Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Environmental Education Redux

by Will Broussard

Rachel Lyon's seventh graders display their
contributions at Troy J-S High
On Thursday, February 16th, Art for Water visited Rachel Lyon's classroom at Troy Junior-Senior High School in Troy, Idaho, and talked to the entire seventh grade class (all 40 of them). Our visit capped almost 2 full weeks crisscrossing the southern Palouse, conducting workshops aimed at generating awareness of the global water crisis and building written contributions for our Stream of Conscience installation, due to be unveiled tomorrow (Feb. 22) at the Prichard Art Gallery in Moscow, Idaho. The class was respectful of our work and eager to contribute to the project. I was especially impressed with their level of understanding; both in regard to the global water crisis and through their local relationships to clean water. A great majority of these students were children of farmers or regular visitors of parks and natural areas. As my time in Idaho comes to the halfway point and I reflect on my time spent here, I find that I’ve become increasingly aware of the deep connection both students and adults have to the land.

Palouse hills outside Mrs. Lyons' classroom at Troy J-S High School
Conducting workshops with Art for Water has gotten me reacquainted with place-based environmental education. In the past, my experience in this field involved students coming to where I worked and learning the ecology and cultural history of the local landscape. Students typically came from suburban backgrounds or small towns located within an hours' drive of a major metropolitan center. As a naturalist, my job was to educate students about an unfamiliar environment in a very short period of time and hope they gain a sense of ecological awareness. In Idaho, I find myself in an unfamiliar environment myself, speaking in classrooms about water conservation, having no sense of local ecology or cultural history. After spending a couple weeks here I found that a majority of locals either live close to the land or know someone who does. Those that do farm or log have been the best source of environmental education. A surprising role reversal has taken place!

Asking students and adults simple, honest questions about their own backyard inspires a sense of local pride for the rolling hills and river valleys they call home. Everyone on the Palouse knows someone who grows wheat, hay, lentils, or “garbs” (garbanzo beans) for a living, and many know someone with a well. Every student knows instinctively that his or her electricity is generated by the flow of the Clearwater or Snake Rivers. Everyone also knows that Lewiston, Idaho is an inland seaport that guards the confluence of these historic waters. (Situated 30 miles south of Moscow, this important mill town facilitates movement of trade between Canada and international markets via the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean further west.) Natural resources are a large industry in this part of the world; a fact reminiscent of northern New England, but often overlooked. In Idaho, every town is tied to the land in some way, and draws a unique identity from that relationship. Perhaps this is the case back east, but this is hard to say. Many paper mills and family farms have closed their doors in the past 50 years, and young people are becoming less dependent on the local landscape for their sustenance. Those that do remember a time when the land was central to daily life are growing old and passing.

Seventh grader Julianne shows off her written contribution
My time in Idaho has taught me to be thankful that large-scale, working landscapes still exist. Not only is this region vast and beautiful, it is also full of a generation of young people not yet detached from their ecological environment or cultural history. Students easily made connections between their personal water use and the global water crisis because their family's livelihood depends on having unrestricted access to fresh water. As we finish the workshop portion and move into the installation phase of the project, I will keep thinking about what I’ve learned while traveling and speaking in this compelling landscape; a place seemingly caught in a cultural, and environmental, time warp.

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