I am following a van full of Prescott College students down a dusty road, descending from the plains of north-central Arizona toward the cliffs of the Verde River. Prescott College, affectionately known by its students as PC, is my alma mater. It’s been twelve years since I’ve been here, yet the land is immediately familiar, its undulations permanently pressed into my psyche: the rugged piñon and juniper hills; the flat, dry grasslands; the stretch of willows and cottonwoods flanking the river in the distance, a snake of life tucked between the rocky walls of a canyon.
I’m tagging along on professor Bob Ellis’s Concepts of Ecology class. Thursdays are field days, always held in a different location, in order to, as Ellis puts it, “ground truth” theories of ecology. Today’s goal is to understand selective pressures: why do some plants have small, waxy leaves, while others can grow big and broad? Our focus for the morning is plants, but for Ellis, everything is a learning opportunity: when a raptor glides by he stops talking about the grama grass at his feet to say, “Oooh, bird,” then, “What did you notice?” The students point out the long wings, the way the tips of the feathers look like fingers, attributes it seems they’ve discussed before. There’s no move on Ellis’s part to name the bird. That doesn’t seem to be the point. Rather, the point is to get them to notice, to describe, to file away a set of features this animal has that they might recognize in another place or in another bird.
Ellis was my own professor back in 2003 for a course called Wolf Ecology and Management. The course took us to western New Mexico — Mexican gray wolf habitat — and up to Yellowstone. We had conversations with biologists, activists, ranchers, and someone from Wildlife Services. We spent our time listening, absorbing, observing. Ellis’s teaching style was subtle — it felt then, as it does today, more like reflective conversation: What do you notice? What do you think? What do you make of all this information you’re steeped in, and what are you going to do with it?
When we finally get to the Verde River after an hour and a half of driving, we head west along a set of railroad tracks. The students are the kind the school tends to attract — rugged, unshaven, wearing sturdy hiking boots or river sandals. They talk about organic gardening and rock climbing, and are wisely equipped with sunscreen and plenty of water. Ellis resembles a character out of O Brother, Where Art Thou? with his tattered straw hat patched together with purple, white, and red duct tape; his button-down shirt stained pink from using it to wipe his dry erase board; and his odd habit of referring to his students as “brothers and sisters of the pale forest.”…
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