A lab period in “The Local Landscape” course means wandering through an old growth forest, studying the trees, stone walls, and topography. A lab period means getting outside and asking questions of everything on the horizon.
This is the first year that “The Local Landscape” has been offered at Dublin School. The course creator and instructor, Ms. Katie Curtis, used to teach a similar Geology and Environmental Science course at Falmouth Academy, which led her and her students to explore the beaches of the Cape at least once a week. Here, nestled near the base of Monadnock, Dublin students explore forests, streams, and mountains.
The central text in Ms. Curtis’ class is Tom Wessels’ Reading the Local Landscape. Wessels lives a stone’s throw away from Dublin, so he is essentially writing about our backyard.
“Reading Reading the Forested Landscape is really cool because it brings what we see every day walking in the woods and makes it meaningful,” says Curtis.
Curtis, who loves studying environmental science and geology, was conceptualizing this Science elective and wondered, “What might kids at Dublin find interesting?”
The answer she reached: “getting outside.”
“You can see a beaver pond and say, ‘is a beaver still living here?’” she says. “You can see a stone wall and wonder and then know how it got there based on the size of the rocks, which is really exciting.”
“We are outside every lab period, walking around and interpreting what we see,” Curtis says.
“We walked down to the beaver pond, hidden deeper in the woods beyond Lower Field. We travel all around campus to explore the local landscape.”
The students in “The Local Landscape” have followed Wessels’ book about this region of New Hampshire. In the book, each chapter explains, in Curtis’ words, “for example, here’s what you will see in a forest; here is what to look for. From the direction a tree falls, was it a hurricane or a Nor'easter that came through? We think about what the forest used to be before some of the invasive species moved in. We think about what we see and then what it means, what it can tell us about the history of the land.”
“Originally, when I first read the book, I had no idea about the pasturelands in our area,” she says. “75% of our land used to be pastures for sheep farming.”
Following the book’s sequence, students started by studying trees by walking around campus to learn and study about the trees we have on campus.
During one of the early labs, we spent a morning looking at hawks with Mr. Henry Walters, Writer in Residence and resident falconer, and they discussed what makes the Monadnock region ideal for hawk migration.
“We looked at topography on either side of Pack Monadnock and how it influences the growth of certain tree species,” Curtis elaborates.
Louisa Birch, who is Paul Lehmann’s daughter, has an old growth forest, meaning that it has trees that are potentially two hundred years old. The forest is hundreds of acres. It is just past the golf course, but “it is on the Greenway trail, which some of our students have walked through on Camping trips,” Curtis adds.
She took the class on a field trip to Ms. Birch’s old growth forest.
“Ms. Birch is very interested in the area,” says Curtis. “She wrote a book on the Monadnock region’s invasive plants. She showed us buckthorn. There was an area right next to the old growth where we could see buckthorn shrubs, which tend to grow when there’s been logging.”
What is so extraordinary about this particular forest is that it has been virtually untouched.
“The hurricane of 1938 took down a bunch of trees, but because of this site’s position with Mount Monadnock, these trees were protected,” says Curtis. The Birch family plans to set aside the forest to be protected and preserved.
In such a remarkable natural place, students’ natural curiosity emerges.
Nancy Rose Unser, ’18, notes, “ I have learned how when you look at a tree, there is such an in depth story about their journey behind each one. It has been really interesting because we have been coring trees to see the different layers of growth.”
“Students ask, ‘Why does this tree have this curve?’ ‘Why does this plant grow like this?’ Some students love learning about animals killing other animals, looking at natural violence and disaster that happens in nature. That can be pretty exciting for students to discuss: ‘why does this happen? What causes that disaster?’ Anything we are doing outside when we are exploring ignites that curiosity.”
At the end of the course, Curtis hopes that her students have become more aware of and in tune with that curiosity.
“I hope, too, that they’ve developed an appreciation for our world and an ability to question what they see in the landscape and to look deeply,” she says. “To look at the transition farmers used from stone walls to barbed wire. Stopping on a hike near a stone wall, I can ask kids to see evidence of farming, and they start to see barbed wire that a tree has grown around. When I ask, ‘how old is the barbed wire?’ and they see the tree growing around it, they can start to develop more critical observation skills. Often when we learn, we are memorizing something. I want my students to go beyond that. They can memorize that if the water level in a beaver pond is low, it’s not inhabited, but then they can ask, ‘why is it low? Is it because it’s fall? Is there another scenario?’ We can think through more and follow those questions, follow that curiosity.”