Everyone’s Urban Wilds

For a full week in late-October, nothing was on the calendar…but this wasn’t an oversight. We had left it open deliberately, knowing that students’ energy and interests would fill it. For the first time ever, BCL had established the conditions for student/faculty co-designed units. 

Weeks earlier, we had begun to brainstorm what interests, issues, and partners we wanted to connect with. Over time, one of the areas that emerged was natural history, nature connection, and conservation. Students wanted to spend time in the city’s urban wilds, and take part in hands-on projects with partners who are helping Burlington to be more ecologically resilient. Together, faculty and students collaborated to design a week full of rich experiences and meaningful projects.

At the Community Sailing Center, students joined with Zoe Richards, from Burlington Wildways, to brainstorm what a week focused on natural history and conservation might look like. 
Day One: A hike on the Burlington Wildways trail that connects Salmon Hole with the Intervale. 
UVM Geology Professor Paul Bierman helped us understand the complex interplay between natural history and the human-altered landscape, just below the Winooski Dam.
Thanks to the 2020 drought, our terrestrial classroom was expansive.
Students take in the scale of the 2019 Riverside landslide.

On our group’s trip and hike from Salmon Hole we got to see the landslide that happened last Halloween, and hear about the landslides of the past from our guest, Professor Paul Bierman. We learned how in years past they responded to landslides by filling it with “300 junk cars.”  At the end of that day, I wrote in my journal about the lasting effects that I saw on the wildlife. The entire hill was littered with trash and most notably cars and various car parts. The streams ran red with rust, and wildlife was seemingly sparse around the bulk of the trash and garbage. Due to the haphazard, quick fix response to the hillside, Riverside Avenue is now incredibly unstable. More slides are imminent, promising to swallow the houses and buildings that line the street.  Clearly there are consequences to the actions that happened years before I was even born. My generation now has to inherit our forefathers’ carelessness. It’s very clear that issues like this will continue to pop up for us to deal with. The mistakes of the past are now seemingly ours. 


Being able to go outside with a class and learn about different trees and how to identify them made me wish that I knew more about plants and animals. One of the stats that stands out to me is that the average kid can name hundreds of brands, but only nine or ten plants. This is sad to think about, because plants and animals should be more important than the brands because we actually need them. 

Farther along the trail, Naturalist Teage O’Connor helps us understand the deep geological foundation of the floodplain forest. 
Teage also challenged students to not leave the lunch patio (behind the Intervale barn) until they had found seven distinct species! 

This week I saw the Burlington Wildways system in action while blazing the new trail north of the Ethan Allen Homestead, and while walking along the trail from Salmon Hole to the Intervale. This system is helping those that use it thrive. Many people enjoy getting out in nature. Especially when Covid hit, having natural places to go to nearby helped people get together and see friends, or simply get outside alone after being cooped up inside. However not everybody thrives from these systems, since there are many people who don’t know about the trails, and people who don’t have time to get outside. 


It takes a lot of things to make a community thrive, but this week and past few months have shown me the value of nature access. At the beginning of the pandemic, I saw it firsthand. I am the sort of person who needs to exercise a lot to stay sane and happy…. With both parents working and no license I was out of ideas, I then turned to the trails. Me, my sister, and a couple of friends rode bikes or walked to the Intervale, the woods behind BHS, Rock Point, and any others that we saw in our travels. This was amazing for everyone’s health, mental and physical, and was a great way to be less bored. It also gave us an opportunity to see other people, because at that time being outside was the only way to do that safely. It was a nice way to connect with my sister too, especially since being cooped up together was a bit of a strain at first. I think that I would have been really unhappy if I hadn’t had access to these trails, and I count myself really lucky to be so close to them. Even when there is not a pandemic going on, nature brings joy and peace to stressful lives, no matter who you are. Burlington Wildways is extremely important, because they are protecting that resource for everyone in the city.

