the hardest lesson in life: when things are gone, they’re gone. They ain’t coming back!