One tree, lots of ideas

Kelsey Gobroski

Sun Star Contributor

At least eight schools are taking part in a program that unites climate change science and the arts with the catalyst of a single tree cut down last year at Cache Creek.

OneTree, an idea originally from England, is an abstract challenge to see what a community can create with an individual tree. Jan Dawe, of UAF’s School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences (SNRAS) forest department, brought the project to Fairbanks in 2009. This year, she added science and art education to her team through botany graduate student Zac Meyers and sculpture MFA Jesse Hensel, respectively.

The original English participants chose a local oak tree. OneTree in Fairbanks chose Betula neoalaskana, Alaska paper birch. The project’s symbolic “One Tree” was felled in July 2009 at Cache Creek. The project also harvested resources and seeds from 17 individual “mother trees” on Nenana Ridge. One birch, bubbling with purple fungus and rotting branches, remains alive at the site.

“The thing about OneTree is it always reflects the values of the community,” Dawe said. Drawing from climate change research in Fairbanks, she included sciences as a secondary pillar to the traditionally arts-oriented project.

Education is another aspect new to the international project. School district teachers attend workshops to learn how to implement crafts and science into their curricula, or invite the education leaders into their classrooms.

Last year, five Fairbanks North Star Borough schools participated in the program. At present, eight schools are working with OneTree.  The team held an open house for interested teachers on September 1, and the number of participating schools may grow.

Through Changing Alaska Science Education (CASE), Meyers will also work with elementary students at Watershed School each week.

“The overarching theme is that science can be fun and even first graders can do high level science,” Meyers said. Meyers will teach first, second, and sixth graders about “plant anatomy … tree coring, germination experiments, soil compaction, and species identification.”

The physical presence of an example helps students better understand concepts, according to Hensel.

Experiments explore how birch reacts to a longer growing season, which has lengthened 45 percent in Fairbanks in the last century, Dawe said. Last year, participating schools tried “forcing” Nenana Ridge tree branches out of dormancy mid-winter to simulate an early spring. This year, Meyers’ students will germinate and study seedlings from eight of the original trees over three-, four-, and five-month intervals to determine the effect of season length on the plants.

The trees are also used in classroom crafts. Dawe displayed a wooden festival bowl, knitting needles and charcoal from wooden dowels, woven backpacks and baskets from birch bark, and paper from rotted branches. Hensel designed the crafts.

“Any time you let kids make something and use it for something they want to do, they say it’s magic … it’s a great way for them to learn what their interests are,” Dawe said.

She said she hopes to bring Marty Hintz, a Yupiq elder and creator of birch story knives, into the classroom to teach students how Alaska Native culture has also utilized the parts of trees.

OneTree’s harvest will be appearing at three exhibits in the spring. Pieces created in the classrooms were also on display at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center.

About two dozen art teachers and local artisans used the original “One Tree” – that birch from Cache Creek – to create art pieces for display and sale at the Well Street studio. An invitational show will also exhibit artists’ books made from the trees.

In the future, Dawe hopes to bring OneTree to a statewide level and organize seed exchange between projects around the state. Arthur and Karen Mannix, of Susitna Valley High School, have already adopted OneTree in a quest to create a sustainable wood boiler.

“We need to seek funding, but we’ve got tons of ideas,” Dawe said. She said that there is always the possibility of OneTree growing too quickly.

“Everyone always dismisses the northern forest … but we haven’t begun to tap what this forest provides,” Dawe said.

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