Cold Spring’s Sustainability Warrior

Catherine Leist (left) gives Dylan Ambrose, a Haldane sixth-grader, a closer look at a hedgehog. (Photo by M. Turton)

Catherine Leist brings nature to the classroom

Catherine Leist, who lives in Cold Spring, is head naturalist and assistant coordinator of environmental education for the Putnam Northern Westchester Board of Cooperative Education, or BOCES. On March 3, she visited the Haldane Middle School in Cold Spring with an owl and a hedgehog.

What one environmental concept do you want students to understand?
Interconnectedness, or the idea that, down to the breath we emit, we’re connected to every single carbon-based life form on this planet. Our everyday actions have a profound effect on the rest of the world.

What are teachers asking for these days?
Our programs are aligned with New York State science-learning standards, which is a high-demand subject area. It’s science through the lens of the environment. The environment is science and science is the environment — whether it’s ecology, water chemistry, sustainability or physics.

Who are the best learners?
I love my kindergartners and first graders; they inherently know what’s good. They know to make the right decision. We use guided facilitation, ask certain questions, and then let them shine, to figure out their own path. All it takes is the right question.

Catherine Leist shows Owen Powers (left) and his Ecology / Environmental Studies classmates a barred owl. (Photo by M. Turton)

What do you tell students about hunting?
I’m not against hunting or fishing. If you hunt, fish and harvest responsibly, allowing natural reproduction to occur, I don’t see an issue. Don’t overhunt. Don’t overfish. We sustained life for thousands of years as responsible hunters.

How is climate change addressed?
Requests from teachers for specific climate-change programs have declined because it is so ingrained in everything we teach. If we’re studying hibernation, for instance, I relate the decrease in hedgehog populations to changes in climate.

Are field studies more effective than classroom learning?
You can do both at the same time. I went to BOCES to study environmental science. My mentors had us immersed in conservation work while also doing some intense academics. Paul Smith’s College, my alma mater, is a perfect example of how classroom work can be integrated with the outdoors. You might be studying writing and rhetoric, but it was in an outdoor classroom.

What do you see as the biggest threat to our environment?
Assumptions. People assume there is such a place as “away.” But away is always someone else’s backyard, or an animal’s drinking water, or soil to grow food. People assume someone else is taking care of environmental problems. Humans are innovative but sometimes we assume short-term solutions will fix the world. We want instant gratification. We assume new technology will change history forever. We’re not horrible beings; trial-and-error is natural to the human condition. We just have to figure out the best way to solve problems long-term.

Do you talk about recycling?
It’s a complicated issue, but reusing, repurposing, passing things along hand-me-down style — using what we have and taking better care of it — is probably the best choice. My mom is a hairdresser. and one of the best ways to deter deer in a garden is to spread hair clippings. It’s convenience that drives decisions that are not so great in the long-term. Attitudes become behaviors; behaviors influence habits.

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