After Helena and I took an initial visit to the Bioreserve, I organized a homeschoool field trip. We got rained out the first week - well at least the forecast said we were rained out. In actuality we would have been just fine. But, in any case, we resheduled and finally made it back there just yesterday. Everyone had an amazing time with a lot of happy comments resulting on the local homeschool FB page, and plans are in the works for a fall homeschool class there.
The Bioreserve was originally the estate of the wealthy owners of the Corning Glass Company. Have any old corning ware baking dishes? Those folks. The property was left abandoned and overgrown for many years until Dennis bought it up and turned it into a preserve some years back. He runs a series of programs there, but, to my way of thinking, it's still a hidden gem. I used to live five minutes from it and never had a clue it was there! Dennis also runs a microscope business; and he has a pretty amazing little microscopy lab, in the backroom of the dilapidated 1850's house that was once the gate house of the estate. Needless to say - if you're at all familiar with homeschooling or us uber crazy "unschooling" folks who prefer real life learning to any sort of dry curriculum - this place is a treasure trove to me!
We spent a few minutes in the lab yesterday, while waiting for everyone to assemble. My almost 11 year old, Helena, who had used the microscopes previously, got busy examining some down from a cottonwood tree with other kids joining her. Dennis pulled out a slide of pollen so they could learn more.
Once everyone had assembled (maybe 14 kids and their accompanying moms and a grandma too), Dennis led the way on a field hike. He talked a bit about the property's history, the yurt on it, and the workshop we passed. But mostly we just hiked along, scrambling over and along many recumbent trees which, we learned, were the result of the property being on an old lake bed. The lack of bedrock below causes the trees to not be able to firmly anchor themselves, resulting in many growing in these odd reclining positions. I pointed out plantain (Plantago major) and explained its medicinal uses and we also talked about jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), which was growing prolifically nearbye. People asked when you'd want to use jewelweed vs plantain, and we discussed the power of plantain to draw and the power of jewelweed to soothe poison ivy.
As we progressed through a few of the property's 60 or so acres, we stopped periodically to talk about various flora and to notice a few species of fauna as well: a doe that went bounding off, a pileated woodpecker, a few little toads, and a nasty tick or two.
Below is the inside of a thick stem of jewelweed. The kids brought some back to examine under the microscope.
Homeschool Field Trip Families
Here, families enjoy lunch on the second level of the treehouse, and enjoy their hike through the Bioreserve. I tried to only post photos here that don't give away the identity of the families since I forgot to ask permission to post photos.
Ash Tree: Fraxinus americana
Invasive Oriental Bittersweet Vine: Celastrus orbiculatus
In the first photo above, you can see the vine twisting and creeping along. It had a long end extending beyond the host plant, seeking out another host plant. Dennis and kids had fun wrapping it around a neck - vicious strangling species that it is haha!!
In the second photo you can see bittersweet trailing up a host tree, and in the third photo above you can see the results of its growth on a tree. It compresses the bark, strangling it almost, and causes the tree trunk to grow in those twisty patterns that look like it was squeezed out of a soft icecream maker. Dennis said he had torn the vines off that tree in a previous year.
Both bittersweets have berries containing seeds that the birds, especially the blue birds, enjoy. The vines with their golden and red berries also make beautiful autumn wreaths. But if you're going to plant it, make sure you get the American species!
Wild Grape Vines: Vitus vulpina
Common Reed or Phragmites australis
Mayapple: Podophyllum peltatum
Beech Tree: Fagus grandifolia
In the fourth picture above, Dennis is pointing out another distinctive feature of Ginkgo: its leaves grow directly off of the trunk rather than on branches or stems of their own.
Ginkgo samples have been found dating back over three million years in China, if Wikipedia is at all reliable. In any case, it was around with the dinasaurs, making it one of our oldest surviving plant species. Dennis explained that it has outlasted every parasite and pest and is extremely hardy.
He also told us that when people first started importing it as an ornamental for its exotic shaped foliage, they didn't know the difference between female and male species. In fact, when the plant is young you can't tell - except with lab work that didn't exist back in the 19th century. Eventually it became quite useful to differentiate and only import male species. In fact, that's all you can buy today at a plant nursery. Why? The female produces a fruit that has a very unpleasant, pungent odor! The Bioreserve is one of the few places around (maybe the only?) that has both male and female species. As a result, it abounds in itty, bitty, baby Ginkgos! (Is it ok if I think they're cute?!) In the fifth photo above is a sprouting Ginkgo seed and in the sixth photo are a few of the many Ginkgo babies.
In addition to being an ancient and just plain cool survivor, Ginkgo biloba is also highly medicinal. Maybe its ancient wisdom helps us to live and survive in this world. Touted as "the brain herb" it's great for memory, Alzheimers, dementia, Raynaud's symptom, anxiety, glaucoma, and more.
The honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
Needless to say, the kids found the thorns pretty cool!
Back in the Miscroscopy Lab
Super Crazy Creepy Crawly!!!
Diversity: We viewed a great diversity of plant species on the Bioreserve fieldtrip. We also saw how various species imported into a new environment will act. This was especially interesting since the Corning Estate used to have extensive gardens and now was all growing mostly wild. Diversity was also seen back in the lab when we looked at the invisible single celled organism living on the leaf and examined pond water, jewelweed liquid, pinecones, ticks, and many other parts of the ecosystem.
Innovation: Innovation was exhibited in finding the Bioreserve, organizing the field trip; and using both microscopes and field work to interest children in botany.
Stewardship: I think one of the things that stood out most to me was seeing the impact of the Oriental bittersweet and learning about how the phragmites can destroy an ecopsystem. This drove home the need for stewardship and healthy ecosystems. Also, I think anytime you get kids outside, loving and enjoying nature, you're doing great work for future stewardship and preservation!
Community: This field trip was intensely community oriented! I developed a relationship first with Dennis and then brought together homeschoolers from about an hour radius, some of whom knew each other and many who didn't, to the Bioreserve. We talked about what sort of learning experiences we'd like there in the fall, and I'll be further organizing a class or classes - either weekly in October and/or perhaps a monthly class.
In conclusion, the Bioreserve fieldtrip was an amazing experience and garnered wide praise from numerous families. What I shared above is only touching on the surface of all that we saw and experienced. There was also an old orchard and white cedars grown ornamentally around the old estate now towering overhead. There were mulberry trees, wildflowers, and of course animals. There was talk of picking up on a study U. Albany had done in conjunction with the Bioreserve, looking at water quality flowing into two ravines, one where water drains off a highway and one with natural water flow. The water at the point of convergence would also be interesting to study. The Bioreserve is indeed a diverse place for learning in more ways than one!
I'll leave you with one final picture, taken from my car window on the way out, of a cedar waxwing, enjoying a few underripe mulberries.