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Art and Science and City Kids in the Woods

By Hugh Powell
Photograph by Marta Del Campo, Art and Science and City Kids in the Woods

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On a dark night in February, 35 youths and chaperones went for a walk in the Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. A boardwalk wound across black water, and a waxing moon lent shape to the dim trees. Every now and then a flash popped from a student’s camera or cell phone as they tried to capture the still beauty of the night. Many of them had never been out in the woods at night before.

This was the first Arts and Nature Workshop, an experiment by the Celebrate Urban Birds program to share the Cornell Lab’s science and conservation work with students with an interest in the arts, from cities as far away as Los Angeles, Houston, and Ottawa. The workshop was given bilingually in English and Spanish, and most of the 23 participants were Latino.

A small grant from Wallace Genetic Foundation enabled the program to pay to bring each student here. Karen Purcell, the CUBs project leader, said she would like to make it an annual event if funding is secured.

“This was a life-changing experience for many of these youth. It’s critical that we give underserved inner-city youth, many of whom are trapped in cites with little or no exposure to the outdoors, an opportunity to explore the natural world and delve into science,” Purcell said. “Latino engagement in the sciences is a high priority, yet according to the latest reports we still have not made significant gains. Opportunities like this one can help make the sciences relevant and exciting.”

The participants ranged in age from 10 to 18, and for many it was the first time they had traveled on a plane, walked in the woods, seen snow, or used binoculars. For the 48 hours of the workshop they lived and breathed art, science, and conservation.

In addition to the night walk, the students took short classes from Cornell Lab staff and volunteers. Artist-in-residence Evaristo Hernández-Fernández, who is Mexican, talked about scientific illustration. Multimedia production coordinator Hannah Walker led a workshop on video production—possibly the most widespread medium of communication for the future. The leader of our Neotropical Conservation Initiative, Eduardo Iñigo-Elias, talked about conservation in Latin America and the need for bilingual collaboration.

In the woods, the loudest noise came from road traffic on nearby Highway 13. Still, it was quiet enough to hear trees creaking. “The thing I loved the most was our walk in the woods at night in silence,” said Angel Tifa, who is from Brooklyn. “I have never experienced anything like that before.” Maritza Medina, also from Brooklyn, added, “Me too. I live in a high-rise where you can hear people talking and yelling all night long.”

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library