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campground at night

Learning Comes Alive in the Sonoran Desert

After the coyotes sang a lullaby and the cloudless sky filled with constellations, the wind blew down from the Santa Catalina Mountains that first night with such fierceness that it lifted the tents until they threatened to snap their tethers to the desert floor, only to shift and pin them to the ground. Inside the pitching tents, the warm, dry desert air filled the lungs of 12 sleepless students on spring break at the end of March. The windy welcome was an early lesson on humankind's tenuous existence in a desert environment.

It is one thing to study desert ecology in the classroom—to read what the desert is, what it looks like, what people, animals and plants have to do to live there—as the students had done all semester in a Colby-Sawyer classroom. It is another to study that environment in the Sonoran Desert that surrounds Tucson, Ariz., a thirsty city of more than half a million people that receives fewer than 12 inches of rainfall per year. New London, N.H., by contrast, soaks up an average of 42 inches of rain every year, plus 79 inches of snow.

students posing on large rock

Started in 2002, ENV 366 Desert Communities is the oldest of four field studies courses offered by the department; Alpine, Rivers and Marine Communities round out the offerings. Over and over again, students report that they enjoy some of their most intense and rewarding learning experiences in the field studies classes.

“They read things in the classroom, but when they come out here it's different,” said former Academic Vice President & Dean of Faculty Laura Sykes '98. “No matter how much we've tried to prepare them, when they see the place firsthand—when they touch it, when they smell it—that makes it real for them. Many of them have never traveled to Arizona before. Some have never traveled at all. To watch them light up when they see this environment is really special.”

For four full days, the class called the 5,500-acre Catalina State Park in the Oro Valley home. Environmental Science Professor Leon-C. Malan started each day with a poem—Mary Oliver's “The Summer Day” on the first morning—and Professor Alexander ended each day with a story beneath the stars. They hiked together, cooked together, and learned together from each other, their professors and local experts. Teaching and learning is everybody's responsibility in a field studies class. Long before they departed snowy New London, students paired up and dove in to become experts in aspects of the desert community such as the effects of wildfires and water usage, the history of early peoples and the region's geology, knowing they would share that knowledge with their peers in the desert.

“A field studies class really puts it more on the student to do the learning and the teaching,” said environmental science major and New Hampshire resident Hannah Raddatz '15. “We're given the responsibility of teaching our fellow students, so that holds us accountable for learning the topic we're assigned. For my geology presentation with Nabu [Nawaraj Shahi '17 of Nepal], we hiked three hours into the mountains to a wonderful little oasis and showed how geology formed the region. That was a cool experience.”

students hiking canyon trail

Anything but Empty

Days in the desert begin with chilly stillness, but as soon as the sun rises over the mountains, the space comes alive with birds' songs, the rustle of small animals, and the movement of lizards and rattlesnakes that emerge to loll on warming rocks. Author William Least Heat Moon wrote of the desert that “to say nothing is out there is incorrect; to say the desert is stingy with everything except space and light, stone and earth is closer to the truth.” Every time the course runs, the students' first discovery is that the desert is anything but empty. “I always thought that the desert was a place much like what they showed in the cartoons, where they have a bunch of hills of sand and not much life, but going there blew away those ideas,” said Bronx resident and sociology major Pedro Altagracia '14. “I saw lots of plants and even flowers, lots of animals, lots of life. There's a lot of movement going on when I figured there wouldn't be.”

Witnessing that movement—the flitting of a Rufous-winged Sparrow, a fox stalking its prey, a jackrabbit nibbling on a cactus—requires an adjustment of pace and attitude. “Remember that you are in nature and why,” Professor Malan repeatedly counseled. “Only if you slow down and really look will you see.” Altagracia heeded that advice.

“At school, you always hear the bustle of students, professors talking, pages flipping. In the desert, you really have to isolate yourself in order to get the gist of what's going on. The plant life and the birds chirping really set you apart from society, and it's then that you realize a lot about yourself and that you're more connected with this world than you thought you were.”

