Last week it snowed but the students from Southside middle school in Siloam Springs still drove two over hours out to the Ozark Natural Science Center. The students I worked with were excited to be able to explore the woods covered in a thin sheet of white. As soon as we had them settled for their two day stay, and I had convinced them to wear their pajamas underneath their cloths for extra insulation, we began our first four hour long hike.
We walked along a creek side trail and found tracks along snow covered logs. After studying them carefully we determined they were squirrel tracks. Later on an excited girl ran up to me with a handful of black pellets and asked, “What is this?” I chuckled, “Looks like rat scat!” I expected the girl to freak out about having rat feces in her hand, but instead she just said, “Cool!” I smirked and went on to explain that it was probably from a wood rat, which is a much cleaner rodent than the common house rat. Another boy said, “Awesome, Can I hold it?” And the poop was passed. I make them promise to wash their hands.
Late at night, just before bed, I took the kids on a night hike. The full moon seeped brightly through wispy clouds and illuminated the snow. Everything in the forest seemed to glow and guide our way. The children, mesmerized by the night’s beauty, did not speak a word. Even their footsteps were light. As we walked past a cedar thicket, we heard a stick snap. Everyone froze. We hear something, some animal, moving just beyond a pile of fallen trees. I whispered to the children, asking them if I they wanted me to turn on my light so that maybe we could see the animal as it fled. “No,” a boy pleaded, “We don’t want to scare it away!” The others nodded. I smiled, and we silently walk onward leaving the creature in peace.
Normally I walk only a hundred feet or so into the woods on the night hike, just enough to give the kids a taste. But this night was different and this group was special. We walked perhaps a half mile, all the way to Chinquapin Outlook. There we stood in silence on a rock ledge were we gazed out across the snowy moonlit valley. Still the children stayed silent, in awe of the beauty all around them.
The next day we watch woodpeckers and chickadees in the trees. Along the river and up the hill we identified trees, herbs, and rocks. We discussed meandering steams, underground water, springs, and karst topography. We followed chipmunk and raccoon tracks along a dried up creek bed. The children made up stories about the chase between these two mammals.
Then we began finding frost flowers clustered around the stalks of wild oregano. A frost flower blooms only when the air is freezing but ground has not yet experienced a hard freeze and the plant’s roots are still active. The water molecules expand as ice is formed and ice is pushed out of the roots and stems of certain plants in thin petals. We found our ice beauties swirling around the bases of dried up wild oregano plants. Though the children were excited they did not touch the delicate petals, instead they examined the frost flowers and left them for the next class to enjoy. Ten year olds with the patients, respect, and silence of these students give me hope of the future!