Nature Connection

In this blog post, BCL ECO AmeriCorps member, Annika Brinkley, tells the story of BCL10's recent "Student Choice Projects." 

Winter this year started late, but lingered. Luckily, Spring has sprung, and just in time! We are in the home stretch of the semester, and BCL10 is ready to get outside. There is no better way to do that than Student Choice Projects. These three-day projects offer students three choices of experiences to embark on in the community. The number three seems to echo through the design and implementation.

Place, Trees, and stewardship

The first choice project used the Ethan Allen Homestead as their classroom. This beautiful section of the Intervale is managed by the Winooski Valley Park District. Students dug deep–figuratively and literally–into this unique tract of land. The goal was to explore a wild place, just steps from the 127 beltline, and to understand it from a variety of perspectives. 

The first morning was chilly, but students arrived ready!

On the first day, WVPD Operations Manager, Lauren Chicote, welcomed the group and helped students situate themselves. Our partners from Burlington Wildways, Director Zoe Richards and two Americorps members, Braden DeForge and Quynh Vo, offered an overview with an eye towards conservation and natural history. After grounding in place, the group met with David Schein, Grants and Projects Manager for Alnôbaiwi, an Abenaki cultural organization. David introduced them to Charlie Delaney, an Abenaki man who shared stories and perspectives that many Burlington residents never get a chance to hear. Charlie also gave a sneak preview of the museum exhibit that will be opening in May. Students noted that the displays represent more than mere heritage.They honor the seasonal celebrations that local Abenaki people engage in today. The subtext of this curation was unmistakable: Abenaki people aren’t history; they are here. 

 We asked Charlie Delaney, “How do the ceremonies work, and who is responsible for the specific ceremony?” Charlie answered by saying, “During the ceremonies all of our tribes gather up together, and each family has different knowledges of the ceremony, and so when it is time for the ceremony that a particular family is most familiar with, and has the most knowledge of above all the others, they are responsible for educating/teaching the others, especially the young, so the tradition can carry on.” Listening to Charlie talk about his culture, and the ways of his people was very educational, and relatable for me. My family come from one of the oldest groups of people, the Rais, who are also apart of one of the oldest tribes of Nepal, the Kirat people. We too, just like the Abenaki people, have certain ceremonies and holidays… I love to connect with, and to new people that I meet who also either come from similar backgrounds, or share the same experiences.

– Shayer
It was easy to make raking fun.

Over the subsequent two days, students spent time on the land. With tree identification keys in hand, they headed out to find a tree that felt unique or special. Once they had successfully ID’ed the tree, they introduced it to the rest of the group. 

Students also tried their hand at birding. (The three pileated woodpeckers were exciting, but the “Bird of the Day” was surely the Great Egret!) They also investigated the landscape alterations imposed by the resident beavers, and took a moment to give the spotlight to the alien adaptations of the humble skunk cabbage. (To witness a true Skunk Cabbage Love Fest, check out BCL10’s Artist-in-Residence, Christine Hill’s recent viral Instagram post!)

Braden DeForge helped us identify buds

On the final day, we put on boots, grabbed shovels, and joined Zoe, Quynh, Braden, and Lauren on a walk down to the river. Many hands made light work, and over the course of an hour, students planted more than one hundred trees! An early success gave us a moment to slow down. A peregrine falcon flew overhead as they took the long way back to the parking lot. Overall, it was a meaningful, peaceful, and purposeful few days. Gratitude to our partners and hosts, and a shout out to students’ spirit of inquiry and service. 

It made me understand how the way a forest keeps itself healthy. When trees die, the forest recycles it, and that’s how human communities should work. We need to work with each other, not against.

– Eh Law La
Majeni’s mindful moment

I’ve learned that it takes an understanding of nature to make a community thrive. I had no idea what trees were even around us in the Homestead on the first day, but then we were taught about the defining characteristics of trees, and invasive species, and how and where to plant trees. It goes to show how you need to understand the very fine details behind a community, as each one can have a profound effect on communities. Things as simple as shade in our Burlington community are so important. Burlington is getting hotter really fast, which isn’t ideal. If we plant more trees, not only will they grant more shade, but they also have an air-conditioning type abilities.

