There they were – the names right out of a favorite children’s book – the pre-school Wednesday Wonders happily splashing after crayfish and salamanders in Beckley Creek at the foot of Wibble Hill Road.
And spread like a green tent over their heads was the big, gnarly, pre-historic tree that gave this newest of The Parklands paths its name – The Osage Orange Explorer Trail, which will officially open to the public in Beckley Creek Park on June 12th.
But the Wednesday Wonders couldn’t wait. The kids – most of them three to five years old – have been meeting on a regular basis for more than a year in the PNC Achievement Center. They are joined, of course, by moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas in various numbers and ages.
Their Wednesday class began inside, where Education Specialist Olivia Kaiser led the kids though a discussion on the differences between amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish and mammals. Indeed, that day’s specific class was titled “I wonder why an animal is a mammal.”
You might think teaching all that to kids from 3 to 5 years old would be somewhat difficult. You would be wrong. Kaiser, a teaching whiz, had led the previous Wednesday Wonders class on a discussion of the difference between angiosperms and gymnosperms, the two major groups of seed plants.
“They nailed it,” she said.
It’s a win-win deal. The class is free for families of Parklands Members; $5 for the other kids. The kids also get to help pick the week’s subject; precocious curiosity done here.
On this day Kaiser carefully walked the kids through a series of fun questions on the differences between amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish and mammals. She began with a general discussion; answers flying out from every corner of the room.
Dogs are furry and soft. Sure, birds are soft, too, but they have feathers. Frogs jump, have legs, have feet and are generally green. They’re also slimy, squishy, live in swamps, and on lily pads.
The kids kept chiming in, no hesitation; crawling all over their chairs; voices rising up from all corners. The frog discussion got a little deeper: Their babies come from eggs hatched in the water to become tadpoles. And yes, of course, frogs are amphibians.
“Let’s all say that together,” Kaiser suggested.
“Ammmphibiannnnnns,” shouted the class.
Snakes, it was announced, can be wormy, poisonous, have scales so they can slither. The excitement level in the room rose considerably with the introduction of a box turtle named “Russell” – who was allowed to walk around on the desk tops, slowly, ponderously and somewhat proud of himself as the kids gently stroked his shell.
He even broke free for a while – at least as much as possible for a box turtle – until Kaiser returned him to his nest.
“Russell is a reptile,” said Kaiser, while making it clear he also came from an egg.
The kids again responded with enthusiasm: “Russell is a reppptile.”
Which brought the conversation back around to mammals, and what made them distinct from the others. To that point, while working her way through that round, Kaiser asked the kids what they drank as a babies?
“My mommy’s milk,” one little guy shouted, pretty much settling that portion of the issue.
Kaiser reinforced the different-animal discussion by having the kids place little pictures of the various creatures in each category; amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish and mammals.
Then it was off to the Osage Orange Explorer Trail, recently made possible by a grant from the PNC Grow Up Great! Program. The trail was designed by Education Coordinator Curtis Carman and his interpretive team with help from Horticulture Director Tom Smarr, then built by the Parklands trail team of Bryan Howell and Dan Meece.
It’s short; about a half-mile long. It’s handy; located just behind a gate below the Marshall Playground and Sprayground. It wanders through some grasslands, then crosses Beckley Creek where some really big, flat rocks allow the kids to pause in mid-stream, stand there above the clear water looking for stuff.
A big track box will be built along the trail, a salt lick placed in the middle. The hope is any creatures who use the lick will leave identifiable tracks the kids can help interpret.
Then comes the big Osage Orange tree grove, one in particular leaning out over Beckley Creek, creating a natural room, a living history lesson waiting to happen.
The trees are pre-historic; their ancestors dating back to dinosaurs and mastodons. Meriwether Lewis of Lewis & Clark fame sent trees back to President Thomas Jefferson, his benefactor. Hundreds of thousands were planted across the early Midwest farmlands, its thorny bark serving as pioneer fences.
Its tough wood was used by native Americans to make bows, the farmers to fashion tools. Their rounded pithy fruit does resemble an orange – if you like them pithy green – and is inedible, at least by human mammals.
The Parklands hope is the pre-kindergarten kids will someday sit under that tree, read of its history, begin hiking at an early age and then go on to walk the longer Parklands trails with family.
The Wednesday Wonders made it look easy, quickly following Kaiser into the shallow, slow-moving water at the creek exploration stop. It was fun to see them wander, heads bent down to the task, to hear them laugh, to watch them gather around Kaiser as she would hold up a salamander, explaining its limbs and life cycle.
The creek curled around the Osage Orange tree and wandered downstream through tall, green grasses, small trees and hopeful shrubs. As the moms watched on the sidelines, the Wednesday Wonders, some barefoot, some in flip flops, sought frogs, tadpoles and salamanders on their own with mixed success, but they had their own way to keep score.
The class was supposed to last an hour. It lasted closer to 90 minutes.
See photos of our PNC Grow Up Great Volunteer Day here.
Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system - all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill's stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.
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