This oversized picture book — National Parks of the USA by Kate Siber and art by Chris Turnham — is quite lovely, with regional looks at some of the National Parks and then closer examinations of the flora and fauna of some specific sites, complete with interesting descriptions.
I read it with an eye toward activities that could be connected to Write Out, even if you are not close to any parks or historic sites. While Write Out is co-sponsored by the National Park Service and the National Writing Project, the focus is not just on our national network of public spaces, but on all public spaces — urban, rural, state, local, federal, etc. We just ended our second year of activities, but these ideas might keep things moving forward.
As I have been reading, and learning such interesting tidbits of information from this picture book, I’ve been bookmarking some ideas that have surfaced. Some of those possibilities of explorations are focused on the ideas of stories — how to uncover the stories of public spaces — and others are more nature, in general. (But again, Write Out has also been focused on historic and urban spaces, not just the wide open, massive parks that come to mind when we think of the NPS).
My hope here is that this list might be useful to educators in classrooms without easy access to going places beyond the school — to venture into places like parks and public spaces and historic sites — but they would still like to have students learning more through research and thinking … maybe these can help.
- There’s mention of a plant in the Smoky Mountains called Jack-In-The-Pulpit. The roots are toxic, the book tells us, but Native American tribes knew how to cook and dry them before eating. What else can we learn from the Native American tribes who knew how to live in close relationship to the lands and its plants and animals? Just about every region in our country has some history before settlement.
- Also, related to the Smoky Mountains, there are references to the cemeteries (more than 150 in the Smoky Mountains alone) that could tell rich stories of settlement and life from the 1800s, from a distinct view of Euro-American settlers. Stone rubbings and family research projects might bring forth a new understanding of the hard life of these peoples.
- In a page about Isle Royale in Michigan, there’s a reference to shipwrecks in Lake Superior, and how divers wander through the old sunken boats, and it had me thinking of those 40-odd boats at the bottom of the lake, and the stories they tell.
- In the Wind Cave, South Dakota, the rush of air — created by abrupt changes in pressure, is enough to blow the hat off your head. The science behind the cave’s air flow is fascinating, but there are also audio and video, too, to give a sense of how strong the gusts come.
- Cave systems — from Mammoth Cave (Kentucky) to Carlsbad Caverns (New Mexico) and beyond — are part of the world beneath our feet. Many National Parks feature cave systems, some of which are mapped and some of which are not mapped. What stories about the world are told in the places beneath our feet?
- The Tamarisk plant is an invasive species in the Grand Canyon that stifles native plants, and people brought it in (for erosion control). This opens up an entire way of looking at invasive species in public spaces, and how society often does something worse by thinking it is doing something good.
- Who doesn’t love a good mystery? Scientists had long wondered about “moving rocks” in Death Valley desert, where rocks with long trails would appear out of nowhere. A study discovered the culprit to be water freezing, causing a layer of ice, and the winds blowing the rocks, leaving paths behind.
- The modern problem of light pollution comes to the surface in the texts about Bryce Canyon, in Utah, which has some of the clearest skies in the country. A study of local light pollution effects, and an investigation in the night sky — maybe even constellation stories — would engage students on the larger world.
- Discoveries of tools — such as the mano (grinding stone) and the metate (grinding surface) for creating corn flour in Mesa Verde in Colorado — bring to the surface the stories of survival and daily living. Archeologists continue to make new discovers of tools and inventions that provide us further insights into the people who were here long before us.
- Did you know that a “midden” is a trash heap? Now seen as valuable treasure for understanding cultures such as the Pueblo people of Mesa Verde, these middens — broken pots, tools, scraps, etc. — hint at the culture lost by time.
- What role do forest fires play in our upkeep of public lands? Think about the creation and history of Smoky the Bear, and how that message of “no fire, ever” has begun to shift to understanding how some fires — either ones caused naturally, through lightning strikes, or ones purposefully contained by fire officials — in forests are part of the natural process of growth, decay and regrowth, and Yellowstone is one place where fires are important to the health of the space.
- Mount Rainier is a volcano as tall as ten Empire State Buildings, and in the same region of the Pacific Northwest, the forests of the Sequoia (the largest trees on earth) and the Redwoods also rein, reminding us of the power of trees over time and space. How do trees help us connect to the stories of settlements? What obligation do we have to protect such trees as the Redwoods and Sequoia?
- A Sea Stack is an amazing site, a piece of natural sculpture off the coast of Olympic National Park in Washington, created from decades of battering by the seas. What’s left behind are huge monoliths, or sea stacks, that jut out of the ocean like mountains. What other natural sculptures are there in public spaces? What stories do people tell of these strange phenomenon?
- The Quaking Aspens of the Denali Park in Alaska is one of the more amazing discoveries of the tree world. What seems to be a grove of trees are actually one single tree, all connected underground, and each trunk is a clone of the other. Explore the way trees like the aspens connect and communicate, and how our perceptions of the natural world are often wrong.
- Hawaii is known for its volcanoes, of course, but even volcanoes are full of surprises. Lava Tubes, for example, are beautiful works of art, formed just after lava cuts through rock. And do you know about Lava Crickets? These strange insects live only on the ceilings of Lava Tubes, feeding off the roots of plants. What else exists in tandem with such destructive forces?
And more and more and more … Maybe ideas will spark ideas … Go on, and write, and help your students to find interest in the larger world, too.
Peace (outside and in),