On the Road With the Water Sentinels: Part 3
Back at the dining hall, a hundred rambunctious 5th-graders and a half-dozen parents who've joined them for the 3-day workshop are just sitting down for lunch. The instructors introduce themselves theatrically and tell everyone what's on tap for the afternoon. Outside it's pouring down rain, and it drums on the roof as we scarf down grilled cheese sandwiches, salad, and home-baked cookies.
After lunch the campers split up into groups (Black Bears, Armadillos, Bobcats, and so forth). We sit in with the Whitetail Deer as they learn about the earth's continuous water cycle of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation—how no new water is being created, and the glass of water you pour from your tap has been around pretty much as long as the earth itself.
Maggie joins us as we tromp down through the forest with the group to a spot on Clear Creek called Tiller's Beach. It's raining hard, but the kids are undaunted. They wade into the creek with nets and sieves, timidly at first, then running and splashing, anxious to discover for themselves the universe of bizarre and beautiful creatures living there.
Now thoroughly drenched and loving every minute of it, the kids examine their samples, which they've collected in a plastic tub. Everyone gathers round, the instructor unrolls a laminated chart, and she & Maggie help the campers identify the creatures they've caught, grouping them into categories like invertebrates, crustaceans, bugs, fish, etc.
"Wow, check this out!" one boy exclaims after snagging a tiny creature and observing it through a magnifier. "It looks like an alien!"
One of the most rewarding things about this job is seeing kids have that 'Ah-ha' moment," Maggie tells us later on as we dry out in her office. "We take clean water for granted in this country—you turn on the tap and it's there. One thing we teach our students is that we're drinking the same water the dinosaurs drank. They say, 'What? How can that be?' Well, there's no new water—it's all in that great cycle, so whatever water we have we need to protect.
Maggie, who formerly chaired the Alabama Sierra Club, believes teaching students this concept at an early age has a huge impact in shaping their outlook down the road and getting them to really think about 'What are we going to do to protect our water?'
"These young people are tomorrow's leaders and politicians," she says. "The main thing we try to give them here is an excitement about nature and about learning. So many kids today are disconnected from nature. They think it's something they watch on TV. But there's nature in the back yard. A lot of city kids who come here have never seen the woods before; they get off the bus and they think there are going to be lions and tigers and bears coming at them. But after three days they've made a huge turnaround."
That evening at the dining hall, everyone is treated to a guerilla theater performance featuring Ladybug and the Evil Landfiller, who explain how food that ends up in the garbage instead of the compost bin takes more energy to process, exacerbating global warming.
Unbeknownst to the kids, the leftover food on their plates was weighed after lunchtime. Now, while the Evil Landfiller bellows about taking over the world, Ladybug challenges the campers to serve themselves only as much food as they think they can finish, to try and bring that number down. A cheer goes up after dinner when they handily succeed.
Earlier in the day, the kids all wrote their name on a slip of paper, and now Maggie steps forward with a hat containing all those names. She quiets the room and introduces Scott Dye, director of the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels Program, who is going to give away six state-of-the-art fishing rods & reels.
Scott remarks how the Sierra Club is the oldest environmental group in the country—older than him, even—and talks about how the Water Sentinels got more than 185,000 kids outdoors fishing in 2010. He emphasizes how volunteer Water Sentinels like Maggie & Mark—and potentially each student in the room—can make a huge difference in keeping the water clean where they live.
Maggie then reaches in the hat and picks out the names, one by one, As each name is called, a jubilant shout goes up somewhere in the hall, often as not accompanied by a pumped fist and an emphatic "Yes!" as the winner strides forward to collect their prize.
As the campers file out, one of the instructors tells us a tornado watch is in effect for northern Alabama, and we're given a weather radio to take back to the Scott House. "You probably don't need to worry unless it mentions Winston County or the town of Jasper," we're told.
A heavy rain lashes the Scott House all evening. Around 1:00am the first radio warning squawks out, and new ones keep coming every 20 minutes or so. A couple hours later a warning is issued for Winston County, then Jasper.
Outside the rain has stopped, replaced by an eerie calm. "It usually gets real quiet like this just ahead of a big wind," Scott tells me. We consider evacuating to the basement of the main lodge down the road, but we know that would basically mean staying up all night sitting on a cold concrete floor. So we do the lazy thing and turn the light back off.
The next day we learn that the tornadoes touched down in Atlanta, damaging 56 homes.