Edge High School and the smell of water

On October 16, 2019, 9 students from Edge High School found themselves in the Santa Catalina Mountains ready to hike the Arizona Trail. Hiking from the Gabe Zimmerman Trailhead, our mission was to spend the day learning about the Sonoran Desert by observing adaptations, ecosystems as they relate to watershed, and the different types of flora and fauna. This was 1 of 5 expeditions for Edge, and all but one student were new to Seeds of Stewardship. This was a day that would test the student’s understanding of the outdoor classroom as the heat, the terrain, and the learning was all different and more challenging then they were used to or expected. 

The sun was thick on our skin when we stepped out of the van. This would be a constant theme of our day, and like most animals, we would spend our time searching for shade as we scavenged for knowledge. In the shade, we discussed the goals for the day, the ways we would learn, safety, and did introductions. Each student shared a personal intention for the trip. Some intentions were about fitness, others learning. Some students just wanted to get outside and see what pretty places were in the desert. These intentions came to the right place. I was confident that the students would get what they came for here in the Cienega Creek area. 

The landscape was lush with vibrant greens from leaves, skins, and barks. The sky held a deep blue which made the purple of the distant mountains pop. All around us were a variety of plants that were specialists to the dry and hot environment we were in. “What do you think the name of this biome is?” This question came after we broke down the meaning of biome. I told them to look around and use the landscape for clues. In sarcastic but obviously uncertain voices answeres came back  as questions “I don’t know, green and pokey?” “Dry and sharp?” “Pain and danger?” I suggested Thorn-Scrub, giving them credit because they weren’t far off. I explained that when trying to learn about a landscape, the obvious is often correct, its just a matter of observing as many qualities as possible and understanding that each quality affects the other. On this note, we began to look at plants a little closer. 

We paused next to a young saguaro growing under a mesquite tree. Together we discussed the cause and effect of nursery trees (A tree that provides shelter for young cacti) and their orphan cacti. The students are used to seeing saguaros, and they understand them to be tough and resilient plants. Learning that young cacti need shade, warmth, and help to collect moisture was surprising. Moving upward, we examined the leaves of the mesquite tree and broke down the cause and effects of “leaflets”. The small leaves were fun to play with as students fingered them around. The lesson showed that rather than a large broadleaf, some plants have adapted to have many little ones, only sacrificing minor surface areas but gaining more water receptivity and heat resilience. On the mesquite sat a 6-inch desert centipede. The students squirmed. The centipede was eating a moth slowly, and using the backside as shade. It must have been hunting the sleeping moths. Here we experienced three different systems, with a variety of adaptations to a variety of causes. 

As we hiked, we continued to explore plants and their adaptations. Eventually, we came to an arroyo (dry riverbed which floods seasonally). We found an arizona willow tree that hosted lush green grass in its shade. It was here we quenched our thirst for shade and a snack. I prompted the students to look and observe the differences in plants and climate. As we looked around, it became clear we were not in the same place as before. “There are more trees with bigger leaves” said one student. There was more grass, more open places for dirt, more bugs and birds. I explained to the students that although there was no visible water, there was still flowing water beneath the surface. I explained that arroyos flow when we get seasonal rain and snow. “If the water is flowing still, which direction do you think it might be going?” This was the first clue that there might be surface water somewhere. I told the students it was going to take special observation to find water in the desert. Quickly they began searching and stopped when they noticed the plants in the middle of the arroyo were all bent in a single direction. We let the plants lead the way.

The sun was oppressive. Though the air was smooth and cool, the wind was none. No clouds in the sky to stop the sharp and thick rays of the sun. Cooking is a simple way to say it. The walls that contained the arroyo stood 10ft at some places. Decorations of roots hung down their walls as each year floods remove more soil. We found slices of shade in these places, and in them, we found signs of life. Holes perforated the walls, and in them were the animals smarter than us, hiding from the sun. We pressed on, moving as a group forward. In the distance, students noticed massive trees, their leaves rattling and shining like a beacon. Our paces quickened. When we reached them, they made a stipe of shade beneath their canopies, and we dove in. Once covered, we looked around and saw a completely different world. 

Freemont Cottonwoods, the largest trees in Arizona, stood canopy to canopy as far as we could see. Under them,  smaller plants carpeted the ground or added a secondary canopy layer. Searching for water, we found it in the form of wet muddy soil. There was a tinge of disappointment in all of our faces. Other things had visited these wet places too. Tracks of all types were pressed in like hieroglyphs, a sign-in sheet for the thirsty, a list of the community. Coyotes, rabbits, skunks, coatimundi, bobcat, mountain lion….black bear. These are just a few of the animals that live here. The students were surprised and a little fearful. I told them that the valley floor is just too hot for many animals like the black bear, to live happy and healthy. Animals use riparian gallery forests as refuge, habitat, and migration routes. The mountains around us provide a destination for migrating animals, and riparian areas are like arteries leading animals to them.  

We spent a good amount of time wandering, eating lunch, and resting in the shade. When we finished our food, we sat and talked about the greater system of this place. We compared it, to the arroyo, and both to the thorn-scrub biome we first moved through. I explained that all three provide different foods, shelters, and life. Each one needed each other but acted very differently. Some animals even used them as resting places as they migrate across the world. This was an enlightening lesson for the students. Often we can focus narrowly on a place, and not see its larger impacts and roles. We were another piece to the ecological puzzle. Here, resing, enjoying the sound of cottonwood leaves and the cool nature of shade. We were human learners with a mission to learn about this place and its personality. We were here as tourists, only admiring the grit and culture, not to live it. The students were happy to of spent time in the outdoor classroom, learning all it had to share. This being the first expedition, these students were now prepared to explore ever further.