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Stories of Change: Storytelling as a Means of Climate Communication

June 11th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Hanna Davis, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

There are various facets to graduate life at North Cascades Institute: taking classes, a teaching practicum, work study positions. And throughout every aspect, nearly every of my residency this past year, a common theme has appeared: climate change. Specifically, how do we, as environmental educators, talk about climate change? It’s a topic that comes up so continuously in my work here that hardly a day goes by that I’m not talking about how to talk about climate change. So naturally, my natural history project is all about how we can improve climate literacy, specifically here at NCI.

If you’ve gotten a chance to look at NCI’s new Strategic Plan, you may have noticed the goal to “Strengthen the Institute’s impact and meet the needs of diverse communities by pursuing new opportunities for programs, partners and audiences [by]…integrating and expanding climate literacy throughout Institute programs.” Now, a strategic plan may seem like a mundane obligatory document, but if you can get past the admittedly dry language, you’ll find the heart of NCI: these are the values we believe in, the goals we strive for. So by including climate change literacy in this plan, we are saying: this work is crucial.

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The Raven

June 27th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Hannah Newell, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort.

When you hear the word raven, what first comes to mind? Do the words deceptive, persistent, clever, noisy or disruptive come to mind? Most often, this is how people have culturally thought of the raven.

Through the early works of Edgar Allen Poe, parts of society have learned to fear the death bringing raven who “Quoth, nevermore” to his dead love Eleanor. What people don’t always know is that the story goes deeper into history. Early cultures around the world have encountered the raven through hunting practices or even at their homes. Hunters from Greenland have been recorded using ravens as a beacon for finding herds of caribou as they were associated with flying in circles around the herds. Similarly, the Han of the Yukon in Canada went to the length of mimicking their calls in order to attract bears to hunting areas. This learned behavior of the bear acts as an example of cultural knowledge being passed on through the generations of bears, creating a new learned relationship between the bear, the raven and the hunter. The raven, being the one who finds the carcass, the bear who strives for the same carcass by following the raven call, and the hunter who uses the desire of the bear to hunt it for their own needs. Ravens use the exchange of knowledge from generation to generation to transfer understandings of humans, feeding sites and potential threats to either their own brood or to roosting mates.

The relationship between humans and ravens have not always been one of admiration, but as we step into the next generation with science and field biology as a priority in many cultures around the world, the desire to learn about ravens and their complicated social dynamics has grown. Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
When humans begin to learn about their complexity, the raven becomes more interesting  and desirable to understand, perpetuating the line of knowledge.

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Glacial Ice Worms: Ancient Story Tellers

March 14th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Gavin Willis, graduate student in the institute’s 14th cohort.

So much of natural history is about storytelling. Whether it is telling about the budding of Indian Plum last spring, the migration pattern of Spotted Towhees last decade, or the historical path of a river, the idea of imparting to present and future generations the story of what was once observed is integral to the ideals of natural history. However, the stories aren’t always complete, and the quest to fill those gaps can unearth all kinds of interesting science and research methods.

The first thing that strikes most visitors to the North Cascades is the rugged mountainscapes that surround them. The story of the glaciers that carved those mountains is older than the park itself, by millennia. The most recent story is that of the Puget Lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet, which is said to have advanced south from the Waddington Range and engulfed the entirety of the North Cascades. Geological evidence tells the story of its retreat approximately 12,000 years ago, but attempts to determine the path it took while fleeing the area have unearthed as many questions as answers.

There are many different voices that tell the story of the retreat of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet. Jagged mountain peaks tell tales of the ice sheets’ height, while scarred bedrock told legends of its mighty power. However since I’m a biologist, and not a geologist, I can’t translate any of these stories.Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
Instead, I chose to listen to the voice of the ice worm.

» Continue reading Glacial Ice Worms: Ancient Story Tellers

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The Story of Jumping Mouse

January 13th, 2015 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

At the start of 2015, the themes of change and transformation are on my mind. It seems impossible not to think of these with so much attention paid annually to commitment to goals and becoming better versions of ourselves. It seems appropriate that the new year comes right on the heels of so many other seasonal changes. The trees around the Environmental Learning Center seemed to lose their leaves in the span of a few hours on a random early December day, and winter has firmly embraced Diablo, blanketing us in snow. The yield of fall to winter happened, not quietly and slowly, but in the blink of an eye. Much of the Learning Center staff left town for vacations or family visits, and the grad students just returned from three weeks of vacation. During those three weeks, the Learning Center found itself in its quietest and most contemplative state. Again, how appropriate.

