Volume 2 - No. 3
NATURE ON THE AIR
By Ernest A. Rostel,
While the National Park Service, for a number of years, has offered naturalist programs to adult visitors, no special provision was made for children and other youthful visitors, to the parks until Park Naturalist Raymond Gregg, of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, started a free junior nature school in June, 1938. The response was immediate. Here not only was a solution of parents' problems to keep children occupied, but here, better yet, was an opportunity under capable leadership to absorb knowledge of and develop wholesome interest in the outdoors. The school was initiated on a thrice-weekly schedule with a beginning enrollment of nineteen students whose avid interest assured success from the start. Much of this was due to the complete absence of classroom atmosphere, and to actual visual and physical contact with the outdoor subjects. They learned how glaciers came into existence and how U-shaped valleys were carved down the slopes of towering peaks. They were told how mountains were uplifted through the ages to produce the present landscapes. They learned the secrets of trees and flowers and of the habits of the elk, deer, porcupine, and other mammals. They made acquaintance with the birds and were told how to identify them.
The Indians, who roamed the park lands years ago, became a legendary part of the present when students delved into the fascinating story of the aborigines of the Rockies. Visits were made to old camp sites frequented by Arapahoe and Ute hunting parties in days before white men came to the unexplored wildernesses of the West. The students were shown old Indian forts used when tribes made war on each other for possession of choice hunting grounds. There they saw rock fortifications in place, much as they were when red-skinned warriors built them so many years ago. In contrast to the towering heights of the Rockies, the youngsters studied the tiny denizens of the insect world and learned how "bugs" carried on their short but active lives. Such inanimate subjects as rocks became living symbols of nature's unending industry.
It soon became apparent that the teaching plus entertainment quality had value too great to be confined to the outdoor classrooms. The National Broadcasting Company, through Station KOA, in Denver, asked whether the National Park Service would be willing to cooperate in the production of a network program. A preliminary audition transcribed for New York City and Denver NBC officials was sufficiently convincing to have the programs scheduled for ten weeks from coast to coast. Entirely unrehearsed and presented without the preparation of advance script, the spontaneous, lively radio presentations were enthusiastically received in all parts of the United States, especially in the larger centers of population, such as New York City, Chicago, and Boston. During the present season the broadcasts are given every Saturday morning, from 9:15 to 9:30 (MST) over the NBC Red networks. The series will continue through September 7. Back-pack portable short wave radio transmitters "pick up" the class as it studies natural history subjects along the streams, through mountain forests, across flowered meadows, or even on mountain summits. Radio listeners are theoretically "eavesdropping" on the interesting informal discussions between the students and the park naturalist. Recently, Naturalist Gregg was discussing the habits of packrats and how they occasionally drive a hard bargain in trading objects. This "animal with a hobby" was compared to David Harum who was described as a "sharp horse-trader" who frequently put over a "slick" deal. Immediately one youngster piped up: "My Grand-dad is just like that." During one broadcast, the park naturalist was describing the Alpine Fir, bearing upright cones, as "a Christmas tree with its own candles." A girl in the group interrupted to tell how her grandmother had set a Christmas tree afire by using candles. The little student was told that the fir's "candles" do not start fires, but that man's carelessness with fire has resulted in the destruction of many thousands of forest acres.
Much of the success of the program in holding audience interest, and a large measure of its educational quality results from the naturalist's apt use of metaphors, such as, the limber pine, "with no bones in its arms"; morning primroses, "flowers that blush"; badgers, "flat as a pancake"; martens that "look like a fox and act like a squirrel"; blue spruces that "powder their noses"; golden banners, flowers that bear "gold above ground and gold below." Through use of such entertaining illustrations, the students absorb knowledge of natural history without realizing they are being instructed. There is more of the feeling of meeting and getting acquainted with new and interesting friends.
The school sessions cover about two hours each and are devoted to short hikes, nature games, contests, and hobby studies. Students are required to attend a minimum of five meetings or hikes to qualify for certificates awarded to those who have acquired a satisfactory fundamental knowledge of various nature subjects. Certificates are awarded for such subjects as general nature study, trees, flowers, insects, mammals, birds, glaciers, park geography, first-aid, and Indian study. For the general nature study certificate a student must present a satisfactory knowledge of five trees, five flowers, five birds, five mammals, five peaks, three kinds of rock, three shrubs, three first-aid methods, three insects, and two Indian tribes. Tests were given orally during the early phases of the school until volume necessitated a mimeographed objective test. Requirements for the specialized subjects necessitate special study on the part of the students. For the Flower Study Award, a thorough knowledge of twenty-five flowering plants is required. In tree study, students must know intimately eight conifers and four hardwoods. During the first year of the school; 1938, a total of 110 certificates, attractively prepared and printed, was awarded to students, including forty-one for the general test. The enrollment represented over twenty states.
