In November, five students and their teacher from Palisades High School in Calistoga came to the canyon where I live just outside of town to plant acorns under the guidance of the Napa County Resource Conservation District (Napa RCD), a local government agency that provides technical assistance and education to farmers and the general community. It was a small and wonderful start to a big idea that has been growing in me for the last few years.
I come from a family of teachers. I taught middle and high school math for seven years in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Emeryville, California, starting my teaching career at Vaux Junior High School, a failed school in one of Philadelphia’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
As a new teacher at Vaux, I quickly learned that traditional teaching was not going to work for my students. My seventh graders were alienated and rebellious, the logical consequence of suffering in an educational system that was boring and dysfunctional. Like my students, I was miserable. So I shifted gears, jettisoned our textbooks, and sought ways to make the curriculum engaging. Students who showed no interest in math during the school day flocked to my classroom after school to play math games, do math-based art projects, and even tackle some of the work they refused to do during class. My successes were limited, but by the end of my first year I started having some good teaching days.
After I was laid off for the third time in seven years, I turned full-time to educational publishing, growing a company I had started with my brother when I was in college. I threw myself into the development of math and science textbooks, software, and supplemental materials, recruiting top talent to drive my company’s efforts. We specialized in innovative, hands-on, minds-on materials to facilitate escape from drudgery and bring learning alive. Consistent with my own experience in the classroom, we worked under the premise that engagement was the key to students’ success, not just for alienated students, but for all students.
Ten Strands’ CEO Karen Cowe worked with me for 16 years and ran my company for six. It may have been Karen who first got me thinking about outdoor education. Every year she would disappear from work for a week to attend the Bioneers conference. While she liked being a math publisher, she always told me her next job would focus on environmental and outdoor education. (Ten Strands—Karen checked that box!)
In 2015, I followed my wife to Calistoga, in the heart of the Napa Valley, as she pursued her passion to live among grapevines. We settled in a rugged canyon beneath Calistoga’s iconic Palisades where we steward hundreds of acres of rugged forest and grow grapes on the canyon floor. After seven harvests, we know our way around the vineyard. I’m now a farmer’s husband, living a life that from outward appearances looks nothing like my past. I’m lucky and could easily live out my years savoring the life I’ve found for myself. Yet once an educator, always an educator. And to a veteran of many struggles for social justice, the inequities of life in Napa Valley are readily apparent and begin to weigh on one. The families that work the land here—overwhelmingly Latinx—often have the least access to it for recreation and learning.
A few years ago, on a hike with my family along our canyon ridge trail, my daughter challenged me to consider ways that I could share our natural bounty with our community. After our hike, I started thinking: How could I leverage my own background as an educator to bring Calistoga schoolkids to our canyon to learn in the outdoors? I started reaching out to friends like Karen for ideas.
In September 2020, a year after walking the trail with my daughter, our entire canyon burned in the Glass Fire. While Cal Fire saved our vineyard, residences, and work structures, the forests surrounding us on three sides were scorched. Trails we had built and carefully tended now wound through burned and dead trees. The ground everywhere was black. A small fire trail along one ridge of our canyon was now a 60-foot-wide bulldozed scar on the mountain, a failed attempt at a fire containment line. We couldn’t look around without feeling sad. And we knew our entire community shared our grief.
It wasn’t until six months after the fire that things began to change. Wildflowers were the first sign of renewal. Fire followers, like Diogenes’ lanterns, peppered the black earth. By March, the forest floor was covered with flowers in places we had never noticed them before. Then the oaks began to green. Black oaks that I was sure were burned beyond life budded and began to grow new leaves. Coast live oaks began to sprout new green branches along their trunks. Bushes sprang from the root balls of toyon, bay laurel, and madrone. And we had a super-bloom of California poppies on one burnt hillside. It was joyous. I wanted to share what I saw in the woods with kids who, like me, suffered through the combination of wildfire and pandemic in our community.
I reached out to Erin Smith-Hagberg, the superintendent of the Calistoga Joint Unified School District. I emailed:
“A lot has changed in our little canyon tucked under the Palisades…. In spite of the fire, the canyon is still beautiful, and I am excited to watch it heal itself. As I roam, I have many ideas about getting school students involved with the ecology and science of our Calistoga woodlands in Horns Canyon and would like to share some of these ideas with you. I think observing and studying nature’s recovery after the fire might offer a great and soothing experience for children during these difficult times.”
It wasn’t long before Erin and her husband came with me on a wildflower walk. And on the walk, I pitched Erin on my big idea—use our canyon, easily accessible to Calistoga schools, as a nature study center. Erin jumped at the opportunity.
In six months, we have made important progress even as the schools have had to navigate all the hurdles imposed by the global pandemic. Napa RCD, with the capacity, staff, and skills to develop outdoor education programs, has signed on to run a pilot program for us during the current school year. Eric McKee, Napa RCD’s education project manager, has facilitated discussions with district teachers to explore ways to leverage the opportunity for their teaching goals. Eric brought a second group of students to the vineyard in December to help plant monarch butterfly-friendly native plants along our stream, part of a much larger initiative to create new pollinator habitat in Napa County. At the end of March, 30 students from Calistoga High School’s organic gardening class will visit. They’ll come at the height of the wildflower season. Other teachers are considering field trips with themes applicable to their classes. Eric will spend time in classrooms working with students, prepping them for the things they will do when they come to the canyon.
During my long career in education, I have come to realize the need for big ideas. When I let my mind wander, my aspirations for a Horns Canyon Outdoor Education Center make me dizzy—family hikes on student-curated trails with student-made interpretive guides, outdoor classrooms for nature study, geology walks, viticulture projects, stream study and play, photography, data science projects…. And then I worry that there are too many details to successfully manage. Where will the school bus turn around? How will I provide bathrooms for students in the woods? Are activities accessible for all students? Do all students know how to recognize poison oak?
Thankfully, as an educator, I am used to this dream and worry dance. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve also learned that progress comes through small steps. We contribute to the growth of our students and the improvement of their lives with each positive experience. Given the challenges faced by educators in these most difficult times, success, even on a small scale, is worth savoring. And lots of little successes make for the achievement of big dreams.