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When the white eagle of the North is flying overhead
And the browns, reds and golds of autumn lie in the gutter dead
Remember then the summer birds with wings of fire flame
Come to witness spring's new hope, born of leaves, decaying

Songwriters: Graeme Edge / Janis Ian



I hold the utmost respect for good teachers of young humans. The younger the humans, the greater the respect held.

My own experience with teaching children has, for the most part, been confined to interaction with youth in my own family. One notable exception to this statement may serve as a story illustrating one aspect of circle of life.

When one refers to "The Circle of Life", it seems to usually be in reference to the cycle of life and death as it applies to humans or their beloved animals (or to the Elton John/Tim Rice song from The Lion King animated Disney film). Indulge me as I recount how the "notable exception" mentioned above took a slightly different approach to circle of life.

My job description at Queen Wilhelmina State Park did not include doing an educational program for home schooled, middle school age children. They asked me to anyway. I was a Water Technician and (occasional) maintenance worker. These random assignments were covered by the ODAA part of the job description. I chose to view the assignment as an opportunity and spent a fair amount of time (we were given a few days notice) thinking about what I would demonstrate.

We were informed that the kids would be taking a short hike through the forest on the Pioneer Cemetery Trail. The three employees (myself and two others) who were assigned to "do a nature talk" were going to accompany the kids, who would also be chaperoned by some of the parents who were homeschooling them. Our topics were left pretty much up to us.

For my presentation, I chose a small open area beneath hardwood trees which formed a cover with their branches over our heads. There were eight children in the group so I told them that I would be asking questions, could they please raise their hand if they wanted to answer. I also explained that these were discussion questions and that there were no "wrong" answers.

I chose a spot where the leaves were forming a nice cover on the ground and carefully pulled aside the top layer of leaves from about two square feet. I told the students that the leaves were a little like a calendar or history book and we were going to look back in time a few years. I asked the kids, who had gathered around me in a circle, what year they thought that the leaves I had moved aside came from. The first answer was, "This year". "Good answer", I said, "but actually this year's leaves are still green and on the tree" (the field trip was held in late spring). Several kids chimed in together and said, "Last year!".

Moving along, I carefully peeled back the partly decayed leaves that had formed a thin mat lying right under the leaves just removed. Although partly decomposed, the leaves were still easily recognizable as such. "What year did these leaves fall?", I quizzed them. One girl's hand shot up. "Year before last!", she answered confidently. She was rather overweight and wore glasses. Let's call her Betty. "Correct", I said. We talked about nature's workers a bit and Betty led with, "Bacteria!". Her hand shot up with each question and I told her I knew she had the answers but we needed to give the others a chance. Insects, earthworms, fungi, etc. were discussed briefly.

One layer more and we were down to four year old "leaves" (no longer recognizable) which had been reduced to a paper thin dark layer of organic soil on top of (mostly) mineral soil. Once we had identified the year (they had the pattern down now!), I asked them what had happened to the previous year's leaves. Even Betty was stumped now. While still looking around at the group of students, I pointed straight up. I was afraid Betty was going to scream as she waved her hand wildly. "Yes, Betty?". Now she gets shy. "They turned into new leaves?", she asked tentatively. "That is correct", I said. I then explained how the trees' roots absorbed nutrients from the broken down leaves, in water, as food and with sunlight providing energy, produced both wood, and a new crop of leaves to start the cycle again. Circle of life.

The following day a line supervisor told me that the children had been asked before leaving whose program they had liked best. They unanimously chose mine. That really made my day.