A recent trip to Mt. Agamenticus in Southern Maine was a lesson for even this highly optimistic wetland enthusiast. I would never have thought my children (a seven-year-old son and three-year-old daughter) would understand, let alone get excited about, vernal pools. I was wrong. Our hike in Maine demonstrated the power of quality education and outreach tools to convey complex scientific topics and garner unexpected enthusiasm for creatures that don’t fit into the coveted category of “charismatic mega-fauna.”
Earlier this year, ASWM hosted (and I was lucky enough to get to moderate) an international webinar on wetland centers. The webinar was put on by Wetland Link International (WLI) and brought speakers together from three countries to discuss best practices for developing high quality wetland centers. Their recently published handbook is a great tool for those thinking about how to connect the public with wetlands and deliver different types of educational tools, while also protecting the wetland environment, wetland functions and remaining financially viable as a nonprofit enterprise.
Our way up the mountain was focused on the activity of hiking, the blowing leaves, the snack and the water breaks. At the top, we looked out upon a vista that included the White Mountains, coastal Maine and Boston. Very impressive! We were a little sun-baked, we decided to quickly check out the nature center at the top. It was small and, as parents, our expectations were low. After climbing some dimly lit stairs, we entered an engaging interpretive environment. My son ran his hands over a raised topographic map, he became engrossed by an array of animal droppings that had been petrified and put on display. Both picked up plaster molds of animal paw prints and oooohed and aaaaahed over a coveted garter snake skin.
An interpretive guide came over and got down on her knees and asked them if they had any questions. Rather than a lame obligatory question or perhaps even dreaded sullen silence, both kids were bubbling over with questions. What kind of snake used to live in this skin? Do they live here on the mountain? Could they see one? What about that pelt? What kind of animal had that fur? The delighted guide was kind and answered all their questions. She even encouraged them to sign in their observations in a notebook at the top. They ran over and in scrawled writing (befitting interpretation with a Rosetta stone) my son’s snake siting was documented for all time. She congratulated them on contributing to scientific documentation. They were bursting with pride.
We then moved over to a series of interpretive signs. Basically, the signs talked about a special kind of pool that is only filled with water part of the year. These pools are used by amphibians (frogs and salamanders) to lay their eggs. They are very important to helping them live and have babies. They are called “vernal pools.” Mt. Agementicus is home to the largest number of vernal pools in the state. Honestly, even though I am a wetland professional, I had not known of the area’s claim to wetland fame as vernal pool heaven. After reading more about them, the kids cheered “I want to see one! Show us!” I reminded them that they were mostly dry now and that the only way we would see salamanders would be to look under logs.
They were undaunted. The easy way down the mountain would have been the roadway, but no way was my son going to miss out on his vernal pool treasure hunt. So for the next 45 minutes, thanks to the great interpretive signage and a superbly inspiring guide, we looked under logs for salamanders, we spotted dried up vernal pools, and we talked about what amphibians are and their life cycles. We never found a single salamander, but thanks to understanding what he was looking for, we found several mostly dry vernal pools – muddy indentations on the landscape that we had passed by unknowingly and decidedly uncaringly just an hour before.
I am not sure that I would have made a focused effort to teach my kids about the specifics of vernal pools at the ages of seven and three. In my own mind, the concept of a vernal pool is complex and efforts to protect them complicated. But thanks to the right combination of information and delivery, I was entirely wrong about that. We sometimes get so caught up in the science and technology, the terminology and the complexity of the regulatory systems we are trying to manage that we forget that getting someone to care isn’t always an impossibility. I would never in a million years have thought I’d hear: “Mom, take a picture of me with this vernal pool!” Someone else believed that the message could be heard. And I am grateful they did.
For more information, I encourage you to:
If you are in the northeast, explore vernal pools using these Indicator Species Identification Cards
If you are a teacher, learn what resources are available in your region. In California, the environmental nonprofit organization Splash provides a full vernal pool educational curriculum
Find out about the Mt. Agamenticus Conservation Region, conservation activities and trail system
Read children a wonderful story about the wildlife on Mt. Agamenticus both in the day and at night, called Forest Bright, Forest Night