We also explored Naturalist Jason Mazurowski’s bee collection…
…and learned that there are likely at least 200 species of bees in the Intervale! 
At the 311 North Avenue property, just south of Cambrian Rise, botanist Kate Kruesi taught us about ecological resilience.

What does it take for a community to thrive? I really think we need a connection to the Earth.  If you are not grounded, you don’t think right and you don’t process things the same way.  When you are calm and collected,  you notice the things around you and take them in.  Everything seems better… Personally, I have always loved nature and have always cared about nature.  We were doing many things in nature and I found this sense of connection.   We were planting trees and I knew that I was making a difference in this world.  Even just putting one tree in the ground made me feel so important and empowered.  I really want to go so much deeper into nature and how we can spark that connection we had so long ago.  

Chatting with Zoe Richards and City of Burlington Land Steward, Dan Cahill. 
Four of the 34 trees we planted! 

On Monday, I saw sustainability in action due to the fact that trees were being planted. In 70 years,  we expect the trees to be fully grown and at that point we hope that different animals will be using those trees. There are trees that stop floods or stop them from making things worse for the community so they will impact the environment as well. I also got to see how those trees could help the community in different ways which expanded my knowledge of sustainability and the way it impacts many systems.


I was hopeful when I saw my peers working hard to help. I have been to places where people clacked off when it came to getting their hands dirty. They didn’t; they knew that they were making change and stepped up and helped. It mattered to me because we can talk all we want about saving the environment but actually being able to make change means a lot more to me. Doing this project, I felt powerful. I had the ability to make a difference in our world. Dan Cahill talked about how this is part of a 70 year project. I might not even be alive in 70 years… Questions that come to mind are “What power do we have?” and “What is the power that we don’t think we have?”

On the day we went to Ethan Allen Homestead it was wet, so we set up tarps…
…and did some journaling reflection, safely out of the rain. 
Blazing the Wildways Trail at the Homestead

I think that by doing what we have done this week, planting trees and setting up blazes on the Wildways Trail our team and the people we worked with have helped Burlington thrive. Before I joined BCL, I was unaware of how big the natural world was. I didn’t know about the types of trees growing on the side of our road, I had no clue that we were planning and rebuilding a trail system, and I also had no idea that we had so many species living in Burlington. Overall, this experience helped me open my mind to all the nature the world has to offer to us. And by helping the community thrive, it helped me thrive along with it.

Ha Nhi

In just a few days time, we explored the local trail system; learned from geologists, naturalists, and botanists; planted nearly three dozen trees with Burlington Parks, Recreation and Waterfront; and blazed the newest section of Burlington’s Wildway. On the fifth and final day of our project, the Burlington Wildways board came to us. They came with a dilemma: What are the opportunities and barriers to ensuring that Wildways trails are accessible and inclusive for all of Burlington’s residents? BCL students and eight community professionals–representing the City of Burlington, Winooski Valley Parks District, the Intervale Center, Rock Point, and more–spent 90 minutes engaging in the NSRI Dilemma Consultancy protocol. The experience was mutually meaningful, and powerfully purposeful. The Wildways board left with a renewed sense of focus, fed by a deep well of youth wisdom.

30 people, young and old, all committed to making Burlington’s urban wilds more accessible to all of the city’s residents. 
Students spoke. Community partners listened. At our closing, members of the board reflected back what they were taking away, and it was clear how valuable the collaboration was. 

Given the depth of our partnership, it feels right to offer the last word to three community partners who supported our learning and met students as equals. Dan Cahill is Burlington Parks, Recreation & Waterfront’s Land Steward. Lauren Chicote is the Operations Manager for Winooski Valley Park District. Zoe Richards leads Burlington Wildways. Their words are a testament to what’s possible when a community commits to nature connection, and to equitable access to urban wilds. 

Our partnership and participation with the Burlington City & Lake Semester has been transformative.  Never before have I experienced an engagement process where voice and wisdom was shared by young people and authentically transferred and received into the hearts and minds of adult professionals.  BCL creates the space and resources our community needs to allow for empowered voice to arise from our youth populations. 

