Docent's Delight

            I am having trouble remembering when my short-term memory was better than it is today, but I’m pretty sure that my long-term memory is as good now as it ever was. So how could I have forgotten about the unquenchable effervescence of seven-year-olds in groups? Finding myself in charge of two-dozen first graders on their field trip into the mountains quickly brought back the memory and put it into the sharpest focus. My actual head count was twenty-seven, my share of the 80+ seven-year-olds from the primary school in San Jacinto Amilpas who were bussed up to La Mesita for their end-of-term educational outing.

During the first twenty minutes after the uniformed San Jacinteños streamed out of their busses, which was how long it took their teachers to corral most of them into La Mesita’s welcome pavilion, I made three observations that only grew stronger as the day wore on:



1. First-grade teachers belong at the highest end of the pay

scale for educators.


2. Though I spent my 40+-year career in education in many venues and in a wide variety of roles, several of them stressful, I wouldn’t have lasted a week in the first grade.


            3. Even if the wells of Mexico’s national petroleum company Pemex should go dry, there is enough surplus energy in the nation’s first graders run the entire country. And it is a renewable resource.


            This was my sixth stint in May as docent at La Mesita, the six-hectare educational center that is the gateway to San Pablo Etla’s 4,000-hectare mountain forest preserve. I’ve had first graders, third graders, university students, and miscellaneous adult groups.

San Pablo has encouraged visits by school groups from all over the Central Valleys and over the whole age range, from first graders to university students. The Mesita staff handle tours for most of the local folks. Eco-minded foreign visitors —both scientists and tourists— are also beginning to come, hence the usefulness of a docent with some language skills. Jim Austin, who has been involved in La Mesita since its inception nearly ten years ago, has handled most of that, but as the traffic has increased, he has roped me in and led me through a brief training session. Jim has gone north for the few months leading to the mid-term elections, so for now the non-resident portfolio is mine. And I’ve taken on a share of the large school groups, too.


            I love it.


Frequently, and ideally, on the tour I will be accompanied by one or more of the members of the Comisariato de Bienes Comunales, which is the San Pablo Etla governing body for communal resources, some of whom are serving as La Mesita staff. Currently three of them are full time up there, and they receive a small salary from the Comisariato. Comisariato members have spent their whole lives on these lomas and in these mountains and for the most part they are encyclopedically-knowledgeable about trees, shrubs, and animal and forest husbandry, and they have developed deep skills in the techniques of conservation. I am thankful for having been able to enroll myself in such an advanced seminar in ecological fieldwork. But the more I docent, the clearer it is that my almost total lack of practical knowledge about the flora and fauna of these mountains and about soil and water conservation is paralleled by their inexperience with the techniques of pedagogy. I think that my core assignment, which is to help fill that void, is one reason for Jim’s encouraging me to assume this role.


A lot of it is simple stuff, ingrained and automatic if you’ve been teaching for 40+ years and are used to taking students on educational treks. Like when a tour member shouts a question at you, turn to face her before you start to talk. And wait for the group to gather around you before you answer. And repeat the question. And direct your remarks to the person farthest away from you. And slow down the high-speed train of your usual speech pattern to something closer to horse and buggy.

And more complicated stuff, like focusing your interactions to the grade-level and background of the visitors.

And other things that are not so immediately intuitive. How not to lecture at, but to interact with. How to implant a couple of ideas to serve as tools for your students to reason with, and then how to reinforce those ideas by pointing out situations where they can use those ideas and tools to tell you why the things they are seeing are the way they are.


That said, unless your audience lives in the world of pedagogy, that is probably too abstract to actually try to talk about. Better to model those behaviors, and then, when the occasion rises, make explicit what you’re doing and why? (What a gas all this is; almost if I were employed again!)


So here’s the structure we tried out on the first-graders:


Right after the Hellos, challenge them with a question: “You guys know about plants: what do plants need to grow?”

