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Learning to love the land

Students from Helman Elementary surrounded Travis Kelly as he reached into an ice-cube tray that had been repurposed as a bug-holding container and pulled out a dark brown, crunchy-scaly insect roughly the size of an adult’s thumb. Its six, tiny, wiggling legs ran in place. Its abdomen writhed.

“This,” the District 13 watermaster for the Oregon Water Resource Department explained, “is actually a dragonfly in the larval stage.”

Kelly then handed out insect nets and explained to the students what their assignment is.

“The word 'invertebrate' means it has no backbone,” he said. “So we’re looking for various larval stages of macroinvertebrates. All of the critters you find today are in their intermediate life stage. They started out as an egg, the egg hatched into a larva and it lives in the creek until it makes a metamorphosis."

Kelly manned one of three stations Tuesday as part of the Loving the Land outdoor education program. The 12th-year program, sponsored by Southern Oregon Land Conservancy, teaches fourth- and fifth-grade students from local elementary schools about nature by taking them directly to the source, leading them on a hike through the city-owned Oredson-Todd Woods. Supported by a grant from the Ashland Parks Foundation, Loving the Land cycled students from Helman, Walker, The Siskiyou School and other schools outside of Ashland through the natural parkland all week, each hike taking about two hours to complete.

The program was headed up by SOLC Stewardship Director Kristi Mergenthaler, who was at the trailhead Tuesday to welcome teacher Mark Sherbow’s fourth-grade class from Helman, tell a fable about “Madrone girl” and send them on their way. Also on hand Tuesday were SOLC volunteer Tom Lamoree and a teacher’s aid.

The Oregon Water Resources Department provides the experts, including Kelly and hydrotech Jake Johnstone, who helped students identify rocks. Another OWRD representative taught the students about the trail’s plant life.

After hiking up to the trailhead, the students listened to Mergenthaler’s introduction, then hit the dirt trail, which cuts through dense woodland, passes by a waterfall and crosses Hamilton Creek. Along the way, Lamoree, who was a teacher in California for 25 years before retiring to Ashland, passed along a few tidbits — "avoid plants that look like this (poison oak)," for instance — like a forest tour guide.

The students stopped at the waterfall and later in a clearing for a 15-minute lunch break. There a garter snake provided a few minutes of bonus entertainment, then it was off to the stations, where the class was divided into three groups.

At Kelly’s station, the students kicked off their shoes in favor of rubber boots and explored Clay Creek, lifting rocks and scanning the creek bed looking for macroinvertebrates. In addition to his nets, bug trays and magnifying classes, Kelly also brought along a sheet titled “Key to Macroinvertebrate Life in the River,” which the students could use to identify what they found. On the sheet, dozens of creatures were arranged systematically — shells and no shells, legs and no legs, and so forth. Along the bottom, under a heading that read “no obvious tails,” between the water penny and the caddisfly larva, was the dragonfly larva.

When a photographer asked a girl to hold the wiggling dragonfly up for the camera, her response was emphatic: “No way.”

“It’s really great,” Kelly said, “because we get to take a step from what we do day-to-day, where it’s management of the resource, and try to instill more of the natural ethics, instill values to make kids stewards of the environment. It’s fun to have kids in the creek, and time just zips right by.”

A child interrupted Kelly in mid-sentence to show him what he’d found.

“Oh, nice,” Kelly said, “you found a water strider.”

About 30 yards down the creek, seven more students used plastic serving spoons to sift pebbles in search of rocks they could identify, the most popular being fool’s gold, or pyrite, and quartz.

The students formed a half circle as they examined their rocks, leaned over to check out what their peers had dragged out and occasionally hustled over to ask Johnstone what exactly they were looking at.

“It was very interesting to see things magnified,” said student Sophia Cox.

Johnstone said the key to making the field trip worthwhile is keeping it simple.

“We go over some of the rocks that they’re going to find in this area and then other rocks that are kind of in the Southern Oregon area that they might run into,” he said. “Given the small amount of time that we have, the big thing is just kind of telling them what the three rock groups are — metamorphic, igneous, sedimentary — and then kind of just going over which of those rocks we’ll find in the creek.”

Johnstone believes the experience is well worth the trouble, though at first he had his doubts.

“The first time I did this about eight years ago, I was like, ‘I don’t think they absorbed anything,’ ” he said. “But then they send us thank-you cards and they write down in the cards what they learned, and they just retained way more than I thought. They misspelled it, but they were like, 'the three rock groups are...' and then they told me what they were. We love it.”

Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.

Zoe Shorland, 10, holds a large nymph while participating Tuesday in activities to learn about the plant and animal life at Oredson-Todd Woods in Ashland. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Geneviee Smith, 10, crosses a stream in Oredson-Todd Woods during the Loving the Land program. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch