Hannah Robinson Murray, Hunter Wulf, Jonathan Zisk, Spence Hunt, and Melvin Foster.

Hannah Robinson Murray, Hunter Wulf, Jonathan Zisk, Spence Hunt, and Melvin Foster. 

The last thing you expect when attending a Candor Historical Society program is a pop quiz. And yet there we were, photos of two maple leaves projected onto a screen and a challenge issued: name those trees. 

On March 27, the Candor Historical Society invited Dr. Jonathan Zisk to share stories and insights from one of the winningest Envirothon teams in the state. Zisk, who taught chemistry and physics at Candor High School, also coached the team.

Envirothon is an academic competition that measures a team’s knowledge of forestry, wildlife, aquatics, and soils. And Candor has sent a team to the National/ International Envirothon nine times in the past 27 years. Not bad for a small school, Zisk noted. “Especially when you realize that we’re competing with school districts that spend twice as much per pupil as Candor does.” 

If there’s one thing the Candor coaches and team members have learned over those years, it’s that being smart won’t win the Envirothon. Spence Hunt, coach emeritus, and past and present team members Melvin Foster, Hannah Robinson Murray, and Hunter Wulf agree that winning is a result of how well the team prepares and how they work together.

“There were times when the team would meet after school until 9 p.m.,” said Hunt. “Some years they’d stay later.” Over the years their study library accumulated field guides, textbooks, thick binders filled with test questions and articles, and notes about how best to approach the competition. 

“Back in the beginning, we went up to Cornell to meet with a professor,” Zisk said. “When we showed him some of the questions about soils, he told us those weren’t high school questions. They were more like graduate school level.” Zisk continues to be impressed by the young men and women who, after a full day of school, athletics, and work commitments still choose to spend hours participating in what amounts to a college level environmental science course—but without the credits.

Envirothon is more than a test; it presents authentic problems for students to solve. At the regional competition, the aquatics section not only asks a wide range of questions—they run the range from general wetland ecology to regulations—but asks teams to identify plants and fish. Not only that, the competition is a timed event, so when the air horn sounds it’s time to hustle to the next testing station. 

At the soils section the pages of the written test are weighted with stones so they don’t fly away while the teams head off to the pit. There they examine the layers and roll a bit of mud in their palm. The forestry section challenges students to identify trees and tools, and calculate board feet of lumber. Not only do they need to remember how to use a Biltmore stick, but also how to do those pesky calculations. Plus, in early spring the leaves are barely emerging, so remembering bark patterns is useful. Then it’s up to the lodge for skulls and taxidermied wings.

Candor has won so many times that going to competitions was “like having a target on our back,” said Hunt. “We didn’t wear any Candor gear. We weren’t going to flaunt it, but we were going to win.” The team ranked high in the national competitions, one year coming in fourth, and even won first place in their presentation.

Yes, public speaking is a vital part of the Envirothon. Every year the competition includes a “current environmental issue.” This year students are challenged to turn a mediocre plot of land into an experimental farm to demonstrate how they could grow food crops for a billion people or more – and at the same time use technology to mitigate climate change. 

It turns out that a lot of Envirothon participants go into science and related fields. Hannah Murray (Envirothon 1997—2000) studied landscape architecture. She credits the experience of putting together a presentation with helping her prepare for some college courses. With a decade of professional practice behind her, she’s back in the Candor area and hopes to begin her own landscape architecture business soon.

Melvin Foster, who is a pastor, teacher, and dedicated community volunteer, was on the 1992 team. He loved forestry and wildlife and thought at one time he might become a forest ranger. “My favorite tree is the Sassafras,” he said. “It has three different kinds of leaves, and such a distinctive smell in the fall.”

Hunter Wulf is a senior this year, and looking forward to his third Envirothon. He likes forestry, especially identifying trees. He’ll be putting his skills to the test on April 25, at the Southern Tier Regional Envirothon in Owego.

Next up for the Candor Historical Society: the history of the Iron Kettle Farm with Jeanne and Skip Jackson, on April 24, 7 p.m. at Candor Town Hall. Find events and more at candorhistoricalsociety.weebly.com and their Facebook page.

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