Balancing Academics with Wonder

By David Anthony Martin

The topic of Earth Studies Session Four was Mammals and Tracking, running from early January into mid February. The lessons and activities are designed to impart knowledge about the connectedness of the food chain and how it supports the biodiversity of an ecosystem.

Previous sessions illustrated how plants, through the process of photosynthesis, produce their own food utilizing energy from our closest star, Sol, our sun. The discussion of the food chain details how energy moves through the different life-forms, from the producers (plants) to 1st and 2nd level consumers (herbivores, then carnivores).  Students are taught to identify basic signs of animal activity and encouraged to speculate on how these signs can inform them of which animals make Pueblo Mountain Park their habitat.  This also gives the students some idea of what the animal’s daily life activities entail.  By the end of the day, these kids have usually gained some rudimentary tracking skills, such as how to determine if a print was made by a member of the canine or feline family.

Most of the session found the park covered in some pretty deep snow; at times it was good for tracking, and at other times the deep powder made tacking more difficult.  It warmed up a bit towards the latter part of the session, making conditions perfect for finding some very clear tracks in the mud. Signs of animal activity are all around, once you know what you’re looking for.  We found ponderosa pine branch tips snipped off and dropped to the forest floor by Abert’s  squirrels, areas where deer had bedded down, bird nests in snags, pine needles chewed by deer, animal scat and hair and a couple of areas by the creek revealing evidence of predator / prey interaction.

One very cool experience occurred when tracking with a group of kids along South Creek near the southern boundary of the park.  A gnarly windfall in some deep snow forced us to ascend the creek bank and into a fairly open stretch of ponderosa pines.  Suddenly we came upon a white fir with the bark removed from many limbs.  The bark lay in a very noticeable layer of small strips (3” x ¾”) around the base of the tree from trunk to drip-line.  I wasn’t sure what animal had done this damage to the tree, but I assumed it was stripping the outer bark to get to the sugary carbohydrate-rich inner bark. Ranger Sandy Christensen felt that the tree damage was a sign of porcupine, an animal not often found in Pueblo Mountain Park.  A bit of research along with closely examining the bark-strip laden area beneath the tree where some unmistakable porcupine scat and three porcupine quills were found confirmed Ranger Sandy’s suspicion!

One aspect of the traditional animal totem wisdom concerning porcupine reminds us to not get caught up in the chaos of the world or the seriousness of life, but instead, to open our hearts to the aspects of innocence, wonder, curiosity and taking joy in the delight of the simple pleasures. It’s true that we’ve have been teaching these children various academics, like the biodiversity of a healthy ecosystem. But these less serious aspects were quite prevailing as well, with groups of children exploring the forest, seeking out the little signs of animal activity, at times searching on hands and knees and coming up grinning holding a deer hair.


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