Trail Hiker Science
By: Jim Virkler
Our in-depth understanding of the physical world, including features of our environment we are able to see, touch, hear, smell, and taste, begins with first hand observation. Included in the physical world are living things and the energy dimensions in which life and matter exist. What better method exists for gaining knowledge and appreciation of the physical world than actually placing ourselves at the scene of action? Welcome, enthusiastic explorers and hikers!
Christmas 1968 I presented a volume to my uncle entitled “The Year Outdoors” with my personal inscription “…in memory of many hours of sharing.” That uncle, only eleven years my senior, modeled for me a love of nature and the outdoors. He lived on the next-door farm located a few stone throws away from my home. My childhood residence next to that farm provided abundant learning opportunities. For many years we have recounted stories of shared thrills on that 150 acre farm which had meadows, forest, a creek running through it, cropland venues, a large barn for storage of hay, silage, and grain, a wintertime refuge for the farm animals I came to love, and adventure opportunities almost too numerous to count.
Concurrent with my own farm adventures in New York State, a Sussex County New Jersey classroom teacher, Eva Rodimer, was winding down a 50-year career in 1963. She had been a teacher from 1913 to 1963, having begun in a one room schoolhouse when she was not yet nineteen years old. As her retirement approached in 1963, a reporter from the New Jersey Herald opined that Rodimer was “…the youngest 67-year-old teacher extant.” Her annual salary in 1913 was $405.00. Rodimer writes in her preface that she “…roamed the wooded uplands and the meadows on my father’s farm, seeking the first flowers and the first birds of springtime.” In the remaining 294 pages she details hundreds of observations of animals, plants, and even meteorological and astronomical phenomena. Her observations and descriptions of natural beauty and living specimens of northwest New Jersey are unmatched.
Fast-forward to a more contemporary personal experience: Midway through my tenure as science educator, my principal offered a unique noon-time administrative proposal for our award-winning middle school—the one hour school lunch period must be re-imagined, he stated. Before the days of formal classroom computer instruction, there was more time available during our school day. Therefore, mini-courses were offered with the individual talents and interests of ALL students and teachers foremost. With that in mind, I offered “Trail Hiking,” partly because I possessed the legal qualifications to drive a school bus, and partly because I was enamored by outdoor experiences.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, our trail hiking mini-course appealed to dozens of young people in our school. It was one of at least two dozen different courses offered. The mini-course/lunch time block lasted one hour. Students ate lunch on the bus, then disembarked to hike a nearby trail for upwards of 45 minutes. Students benefitted in multiple ways, not the least of which was bouncing off trees and each other to help dissipate their pent-up energy as well as make discoveries of outdoor marvels in and near the Morristown National Historical Park. Ours was a pubic school; therefore, spiritual lessons were not explicitly taught but intuitional values lessons abounded.
When I retired from classroom instruction, there was more personal time to hike and explore. Seldom did I encounter young people hiking or exploring the fields and parks, even on Saturdays or during summer vacation time. This observation is not meant to disparage organized sports. Perhaps, however, it is a commentary on pervasive social media and its negative effects on both young and old.
We illustrate our point with an example of journalist Richard Louv’s popular 2008 volume, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.” Louv decries the reality that children “…don’t hike, don’t play in their backyards, don’t climb trees, don’t build tree houses, catch frogs, imprison fireflies in Mason jars, or know the difference between Mickey Mouse and a dusky-footed wood rat.” In 2009 our local newspaper highlighted a boy named Noah and referred to him as the “anti-video game kid” who initiated numerous neighborhood outdoor hiking activities and games for his peers. Perhaps fifty years ago such a boy would not be singled out in a newspaper article as an example of the unusual or exceptional.
Our son has captured many Monarch butterfly eggs and larvae and instructed his children on appropriate ways to proceed to the chrysalis and adult stage before releasing them to produce a new generation and sending them on their way to a specific Mexican forest to overwinter. Recently he took his 6-year old daughter to southeast Iowa for the annual “Geode Fest.” The activity entailed a fairly long trek down a stream with boots. What better way to trigger a sense of the work of the divine Creator than to expose children and adults to thousands of wonders in our world?
In our day of political factionalism, we are encouraged by the bipartisan House of Representatives passage of the “Every Kid Outdoors Act” (H.R. 3186). Its provision administers a pass program to provide free entry for fourth graders and their families to visit our national public lands, waters, and shores. The bill awaits Senate approval.
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.