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Urban ecology class a slice of life

Ashland High School clubs cross all boundaries, but only the Grizzly Garden Club puts hand clippers, loppers and pruning saws in students' hands and points them toward campus flora. But first they are trained.

Club adviser and science teacher Jim Hartman offers a popular urban ecology class that cruelly meets at 8 a.m. this semester.

To help sleep-deprived teenagers prepare to learn about gophers, grasses, and water and waste management, Hartman starts the class by getting everybody up on their feet and, one by one, answering a question such as "What are you looking forward to when spring gets here?" As they answer, each demonstrates a favorite body stretch — neck rotation, quad stretch, side bend — which the other students mimic. One kid has the class crack their knuckles.

When it was his turn, senior Ben Sager said what he likes best about warmer weather is being able to cut off the lower half of his winter jeans. He then touched his ankles and classmates curled over to touch theirs.

Ben has no reason being in this new life science class.

He has already fulfilled his three years of science requirements. But he liked what he learned in Hartman's advanced placement environmental science class last year and in this course, Ben says he's learning practical skills that he can apply years down the road.

"Mr. Hartman teaches a lot of common sense," says Ben, 17. "This could be called a quote 'easy class,' but I have taken a lot away from it."

Soon, Ben will be marching outside with the class, equipment in hand, toward the football stadium where nearby tree limbs will be inspected. The grounds crew has declared that two 20-foot-tall trees with dangling shoots need a trim to make it easier to walk underneath.

The students will be told to avoid limbs that support bird feeders before they cut. They must defend their reason for sawing the smaller branches.

But first, Hartman hauls out a mound of chunky jackets from the classroom's lost-and-found closet. Some of the insulating gear is embarrassingly out of style and in uncool colors.

"The class is designed to go outside as much as possible," Hartman says, before adding that on cold days some of the students are more dressed to impress than to stay warm. "The yellow jackets are especially ugly, so I have fun telling the girls they have to wear them."

Ben Sager laughs at this and lots of other Hartmanisms he hears in the class. "I don't think Mr. Hartman understands that some of the things he says are funny, but the class does."

The dozen or so students are divided into small groups outside by Hartman and then given detailed directions. Before a blade is laid against bark, Hartman discusses the preferred method.

With Ben and his small crew watching, Hartman suggests a three-way cut on a limb about as wide as a baseball bat. "Here," he demonstrates with the pruning saw blade, before moving it at another angle and another section where the limb meets the trunk. "Then here, then here."

Ben's group, which included junior Sam Gostnell, showed how a two-cut process could save energy and time. Hartman pondered it, then nodded in agreement.

Some of Hartman's students will join the Grizzly Garden Club when it starts up again in the spring. The club maintains an organic garden behind the school on Morse Avenue.

The 1,000-square-foot garden, once a part of the former Ashland Wilderness Charter School's overgrown backyard, was started in 2011 by graduating senior Sophie Javna and Chris Hardy, a garden manager for the Ashland School District.

Since then, Hartman has incorporated the garden, with its raised vegetable beds, into some of his curriculum.

Days after the pruning session, Ben said the class is "definitely beneficial" even though he hopes to have a career in the Los Angeles' film industry, not one in landscaping.

He has already worked on a behind-the-scenes video of the made-for-television film, "The Sweeter Side of Life," and has shot and edited footage for Carrera Medford and Mercedes-Benz of Medford with his friend Hudson Wallbank, 18.

"I'm not going into any field where I will need urban ecology information, but I may need it later," Ben says. "At some point in my life, I will have a house and a yard, and this knowledge may come in handy."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.