Chorus of answers all shouted out at once: “Sunlight. Dirt. Water. Seeds.”

“OK, seeds we can get. Sunlight comes from the sun, and it’s always up there. But dirt: look how bare and rocky the hillside in this ten-year-old picture is (at the welcome center there are two photos, the bare Mesita desert of ten years ago, and the scrubby green of today).

And look up there: there are parts that are still pretty bare. I guess we’re going to have to find some more dirt somewhere to build this place up even more.”

Planned activity: “So I’m going to take you on a treasure hunt. We’re going to look for places where and how we can get some dirt.”


Follow-up question: “You told me that plants need water. Where does the water come from?”

            “Rivers.” (“Way up here?”) “Well, no . . . maybe…” “The rain?”

Focus 2: “Right: rain. You all know, a nice gentle rain, everything gets wet and it soaks into the ground. But when it rains really hard, super hard like last year in the rainy season, what happens?”

“It all runs into the street” “It floods.” “It makes ruts in our road.” “The garbage comes down.” “Our house got wet.”

“And the water gets dirty and brown, right?”


 “And then when it dries out . .?”

 “It leaves big puddles of mud.” “Yuk.”


Recap: “So when the water runs fast it’s bad for us: sweeps things away, digs holes, floods things, and it’s moving too fast to sink into the ground. And when it runs s-l-o-w-l-y, it sinks in, it sinks in where the plants can drink it, and it leaves the dirt it’s carrying on top while it’s sinking in. So we have to figure out ways to slow down the fast moving water so it won’t do harm, and hold on to as much of the slow moving water as we can so it will be there for the plants to drink.

Planned activity 2: “On our hike were going to look for the kinds of things the Mesita people did to do those two things: slow down the water; get back the dirt.  I bet we can find at least 10 different ways.”


Launch: “And I’ll get us started because here’s the first one, right here. It’s called a gavion”; it’s that little wall made of round stones, like the ones you find sometimes in the street, held in by that chicken wire. And there’s a little trench leading right up to the gavion. So, —and this question is for people under ten years old (because now the teachers and the moms are on the treasure hunt, too)—who can tell me how this gavion works?”


Two reactions: the kids’ faces are lighting up as they shout out their answers. And the other adults are nodding their heads in an “Oh, yeah . . .” sort of way. 


Over the next two hours we really do find 10+ other ways the Mesita project has intervened in the landscape –cheap ways, low tech ways, things any community could implement- and for the most part the first-graders, with the help of some leading questions, can see them and explain the basic science of how and why they work.  This means those who are at that particular moment paying attention, and are not whining that they’re hungry or need to pee, or punching each other, or are there snakes? (“Yes, but I’ve never seen one.”), and will we see a puma? (“No, but the camera traps prove they’re up there.”)


            What could be more fun than this?!


            My personal favorite moment? When we stopped at a place where there were five trees that were twice as tall as any we had seen anywhere else. The answers to my question of “why” tumbled out: à “Somebody planted them.” “Space men!” “It’s a different kind of tree.” “All the others got cut down.”

            And then one tiny girl, who as we hiked had mostly placed herself near the front of the line, said: à “Because it’s flat here, and the water didn’t run off, but it sunk into the ground for the trees to drink, and left the dirt it was carrying here for the trees to grow in.”

            Twenty years from now, assuming I’m still around, I’d expect to see this one, with a newly minted PhD, leading 2038’s crop of seven-year-olds around La Mesita. 


            And as for La Mesita itself – the nursery for stocking reforestation and the preservation of threatened species, the butterfly house, the leaning tower, the lorena stoves, the dry toilets, the trap cameras, the Ecological Commitment Overlook, the medicinal plant area, Noah’s Ark, the Real Architecture Workshop, the eco-sculpture garden, and the wonderful people who have invented, built, and staff them—I expect that each part of the whole, in time, will be subject of another blog. And if you show up here personally and give me fifteen minutes notice, I’d be delighted to accompany you on your tour.