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Article for July - August 2007

The Pied Piper of Hammond
by Rosanne McDowell

Tom Mancke and children outdoors photography by Phillip JonesBehind the elementary building of Hammond School in Columbia is a rustic woods-backed, porch-fronted log cabin, a complete contrast to the otherwise modern college-preparatory day school with which it shares the campus. Inside the cabin is a Hammond exclusive—certainly in the Columbia area, probably in the entire state of South Carolina—a source of educational fun that may, in fact, be unique in the United States: Tom Mancke, Hammond’s naturalist-in-residence. So popular with the students is he that Hammond Middle School math teacher Sally Aldridge says of Mancke, "The kids follow him like the Pied Piper. Using our nature trails and cabin, animal skeletons, snake skins and plants and critters of all sorts, he makes science come alive. The kids, including my grandson, Lake, adore him!" Pretty strong commendation, but it just goes to show that if you lead a horse (or kid) to an appealing trough of water, he’ll drink.

Mancke, with 18 years' experience teaching daily at the school as its permanent naturalist, starts the children off with nature walks near the Lower School, followed by excursions in his mini yellow school bus to Hammond’s nearby wetland property and, for older students, off-campus wilderness adventures to state parks and other natural areas and jaunts to far-flung foreign parts for more exotic natural experiences. In addition, each year he coordinates the school’s Primitive Technologies Week, which celebrates vintage tools, crafts and wilderness skills and gives students hands-on opportunities to create and take home their own primitive handicrafts.

Student trying to kindle fire photograph courtesy of Hammond School"Natural history is all about relationships and interconnections," says Mancke. "The teachers get excited about what we do because the students come back with stories to tell. The great thing is this: People come in, they see this cabin, and it looks kind of neat, but we're not here. We’re out there. This cabin is a base camp for me; I can keep my stuff here. We do have programs here occasionally, but the big thing is just getting kids outside. What I love about it is you never know what you’re going to encounter."

If you tag along on a Mancke-led nature walk, here’s what you might hear . . .

(Several pre-K students speaking excitedly in response to Mancke's greeting; Mancke wearing backpack with butterfly net, magnifying glass, test tube and collection bags): "Come on up here, and I'll get you a collection bag in case you find something you want to collect. Put collections in your pocket? Sure, that’s what pockets are for! Let's go see what we can find. Keep your eyes open; walk slowly. All right, tell me what this crazy thing is . . . ."

"It's catbriar! You know why that catbriar has to have those sticker things on it? One animal that loves eating catbriar is a deer. If the catbriar doesn't have something to slow up the deer, the deer will come here and eat the whole thing up. Yeah, that's catbriar seed. If you take the purple skin off, it has a bright-red, hard little seed on the inside. If you want to plant a catbriar, that’s the seed you need. See, catbriar has a sort of heart-shaped leaf. At Valentine's Day, when people were going to the stores and buying valentines, I just took some heart-shaped leaves and wrote "Happy Valentine's Day" on them and gave them out . . . ."

(Mancke pointing out a cluster of small round holes in the dirt—doodlebug lairs): "Hey, we may go on a fishing trip here if I can find a long blade of grass. I've been waiting all winter for this. Let's see if we can catch one of these doodlebugs. Now, a doodlebug is a baby beetle. I don't know if he’s home or not—here we go, gently, don't want to hurt him—y'all ever go fishing?—if he's home, he'll wiggle the blade of grass, and we may be able to get him to come out . . . ." Mancke's bottom line is simple: "What I love is that students come to me, and they'll have a bag with a shed snake skin in it, or they'll have a rock, or they'll have bones; then, after we work together and they leave me, they're beginning to really look at the world around them."

Rosanne McDowell is a free-lance writer living in Columbia..

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© 2007 South Carolina Wildlife Magazine

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