Old John then tells a story about the Apollo 11 moon shot - ancient history to the kids - and how the Earth looked like a small and fragile place from the moon. Old John digs into his bulging denim sack, but he doesn't pull out moon rocks. He shows them a glass milk bottle, an old-fashioned razor, then some cloth napkins, a metal lunch pail, even a cloth diaper. Peppered with lots of questions, he explains how each of the dumped items can be reused. He compares them to their modern throwaway counterparts.
"Take these diapers," he says. "It actually takes more water to make one of those disposable diapers than to wash 10 to 15 of these cloth jobs here."
Old John is the brainchild of a considerably younger actor named Loren Foss who in real life works for the Mountaineers, a Northwestern conservation and outdoor recreation group founded in 1906. While most environmental groups offer nature hikes, the Mountaineers wanted to do something to reach children in school. Conservation for Kids started in 1992 with two characters - Old John, who visits first-graders, and ex-logger Archie Mattox, who visits fifth- and sixth-graders.
Loren's swaggering Mattox character tackles some tougher issues: Why should we save forests and reduce wood consumption, even though it might put some people out of work? Both characters come with a curriculum packet for the teacher so the lessons can continue after the visit. Foss pays visits to more than a hundred Seattle-area schools each year and he's now training others in those roles so the program can expand even more.
For adults, the Mountaineers offers the Northwest Environmental Issues course. Taught by natural resource experts, the nine sessions involve group discussions, guided field trips and service work. Since it started three years ago, the course has reached almost 300 people.
For more information, contact the Mountaineers, 300 Third Avenue West, Seattle, WA 98119 (206/284-6310).
* Elizabeth Manning