I have been working at the Botanical Garden these three previous summers as a day camp animator.
Here in Montreal, these programs are quite diverse and popular. Many children learn more about sports, art, new languages or science in a fun and entertaining way outside in nature.
The Botanical Garden’s educational programs come from decades of tradition since the founder, Brother Marie Victorin (a Christian), strongly believed in educating children in nature. In the 1930’s, at the same time as the creation of the Botanical Garden, he started giving classes to youths living in the city.
It was my first time experiencing summer classes—with the exception of swimming and other sports classes I attended in primary school in Córdoba.
I entered the big Botanical family with little knowledge but eager and ready to learn. Summer classes are divided in 6 categories, each had different natural-science related themes: entomology, ecology, gardening, geology and survival and ornithology.
The counselor who was supposed to give geology classes had to withdraw from the course at the last minute so I took her place at the Garden for the summer instead of the Biodôme, which had just been closed at that precise moment for a few months.
I had to get a new name, since no one used their real ones. After a great deal of thought, I went with “Opal”, like the gem. So my first experience was teaching geology to a group of teenagers, firstly, and then to three groups of young children. I did learn a lot; we visited the Garden, studied rocks.
The most interesting thing we did was a going out on a small trip with a paleontologist to a quarry to see fossils from the Ordovician period, trilobites and molluscs, among other things.
Every summer, I was responsible for 4 groups that stayed 2 weeks each, and of at least 12 children I was in charge of while I had a young assistant helping me. I got lost in the Garden several times with the kids (I told them that it was ranked the 2nd largest botanical garden in the world and until today—four years later—I’m still very much capable of getting lost… again!), which made me lose a little bit of my credibility that I quickly managed to recover.
During my second summer assignment, I was in charge of the group studying insects. This time it was capturing and collecting, because there were different themes depending on the age of the children as well. It was so much fun running from one field of the Botanical Garden to the other and in the different parks, chasing after insects with a net and testing several traps.
Of course, I’d rather set them free (alive), but we had to keep various insects in order to make a collection following entomologic collecting methods.
The third year was the year when the funniest things happened since the theme was raising insects in captivity. We had access to our own place, which had several enclosures, terrariums and aquariums containing different species. In other words, except from the children, I had to take care of a few hundreds of insects!
Once, we returned to our facility only to find the door of the stick insect’s section completely open. Mind you, it wasn’t closing well before. Stick insects are quite the slow bunch, but they had all the previous night to as a head start. On the ten we had, we were able to find eight, the ninth was found a few days later and we lost all hopes of finding the last one.
A big 6 inch-long Australian female stick insect. In the middle of our activity in our facility, somebody knocked on our door; it was the librarian holding a small bottle with the lost insect in it and while asking us if it was ours!
The Library was quite far from our classroom, in the same building, but still two corridors separated us and there was our little fugitive. With great joy, we put her back into her cage and immediately started to eat her guava leaves. The librarian confessed that the insect almost got killed because they didn’t know what kind of insect it was and they were really scared of bugs!
Not to mention that not only did a cricket managed to escaped, but it also succeeded in infiltrating the Summer Camp Director’s office, my superior, to the point where I couldn’t hide the fact that it had escaped anymore since she was the one to find it!
The funniest anecdote—which I made my young students promise not to tell a soul—was the episode about cleaning the fly larvae with vinegar.
We had two jars with larvae in them eating a mix of pureed potatoes, when they developed into adults, they would fly up to the top of the bottle. The idea was to transfer them to another container with their clean mix.
The problem was that they always lay eggs; therefore we always ended up with larvae at all times. The container started to stink, so I decided to use a technique I read about in a book and which consists in filling the jar to remove the larvae that are supposed to float and thus put them in another container.
Thankfully, we decided to try this experiment out on the patio because all it resulted in was a mess of potato puree and larvae scattering everywhere and which I hopelessly couldn’t stop from blobbing out from the jar.
Most of it ended it on the ground and we all started to clean up after I made my students promise to not say a word about the incident.
I will never forget the look on their faces when they were staring at what was left of the poor larvae. This year, I would to change themes, that’s why I’m doing some preparations to be a guide in other gardens and in during the event “Mosaïcultures”.
But I’m really looking forward to meeting my little students again, those with I shared so many memories and whom I saw grow up in during these last three years. In a few weeks, I will meet the children to which I will always be “Opal’, the insect caretaker.
Author: Helena Arroyo
Translation: Noëlla Moussa