Mansfeld Middle School Cienega Creek

On November 22, 2019 12 students from Mansfeld Middle School arrived at the Gabe Zimmerman trailhead on the Arizona Trail. Our goal was to explore three general ecosystems represented here: Desert Thorn Scrub, Arroyo, Riparian Gallery Forest. These students were on their way to having an awesome adventure, without more than a clue of this areas awesomeness. They knew of our goals, and they had a hint that there might be some water, but most new visitors never expect what is to come.

We started our trip by sharpening our senses. Sitting in a circle, we all closed our eyes and began to listen. Students were instructed to isolate sounds, starting with the furthest and working their ears back to the closest. We listened to the loudest sounds and the quietest sounds. Then we opened our eyes and faced away from the center of the circle. Using the same exercise for listening, we adapted it to our sight, finding the furthest and closest objects and the tallest and the smallest. I asked them to observe the different shades of green, red, yellow, brown, and blue. This exercise helps students pause and become better aware of their environment. It teaches them how to observe, listen, pay attention and be silent outside. I expressed to them that the outdoors is our classroom, and our senses are the tools that help us understand and learn in this classroom.

Our march forward led us through a Desert Thorn-Scrub landscape. Using our senses, we analyzed biological adaptations that are key characteristics of arid desert landscapes, some that are endemic to the Sonoran Desert. Leaflets, dense bark, dormancy, photosynthesizing bark, nursery trees, cacti. These qualities have a distinct and sometimes sharp quality to them. This is the landscape students are most familiar with, so a lot of this info did not come as much of a surprise to them. Observing the physical qualities of this biome is wonderful, but superficial. To get a better understanding we imagined a great deal of water moving through the environment. Where would it go? We dug into the soil to see how dense it was. We considered the climate though all 5 seasons and wondered how rain affects this area, and the way plants grow in this area. Contrast and comparison is a great teacher, so we set off to find them. 

We diverted from our normal path and followed a little trail down to a wide arroyo. Here the flora was very different, and thus our movement and way of interacting with the landscape were different. Together we observed plants and their behaviors, trying to understand what was different and similar about this ecosystem. We did this as we walked east, stopping to observe animal tracks in the mud, sedimentary layers on the riverbanks, and interesting plants. On our way, we spotted something quite different. On a cliff face, a large yellow mass protruded from the dirt. Using our binoculars, we discovered a busy bee’s hive far from us. Because we were all safe, we spent some time looking at these bees, getting an understanding of their location. Why would they be here? What are they doing for this place? For most of these students, it was the first time they had ever seen a wild beehive! This kept us very excited, so we continued further down the arroyo, looking for more wild treasure. 

Our path eventually led us to Cienega Creek, and the students were stunned. A ribbon of orange and yellow fremont cottonwood leaves wove a dense canopy as far as our eyes could see. Water bubbled and flowed over the surface, diversifying the fragrance of this desert ecosystem. It is not common to have perennial water sources anymore, and these students were soaking up as much as they could. Together we learned about riparian gallery forests, and their important role in our Sonoran Desert. The students were fascinated to learn that these are connection corridors for wildlife who use these forests as protection from our hot and intense sun. The variety of native fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals that live here year-round is astonishing, and the students were surprised to learn that animals such as black bear, mountain lion, coati, turtles, and many many more move through this area. 

We spent a lot of time learning, so it was necessary to spend time resting and relaxing too. Under the shade of cottonwood leaves, we kicked back and listened to all the wonderful sounds nature can provide. Some students wandered, exploring the forests and grasses that surrounded us. Others just relaxed and spent time listening and observing. Truly, there is no wrong way to experience this amazing place. Before it was time to depart, we circled up and discussed the day. We recapped all that we had learned  and everything that we found especially interesting. The students had so much to talk about, and we spent as much time as we needed to express everything we felt and thought about this place. It truly was an amazing time, with an amazing group.