Knowing your place

“Who can figure out where we are?” asks river guide John DeMary of the 40-odd high school students surrounding him.  He hands out maps of the Chesapeake Bay watershed showing ancient landmarks like the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers along with more modern features like Washington DC and Baltimore.  “When you think you know where we are on the map, bring it back.”

Where are we indeed?  The most obvious answer is on the shore of the Shenandoah River, not far from where it joins the Potomac at Harpers Ferry WV and surrenders its identity as a separate river for the remainder of its journey to the Bay.  We’re standing in the great Commonwealth of Virginia at the moment, having traveled to this spot in a flotilla of canoes, but we can easily see the houses across the water on the West Virginia side.  I’m here as part of my work with The Downstream Project  – a nonprofit organization that works with conservation partners to promote stewardship through visual  arts and technology – as they explore a partnership with River and Trail Outfitters, the company leading the day’s trip.  We launched about an hour ago under overcast skies on this early May day and now, in groups of six or seven, students lean over their maps on the gravelly shore searching for signs of their surroundings.

John makes the rounds to each group.  A retired high school science teacher, he now leads school trips on the Shenandoah and elsewhere with River and Trail.  He uses maps and satellite images to help kids place themselves on the planet and nets and field guides to help them understand the living ecosystem around them.  His soft Virginia drawl is kind and patient, but he doesn’t mince words.   He and fellow river guide Mike Dudash will spend the better part of the day talking about recycling, biodegradable soap, sediment, pollution, and leaving a healthy planet for the next generation.   “Once you learn it, you have an obligation” to do the right thing, John admonishes.  “It’s no longer ignorance, it’s stupidity.”

The students from Briar Woods High School in Ashburn VA are well prepared by teacher Patricia Blackwell.  They understand that riparian buffers of vegetation can absorb polluted runoff.  They’re familiar with the dangers of pesticides.  Some of them can even identify a great blue heron when it flies upstream.   They’re middle class kids from a good high school in suburban DC.  And yet, as one of the school’s chaperones tells me later, some of these kids have never been out here before.   “They go to the Outer Banks {for vacation in North Carolina} and see people kayaking, and they wouldn’t even think about doing it themselves.”

So where are we exactly when some of the most privileged kids in the country have such little outdoor experience?   Writer Richard Louv popularized this concern in his 2008 book Last Child in the Woods.  In it, he coined the phrase nature-deficit disorder:  the tendency of children today to get little time outdoors to explore nature.  Louv and other experts cite a lot of reasons for this including safety concerns, over-scheduling, organized sports and computers.  And they link a lot of health issues to this phenomenon including increased levels of depression, obesity and symptoms associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  But there’s the larger issue too of nurturing an appreciation and passion for nature.  As environmentalist Baba Dioum said in a 1968 speech to the assembly of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, “(i)n the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.”   Intuitively, there’s a sense that the best way to understand and appreciate the natural world is to get out in it.

Seining for macroinvertebrates

And so John and Mike make sure these kids do.  At the next stop, John unwraps two seine nets and recruits a bunch of guys to overturn rocks in the river and see what macroinvertebrates  – a.k.a large creepy crawlies –  get swept into the nets.  He’s looking for bioindicators of water quality and wants the students to use the laminated field guides to identify what species are living in this part of the river.   Soon each net has a crowd of students around it trying to see what they’ve caught, generating a few squeals and shouts in the process.   Some species are very sensitive to water quality and can only live in very clean waters.  Others are less picky and tend to dominate in degraded conditions.  The presence of mayflies, caddisflies and waterpennies  in the nets reveals that this stretch of the Shenandoah is in pretty good shape according to John.   Good news for today.   Meanwhile, Mike has pulled a chewed up stick out of the water.  “What ate this bark?” he asks the crowd.   Beaver is the right answer.  More good news.

A Hellgrammite a.k.a. Dobsonfly larvae indicating healthy habitat

By the time we pull into the takeout at Shannondale in West Virginia, the sun has finally broken through the overcast sky.  Those whose novice canoe skills led to inadvertent dunkings earlier in the day now skillfully maneuver onto shore, and dry out in the warm sun.  Having grown up canoeing on the Delaware River and in Adirondack lakes with my father, I was a little nervous as we started out that morning surrounded by a large pack of newbies.  But I wasn’t going to say no to a chance to get on the river and I believe wholeheartedly in John and Mike’s mission.  They want these kids to have a life changing experience and take with them a commitment to be better environmental stewards for the rest of their lives.  As the students pile onto the bus at the end of the day it’s too soon to say if that’s the case.  But if their paddling skills are any indication, it’s clear that the best way of learning is by doing.  And perhaps in the process of learning, some of them will even find their place.

The Shenandoah River at Myerstown, Jefferson Co. WV

4 thoughts on “Knowing your place

  1. Amy
    That’s a really nice piece you wrote. Thanks so much. It really does “capture” how life-changing a combination field trip/ Education experience can be. That’s what we all hope the “Field School” becomes. It would say it’s a really “Sweet” piece of writing; but that would be mixing metaphors, wouldn’t it. Thanks again, George

  2. Thanks for your comments George.

    I thought I’d add this link for readers regarding the Shenandoah’s sister river, the Potomac. The conservation group American Rivers just named the Potomac the most endangered river in the country (see story here:

    It’s a good reminder that although our group found some healthy habitat during our Shenandoah trip, the Chesapeake Bay watershed faces tremendous threats from pollution.

  3. Beautifully written Amy! The stars are aligning to make a fabulous learning experience for everyone involved. Great work and thanks for being a member of the team TDP…

  4. Amy, what a great experience for those kids! I just checked out the Last Child in the Woods from the library last week; I look forward to reading it! Great post!

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