But the socioeconomic divide that separates so many of us access to better jobs and education and possibilities separates people from access to the outdoors, too. Many of those who live in the poorer parts of Salt Lake don’t have the time to take their families out camping in a wildflower-studded meadow because they’re too busy trying to scrape by. Many of them don’t have the means to get themselves to even our close-by canyons. For them, those wonders might as well be hundreds of miles away.
Edison Elementary School is a Title I school on the west side of Salt Lake City. It has students who are excited about learning, who want to succeed, but nonetheless, the school gets identified as a “turn around school” because of the way in which the educational cards are stacked against its students. Still, the hardworking 5th grade teachers manage to impart a wealth of natural history curriculum to their pupils. It really is incredible to see these students talking about Utah’s flora and fauna with ease, discussing Lake Bonneville’s history with confidence, displaying how much their teachers have taught them.But what their teachers can’t show them within the confines of a classroom is the kind of awe that looking up the mouth of a canyon inspires. Without that essential sense of wonder, you can’t really understand natural history.
I spent half of my first semester in college in an Outdoor Education and Leadership class with thirteen other freshman who would become my closest friends. Our professors, who became our mentors, instilled wonder in us by taking us around to some of the most spectacular places in the state each week on field-day Fridays. We had fun, but more importantly we grew because of the places and experiences that class gave us. It was, to be frank, a gift.
As the final project for the class, our assignment was, in a sense, to pass that gift on. So on one crisp Friday in October, we organized and ran a field trip for the students of Edison Elementary School. We took them around a park, to the mouth of Little Cottonwood canyon, and finally up Big Cottonwood Canyon to Silver Lake. There we took the kids, in small groups, on nature walks around the lake, stopping at five or six points for my classmates to give mini-lessons on subjects ranging from beavers to glaciology. To cap off the day, the raptor education organization HawkWatch came up and did a presentation for the kids on the amazing birds of prey that we have here in Utah- complete with a live red-tailed hawk and a western screech owl.
For me, parts of that day were really stressful! I was trying too hard to make sure the buses were on time, the groups of kids were evenly divided, the worksheets were filled out, etc. Luckily, my friends and classmates reminded me that that wasn’t the important stuff.
The important things were the 5th grader who’d never seen a duck before, glued to the dock staring at the swimming bird in total wonder. The important things were the student cracking up trying to imagine a beaver’s outsize teeth. The important things were the kid who freaked out when he saw just how tall and dense the stand of pine trees could be.
When you see kids reacting that way, it makes you really think about how much we take for granted. I don’t remember ever being particularly startled by a squirrel. To some of these kids though, there was nothing more wonderful than watching one dash across their path. It wasn’t anything like their sense of ordinary. That was an event worthy of gasps and jumps and bright flashing smiles.
I can’t speak definitively, but based on those reactions of those kids on that day, I think that many of them will remember their Silver Lake experience for the rest of their lives. Maybe for some of them, it will spark something more than fond memories. Maybe for some of them, the knowledge that this whole beautiful country is in their backyard will give them a desire to get out and explore it.