– George

Focal Species

The “focal species” second choice project helped prepare for the speaker series event on April 19th at Main Street Landing, part of the City Nature Challenge: The Greater Burlington Bioblitz which is happening April 28th to May 1st. In this city-wide citizen science initiative, everyone is encouraged to participate using iNaturalist. The group connected with Walter Poleman (UVM Rubenstein School) and Nola Scott (UVM Environmental Studies Intern) to study focal species – important non-human species in the Greater Burlington area – and each BCL student created artistic renditions of one species.  These were presented at the City Nature Challenge event, and will become part of Burlington’s natural history archives at the Stone House at Kieslich Park.

The “focal species” project group

On day one, students met at Champlain Elementary school, where they were greeted by Walter and Nolan and six giant signs with a list of sixty focal species.  BCL often folds in partners from afar, and our students talked with Brazil college students who were visiting Middlebury College, to learn more about place-based education in Vermont.  After a cold and blustery session of warm greetings, hot cocoa and comfy blankets, BCL students began to discuss and choose a focal species, and used Walter and Nola’s resources to help make their decision. They then joined a group of 5th graders from Champlain College for a tour of their stick garden and other nature projects on their school grounds. 

Making the Vermont-Brazil connection

Discussing focal species ideas

We broke for lunch, and the BCL students reconvened at the Howe Library at UVM with Nola, where they began researching their focal species and sketching out their first drafts.

Sketching in the UVM library with Nola

Day two was much warmer, and the group met at the entrance of ECHO with Walter and Tom Norton, an iNaturalist expert. Tom taught each student about the app, as well as their chosen species, and they set off on the waterfront to practice using iNaturalist, log some sightings and connect with nature. Sasha spotted an osprey, her focal species. Nola brought cookies, and we paused on the boardwalk to sing Happy Birthday to Walter. Students were eager to upload many photos on iNaturalist, and Tom was a great resource helping them document the biodiversity in Burlington.

Practicing using iNaturalist with Tom
Walter, Nola, Tom and the group

I have a new understanding about how someone can identify an invasive species that can harm the environment. How? Well we used iNaturalist to help identify species and someone could use that to find a harmful one. By doing this these invasive species could decrease.

– Khiem

The group then went inside ECHO, where students were able to visit the exhibits they remembered from going there at a much younger age. After a trip down memory lane, we ended up in the Resource Room, where Phil helped everyone gather more resources on their focal species, and Nola guided their artwork. Moe saw a tiger beetle in the resource room; Kiernan met the giant snapping turtle in the tank; Summer observed and drew a beautiful painted turtle; and Djani attended the talk on Amphibians, and drew a lovely eastern spotted salamander. After a day at ECHO, students were well on their way to capturing details of their unique species.

There was time for play…
…and for research!

On day three, the group met at Derway Island at the far northern reaches of Burlington. Walter and Nola took the group on a wonderful birding walk . Students also looked for salamanders, snakes, beetles and turtles along the meandering path. The temperature didn’t help those species come out, but we managed to spot ruby crowned kinglets, ospreys, eagles, flickers, gulls, ducks, and several woodpeckers. Nevin saw lots of evidence of beaver activity and we heard several telltale beaver slaps. 

Shacar drew a beautiful loon, Khiem colored his picture of a red fox and Annemiek made a 3-D paper art project of a white trillium. Everyone ended the third day with a new connection to nature, an appreciation for the access to so much biodiversity right here in our city, and a readiness to share that with others on April 19th at the Greater Burlington City Nature Challenge.

For a community to thrive I’ve learned it takes a mix of systems. Codependent species are what make up a thriving community.