The school was planned to present nature subjects in a novel and unorthodox manner. This approach has not only been successful from the standpoint of children in actual attendance, but also in connection with the un-numbered radio "students." While the classes are gauged to the interests of children, the radio presentations have proved that they have definite interest for grownups. Typical of the comments received were the following:
"I have been in your unseen audience on several occasions and each time I felt as if I were out on the hillside or meadow with you."
"Mr. Gregg has rare ability in putting the facts of nature in an attractive way that catches and holds the attention of the boys and girls. And also they are of interest to the boys and girls of more years."
"They are very educational and so interesting to adults as well as to children. I am 74 years old but learned things about the grasshopper today. I hope the program continues."
"I have listened with keen interest....and wish to thank you for all the new facts in nature brought to attention....I am a teacher in the Chicago Elementary Schools and use your material to good advantage."
From an inmate in a Pennsylvania penitentiary: "Being an amateur naturalist, I find that the Nature Sketches will be a great help to me, and many others. I also want to thank you for bringing nature closer to man."
Mimeographed material related to the radio programs is being distributed to listeners who send a request to the Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, Colorado.
In addition to the Junior Nature School, Naturalist Gregg has initiated another educational service for young visitors -- boys of 'teen age interested in nature hobbies and outdoor interests. Nature scouting was introduced during the 1939 travel season. The idea is based upon graduated achievements in mountaineering, nature study, first aid, pathfinding, camping, woodcraft and technical skills. Boys from 12 to 18 years of age are eligible, with no cost involved except a minimum expense connected with special handicraft work. The latter is optional among requirements for advancement in the organization. The park naturalist and his staff are assisted by a group of counsellors, certified examiners for the Boy Scouts of America, thus enabling boys to continue regular Scout advancement work parallel with achievements in the degrees offered by Nature Scouts. Activities are primarily out-of-doors. Last year plans called for a half-day hike or similar outdoor activity each Tuesday. On most Thursdays, all-day hikes were conducted. Occasional overnight hikes were scheduled, and a feature trip for those properly prepared was the ascent to the 14,255-foot summit of Longs Peak. Saturday afternoons were devoted to individual activities under the supervision of counsellors, with opportunity for craft, museum, nature-trail, hobby, test, and advancement work.
"While the amount of time devoted to this program, with two hikes each week and Saturday afternoon work may seem excessive for the number of persons served," Naturalist Gregg reports, "it may be well to say that this program has every indication of growing until it assumes important stature, since it has strong appeal to boy interests."
In addition to the special programs prepared for young visitors, Rocky Mountain National Park has complete schedules for adults. A talk on glaciers is given each day at the Moraine Park Museum. The building is situated among some of the most remarkable glacial remains in the Rocky Mountains. Textbook examples of lateral moraines, hanging valleys, U-shaped valleys, glacier lake-beds, roches moutonnees, vacated cirques, and small remnant glaciers are visible from the porch of the museum. Thus is made possible a clear, comprehensive laboratory demonstration using nature's works as models. Increasingly popular are the guided hiking trips. On early morning bird walks, ranger-naturalists introduce the birds and their songs. Leisurely two-hour nature study walks are scheduled regularly; to provide for especial study of trees, flowers, geologic features, or other natural history subjects. Half-day and all-day hikes to points of scenic and scientific interest draw by far the largest following of any of the field activities conducted by the naturalists. In great favor is a strenuous hike to Tyndall and Andrews Glaciers. It is not uncommon for the naturalist to be accompanied by as many as seventy hikers who get a great thrill from sliding over the face of Andrews Glacier. They learn about glaciers first hand by visiting them.
In the cool of summer evenings, "wildlife watch parties" are popular, especially those attempting observations of the wily beaver, whose dams are familiar sights throughout the park, but who, themselves, are not commonly seen. Often following campfire programs, ranger-naturalists lead game-stalking caravans to meadows where deer, elk, and occasional coyotes and bob-cats may be watched at night with the aid of spot lights. On other evenings, lectures are followed by "star gazing", under the leadership of naturalists familiar with astronomy.
Naturalist services start in early June, reach their greatest activity in July and August, and are discontinued in late September.
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