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By María Leonor Rodríguez
Nothing gets me more excited than loading students and gear in a 15-passenger van and heading into the forest. Through my work in outdoor education, I have grown passionate about facilitating experiences where people can connect with nature and each other. These experiences can build a strong sense of ownership and community that supports environmental stewardship. I was eager to continue facilitating such experiences through Forest Bound in my new role as the Southwest Education and Outreach Coordinator.
Each summer, the IAE Southwest team facilitates Forest Bound, a native plant immersion and conservation skill building program that examines native plant species through a botanical, ecological, and cultural lens. This year, we offered two, week-long sessions in collaboration with Youthworks and the Pueblo of Pojoaque’s Tewa Language Department. Funding from the U.S. Forest Service enabled IAE SW to provide this program free of cost to participants.
Since 2020, IAE has worked with Samuel Villareal Catanach and Simone Catanach of the Pueblo of Pojoaque Tewa Language department to co-develop a Forest Bound curriculum that pairs botany and ecology lessons with Tewa language and traditional ecological knowledge.
We kicked off our week with the Pueblo of Pojoaque by learning how to ask, “What is this?” in Tewa. This simple question was a first step to unlock the language as it pertained to the landscape and infuse botany lessons with Tewa vocabulary. Each day, we visited various sites in the Pueblo, the Santa Fe National Forest, and Bandelier National Monument, where we carried out field botany and Tewa lessons and learned from conservation experts. Some highlights of the week included learning about the structure and importance of healthy soils from soil scientist Gabriella Coughlin and building one-rock dams for erosion control with restoration and conservation specialist, Shantini Ramakrishna. Our guest speakers shared valuable knowledge and their stories of how they got involved in conservation work.
For our second session, we partnered with Youthworks Santa Fe, an organization that seeks to reconnect “at-risk” and disadvantaged youth with our community through education, employment training, and job placement. Their objectives align with Forest Bound goals, as we hope to provide opportunities for youth to connect with the outdoors and build skills relevant for careers in conservation.
We started the week at the Little Tesuque camping area where we launched into our first activity: a plant sit. This activity introduces scientific observation and encourages participants to connect with nature in ways that they may not typically practice: drawing and describing small details about a plant they chose. After we shared the instructions, everyone spread out and an almost meditative silence overtook the group. I could hear small chatter as they compared drawings, asked peers for advice, and captured their plant in as much detail as they could. After the activity was over, everyone got the chance to share their detailed drawings and descriptions. Some even came up with creative names that could help them remember what their plants looked like. A simple activity, challenging them to notice things that they had not paid close attention to before, allowed them to briefly build an intimate connection to the plant they had chosen. Even if it was just for a few minutes, they were intrigued by the being in front of them, and about the space that surrounded them.
Throughout the week, we were joined by various conservation experts. One highlight was our restoration day where we joined Ariel Patashnik and Melissa Houser from the Santa Fe Conservation Trust. We helped install erosion control structures as part of an ongoing restoration project in the Galisteo Basin. Everyone enjoyed working together to move some big ponderosa pines that had recently been cut down in the site. We finished our week at the Leonora Curtin Wetland Preserve with an eco-herbalism and cooking lesson from Sara Digby of IAE and Artemisia Herbs. We learned uses for the plants around us, tasted different herbal concoctions, made creosote salve and cooked blue corn pancakes!
Both Forest Bound sessions this summer addressed the need to connect with nature in order to build ownership and inspire stewardship. While we spent time with lessons and activities, we also made sure to allow for unstructured time to enjoy just being outside. Whether it was hikes or down time to play and sit by streams, these moments offered powerful opportunities to connect with our surroundings and absorb the lesson content in an informal way. Overall, these two sessions reminded me that when paired with culturally-relevant outdoor experiences, science education can lead to meaningful connections with nature and interest in conserving native ecosystems.