On a gray January day, brightly colored flags cheerily blow in the wind near the Bonnet Carrè Spillway. These markers are soon replaced with 250 persimmon trees planted by Episcopal Lower and Upper School students. Considering that the planting takes place near the spillway and off the beaten path, the environment is bustling. Overhead, airplanes deliver travelers to and from New Orleans. On the highway, truckers blow their horns and wave to the young planters. Rusty, with the Army Corps of Engineers, points out a bald eagle perched on a powerline. Despite the winter cold, the sights and sounds of life are all around. The enthusiasm of the Episcopal students, who are all bundled up in hats and boots, only adds to the occasion.
Before planting begins, Dr. Pam Blanchard with the LSU Coastal Roots program offers instructions. She shows students how to efficiently plant each tree by doing the “dibble wiggle.” The wiggle involves firmly placing the dibble in the ground and shifting it back and forth to create a hole. Once the trees are placed inside, the dibble is used again to fill the hole and a ribbon is tied to the tree as a marker. The dibble wiggle generates lively discussion among the students as they demonstrate the move. It’s not long before the trees are all planted, and the students are ready for more.
Every winter, Episcopal students participate in this planting field trip as part of the school’s partnership with the Coastal Roots program. This week, AP Environmental Science students were joined by fifth graders who were excited to be involved. Both groups have been studying ecosystems, biomes and the importance of wetlands. The students were divided into groups, with the older students guiding the younger students through the planting process. The Upper School students were remarkable in their interactions with the fifth graders. In return for their patience and expertise, they were rewarded with the admiration of their younger counterparts.
According to the Coastal Roots website, the program encourages students “to learn about and become environmental stewards of their natural resources by establishing native plant nurseries at their schools.” These trees are then planted in a coastal habitat restoration project. Fifty schools from across the state participate in the program. Dr. Pam says over the past 20 years, approximately 175,000 trees have been planted by 25,000 students. LSU provides partner schools with the seeds and even the soil to begin the growing process. In a few weeks, the AP students will start the cycle again when they work with third graders to sow the next crop of trees to be planted in 2021.
The army corps’ Rusty says the project is especially meaningful because years from now as students travel through the area, they will remember that they contributed and helped restore the wetlands. The program makes them an active participant in coastal restoration. In an interesting note, he says the trees are planted near the spillway to absorb the tremendous amount of fertilizer that travels downstream. The goal is to reduce the amount of fertilizer that reaches Lake Pontchartrain and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.
After the planting is complete and the little trees are ready to become a part of their new environment, students take a break. Even with all of the new sights and sounds, many of them report that their favorite part of the experience was getting to work with students from the other division. The Upper School students shared stories of working with the younger students and the younger students simply thought their group leader was the best. The project certainly had an academic component, but it also highlighted the benefit of a school that serves students of all ages. Students learn from each other and mentor each other in a way that makes a lasting impression.
The Coastal Roots experience is a way for students to leave a lasting, positive impression on their environment. Long after they graduate, the trees planted this week will serve as a reminder of their shared day in the wetlands.