Peace and mud surround me as I stand in the middle of Audubon’s Big Pond. A Northern Harrier, also known as a Marsh Hawk, dips and glides over the cattails. Rails call like monkeys from the reeds. The water and mud come up to my thighs as we walk, plop, and sink through the pond to get to the patch of Phragmites that lurks in the cattails.
Phragmites is an invasive European plant that can take over entire marshy areas. You’ve probably seen it along the road. It looks like a tall grass with a feathery top and reminds me of the Pampas grass my parents grew as a kid.
Phragmites is often found near natural gas wells and roadsides. The seeds get stuck in tires of equipment and on the boots of well tenders and maintenance workers and slowly spread. Audubon’s patch first appeared by the gas well, and new ones have since appeared in Big Pond. A volunteer and I went out to cut it down for the winter and prevent it from spreading.
The pond feels so peaceful, in part because of the coming storm of programs at Audubon. As the largest environmental education organization in the region, we will see almost 20,000 children this school year. Naturalists will travel from Sheffield, Pennsylvania to Forestville, New York to teach children basic concepts in natural history, get them excited about being outside and, hopefully, get to actually take them outside in their schoolyard, a local park, or on a trip through Audubon.
Some classes have already come to Audubon on trips. They have searched underwater in ponds. There, they have had first encounters with wriggling tadpoles that are preparing to spend the winter under the ice. They have found dragonfly larvae creeping along the bottom. “Underwater crickets!” they yell when they find the young dragonflies. Indeed, dragonflies look like underwater crickets for the first year(s) of their life, crawling through the muck and mud searching for prey. Fishing Spiders walk on the surface of the water, causing one student to unwittingly save the spider by dumping it on the ground so it wouldn’t drown.
One of the big things Audubon does is make connections between people and nature. Those connections have to take place where the student is at, regardless of age. The student who freed the spider felt empathy for a spider that he thought was drowning. He connected that empathy and his knowledge of spiders to the new concept that some spiders swim.
Lots of new connections can occur in a short time. Knowledge of the life cycle of frog, from egg to tadpole to adult, connects to the fact that some tadpoles spend the winter under the ice. Knowledge of the gaily-colored dragonflies of summer connects to the mud colored “underwater crickets” of the dragonfly larva.
Those connections are more important than they seem. They are the building blocks that future knowledge is based on. Think of learning as a chain of connections. One idea connects to another idea that links to another idea. Experiences that are lived create giant foundations of knowledge. More chains of knowledge connect to a real world experience than to a sentence in a book.
This is important to the future, as more children experience nature through the television than through experiences outside. Decisions about how we treat the world should come from knowledge and experience. An adult who had an amazing experience searching the bottom of a pond or lake for animals is more likely to connect that experience to how they want to treat the lake as an adult because they have learned something about it.
And so I stand in the middle of the pond, pulling invasive plants and feeling at peace, knowing that a storm of students is about to pile onto the calendar, with naturalists visiting 100 or more students a day. Each class will bring their own prejudices, problems, fears and worries about nature. As one of Audubon’s naturalists, I work to help them make new connections to how nature works and, hopefully, make things a little bit less scary. It’s valuable work done by a dedicated staff that believes in what they do.
Jeff Tome is a naturalist at the Audubon Community Nature Center. Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.