Mansfeld Middle School at Cienega Creek

October was the month we explored water in the desert. Like most deserts, where there is water there is life. Often a dense and diverse range of species, even the same individuals, cohabitating in a very isolated area. For Seeds of Stewardship, the soft weather months become our time to migrate to this place, and we become a part of this ecosystems dynamic structure. On October 19th, 2018, 10 students from Mansfeld Middle School ventured south into the incredible Riparian Forests of Cienega Creek. Using an interpretive path, we explored low desert ecosystems, dry riverbeds, and perennial water systems. Our goal was to observe how water effects the desert by observing the different plants, animals, and sub-straights, while also talking about the greater diversity of the Sonoran Desert, and how the variety of animals use and depend on riparian areas.  

Our hike took us winding through traditional Sonoran Desert hills. Cienega Creek is considered a geographical boundary for the Sonoran Deserts eastward progression. This meant we were at a blending of biomes, with the distinctive saguaro sparse, and the ocotillo and yucca becoming the dominating fauna. We spent time talking about desert adaptations to drought and heat, how people traditionally use these plants, and how to use each sense to interpret the landscape. The creosote, the ocotillo, and the saguaro were of particular interest to the students. The students wanted to know why creosote smelled the way it did, and was surprised to learn of its medicinal relationship with people. They were fascinated by the way ocotillo leafed, how it “hibernates” during drought, and the vibrancy of its flowers. Just when they thought they understood the landscape, we traversed a steep and chossy slope down to a new and different landscape.

An arroyo is a riverbed that runs seasonally. Arroyos dominate Southern Arizona, and are avenues of travel, survival, and lethal force when sudden rains turn into flash floods. In this riverbed, we removed our shoes to properly feel the soft sub-straight, a rarity in this desert. We traveled along, witnessing the changes in plants that seemed out of place. Bright and thick carpets of green grasses sat on raised sand beds, mixed with tall seep-willow and water-loving plants such as the coyote squash. The students were slightly taken back by the difference in flora, and excitedly climbed on the exposed roots of mesquite trees and walked through the carpets of grasses. Beside us were the tall walls of the riverbanks. Here we spent some time observing sedimentary layering, analyzing the different soil types and creating our best guess as to what this place might have looked like 10,000, 100,000, and 1,000,000 years ago. Looking at the layering of this sort can allow students to see deep into time and imagine the desert during times of it’s woodland, tropical, and oceanic identities. This helps us understand the Sonoran Desert s an ever-changing landscape rather than a permanent force.

The dry arroyo soon converged with Cienega Creeks path. Tall cottonwoods stood side by side for miles creating a vibrantly green canopy. This tall ceiling of green provided much-needed relief from the sun, creating an ideal learning environment. Here we walked barefoot through the water, observing the minnow fish and insects that swam beneath the green moss and algae. The green canopy they swam under was a micromirror of the one we walked beneath. Moving from dry desert hills, to dry riverbeds mocked our thirst and need for water, to this oasis can be shocking. The students played on the creek banks and walked along logs. Together we sat and discussed the variety of animals that call this thin gallery forest their home. Bear, coatimundi, puma, skunks, and many others rely on creeks like this for migration and habitat. The students were surprised to learn that animals like this live here, making this place even more magical and contrasting to the urban environment than before.

This expedition was wonderful. The students were able to see contrasting landscapes all within a square mile of each other. Each place had its own distinct plants, animals, and ecosystem. The kids were able to understand the greater system, its change over large periods of time, and its makeup. Their understanding came from hands-onMa experience and exploration of the subjects we studied, and all within a school day. This is what I call education.