Mycology and mycorrhizal networks. Exploring the ways in which fungi interact with and complicate forest networks and growth patterns has been one of the most complex intellectual endeavors I’ve ever attempted.

…And also one of the most fascinating. Expanding and destabilizing my own definitions of sentience, recognition and life as they applied to forest ecology has been one of the most important things I have ever done as someone studying sustainable development and environmental history. Challenging myself as an intellectual at the undergraduate level is something I didn’t initially know how to translate to my work with children. Yet, I knew I still needed to do it.

This weird meditation on how I’ve come to think about and consider forests as sentient, beyond any assertion of their “living” qualities brings us to (somehow) the completion of my very first Junior Ranger program here at our Jr. Ranger Headquarters at Hidden Valley at RMNP.

While I was developing my program outlines, I kept remembering one of the head researchers (with whom I was fortunate enough to have a conversation) tell me that too many interns in Interpretation (my division) are “afraid to let their programs have teeth.” His words stayed with me, even after two weeks of intensive training in which I was inundated with information.

Maybe I like a challenge (if you want to be nice) or I am a bit of a masochist (the truth is somewhere in between the two) but I resolved to imagine programming that was rooted in complex and interesting science, elevated kids rather than lowering them down or our expectations of them, and just somehow proved to be engaging. I worked and worked myself trying to imagine how I could accomplish this.

About a week before my first Junior Ranger programs were slated to begin, I had a bit of a breakthrough – which mostly involved cheering to my roommate and a host of flurried scribbling in my notebook. I wanted to take a huge risk and talk about something that was on the surface incredibly boring and in every other regard (to me at least) wickedly fascinating – mushrooms.

I spent the next week and a half scrambling – how was I going to get six year olds to relate to a complex, and hidden at that, ecological phenomenon that only I seem to care about? Was I going to cave and develop something average but well-attended and well-liked?

This week’s programming at Junior Ranger Headquarters was one of the most pleasant and validating surprises during my time here at Rocky Mountain – my program wasn’t too abstract or a flop! It was the highest attended afternoon program yet. Kids enjoyed it and were curiously asking me questions about mycorrhizae in greater detail. This kind of success is what makes working with children so rewarding – they have an ability and thirst for learning that far exceeds what people would imagine them to be capable of. There are smaller kinks a perfectionist like me will have to iron out in the program as I give it week to week but my most important critics have already spoken – the kids.