Steve Van Zandt – author, musician, and river guide – is always looking for child-friendly ways to inspire his young audiences. That’s what he does as an environmental educator, Banana Slug String Band member and songwriter, and as author of River Song. If you are from Northern California, or studying geology, you will enjoy the following little exercise. No matter what watershed you live in, you will appreciate Steve’s creative approach. (Editor’s note)
Try this! Place both hands out in front of you, palms up, with the sides of your hands touching. Now raise your fingers straight up, keeping your palms flat. The California watershed is in your hands. See Lake Tahoe where your pinkies come together. That clear jewel of a lake with water depths of over 1,500 feet is surrounded by 10,000-foot peaks. There’s Mount Whitney, rising up from your right hand, a 12,000-foot peak in the South Eastern Sierra. Look down now to the Central Valley. That deep depression in your right palm is the San Joaquin River. The Sierra sheds its water into it as rivers like the Kern and the Stanislaus run down your fingers. Your left hand holds the Sacramento watershed fed by the northern rivers like the McCloud, the Feather and the American. At their confluence is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta where the water forms 700 miles of wetlands before entering San Francisco Bay.
Now that your hands are in such a receptive position, go find your local stream, creek or pond and fill your hands, toss it into the air, dip your head and celebrate. Better yet take your shoes off and step in. There’s nothing more alive than being ankle-deep with smooth washed pebbles and current between your toes. If you’re with a bunch of kids call it the “freeze out club” and anticipate what goodness will come when your socks start warming you again.
My relationship with watersheds came from growing up in West Los Angeles and spending many long days at Santa Monica Beach. My father used to say that all he needed to do in order to fall asleep was to listen to the freeway and imagine it was a river. I was fortunate to have spent a sumer in a tent right next to a river while working as a raft guide. I discovered the joy of exploring side creeks, a playful art that I call “salmoning.” This is where you walk up stream, finding clear pools to dive into, small falls to get behind and warm rocks for playing lizard. I love to listen to the constant sound of a river, the one that makes you think flow.
There is also the bass sound that goes rapidly into the hollows between granite boulders. The loveliest, I think, are the high blurps and pops that dance over a shallow bar.
River Song was written as a tribute to these experiences. It also came from a need to be vocal about keeping rivers wild and free, and protecting watersheds. Twenty-five years ago three fellow naturalist/musicians and I formed the Banana Slug String Band and we have sung these waltzing lyrics to young and old, and to the river itself. We are dedicated to working with others to continue building support for watershed awareness and education. The river teaches ecology and science, but it also piques a sense of wonder and inspires the arts. It initiates community service and ties our lives together in ever-expanding ways. As we teach about bioregionalism, conservation and riparian habitats, let’s not forget the river. Our students need to touch it, walk its course and sit with it. We all do.
The next time that you find yourself near a still, shallow stream, try looking at its three layers. Focus your eyes on the bottom. Scan back and forth. See who left a footprint. Then adjust your eyes to see only the surface. Then look down and get taken in by its reflection.
Find your watershed address: www.epa.gov/owow/watershed/
A print-ready handout for students: www.watersheds.org/kids/shedsheet.htm
Easily searchable environmental education resources and programs: www.creec.org
Find out about the programs offered at San Mateo Outdoor Education, where Steve Van Zandt is Site Director. http://www.smcoe.k12.ca.us/outdoored/index.html