Conservation and Country Schools

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Published on: May. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

When I was hired by the Conservation Department as an education advisor in 1951, my assignment was specific: work with teachers and students to promote long-term conservation of Missouri's soils, waters, forests and wildlife. My job had me visiting elementary schools of various sizes, both public and private.

I especially liked getting out into rural areas and visiting one-room schools, the likes of which have gone the way of the passenger pigeon.

Missouri had thousands of such schools, where one teacher was responsible for one classroom of stair-stepped kids, grades one through eight. Furnishings were sparse, teaching materials were limited and the kids usually walked to and from school carrying lunch pails. On wintry days, heating stoves were tricky to adjust, and water pipes-if indeed there was indoor plumbing-were at risk of freezing. My visits typically began with a knock on the schoolhouse door.

"Come right on in," the teacher would say while the kids craned their necks. Though I might visit only once a year, I was always welcomed as the "conservation man." After apologizing for breaking up lesson work (cheerfully accepted, of course), I talked to the youngsters, answered questions, showed a conservation film from a heavy and bulky projector and concluded by leaving some conservation booklets with the teacher.

Students' questions often revealed something about how their parents viewed conservation. At one Ozark school a boy got laughs from his classmates by asking me how to telephone fish. He obviously was referring to the illegal practice of shocking fish in a stream by working an old fashioned crank telephone. I could not allow such a charged question to go by without some response, so I simply answered, "Go to the nearest phone and dial FISH."

I made as many as four visits per day and often learned as much as the kids. Back then there were eight education advisors employed by the Conservation Department (today they are known as consultants), and we thought of ourselves as itinerant preachers for conservation.

My crusading message to kids can be summed up this way: learn to care for the soil that feeds you, also care for the streams, woodlands and the habitat needs of wildlife. I told them to obey the hunting and fishing laws and not to burn the woods every spring, the way their grandpas used to do.

Back then, residents burned degraded Ozark woodlands in attempts to grow grass for open-range livestock. It took some folks years to recognize the hard truth that woods are not good pastures and that cows are terrible foresters. We did our best to get that message across in one-room schools. Yet we have since learned that the burning of certain lands, under carefully timed and controlled conditions, can actually improve habitat for wildlife. Practical conservation is a never-ending learning process.

My visits to schools, though routinely tiresome, did open other doors. Prior to 1960, teachers could participate in a program known as the Missouri Nature Knights, based somewhat on the Boy Scout merit badge system. The program rewarded rural youngsters for learning about and practicing good conservation. Teachers and 4-H leaders depended on me to help with this program.

Each spring the Conservation Department asked me to deliver seedling trees and supervise the kids planting them on school grounds. I learned that there is no hands-on conservation lesson better than planting trees.

As an itinerant conservationist, I often was called upon to present evening programs at one-room schools. On one such occasion my talk and conservation movie was preceded by a box supper aimed at raising funds for classroom supplies. As tradition dictated, girls of various ages placed their gift-wrapped meals on the teacher's desk for auctioning. Boys then had to bid competitively for the chance to share the meal. As an outsider who had eaten earlier, I watched with detached amusement until the teacher talked me into bidding for a certain box. The teacher said the girl who brought it was much too shy to attract bidders. So I placed my bid and, though the girl was indeed too shy for making conversation, I do recall that her pecan pie was quite tasty.

During a period of three years, I made six visits to a one-room school whose teacher was a Nature Knights sponsor and true devotee of conservation. The extent of his devotion became clear to me when he requested a conservation program for the community's annual Christmas party. When I was about to enter the schoolhouse, three men stopped me at the door and told me that I would have to be Santa Claus.

There was no escape. The men led me to the woodshed, helped me get padded and costumed, presented me with a sack of candy and told me to wait for a signal. It was cold out there, so when they beckoned, I rushed in with a loud "Ho! Ho! Ho!" I asked all the kids if they'd been good and threw them candy. Well into my act, I patted the teacher on his bald head and asked the kids if he had been good. Everyone cheered wildly. When the party was over, I finally showed a film about wildlife. It was, I hasten to boast, the performance of my lifetime-and all for conservation.

Some of the ungraded one-room schools were better than others, but in all of them, teachers had at least one advantage: Nature was just outside their doorstep and the kids could observe it daily. Most of the kids grew up on farms and had their roots in the soil.

Today's schools have many material advantages over the schools of the past, but they face the difficulty of instilling respect for land, nature and the outdoors in children from suburbs and cities, rather than farms. It's harder for these kids to connect to the outdoors.

The Conservation Department's education consultants continue to bring lessons about the natural world and its importance to classrooms. They work with teachers to develop "natural" curriculums and make available study materials.

You can help, too. There is probably no better way to get children interested in the outdoors than to have a parent or relative take them fishing or camping or just for a walk in the woods. Kids and nature get along fine, once they are introduced to one another.

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