ATA Ambassador Program: New Perspectives

On November 1st, 2020, The Arizona Trail Ambassadors gathered under Cienega Creeks Riparian Gallery Forest canopy. This was our third trip together, and the group seemed more confident and comfortable. The landscape was beginning to change as winter approached. In the Sonoran Desert, seasonal changes are observed in daily temperature swings, systematic flower blooms, and odd rains; unlike other places which see deciduous trees changing their colors and carpeting the ground in a mosaic of reds, oranges, and yellows. For desert people, this is a perspective not often experienced, and seeking new perspectives was our goal.


So far, our EE methodology studies have moved through interpretive learning and storytelling as an educational modality. To build on the Ambassador’s development as environmental educators, they needed to understand how to interpret something from multiple perspectives to best understand it, and how to redeliver it to others. This is critical because the Ambassadors are not just educators of the environment, they are activists. Both require the educator to be able to speak from an organism’s perspective as much as they do about the organism. This is modern environmental education, which asks an educator to consider an organism as a biological individual, and not just a scientific object or societal resource. In this way, the Ambassadors work to understand ecology through individuality, community, phenology, and evolution. To put yourself into the neural network of another organism, especially those that are so different from ourselves, is nearly impossible to do without anthropomorphism. With this understanding, we guided the Ambassadors through our scientific understanding of each organism and their ecological relationships to their communities and worked to remove our human bias. 


How does one understand their bias? After some time hiking, we found ourselves in an aquatic wonderland. The cool perennial water system ran above ground and around our legs, and we navigated our way around large cattail reeds, lots of moss and algae, gila topminnow, and lowland leopard frogs. It was here that we decided to find a seat on a small island in the creek to discuss the many ways to learn. Science is the dominant perspective in environmental education, and this can be problematic. Western science is relatively new compared to indigenous sciences and traditional methods of learning and understanding. Science is often placed on a pedestal and regarded as the superior way to understand and learn. Though science is an undeniably phenomenal method of learning and understanding, other perspectives and ways to learn should not be excluded or regarded as inferior. As educators, our perspectives must be open to many ways of thinking and understanding so we ourselves can gain a broader understanding and provide a broader way of communicating to more diverse audiences. It is never wrong to provide many perspectives about a single topic, and it was this lesson that was most important for our ambassadors to learn on this day.


How can we learn from and about a tree? Together, the group discussed scientific, spiritual, philosophical, indigenous scientific, relational, and other ways to contemplate and study a nearby tree. It was hard at first, but soon it became clearer and easier for the group to learn, understand, relate, and contemplate about the tree. This was deeply eye-opening for our group, many of whom have rejected “antiquated” thinking for modern practices of learning. We did not glorify one method of learning over another but simply placed them all on an even plane, allowing each to be a tool accessible for one to study and learn. Environmental education is more than just the scientific understanding of biology and ecology because it includes all of the time, all species, all cultures, all beliefs, and all ways of learning. Environmental educators need to be able to understand the many ways people relate, bond, and understand a place, so they can advocate and educate about it and for it adequately.


Sitting on our island, contemplating the many ways to learn, our thinking was interrupted. With a splash, our attention was gathered and focused on the disruption. There, a juvenile cooper’s hawk squatted only 20 yards from us bathing. The longer it stayed, the more comfortable it was, and together we shared an incredible moment. We watched it open its feathers to absorb cool water. We watched it scoop the life liquid into its beak, and stretch its neck out far to let the cool water flow into its belly. We saw it contemplate and sit in patience as it relaxed into its surroundings. It was only fitting that nature might provide such an isolated and attention-grabbing experience after a discussion about diverse perspectives. We used this moment as an interpretive learning opportunity and looked to see how we could learn from this hawk. I shared scientific understandings and knowledge, cultural understandings, and together we discussed the philosophical and spiritual things we might learn at this moment. It truly was the perfect teaching opportunity.


After some time, the hawk beat its wings and powered itself into a glide through the forest understory. We gathered ourselves and walked in science back to our vehicles. It was a wonderful day outdoors in the gorgeous Cienega Creek Riparian Area. With the seasons transitioning, we lived fully in the moment, contemplating and perceiving the landscape in as many ways as we could. An open mind is an evolutionary advantage for our species. Teaching too is a dominant factor in our success as a species, so it is only natural we should teach and learn how to have an open mind. Adaptive thinking has brought us this far, and it is adaptive thinking that will take us forward into a healthy existence.