Monday, May 25, 2009

Into the Past, a Day at Easterlin Park

Easterlin Park,
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
Every Child Outside -ECO- Explorers
May, 2009

Visiting Easterlin Park in Ft. Lauderdale is like taking a step back in time.

It is a place of cultural and historical significance, being that the park was Broward County's first inland regional park - originally acquired in 1944 and named Cypress Park. The park didn't open to the public until 1965 and was later renamed after John Easterlin, a notoriously outspoken county commissioner.

It's story goes back even further in time - the knowledge of those years held in the memory of the ancient grove of Cypress trees that make Easterlin Park home, some of the trees having lived as long as 250 years! In that span of time - droughts, floods, hurricanes, and fires plowed their way through the forest - clearing out some of the foliage and trees, but leaving others standing. Wild animals hunted amongst the trees - maybe a panther found a deer, or a bear some berries; humans fought wars, chopped down thousands of cypress trees - up and down the coast, and bulldozed and paved; but, the trees here at Easterlin Park are still standing!

Up in northern Florida, there is a Cypress tree over 1,000 years old! Yes, that is old in comparison to what is left here in S. Florida; but, I am stunned and honored to know that trees more than two hundred years old still reside here, in the very well-developed land known as Southeast Florida. Everywhere else, the natural lands have been bulldozed over and over, paved, and covered with strip malls and houses.

Old growth trees (whether they are 100 years old or 1,000) instill a sense of awe in us. I spent many wonderful hours sitting beneath the gargantuan beauty of the Redwoods when I lived in California, allowing my imagination to visualize what it may have been like to be under the same tree hundreds of years before.

The awe-inspiring feeling reminds us humans of how small we are, and how big the world is...and how magnificent. I don't feel belittled because of their enormity (not only in size, mind you), I feel empowered and full of wonder and warmth knowing they are still with us, sharing air and energy.

It is hard for young children to conceptualize hundreds of years, but when you tell them that the trees were here in this very spot way before TV and internet and computers and even phones and cars, they kind of "get it"! I think our group "got it" or thought seriously about it anyway. It is a mind-expanding idea!

As soon as the kids stepped out of their cars and into this world of trees, they were impressed by the beauty and wisdom of the place. After playing amongst the trees and at the playground, we began our day.

So that the kids could enjoy a sense of autonomy, I set up a "burma shave" hike for the first part of the nature walk. I learned about "burma shaves" in California as an outdoor educator. The story is that there used to be billboards along the highway advertising for "Burma Shave Cream"; each consecutive sign said something new, leading up to the final slogan. These billboards were before my time, so I never saw them myself.

For hiking purposes, the idea is to have instructions written on cards on the ground for the hikers to follow as they go along the trail. I wrote things like, "smile", or "hug this tree", or "walk like your favorite animal", along with informative tidbits about the forest, hints to observing things - like spider webs, and the aforementioned silly stuff.

Overall, the burma shave, or card hike, went well. It is relatively new to most of the families in my class, so there were a few bumps in the road, but it allowed the kids to walk on their own or with a partner and really "experience" the woods.

We ended at a wonderful, enchanted tree - a home to the woodland fairies known to frequent the forest (there are always fairies in old growth forests!).

The kids were able to climb and explore, some kids got really high up - a freeing and empowering experience!

The trail itself is lovely - a sweet surprise! I knew to expect old, burly Cypress trees, but what I didn't expect was the Royal Palms. They dot the forest, creating a tropical, almost Jurassic Park-feel. The palms are native here in South Florida and are extremely endangered in the wild. Another great place to see them in all their wild royal glory is down at Fakahatchee Strand near Naples.

Ferns, Elderberry, Dahoon Holly and Wild Coffee make up the understory of the forest at Easterlin Park; Strangler Figs hang down in all kinds of weird shapes and sizes - this time of year speckling the forest floor with beautiful pink and white flower petals; and Red Maple and Cabbage Palms fill in the middle, being a bit shorter than the Royal Palms and Cypress. The trail is sandy in the more upland areas, complete with a Gopher Tortoise burrow near the back; on lower ground, the forest floor is muddy and mucky - due to flooding from the once free-flowing Middle Canal (used to be known as Middle River). When the canal was a river, it would flood in the rainy season, causing the Cypress forest to flood, a condition that Cypress thrive on.

The theme for this class was photosynthesis - the method a tree uses to create their food for energy. It is a fascinating and complex process, but one that children love to learn. They innately understand the importance of trees, but when they realize how connected we are - that what they breathe out (CO2) helps the tree, and what the tree "breathes" out (O2) helps us, they understand on another level and respect and appreciate the trees more.

We played photosynthesis tag, a wonderful game where the children play the different parts present during the photsynthesis process, like: sunlight, chlorophyll, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and oxygen - each part represented by a different color headband; the object is for the children chase each other and to link together in order to create carbohydrates, or sugar. The game takes for ever to explain - twice as long as the actual game, but it really solidifies their learning so that when they play the game, it is like a light bulb going off in their brains, it clicks and they say,"aha, I get it now, I see how plants photosynthesize", and they remember it.

With every tree that is touched and every plant that is named, an understanding develops and love and appreciation and respect grows.

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