One school that nurtures nature Classroom: Students at Greensboro Elementary School are learning that the fields and marshes around their building have important lessons to impart.



What would the world be,

once bereft,

of wet and of wildness?

Let them be left.

- Gerard Manley Hopkins,

Poems, no. 56 LAST YEAR when her fourth-graders at Greensboro Elementary School bolted from class, screaming in panic, Suzanne Wells knew she was doing something profoundly right.

Wet weather had kept a low-lying corner of the grassy playground behind the Caroline County school too soggy to mow.

Reprieved, a little patch amid the acres of turf had erupted in wetland plants, replete with bugs and frogs and birds.

At recess, kids went there, and Wells used it to teach science. The children secured a promise from the maintenance crew to leave be their fascinating little marsh.

The day they streamed across the schoolyard in panic, the kids thought - mistakenly - the mowers were closing in on their wetland, Wells says.

It was one of those magical instances where teaching gets beyond mere useful instruction - how to add, how to spell - and educates in the fullest sense, imparting values, shaping behavior.

Certainly we all need to learn ways of behaving better toward a natural world more "bereft of wet and wildness" than ever.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed, by conservative estimates, lost more than 65,000 acres of wetlands from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Maryland today has perhaps 25 percent of its historical tidal wetlands. Losses have slowed, but we don't have much left to lose.

So it was heartening a couple weeks ago to visit Greensboro Elementary and find its flirtation with nature, far from settling down, is about to blossom into something truly extraordinary, an example for the whole state.

On a cool, sunny Wednesday, Wells' fourth-graders were outside all day, getting muddier by the minute and loving it. Assisted by other classes that came and went, they planted 130 trees and shrubs, from oaks to blueberries.

The trees will border part of a natural area behind the school that eventually will cover 18 acres, about the size of 20 soccer or football fields.

The acreage, owned by the school, has been mowed or leased for grain farming.

But in the next few years, a gloriouswildflower meadow will meander there, amid acres of restored wetlands.

The wetlands will feature two rare gems of the mid-Atlantic landscape - Delmarva Bays, unique wetland pockets whose geologic age is estimated between 16,000 and 21,000 years.

These first appeared in an era when the climate was much cooler and drier, and a relatively treeless, savannah-like landscape covered the Eastern Shore.

The unique hydrologic features of the bays (no two are quite alike) and their long evolution as little refuges of moisture in a dry landscape have resulted in their harboring rich, diverse and rare collections of plants and animals.

Only a few dozen of the estimated 1,500 to 2,500 bays on Delmarva are in truly natural condition. The two at Greensboro are not, appearing to be only soggy spots in a field of winter wheat.

"But they've got exciting potential, especially for reintroducing amphibians," says Wayne Tyndall, a state specialist in restoring natural diversity to the Maryland landscape.

For Rich Mason, the Greensboro project is the crown jewel of the Schoolyard Habitat Program he began in 1994 for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Annapolis.

"So many of our school sites are sterile, barren places," he said as he supervised the tree planting last month, "and that's the landscape students spend 12 years in."

He thinks maybe we have our priorities reversed, piling kids in buses to take nature field trips a few times a year, and expecting that to offset constant exposure to nothing but acres of grass and asphalt.

Working with teachers like Suzanne Wells, Mason has done 25 to 30 such projects with Maryland schools, most of them far smaller than Greensboro's.

He has had to struggle for support from the Fish and Wildlife Service at regional and national levels, he says, "because they are more interested in counting acres" in wetlands restoration projects.

"But acres of wetlands restored can't measure the value to thousands of kids interacting with nature where they live and learn for years and years of their lives," he argues.

Certainly, Wells and her fourth graders would agree. Me too.

We regulate to protect wetlands, and still we lose more than we should. If we can't value and appreciate and love such wild and wet places, regulation alone won't protect and restore them.

Mason says there is a worldwide movement "to look at the sterility of school grounds and reverse it." Great Britain and Canada are way ahead in this, he says.

He is part of an informal group trying to form a similar movement in the United States. He is also working with the Maryland State Department of Education to incorporate designs in school construction that enhance rather than obliterate the natural features of each site.

The Greensboro project, he feels, has the scope to get attention and "be a model for the whole state."

It is a model of cooperation, involving teachers and kids, and agencies that range from the Maryland Departments of Environment and Natural Resources, to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the private Chesapeake Bay Trust.

A neighbor of the school has volunteered to grade the site to restore wetland drainage. On half the land, nature will work for free- the vegetation will be allowed to revert to whatever soils and climate dictate - an ever-evolving classroom and laboratory.

The cost, Mason says, has been a couple of thousand dollars, and might run to "the high thousands of dollars."

What a bargain. Perhaps a modest percentage of all school construction money should go to purchase and restore natural landscapes around each building.

Pub Date: 5/01/98

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