Photo by Jim Harper, CC BY-SA 2.5

This Field Note is by Hazel Escobedo, AmeriCorps Member, Environmental Education

I wandered around the fifth-grade classroom, immersed in the bustle of group projects. Some kids needed cardboard cut, others just wanted to check their designs. It was very standard. Which is why I was surprised when I received a very non-standard answer to a question I had asked: “It’s based on the desert hare’s ears!”

The project was relatively simple; each group was to design windmill blades for a model windmill kit. A prompt I gave the group was to think of blade-like designs inspired by something in nature. At the time this prompt was a simple clue. A riddle with maybe two or three right answers: leaves, winds, maybe grass, etc. While walking around I saw many simple geometric shapes and a few leaves, but I was intrigued when I found a group that had created an ovular shape, wider on the bottom than top, for their template.

I asked the group of kids what the idea behind their design is, and one responded, “It’s based on the desert hare’s ear, which, um, you know, catches wind so it can cool itself off. By blowing down the fur.” I was astounded by this. I told the kids it was a great idea and went to help another group cut out their shape. It stuck with me that this group had made a connection that seemed quite advanced to me, but children are quite good at making connections.

As we try to teach kids about the environment, the world they live in, it’s good to keep in mind how easily they will absorb that world if they are engaged. I can’t tell you how heartening it is to imagine that if a kid can apply what they must have learned in a documentary, in a book, or over the dinner table to a classroom discussion, how much more powerful being in an Appalachian forest can be if the child is shown how to engage with it.

In a time where global warming, deforestation, and corporate threats to drinkable water are nearly everywhere, helping people understand the value in their own backyard may encourage them to think about how it really is only the random luck of geography that these kinds of injustices aren’t happening to us right now, and that they likely will happen to us in the future, and that they have happened to us before. If people understand that, it gives us a chance to build a community that is vigilant to these threats and willing to aid people who have suffered their deleterious effects.

I think I really got what Rural Action is about after reflecting on this. How valuable it is connecting or reconnecting people with the land they live on. There’s a saying that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. I think that proverb may have a corollary: If you teach a horse to understand why it’s thirsty, it might find water on its own.

(Field Notes is an occasional series that takes readers into local forests to learn about our natural world. Become a citizen scientist and join the more than 475 volunteers who have contributed close to 16,000 observations via iNaturalist to our “bioblitz” of the WNF’s Athens Unit, documenting roughly 3,400 species of plants, insects, fungi, mammals, birds, and more. You can join us by following instructions here.)