Durham News: Opinion

Bob Wilson: Dr. Dirt has the right prescription

By Bob Wilson

Mention “soil and water conservation district” and wait for the blank stare.

Soil and water what?

Mention “Durham County Soil and Water Conservation District” and you’ll likely get a different reaction. This is one government program that gets its hands dirty, with a passion.

And if DCSWD continues on its path, a lot of people – especially young people – will know the joy of working with their natural environment instead of against it.

Recently, staff writer Virginia Bridges told the story of a Southern High School senior, Edward Young, and how the troubled youngster appears to have found a way ahead through DCSWD’s partnership with the Title 1 school.

Title 1 schools are eligible for Occupational Courses of Study aid for exceptional students like Young, the ones who so often fall not through the cracks, but into the manholes.

Southern is 96 percent minority. Three out of four of its 918 students come from poor families, and many fall into the exceptional category. Exceptional has a different meaning here: learning disabilities.

Consequently, Southern emphasizes learning that leads to an occupation. The three Rs are still there, but for kids coming off the starting block with a disadvantage, a learn-to-earn curriculum that helps graduates stay on the job and off the street makes eminent sense.

No one can say where life will take Edward Young, but if what he is learning at Southern keeps him out of the criminal justice system – the fate of too many young black males – Southern and DCSWD will have scored a victory.

Durham Public Schools has a long menu of special-purpose education and student-assistance programs. It would be easy to glaze over one called bionomic education.

That’s the one that introduced Young, once a hellion at Southern, to gardening and landscaping. Something about working with the soil, about seeing living things grow and flourish in his care, connected with him. He began to settle down and think about an alternative future.

For that, Young and others like him can thank Mike Dupree, DCSWDC’s director of agribusiness environmental services. I call him Dr. Dirt, having learned from him the value of a riparian buffer for Falconbridge Lake as well as how to use rain gardens to capture roof runoff.

Dupree, who has a background in the retail gardening business, is one of the sparkplugs – the other is Southern High teacher Amy Jenkins – behind Durham County’s Bionomic Educational Training Centers.

You can see Dupree’s partnership with Durham Public Schools at work, where Southern High students are adapting their campus to keep polluted stormwater runoff from entering Falls Lake. They are learning how to build rain gardens and other first-echelon methods of stormwater engineering.

In a way, what Southern High is doing in collaboration with DCSWDC is a welcome throwback to the agricultural curricula that flourished at many high schools in the 19th and 20th centuries. These curricula trained generations of farmers in best practices of working and conserving land.

Today, farming is more often than not a massive corporate enterprise. Machines do the work that was done for millenia by hands and sweat. Consequently, few family farms are being created today, and small wonder: The cost is staggering, and beyond that are layers of state and federal environmental regulations.

With increasing urbanization, however, comes opportunity for certified gardeners, landscapers and others who collaborate with nature to improve the built environment.

Some will go on to found their own firms and provide jobs for the deserving. But for all, learning the expectations of work – showing up on time, meeting quality standards and so forth – are the foundations of steady employment.

Of course, nobody has a panacea for Durham County’s stubborn population of aimless, crime-prone youngsters. But to the extent that learning the work of nature can divert some to productive careers and social stability, bionomic education is well worth its tab.

In an earlier America, high schoolers read Henry David Thoreau’s seminal “Walden” as an introduction to a unitary philosophy of humans and our place in the natural order. The book had a profound impact on conservation theory in the late 19th century and thereafter.

In that sense, Edward Young’s discovery of nature is a discovery of himself. Thoreau would be delighted.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.