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Originally published September 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 26, 2008 at 3:57 PM

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Learning to love a Northwest icon

By studying salmon, students develop an attachment to it and the cultures supported by it for so many centuries.

Special to the Times

Information

Student Conservation Association:

Call 206-324-4649 or go to www.thesca.org

STUDENTS of the Seattle Public Schools study salmon every year. And many resent every moment of it.

Why, we wondered, learn the difference between the hooknosed sockeye and the unassuming pink? Who cares about the adipose fin? The salmon are gone, why on Earth should we care?

The idea of requiring students to study salmon is, of course, to allow students to befriend this sodden enigma and develop an attachment to it and the cultures supported by it for so many centuries. But often students don't grasp this connection.

From our experience, it's difficult for students to develop a connection to salmon or to the Pacific coastal region until they are provided opportunities for deeper involvement. The Student Conservation Association (SCA) provides such opportunities. SCA is a national nonprofit group that seeks to link high-school students with conservation efforts. As selected members of SCA's Conservation Leadership Corps in high school, our involvement left us with knowledge of our region's ecology and a loyalty to all things Northwest.

That knowledge comes at a price. It means waking up at 7:30 on drizzly Saturday mornings. Dragging yourself out of bed on a Saturday morning could lead to spending the day pulling invasive species out of parks or improving trails. As the day moves on, you realize what a good time you're having getting dirty amid the fresh scent of the firs. When you're done with the work, you rest assured that more adventures are still to come: With the SCA, we have participated in nature hikes, river tours and rock climbing.

The difference between our SCA experiences and the well-intentioned diagrams of salmon fins in the classroom was the element of hands-on engagement that we received. With the SCA, we got dirt under our fingernails!

We can now remember the names of favorite plants more often than the names of casual acquaintances. The muddied hair and nettled ankles of our work have given us a reason to care about the Earth, about our region and, yes, about salmon. Being part of the SCA surrounded us with a vibrant community that values these things, and now we do, as well.

People often ask, "Why do you spend your time working in the dirt?"

The answer wasn't always easy to come up with, but when thinking of past crews, our response makes more sense. It's not for the service hours for graduation or to help with college applications or the chance to get away from our parents, but the incredible sense of accomplishment that comes from pushing ourselves to new, seemingly impossible limits. It's easy to see how we have grown over these past years by dedicating ourselves to the work.

The days of filling wheelbarrows seemed hard at the time, but now we know we are capable of much more. The most touching moments always came at the end of a workday, walking along a new trail or beautified space, laid with our own strong hands and spirits.

We don't mean to petition against sleeping till noon on Saturdays or spending hours listening to iPods. We do both — often. But more exists out there.

Students everywhere are entering a new phase of their lives, perhaps off to college or starting at a new school. It's important to remember that we may never be able to convince ourselves that salmon anatomy really matters.

But if we make a point of being contributors to life rather than observers, it will be a lot easier to find significance in the lessons about our world, whether we learn them from the plastic seat of a classroom desk or out in nature.

Laura Bogar majors in biology at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. Jaya Ghosh pursues environmental studies at Middlebury College in Vermont. Both have spent four years working in the SCA.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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