Land Matters: A Day in the Life

November 7, 2016Rebecca

Peter Paden*
October 25, 2016

Another “Day in the Life”

Each fall, thousands of students from New York City, Albany, and everywhere in between gather at various locations along the Hudson River for DEC’s annual “Day in the Life of the Hudson River Estuary,” now in its thirteenth year. Together with educators and volunteers, students become citizen scientists for the day, collecting important data on aquatic ecology, water conditions, and sediment composition, effectively creating a snapshot in time of life along the Hudson River.

For over a decade now, the Columbia Land Conservancy has partnered with young people of all ages from schools across the county to participate in “Day in the Life.” This year, 42 students from Hudson High School joined CLC staff at Lasher Memorial Park in Germantown to take part in the largest “Day in the Life” yet, with over 4,500 other students at 80 different locations collecting data that will contribute to ongoing research projects led by the Hudson River Estuary Program.

The following piece was written by John Horton, CLC’s Membership & Events Coordinator, who organized and led our Day in the Life project this year.

What Did We Find?

Lasher Memorial Park is located in Germantown, approximately 110 miles north from the mouth of the Hudson River. It was a chilly autumn day; fog rolling off of the majestic looking Catskills into the valley below provided a spectacular view as the students climbed off of the school bus. After a brief introduction and overview of the “Day in the Life” program, students excitedly jumped right into the day’s activities.

One group was tasked with recording physical data using scientific observation methods. We recorded tidal conditions, identified a range of aquatic vegetation, and took sediment core samples from the river bottom. The second group performed a variety of water quality tests measuring salinity, pH levels, dissolved oxygen levels, and turbidity. At this station, educators and students discussed the importance of these measurements in regards to how this affects the quality of fish, plant, and other aquatic life. The final group, outfitted with wading boots and a 100-foot long seine net, bravely marched into the river with the hope of capturing fish and other macroinvertebrates to monitor the diversity of species living in the Hudson. Among the different kinds of fish caught that day were spottail shiners, white perch, banded killi, and one very large grass carp.

“Over here!” a student exclaimed on the shore. In his hands was a blue crab. While blue crab are commonly found in the Hudson, this was the only crab we had netted that day. A huddle of students formed around him, watching in delight and wonder as the crab raised its claws boldly in a defensive maneuver. A photo op ensued, student and crab both heroes in that moment. This young man, along with many of the other students, had never seen a blue crab before, let alone held one. This was just one of the many brilliant moments of discovery made that day. A perfect ending to what was another fun, engaging, and educational “Day in the Life.”

The Teachable Moment

Several days have now passed since our river adventure. The sediment has all but settled where we trudged through the shoreline with our seine net and wading boots. Even after all the excitement, the fish we caught and examined just days earlier have surely recovered and returned to the routine of life in the Hudson. The students, too, have returned to the routine of life at Hudson High School.  Between school, homework, hobbies, social life, and family time, where does conservation fit in?  It’s a common myth that fish only have a 5-second memory. Will the students remember, now days later, all that we learned and experienced that day on the river?

As a conservation organization concerning ourselves with environmental education, one of the most challenging, yet significant aspects of our work is to engage young people beyond the classroom and create memorable and meaningful experiences for them that will shape the way they think and interact with the natural world. We’ve been working away at conservation here in Columbia County for thirty years, but when we think of our mission and our aspirations for the future we think in the very long term. We often ask, what will Columbia County be like and look like 30 years from now, and even beyond. We can’t possibly expect the work we’ve started will be carried on 30 years from now unless the next generations have the energy and dedication to protect and care for the environment.  How can we inspire young people to share our love of the natural world and continue to uphold the principles of conservation long into the future? These are questions we must all ask ourselves – and pursue with purpose.

It starts with the ‘teachable moment.’ For any environmental enthusiast, I’m sure we can all recall a time or place where we felt a sense of awe and wonder out in nature. Think about it – where were you? What imagery comes to mind? Was it a beautiful, scenic view somewhere in the mountains? Maybe on a lake? Perhaps it was some chance encounter with wildlife in your backyard? In any case, I’d venture to guess that some, if not many of those memories you have are from a time when you were young. While I’m no developmental psychologist, I believe that those memories and experiences in nature are what lead us to truly appreciate and value the natural world around us. As conservation educators, we are always striving to find those teachable moments; moments to share our own sense of awe and wonder of nature with young people. There is hardly a better feeling than seeing a young person’s face light up with excitement at the sight of a new discovery.

We won’t often have the opportunity to measure our success with students as they transition out of our educational programs and into adulthood. For the most part, we can only hope we have made a lasting impression on some of these young people’s lives. While we won’t know for sure for a long time whether or not we’ve made a significant impact I can tell you this – the young man who caught and held that blue crab for the first time as his classmates cheered him on had an experience in nature that he won’t soon forget!

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