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MassLIFT: Brownie Trail Day

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Gaynor Bigelbach is the AmeriCorps Service Learning Coordinator at the Nashua River Watershed Association for 2010-2011.

My first event as Service Learning Coordinator was a Brownie Trail Clean Up on a little trail in some woods behind the headquarters of the Nashua River Watershed Association. Originally, I had some concerns that the trail might be too small to provide enough work for the Brownies, but the event turned out to be a success precisely because of the size of the trail, and this was a learning experience I will cherish.

It was an unseasonably warm November day and the Brownies arrived filled with energy, rakes at the ready and two mortified older brothers in tow. Most of the trail was buried beneath thick layers of leaves and I had marked a designated path with florescent string. The Brownies set to with their rakes and soon excavated a long section of trail down to a layer of pine needles. At one point, I asked them to stop and look back at their progress so that they could see what a difference they had made. In the quiet moment, as they stopped raking, a soft sizzling noise rose from the ground.

On close inspection, we found that the sound emanated from a newly exposed colony of hundreds of thousands of minute Springtails, sometimes known as snow fleas. Initially, the Brownies were disgusted but I explained that they were not the kind of fleas that might tag along on the pet cat, that these were a hardworking colony of decomposers that helped to break down dead matter in the woods so that we weren’t up to our ears in leaves. The older brothers who had done their best to maintain a distance from the Brownies began to take an interest and this led to an outpouring of stories about bug-related incidents.

We returned to work and, as we moved further along the trail, we uncovered some Lycopodicum obscurum, locally known as Princess Pine. When the trail crew heard that the ancient relatives of these diminutive evergreen plants predated dinosaurs and were believed to have been taller than the pines surrounding us, it was as though I had flipped a switch. Suddenly, everyone was rooting around in the leaves, or at the base of trees. Fungi and moss became a real find, several holes were objects of intense speculation, chewed pine cones, mink scat, were all presented like trophies. A nursery log nurturing a tiny hemlock seedling drew reverent sighs, even from the parent volunteers, and I was touched to see, as we returned along the path, that everyone stepped over the log with great care.

We worked like this, raking, finding, exclaiming, clearing downed branches, building brush piles and asking questions, until the time we were scheduled to end. I asked the parents if they needed to finish on time but everyone was content to stay. We spent an extra hour on the trail, examining the habitat and sharing our stories about wildlife. Admittedly, some of the stories bordered on fanciful, but I was struck by the children’s eagerness to share their experiences, and how engaged they were in the process of discovery. I learned something new as well. Thanks to R.J., I now know that porcupines chew bones and discarded antlers to prevent their teeth from meeting.

It is true that as educators, conservationists, parents, we face formidable odds in engaging our youth in environmental stewardship, but there must be cause for hope when an acre of woodland can fascinate a group of children and adults for the best part of three hours.

Brownies at NRWA Trail