by Ser Anderson, Visiting Naturalist in the Schools Field Trip Instructor

Kelly Island

Cottonwood leaves crunch beneath my boots as I walk between the students I have spread out at stations along this short section of trail.  One of them is reading about black cottonwoods right now.  Others read about juniper, cavities, berries, fallen logs, grass, rivers and creeks, and willows.  When the wind blows, golden cottonwood leaves fall around us.

I pause by each student, make sure they are still on task, check to see if they have any questions, compliment their progress, then leave them to their work. Today’s groups are fairly focused, mostly able to do the reading and find four interesting facts to write down, and then move on to the sketching portion of the activity. A few have trouble making the jump from the information card to the world around them. The cavities are pretty obvious in the broken trunk of an old cottonwood. The student studying fallen logs is sitting on one. The river is right there on the far side of the rocky river bed. Grass is familiar and everywhere. Most of the students read about snowberries on the card and look up to spot the white berries in the shrubs nearby. I have to coax one student to look up and recognize the juniper right next to the station, but the students at that station in the other groups will notice it right away. The cottonwoods take a bit more questioning and piecing together to identify. I have the student look at the pictures of the leaves and the picture of the bark and look at the trees around us. Do any of them resemble the pictures we just looked at?

That one does. We look around some more. Almost all the trees around us are cottonwoods.

I leave the student to do some sketching. My boots crunch cottonwood leaves and their scent, wet and earthy, rises to my nose, one of my favorite smells in the world.

cottonwood leaf on Montana Natural History Center Visiting Naturalist in the Schools fall field trip

Photo by Ser Anderson.

I don’t mention the smell to the kids because it is kind of subtle. But we smell the juniper when the student who learned about it teaches the rest of the group a bit of what they learned.

I don’t know how much any of the students will remember of what they learned and what their friends taught them by this evening or next week or next year. And it probably doesn’t matter if any of them remember that cottonwood bark is relatively soft and easier for woodpeckers to drill holes into. Maybe all they need to remember is that they got this chance to learn and explore in nature and had fun doing it. Maybe all we need as naturalists is for one or two of them to let this field trip into their heart where it might subtly and quietly help to shape the rest of their lives, even though we will never know that it had that impact.

Or maybe this moment here and now is enough. Maybe all the reason we need to be here is the chance to look up at a black cottonwood, its golden leaves glowing in the sun, the wind rustling them and sending some drifting down to where they crunch below our feet as we move on to the next moment.


This entry was re-posted from Ser’s blog: