Photo Credit: Cathy Zhou
Amy, with her binoculars dangling from her neck and field notebook in hand, tromped across the top of an irrigation ditch into the rice fields of the Dali plain. Before her eyes a vast open patchwork of farmland and open sky was spread. Cryptically running across the rapeseed beds were wagtails and pipits, sitting on the wires Amy spotted drongos and shrikes, a black-winged kite flew overhead, even more birds were lurking in the hedgerows. What were the birds eating? Where did they find shelter?
Taking note of the many species of bird in front of her, Amy saw a field she had never seen before; a field animated with life and ripe for further investigation. Like the other participants in the Linden Centre Winter Bio Camp, Amy embarked on an exciting journey of what our instructors call “noticing the overlooked”.
In the fields of Xizhou she reveled in new discoveries, in the forests of the mountainous West she came to know Yunnan ,where she lives ,in an entirely new way.
And what a province Yunnan is! With snow-capped peaks exceeding 6,700 m and lush, tropical lowland valleys, Yunnan is a global biodiversity hotspot. Plant diversity in Yunnan exceeds 17,000 species, with flowering plant diversity equivalent to the rest of the northern hemisphere combined. Yunnan also boasts 50% of China’s birds and mammals, though only comprising about 4% of China’s total landmass.
Against this extraordinary natural backdrop, students developed an appreciation for, and understanding of, China’s global ecological significance through an immersive education experience provided by American instructors.
Our lead instructors, Alex and Ben, have explored the remote corners of Yunnan province in pursuit of its many unique and bio-diverse ecosystems.
After graduating from Duke University, Alex has designed and led various educational programs focused on culture and nature in Yunnan in collaboration with a variety of institutions including Middlebury College and CET Academic Programs.
Ben holds a B.S. in Evolution and Ecology and an M.S. in Biology. He has taught biology and ornithology to college students in the US, has several peer-reviewed publications and extensive field expertise.
May and Veronica, Princeton in Asia fellows, served as the residential coordinators and designed social aspects of the camp.
The week began with our students coming together at the Linden Centre in Xizhou – a small village in the Dali region flanked by the Azure Mountains on the west and Erhai Lake on the east. It was in this dramatic landscape that they began their first lessons in “noticing the unnoticed” through a variety of exercises both in the classroom and out in the field. Throughout the camp students maintained a detailed field notebook that contained their own unique observations fostered by field experiences, talks on ecology and independent exploration of place.
In Xizhou, the students were introduced to the concept of interdependence when they set out for the morning market to make observations about animal and plant diversity. They were asked to interact with the vendors, people whose livelihoods depend on the land.
Our instructors took the students on nighttime walks to secluded agricultural paths and asked them to gaze at stars unobstructed by light pollution. Although careful and quiet observations were encouraged throughout the camp, the instructors also implemented innovative curricular elements that sparked student enthusiasm and gave them ownership in their own learning. For example, students loved competing with each other to identify and describe overwintering wetland birds on an excursion to the northern section of Erhai Lake. In this activity students newly acquired skills in field identification, noticing and sketching were put to the test. The students correctly identified over 30 species at the wetland alone.
After four days in Xizhou and lessons in three distinct cover types (farmland, wetland, mountane forest) the group embarked on a journey to Baihualing, a known birding hotspot in southern section of the Gaoligong mountainrange.
These mountains provided the perfect backdrop for students to learn about disturbance ecology, forest structure, and environmental history while hiking in perhaps the most diverse temperate ecosystem in the world. In the mountains students also set up camp, bonded over nightly campfires and grew tremendously through the challenges of the trail.