It All Started With Some Trees

Stewardship From the Ground Up

By Linda Cody
Photos by Wendy LaValle, Ann Arbor, Michigan

The Wild One’s Seeds for Education committee can attest to the fact that there is no shortage of creative and dynamic projects occurring across the nation that involve school gardens, learning cycles, and native  plants. At the same time, it is also true that many teachers and administrators are hesitant to initiate such projects. Where to start? Where to  find funding? How to plan for the long term? Will it be used? Who will care for it over the summer? These are reasonable questions in the world of abbreviated school budgets and limited resources.

However, for as many as are hesitant to embark on a habitat restoration or native planting, there are those brave souls who have plunged right in, whether from sheer determination or  unrelenting optimism. So if you are thinking about tackling a schoolyard habitat project and are timid about taking the plunge, here is a story that may help.  Like so many other stories, it involves a class of elementary students, their teachers and parents – this time in Northville, Michigan. And it is about a one-half-acre woodlot that sits along a busy suburban road, between a middle- and an elementary school.

Fifth-grade stewards take a break from moving wood chips.

The woods had been there as long as anyone could recall, and teachers occasionally  took their students to the woods for science, creative writing, and art projects. But  in 2001, teachers and students organized a concerted effort to restore the woods and define it as an outdoor classroom and natural area accessible to everyone in the community.

The significance of this project is that it is representative of many successful school projects in that it did not involve a large amount of money, and it brought together parents, teachers, students and the community in a collaborative effort. A particularly unique feature is that it sparked an environmental initiative within one fifth-grade teacher’s classroom that has reverberated throughout the middle- and elementary school.

With one wheelbarrow and many buckets,
these students show  that enthusiasm and energy
will get the job done.

The site first needed to be cleared of trash and invasive plant species, so the Eagle Scouts organized a group of volunteers. Creating mulched paths followed and provided  easy access throughout the site. More than 120 sixth-grade students helped to plant nearly 1,000 wildflowers that had been “rescued” nearby. The children helped in many ways. They heave-hoed tree trunks to the woodland edge for chipping and shredding. Then shoveled mulch and dragged it into the woods. One parent noted that the dirtier and more challenging the task, the more the children seemed to like it. An Asian insect pest, the emerald ash borer, has devastated ash trees in Michigan. It contributed to tree  removal in the woodlot, killing nearly  fifty trees. However, ever turning adversity  into opportunity, stumps were left for an outdoor classroom, and biological diversity was increased with the addition of more native species of herbaceous and woody plants. Loss of the trees opened space in the tree canopy for light to reach the woodland floor and plants to flourish.

           Quietly raking mulch in the woodland seems
a relaxing task for this Northville student.

A local tree company offered its services to remove the dead ash. This donated time and materials along with that of school staff and others was leveraged into matching funds for other grants. Funding was received from the Mother’s Club of Northville, DTE Energy Company, and the Michigan DNR. And in the end, a little over $3,000 was raised for the project, with over 90 trees, all species native to Michigan, planted in the woods.

The woodland restoration is ongoing, but the bulk of the work described here took about three years. During that time teachers used the woodland for science and creative writing projects as well as to teach stewardship. And the project was timely, as tightening budgets led to loss of funding for buses used in field trips. This natural area was a short walk from the classrooms of both middle- and elementary students.

Restoration projects can seem an enormous undertaking. And clearly each one is unique. However, this project demonstrates what can be accomplished with little money but with great spirit. The commitment of time and effort, the willingness to get dirty and to work alongside your classmates was enough to get things going. It doesn’t always require a team of experts. It often  just requires a “team.”

Wendy LaValle had an idea that began to take hold as her first fifth-grade “woodland stewards” moved across the street to middle school.  They had already forged a connection to the woodland and had helped to introduce  the next fifth grade to their new responsibility. But Mrs. LaValle reasoned that if they kept extending a hand down the grades, as each new class arrived they would come with a seed already planted;  an interest ready to be cultivated. Eventually they cold reach all of the grades and in so doing establish a paradigm for environmental education. So the fifth-grade students were paired with first-grade buddies and charged with introducing them to the woodland. They were challenged to teach them about the woods and most importantly to make it fun! Mrs. La Valle’s students then devised a plan to evaluate how well they had accomplished their task.

Several months later they returned to see if they remembered. As you can see, many levels of learning were happening simultaneously. The woodland continues to engage the students and they continue to pay it forward. The children are still writing about the woods, learning about  the habitat and seeing firsthand the value of stewardship.

Woodlot Reflections:
Musings of fifth-grade students
inspired by their woodlot.
With each visit the woodlot changes, the changes caused by the seasons and the ash tree clean up. It’s so nice to have a getaway, a place where nature is the only thing that matters. A time when homework is forgotten, friendships can be built, and fun can be had. I enjoy the break, and wish the woodlot would remain there forever. – SRThe Hillside Woodlot to me is a special thing. It is a quiet, peaceful place to do work. Having an outdoor education area is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to take some of the boringness out of assignments with a place to chill. The woodlot is fairly easy to care for. It is awesome. – ER The woodlot means to me a place where you can go and relax. It also means a place where you can go and help out nature. I find the woodlot a very effective place  to learn because of all the nature in it. It is nice to know that the work I have done will leave a mark for years to come. – LJ

I tilt my head so that I can see,
So that I can see the treetops.
They tilt it seems,
Into a peak like a mountain.
Only a small portion of the sky can be seen,
In the center of the world.
– CL

Linda Lucchesi Cody is a member of the Ann Arbor (MI) Chapter, and serves on the National Seeds for Education committee.

This article appeared in the July/August 2005 issue of the Wild Ones Journal.