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A Walk in the Woods

Taking a stroll at the Highlands Center for Natural History

Even though our tour had started at eight in the morning, it was already hot. With the exception of a few hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and a rabbit, the majority of the wildlife was already tucked away. Our two-hour long naturalist walk with an expert in the field would focus on different kinds of trees, mountain slope dynamics, lichens clinging to the flat surfaces of rocks, bird nests, magnetic rocks, and conservation projects. The trail we followed was short and had one hill to climb. It took us through a section of Ponderosa Pine forest, through a meadow that was transitioning into more forest, along a creek that was little more than mud and dragonflies, up a hill where indigenous oaks were being planted, and back to the James Learning Center at the Highlands Center for Natural History. The free Highlands Center walk not only proved to be a refreshing way to start the weekend, it gave us an intimate look at the ecosystems of the Southwest high deserts and the challenges that the plants, animals and communities face. Water was the biggest issue. The creek that used to be fed from a thundering waterfall was now little more than a few wet smudges between creek bed rocks. Coniferous trees were changing color, from green to brown. Oaks that had always been large and bushy were little more than skeletons with a few leaves here and there.

    

One hopeful sign that we were glad to see was that the Highlands Center had responded to the decline in natural resources. The James Learning Center, the Highlands Center’s main building that houses the gift shop and conference rooms, operates completely off the grid and sustainably utilizes natural resources for electricity and water. Its most impressive feature is its butterfly roof. The roof supports 40 solar panels that provide all the electricity for the facility. Its butterfly shape mimics nature in that it collects rainwater and directs it toward an underground pipe and storage system for the building and a rock cistern that lets the water slowly seep into the ground and nourish nearby vegetation. The water used in the public bathrooms is flushed into a gray water garden that breaks down bacteria and naturally purifies the water.

The nonprofit organization is dedicated to conserving the surrounding ecosystems and educating the public. From free naturalist field walks offered every weekend and throughout the week, to adult classes on ecology and natural systems, to a variety of children’s camps and discovery programs for school groups, the Highlands Center has found inexpensive and creative ways to engage the community and inspire others to respond to environmental challenges.

In addition to the learning center, the Highlands Center built a stage used throughout the year for theatrical performances, parties, musical events, children’s programs, and more. When we arrived early in the morning, we learned that a beautiful performance of a Midsummer Night’s Dream had taken place the night before. Purple ribbon and white lights were still wrapped around the guardrails and silk trees lined the stage. Apparently, the resident black rattlesnake had decided to join the fun during the performance much to everyone’s surprise. The Highlands Center staff calmly coaxed him into a bucket and moved him into the forest, far from the patrons.

If you are traveling through Prescott, AZ, we would highly recommend stopping at the Highlands Center. Take a nature walk, enjoy a music festival, or just sit and watch the wildlife from the Learning Center. Check out their calendar to see what they have planned. If you’re interested in learning more about the Southwest and the Prescott area, be sure to also visit the Phippen Museum which features the arts and heritage of the Southwest; the Sharlot Hall Museum which has life size historical exhibits of hundred-year-old homes and school houses and an incredible collection of Prescott artifacts; and the Smoki Museum which features American Indian art and culture.

August 11, 2014
One of the many dragonflies we encountered along the way. Photo credit: Chris Scotti

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