This week, children in the Upper Valley have been exploring the banks of the Connecticut River. It’s part of a multi-media collaboration between Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center and other non-profit groups celebrating a much more distant river: the Nile. One of the educational events is a trek along the banks of the Connecticut River in an unlikely place, behind a shopping mall in West Lebanon.
As a warm morning sun melts the last patches of snow, 20 young explorers, ages 5 to 14, trudge through scrubby brush toward the banks of the river behind K-Mart. They’re at a spring vacation day camp run by Lebanon’s Ava Gallery in conjunction with the Nile Project. This land, once home to gravel pits, is being conserved by another Nile Project collaborator, the Upper Valley Land Trust. Steward Doug Brown is cradling a small bird’s nest the kids have found when something even more exciting happens.
“Hey, everybody, look up there, there’s a bald eagle!” Brown yells. He points to a spot above a bridge where, sure enough, an eagle soars.
“See the big white and black bird? That’s a bald eagle and a few of them nest right near by. Does everybody see the bald eagle?” he asks.
“Is that a bad sign or a good sign?” a little girl asks.
“A very good sign,” Brown assures her.
Another good sign, Brown tells them, is that the river is not flooding as much as it did during Tropical Storm Irene. You can see those high water marks on a bridge, but this year it's flooding just enough to do some good.
Here’s where Brown makes the connection to the Nile.
“Way back in ancient Egypt, it was really important to grow plants that the river flooded every year to bring in new soil for them to grow on, right? So sometimes, flooding’s important to get new soil and new nutrients to farms,” he explains.
Brown leads some day campers toward a glade where water has jumped the banks a bit, at the juncture of the Connecticut and Mascoma Rivers. 10-year-old Layne Kull can’t wait to see that.
“I’m happy to be here on this camp. It’s been exciting getting involved with this Nile project,” she volunteers, almost skipping through the muck.
On this soggy trek kids are learning for themselves about the crossroads between natural history and Egyptology. Murray Ngoima, an art teacher, says lecturing is rarely as effective as hands-on learning.
“For the most part, what they will remember about this trip is what they saw themselves, what they touched, how they felt,” Ngoima says.
Naturalist Doug Brown says a lot of these children are surprised to see what’s behind the big box store where many of them go shopping.
“And they can learn about a natural place right in the city of Lebanon. But I think in the greater scheme of the Nile Project they are learning about watersheds and how the Connecticut River is kind of similar to the Nile watershed,” he adds.
The Connecticut is shared by two states; the Nile by several countries. The common denominator, Brown says, is that we all have a hand in what happens in our communities — wherever they are.