The graduate students scattered to our various corners of the country, stretching from Oregon to Maine. We too were deep in contemplation. We saw the families we said goodbye to in order to relocate ourselves to Washington, regaled others with stories of funny experiences, the occasional mishap, and knowledge acquired. That knowledge is the topic of one of my very favorite stories of all time. A story I used to share with my students in wilderness therapy, and one that seems to be endlessly relevant to every new environment in which I find myself.

The story is of Jumping Mouse. The origins of the legend remain a mystery to me. The only sourcing I am able to find calls it Plains Indians Sundance story. The particular text I used here comes from this version, which remains one of my favorites. Whatever the source, it remains an inspiration to me. May your new year be filled with curiosity, questions, and the strength to ask questions and seek your own answers.

Jumping Mouse

A beautiful drawing taken from John Steptoe’s beautiful 1989 book, The Story of Jumping Mouse.

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Op Ed: The Education of an Environmental Educator

September 4th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Editor’s note: Mountain School is about to start back up for its fall season! After teaching two seasons and hundreds of students last year, I thought a lot about how the field of environmental education might be even more useful to participants and the world at large.

It was quite an event, the day the Great Spirit handed out cones to all the trees in the forest. Red alder was given a tiny bouquet of them, befitting its important role as a quick and efficient pioneer in new forests as a nitrogen-fixing species. Douglas fir was bestowed with robust, two-inch long ones. They were decorated with characteristic “mouse tails”, like celebratory ribbons trailing between each thumbnail-sized scale. They provided a main source of food for the squirrels that scampered through the forest. Western hemlock, however, was impatient and pushed its way to the front of the line, eager for the best cones. As punishment for hemlock’s haste, the Great Spirit gave it the smallest cones in the forest. Feeling forever badly about being chastised, hemlock hung its head in shame.

Though I am unsure of this story’s origins, it has undoubtedly evolved over the years as a tale that environmental educators in the Pacific Northwest often share. It is a way to remember, amidst all the trees in the dense forest, that Western hemlocks are the ones possessing small cones and a drooping leader.

Here is another version, adapted from a re-vamping by graduate student and co-editor of Chattermarks, Elissa Kobrin. Her story is different, but still told with the goal of leaving learners with the ability to distinguish common local trees. It begins similarly, with red alder and Douglas fir receiving their cones. Both trees wanted to be the first ones in the forest, and to shoot up toward the sky faster than all the others. Western hemlock, however, waited patiently in line. This patience represents hemlock’s role in the forest community as one of the last species in forest succession, for it thrives in the shade of the canopy other, faster growing species. Hemlock was given cones that, though comparatively small, are very ornate and beautiful, like the rosebuds of the forest. Its head, or “leader”, is always bent over to get a better look at its tiny, pretty cones.

hemlock cone K. RenzA macro rendition of the 3/4″ tall hemlock cone, at home amidst the miniature world in a bed of moss. Note the chartreuse pollen that settled in the scales, details that make the natural world go round. Photo by author.

Which story do you prefer? When I first heard the former, I immediately thought, “Wow, I will never tell this story to students.”  Was I just being overly sensitive, another stringently politically correct tree-hugger quibbling over words? In one sense, the first story is simply an engaging way to remember why a hemlock has a drooping leader and small cones. But in the context of a world where shame and bullying are rampant, and shadow who children become as adults, could it also serve, even in a slight way, to perpetuate the idea of lifelong self-denigration and insecurity? That small is bad, and we are expected to atone for our mistakes for the entirety of our lives?

Such reservations are not to advocate for sheltering our children from reality. We graduate students-slash-Mountain School instructors often discuss, with a lot of concern, the tendency over the last 30 years or so towards “protecting” children from anything deemed negative or risky in this world of unknowns. Even something as intrinsic as play, for example, has been made scary and restricted.

Yet as an editor who has been steeped in media criticism, it is hard to ignore the messaging we’re bombarded with from all directions, even from stories told in the woods. Reinforcing ideologies and paradigms that I consider part of the problem, especially in an ecologically-minded community in which we’re constantly emphasizing the interconnectivity of everything, is problematic. Words are powerful. Looking at all the way we teach kids, both explicitly and implicitly, is fundamental.

Admittedly, it is a little hard for me to write this. I really don’t want to seem uptight, and such reservations prompt me to feel a mite self-conscious and embarrassed. At the same time, though, it baffles me that we are not more self-critical sometimes.

Holly Hughes closeupA fifth grade Mountain School group is an engaged audience as instructors help them “travel back in time” to when Native Americans gathered Hozomeen chert, cured skin ailments with Douglas fir pitch and traveled through the North Cascades via Cascade Pass. Photo by Molly Foote.

» Continue reading Op Ed: The Education of an Environmental Educator