From the campground a mile into the park, it is impossible to imagine that Romero Pools and the streams that run through the hills exist, but it is also hard to believe that just across from the park's entrance there is a Walmart and a four-lane artery lined with strip malls, big-box stores and chain restaurants. The desert, it turns out, is neither empty nor remote. “One of the biggest surprises to me was getting out here and looking at all the development and seeing what people have actually done to this land, which in its natural state is absolutely gorgeous,” said environmental science major Doug Foley '15, from Newbury, Mass. “Look at the Santa Cruz River; it's completely dried up. It used to have fish and be a viable resource, and it's gone. The groundwater level shave dropped more than 20 feet, and that's harmed a lot of species, too.”

student looking at canyon vista

Not a Drop to Spare

Water is always on the mind of Brad Lancaster, a community activist and expert in rainwater harvesting and water management. Lancaster, who runs a permaculture consulting, design and education business focused on integrated and sustainable approaches to landscape design, planning and living, welcomed the Desert Communities class to his home in Tucson. On his one-eighth of an acre lot in the city, Lancaster demonstrated how he harvests 100,000 gallons of rainwater each year to sustain food-bearing shade trees, gardens and wildlife habitat, which in turn can cool buildings by up to 20°F and reduce water and energy bills.

Lancaster has impacted his Dunbar Spring neighborhood by implementing rainwater harvesting and other sustainable measures, such as using greywater from his washing machine to water his garden; installing a composting toilet, solar oven and innovative insulation techniques; and by teaching others how they can reduce their environmental impact. When he moved into the area in the 1990s, curb cutting was not allowed and rainwater rushed down streets into storm drains. He cut his curb anyway to allow the water to irrigate his yard, and the difference in the number of trees and gardens that sprang up was dramatic enough to sway officials to allow the practice with a permit. Now, Tucson curb cutters even get a tax break.

“More rain falls on the surface area of Tucson in the typical year of rain than the entire community consumes of utility water in a year,” Lancaster said in a 2013 interview with Mitchell Riley for “The unfortunate thing is we don't capture that; the bulk of that leaves, and so then we import…more water from the Colorado [River] or pump from the groundwater. We don't need to do that to the extent we do, if we capture what we have readily falling for free from the sky.

That fewer than 12 inches of rain a year could sustain the growing city if managed thoughtfully was a revelation to the Colby-Sawyer group.

students running a desert trail

“It astounded me and Professor Malan to learn that enough rain falls in Tucson to support the number of people who live there; we sort of had the idea that that wasn't true,” said Professor Sykes. “But it's how we deal with water that is putting pressure on the environment. The way people live there now can't continue with the amount of rain, but if everybody got on board, there are steps that could make the city more sustainable.”

Getting residents to take those steps is no small feat. In a March 2014 interview with Eric Holthaus for Slate, Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said that one of the city's highest priorities is education. “We have a public information campaign: You are in a desert. Peer pressure is something that does come into play here,” said the mayor. Still, many can't seem to see the desert for the cacti, as the average single-family household in Tucson directs 45 percent of its water to outdoor use. “So many people who live here don't realize they're in the desert. I expected that they'd know there was water scarcity and stuff, but they don't act concerned about it,” marveled Olivia Jones '16, an environmental studies major from Biddeford, Maine. “They don't even realize it, a lot of them. They're just like, 'We're not in the desert, we can each have a pool, and nothing is going to matter'”.

The students' increasing awareness of Tucson's efforts to educate residents on sustainable living, and their knowledge of what Colby-Sawyer has done to follow through on its own commitment to the environment—including a wind turbine and one of New Hampshire's largest solar arrays—grew into a question: Why, in the country's sunniest city, where the sun shines for 350 days of the year, were there so few solar panels on people's roofs? An answer came on the final day, when the class toured the Tucson Electric Power's solar test yard: The nation's infrastructure can't handle renewable energy beyond a low capacity point.

“We came to understand on this trip that once the utility reaches 15 to 20 percent capacity with renewable resources, the grid is full,” said Professor Sykes. “And so the problem is our country can't [use substantial amounts of] renewable resources because it's working on an old grid. Until the old grid is fixed to accept renewables, we can't move forward. That was astounding to us.”

students returning to camp at sunset

Who will move the nation forward? It may well be Colby-Sawyer students who see firsthand the pressures humankind places on its environments—desert, marine, alpine and rivers alike—and whose interests are fanned by the passions of activists, experts and faculty who were generous in their teaching and sharing of knowledge. There's no doubt in Professor Sykes mind about that, and hope is what she takes with her each time she and Professor Malan leave the desert.

“When the students think about what they learned in the classroom, and they see what's on the ground in the desert, and they hear what the speakers say, they mull over some of the ideas with each other about how people are living differently and how people are pressuring the environment, and how some people are making a change,” she said. “They are the ones who are going to do something about this. We're guiding their education, but some of them will go into careers where they actually invent things that might protect resources or go into planning jobs that might change regulations. They're our hope.”