For my last evening program of my fall AmeriCorps internship I took eight rowdy, excited girls from Jessup Middle School for a night hike along east bank of the Snake River. I have found that night hikes bring out a particular flavor of squirliness in middles school students, a mixture between fear of the dark and complete novelty. In part it’s what makes the night hike so fun to teach. It’s the chance to show kids how neat being outside in the dark can be and kids usually give the lesson a special level of attention. This particular evening felt more experimental than usual in part because I had never taught a night hike along the snake before and because the moon was full which would make most of my evening’s curriculum – which was mostly dependent on it being dark – quite difficult.
I followed my usual routine of animal adaptation exploration and a few games that explored our own night senses. We covered our eyes like pirates and shook small canisters of rocks to mimic the flights of bats and moths. At the end of the evening I would normally have students sit alone and separated to watch the stars. However the moon was so bright that the stars didn’t seem dramatic enough to showcase. Instead I reached for my faithful copy of Wapiti Wilderness which I had begun bringing on all field outings just in case an opportunity arose. Sensing that an out loud reading would top off the night well I sat the girls down in a circle and began to tell them about Mardy and Olas Murie.
I described to them how important the Muries were to the modern conservation movement and the impact they had had on Wyoming and the landscape around them. I told them about how much they loved Wyoming and how hard they worked to preserve it. I tried my best to note that the Olas writing was particularly important for the girls to hear because they were from Cheyenne and from Wyoming. These were their local heroes. I then read them my usual passage, the first three or four pages where Mardy describes the openness of the west and the experience of riding the train from the city back to Jackson. What I love most about the passage is that Mardy perfectly encapsulates the importance of wilderness, wildness and Wyoming. She immortalizes what seems otherwise like the very usual and endless fields of sagebrush and groves of aspen.
I finished reading, put down the down the book and waited for a few moments before saying anything. Several seconds later one of the girls exclaimed “Wow, what a great story”. There were a few more quiet responses and I nodded my head before I was about to have the girls gather up and return the trail. Before I could tell them anything however, there was an eruption of questions. “Where did they live?” “Are they close by?” “Can we visit their house?” “What was that book called again?” “Where can I find it?”... I tried to answer all the questions but was in part blown away by their curiosity. They were genuinely intrigued and seemed very proud to know that the Muries were from Wyoming. Walking back along the dike to the car we talked about the Muries and their legacy. We talked about Olas and the caribou and conservation and about how beautiful and special Wyoming is.
This evening is just one instance of many that I have relearned the importance of place. As individuals I find that knowing and appreciating place is not only a source of grounding but also identity formation. In my eyes, one of the critical missions of Teton Science Schools is to restore the significance of place. By getting students to think about their place, their region and home state and to create a sense of stewardship around the idea of place we create a powerful force for community change and improvement. For someone who is not from Wyoming, it’s easy to come here and be overwhelmed by the constant beauty, by the openness and by the newness of it all. What is harder of course is to get kids to see what for them is completely ordinary. Creating a place-based framework however, is much like teaching science; it’s a practice in self-discovery and a cultivation of wonder.
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