– Summer

Because we communicated and gave each other rides, the way we moved together is a good example of how a community thrives!

– Annemieke
Sasha’s osprey drawing
Students’ work filled the biggest screen in Burlington

Sustainability in Action

As an AmeriCorps member, I had an opportunity to design and lead a project as well. My Choice Project was a collaboration with Ben Rodgers of Winooski Valley Park District, Andrew Romano and Neil Preston: the Burlington Urban Park Rangers, and the 3rd and 5th graders and their teachers at Champlain Elementary. 

We designed the project with three things in mind (naturally). I have previous experience leading trail crews and am a big believer in the power of habitat restoration in connecting people to land, so I wanted the project to involve hands-on work in nature. We also wanted the project to be multi-generational, involving community members of multiple ages teaching each other. Third, the project needed to be practical, with clear, achievable goals and days that built off of each other.

Thanks to the work of Ben and his ongoing relationship with Champlain Elementary, our project achieved all three of those goals, and then some. On day one, we went to Macrae Farm, a low-lying conservation area in Colchester, to harvest live stakes from wetland plants. Live stakes are cuttings from living shrubs that can be placed in water and replanted at a later date. Students learned to identify red osier and silky dogwood, silver maple, and shrub willow. Once they could ID these plants, they harvested stakes to use at Champlain Elementary.

Braving the wind at Macrae Farm

The weather conditions took our goal of nature connection to a whole new level. Macrae Farm had flooded because of recent rains, and students had to ninja hop in their crocs to avoid the water-saturated ground. Most gave up on the idea of dry socks and just ran through the wetland, their screams echoing off of the shrubs.

Hopping around in crocs, trying to avoid the puddles
Our backup plan to dry off wet feet – acorn planting in the ONE center

On day two and three, we were at Champlain Elementary. All of the students in my group had attended Champlain in their younger days, so they were thrilled to be back. Ben gave a demonstration to the BCL students on how to remove stakes from the “stick garden,” the plot at Champlain where live stakes had begun to grow roots and branches. He then demonstrated how to replant the stakes along Englesby Brook, South of the school. As students moved across the landscape, they learned about conversation, the value of native plants for wildlife diversity, erosion control, and ecosystem health. 

Ngang demonstrates how to remove a live stake from the stick garden

Soon after the demonstration, classes of elementary students arrived and were divided up among BCL students. The high schoolers taught their younger partners how to use the tools to successfully plant new trees. Energy was high and voices were loud as multiple generations of students leapt across the brook, hammered stakes into the ground, and exclaimed at the sight of a worm in the dirt.

I planted trees with 3rd graders. It made me think that maybe if we just worked together we can help save the earth.

– Walter

After this project, I have a better understanding and ideas about community.

– JB
Sophia helps 5th graders dig up a live stake

After all of the Student Choice Projects concluded, BCL10 gathered in groups of three, with representatives from each of the projects, to share, discuss, and synthesize. They were prompted to come up with three ways to demonstrate the themes that their projects had in common. The menu they chose from stoked creativity…

Students products were fun, but far more impressive was their ability to explain their thinking. One common thread that emerged was the idea of H.O.M.E. (Honor Our Many Environments). During our discussion, one student said,

“You’ve got to honor the plants around you and honor the community if you want to receive things in return.”

All three project groups learned to pay attention to the needs of natural communities around them, helped meet those needs, and received joy and connection in return.

Elliot and Khiem explain what HOME means

From my perspective, all three of the Choice Projects were deeply impactful and meaningful to students because they contained a trifecta of ingredients:

  • A Connection to Nature
  • An Understanding of Community
  • A hands-on, practical project

These three ingredients became a new trail mix that brought students and nature, community organizations, and young people and elders together.

3 days x 3 projects x 3 themes = Success!

It’s only fitting for a student to have the last word:

My student choice project experience shifted my understanding of what it takes for a community to thrive, as I realize more now that the environmental health of the community matters a lot to the health of everyone.

– Jayde

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