Fern Gully-ed Again

by Ann Bartkowski

A few weeks ago, I posted a picture of a pile of trees that have been cut down inside the PFA so that it can be landscaped in a historically accurate manner. Now there is an enormous pile of wood chips there aka a larger than life composting experiment! 

Unfortunately, the Fern Gully-ing doesn’t stop there, as they also cut down the Eucalyptus tree that was in front of the museum (you can see the top of it in the background behind the sign in the pic above). As a Field Trip explainer, I spend an inordinate amount of time standing outside the museum waiting for field trips to arrive, and therefore an inordinate amount of time with that tree, so it saddens/angers me that it is suddenly no longer there.

In addition to all the usual reasons one would have for not wanting someone to cut down a tree (think of how many log demos we could have done with it though…), I liked that tree because it was an amazing starting point for exploring the world and discussing science, art, and perception- aka what our museum is about. Here’s a story that explains what I mean by this:

Last week a group of high schoolers from a band in Alaska came on a field trip to the museum, and I was put in charge of giving them an orientation. (During orientations, I try to introduce the museum to the visitors- let them know this is a different type of museum, the people who work inside are approachable, we want to encourage curiosity, hands-on exploration, et cetera. I also really try to convey the fact that we all perceive the world differently, and everyone’s interests and observations are valid. I tell kids that our museum is for everyone- those who love science and those who hate it…and the same with art.) Anyways, before I could even start talking to this particular group of high school students, one kid raised his hand and yelled out, “Why does it smell like cat pee out here?”

This funny (yet valid) question started us off on a great discussion about our senses, perception, and the Eucalyptus tree. Half the group hated the smell of the tree (including the boy who thought it smelled like cat pee), the other half of the group found the smell pleasant and perfume-like (i’m in that group). I then asked them whether they thought the tree was science or art. Again the group was split, and we listened to each other defend the artistic qualities of the tree and the scientific characteristics of it. One of the chaperones in the group turned out to be a lichenologist- She stepped up to teach us about the rare type of lichen that was growing on the north side of the trunk and pointed out how it was different from the moss growing on it. The rich conversation we had about the tree led us naturally into a discussion about whether the students thought of music as science, art or both, since they were all members of a band, and I believe it really framed the way they thought about the museum when they went inside.

On top of using the tree as an orientation topic, it also had really cool seed pods (that are still scattered all over the parking lot) that would leak their Eucalyptus oil out into puddles every time it rained and make pretty rainbows in the puddles. And they were cool to look at under scope on a rope too!

Now all that remains is this stump, and I’m inspired to make it into something special that will also pique the curiosity of the many students and visitors who spend a significant amount of time milling around and waiting in front of the museum each day. One of my favorite exhibits in the Buffalo Museum of Science is a cross section of a tree trunk that they have hanging on the wall. It has labels that point to different tree rings that show different important moments in history. I tried to find examples online and this is the best I could come up with:

I’m going to go ahead and assume that we won’t be able to date the magna carta or pilgrims on our tree stump, but I want to look at the rings and mark down important events in our recent history. i’m betting we could figure out which ring shows 1969 when the explo was founded and when neil walked on the moon, or 1984 when i was born…kidding about that one, but seriously, important events in science, art and explo history would be cool to show in my opinion. Now all we have to do is sand the stump down (the chainsaw left marks that make it tricky to see the rings), clean the mud off it, remember what we learned in ecology class about Dendrochronology (the science of reading tree rings), and figure out how to display this outside on the stump in some way that won’t get ruined by the weather and the visitors. Any suggestions about how to do this or what important dates I should find in the tree?! Thanks!