THOMSON --- About 120 third-graders from C.T. Walker Elementary School in Augusta enjoyed a close look at nature last week at Hickory Hill & The Tom Watson Birthplace.
Six classes also helped plant two trees in the adjacent Thomson Memorial Cemetery during their visits Thursday and Friday.
"We've got a whole tree extravaganza planned," Hickory Hill educator Sydney Peden promised before Friday's visitors divided into three sections for a morning of nature lessons.
While Ms. Peden explained to one class that water is essential but not limited, curator Michelle Zupan told another class how vultures play a vital role in keeping the woods fresh. Meanwhile, office manager Elizabeth Moore told a third class how butterflies adapt for survival.
Parent chaperones watched as children toured The Squarebo and stepped gingerly across a plank bridge over a shallow pond.
The popular attraction just one block west of Thomson's main north-south thoroughfare was a surprise to some of those parents.
"I've never heard of it," said Cheryl Reid of Augusta, whose son Luther was among the third-grade explorers.
"I would love to bring my other kids here," said father Harold Reid. The Reids have four other children.
Parent chaperone Jonathan Bricker was drafted to don wings and a bald cap to portray a vulture while Ms. Zupan explained how the birds help dispose of dead animals.
"I was pretty good, not like the real thing," Mr. Bricker said of his performance.
His son, Aiden, agreed his dad made a pretty good vulture. Aiden was excited about the plants and animals being discussed and said he couldn't wait to e-mail his grandfather about the trip.
Teacher Diane Salim said Aiden discussed his interest in nature even before the school year began.
"He e-mailed me and told me that he loved animals and he hoped he got to learn more about them," she said. "No student in all my 14 years of teaching has ever e-mailed me ahead of time and told me what's important to them. So I thought that was nice."
Thomson Mayor Kenneth Usry issued a proclamation declaring Friday as Arbor Day in Thomson. He chose not to recite the "wherefores" of the document in order to share a message about the importance of trees to Georgia's economy. "We're not really in a forest, but we have trees all around us and it brings beauty to all we do," he said, gesturing to the towering trees behind the lunch pavilion.
Usry said logging is a $28 billion industry in the United States and 141,000 Georgians harvest trees, saw trees into lumber, or "turn right around and plant new trees."
Georgia Forestry Commission ranger John Crawford told the young audience that trees provide more than wood and paper. Tree products also go into medicine, clothing and eyeglass frames and even into some foods, he said.
"Over 5,000 products come from trees," he said.
Crawford also explained that "one acre of trees will produce enough oxygen for you and seven of your friends." He said trees also cool the environment and provide food and sanctuary for wildlife.
During the Thursday session, visitors helped shovel soil onto the roots of a newly planted Ein Shemmer apple tree, native to Israel, in the adjacent cemetery.
On Friday, landscape manager Dexter Rhodes supervised as children planted two tulip poplars. Mr. Rhodes said the poplars are host plants for the tiger and spicebush swallowtail butterflies larvae.
Parent Andrea Turner took photos of the Friday visit as her daughter, McKenna, and other members of Donna Culbreath's class toured the grounds.
McKenna took her turn dropping soil onto the roots of a poplar tree. "It was very fun," she said, after she recited the information about how the tree is vital to butterflies. She said she got a preview of the trip the previous week, when educators visited Walker School to explain the highlights.
Ms. Peden's message focused on the finite supply of water. She explained how Americans have put more and more demand on the water supply and have introduced more pollution over the centuries. She gave children sponges and let them draw from a central container. As children watched the water supply dwindle, they absorbed the message about the need to conserve.
She stressed the need to share water and to use it more efficiently.
"Who uses water?" Ms. Peden asked.
"Everything that is living," Jared Baze answered.
In the butterfly garden owned by The Watson-Brown Foundation, Ms. Moore pointed to illustrations of many butterfly species and explained how some butterflies have adapted to look more like the monarch butterfly.
"Do you know what it means to adapt?" she asked.
She said birds avoid the monarch because it feeds on the milkweed, making it poisonous to birds.
Mr. Rhodes later explained that the poplar trees were planted close to bronze fennel, which also is a favorite of butterflies.
He said the apple tree that was planted Thursday is native to Israel, which he said has a climate similar to that in Georgia.
Mr. Rhodes said he has planted trees every Arbor Day since he started working at the grounds in 2003.
"The wooden benches that the kids were sitting on in the pavilion were made from cedar, loblolly, hickory, walnut, deodora cedar, and white pine," he said in an e-mail. "I reclaimed these timbers, and we made these benches for the children on our rainy days on the maintenance shop."