Wendy Burroughs knows two types of desert kids.
“On one side, there are kids who have not spent much time outdoors, and they tend to come up with a lot of imagery that is the sensationalized image of the desert – hot, dry, parched dying-of-thirst kind of stuff,” said the environmental education program manager for Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation.
On the other side are those deeply familiar with the world outside their living rooms.
“Their images are really different,” Burroughs said. “They don’t just have rattlesnakes and scorpions. They have brightly colored birds, clouds and flowering cactus. There’s a hopefulness, and they’re kind of talking about the bounty of the desert environment and also their ability to protect it.”
It doesn’t much to convert a desert avoider into a desert advocate, which is an aim of Tucson’s River of Words program.
The program, a partnership between the Pima Arts Council and Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation, gives elementary and high school students an hour-long lesson in desert stewardship and then encourages them to create art on the theme. A traveling exhibit showcases it.
“Even walking out onto the playground instead of doing work in the classroom, you can see a difference in kids and their quality of work,” Burroughs said.
The exhibit is on display at the Brandi Fenton Memorial Park through Aug. 29 and features 50 of this year’s 1,000-some entries.
River of Words, a national program, began in the late 1990s when then-U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass decided to make water his artistic focus.
“The history of this country is so much a history of the culture of rivers,” he said in an interview for a television program for River of Words’ foundation. “It doesn’t matter whether children are urban or suburban or live in the country, their relationship to water is fundamental. The first posters we put out said, “What is your ecological address?” so they could get in the habit of locating themselves and the places they live by understanding how water flows through.”
That’s not so straightforward in the desert, where often the most overt signs of water are thriving cacti and dry washes supporting wildlife with moisture just below their surfaces.
So when a local educator and poet introduced the program to Tucson in 2002, organizers realized Pima County would need its own approach.
“Especially in the desert, water is a vital resource, but it can be difficult for children to really have an understanding of water,” Burroughs said. “They can’t go out and see surface water, and we have desert kids who have never been to the ocean or a river that flows year round or even a lake. They see water in fleeting bits. At this time of year, they might have seen the wash flowing behind their house, or the summer rains, but it’s kind of a fleeting resource that just passes them by quickly.”
Instead of focusing on Pima County’s real watershed, the raging Colorado River, organizers decided to teach students about water right at home.
“The kids learn water is in everything – plants and animals, alike,” Burroughs said. “They learn how water moves across the landscape, falling down mountains and into washes that they have seen.”
When River of Words educators visit classrooms in 30-some schools in the greater Tucson area, including some in Marana and Oro Valley, they show students how to create a watershed model.
Each student crumples a plain white piece of paper, opens it most of the way and tapes its four corners onto another piece of paper so it looks like a relief map. Using washable markers, the students draw in valleys and mountain ridgelines.
When that part is complete, they add farmland, cities and smelly landfills.
“They have to think about where the water is going to flow,” Burroughs said. “You don’t want the city to be in the bottom of a lake.”
Neither do you want a neighborhood downstream from the dump.
As a last step, they spray their maps with water and see where it drains.
“It’s so simple and easy, but it’s very powerful,” Burroughs said. “They learn a lot from that simple exercise. We do it for kindergarten through high school.”
The second half of the River of Words program is a one-hour lesson on art and poetry. For this, students leave their school buildings and gather outdoors.
“We introduce watersheds, and the vocabulary is helpful to them when they switch to the other side of their brain and think about water in terms of feelings and its connection to their lives,” Burroughs said. “In the art, we see a lot of water rushing down hillsides.”
The results of the program, about 1,000 pieces of writing and artwork each year, all go on to the national River of Words contest. Often, the greater Tucson area boasts national finalists, and one year, it had a grand-prize winner.
The Pima County entries vary in subject matter perhaps more than their counterparts in other regions of the United States, Burroughs said.
“Often people will say, ‘There’s not a lot of water,’ and we’ll say that this isn’t about water,” Burroughs said. “They’re not coming from the place of a desert child. Desert children understand intuitively that water is everywhere. A picture of a cactus is water.”