In the work of conservation in Burlington, the voice of youth and their opportunity for action and influence must be centered. Programs like BCL provide us with a real chance to realize this needed change, and in turn a real opportunity for us to heal ourselves and the Earth.

Dan Cahill

My recent experience of learning alongside the students from the Burlington High School City & Lake Semester was so refreshing. Just getting out to visit some of the parks the Winooski Valley Park District manages with the group was refreshing enough, but seeing them expand their understanding of the natural and human communities around them, and applying their new understanding to prior knowledge and experiences in real-time was amazing. In each interaction with the group, I felt incredibly welcomed – as if I had always been a part of their community. I lament that I wish opportunities like this existed when I was in high school. 

Our discussion around equity and inclusion at the Burlington Wildways meeting was the highlight of my time with the group. These are difficult topics, and each of the students approached it with grace and compassion, creating a very open environment for an enriching conversation. I was deeply impressed with the student’s engagement, insight, and questions that they brought to the experience. It gave me hope that we are building towards an equitable future, as these students care so deeply about this topic and will bring their compassion and energy with them as they continue to become leaders. 

Lauren Chicote

I spent five days, along with BCL students, exploring, understanding and regenerating Burlington’s urban wild spaces. We explored the deep geology of Salmon Hole and the recent and historic landslides off of Riverside Ave. We looked at ink cap mushrooms & drew magnetite (with magnets) out of the Winooski River, eroded from the Green Mountains and washed down to the Intervale.  Together, we examined native pollinators caught in the Intervale and learned the secrets of the cellophane bees, which wrap themselves in a natural plastic case and bury themselves in the Intervale sand where they can withstand spring flooding wrapped in their “cellophane” til they emerge and survive on early season native willow flowers, followed by the diverse crops grown in the rich surrounding soil. 

I run a group called Burlington Wildways–a partnership of Burlington Parks Recreation & Waterfront, Winooski Valley Park District, Rock Point and Intervale Center. Conservation, Connection and Access: that is the mission of Burlington Wildways. Working with BCL helped us move closer to achieving these goals. The students’ self-generated desire to learn about their city’s urban wilds led BCL staff to reach out to our group and pushed our group to provide for them and with them, access to and understanding of our urban wild systems.  

We planted a small native forest of elms, white pine and red maple on North Ave. Student Peter Kypers expressed how the newly planted trees made him feel “powerful & hopeful” about ameliorating the effects of climate change and creating native habitat for wildlife in the heart of the city. We used some wilderness skills to put up sheltering tarps at the Ethan Allen Homestead so we had a dry homebase to house our efforts to mark new sections of the Burlington Wildway–a trail that ties many of the open lands of the city together. 

On our last day, all BCL students worked with the steering committee of Burlington Wildways to help us understand better how to solve the genuine question: “What are the opportunities and barriers to ensuring that our natural areas are accessible and inclusive for all Burlington residents?”  What did our steering committee learn from listening to the students? Here are some highlights:  1. Not everyone understands which lands and trails in the city are public. 2. Some fear they might be trespassing. Trail blazes signal public access only to those who already know how the system works.  3. Dogs, off leash especially, are scary and a barrier to being in our urban wilds, especially for people from cultures where dogs as pets aren’t common. 4. Including folks from diverse backgrounds requires a more active process, including encouraging access to the outdoors early on in school.  

The experience was rich and varied and wild… even in the heart of Vermont’s largest metro area.  Students’ desire to learn and reflect pushed us to fulfill our mission: conservation, connection for wildlife and people and access to these areas!  Andy [BCL Project Director] shared with me this in an email reflecting on the experience: “I was proud of you and your Wildways group; proud of our students; and proud of our BCL team, too. I don’t think many high school students anywhere get to have an experience like that very often.” I felt the same way and deeply encouraged to figure out how to make these kinds of experiences widely available.

Zoe Richards

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