Anthropology teacher turns his local environs into a classroom

Plants, animals and people. Class work and community service.

Tom Murphy, an anthropology instructor at Edmonds Community College, brings them all together through teaching and volunteer projects.

“The work I do is with students and community partners. I’m the matchmaker,” Murphy said Friday in his college anthropology lab, where cabinets are filled with plant specimens, animal skulls, pelts, claws and other fascinating objects.

Murphy, 47, is the founder of EdCC’s LEAF School. The acronym stands for Learn-and-Serve Environmental Anthropology Field School, which started in 2006. Its students have worked on a Lynnwood park project with the Snohomish Tribe of Indians and on the restoration of Mukilteo’s Japanese Gulch, monitoring fish and animals.

This summer, a dozen students earned social science credits accompanying Murphy on a tribal canoe journey to Bella Bella in British Columbia.

The LEAF School “has been my focus almost 10 years,” said Murphy, who grew up in southern Idaho but fell in love with this area as a UW student. He earned his doctorate at the University of Washington, and has been at EdCC since 1998.

His efforts will be recognized Nov. 5 at the annual KSER Voice of the Community Award Celebration. Murphy will receive KSER’s Community Impact by an Individual award.

Tom Clendening, KSER’s general manager, said anyone can make a nomination for the awards, which are publicized on the Everett-based independent public radio station, 90.7 FM, for about three months. Winners are chosen by a committee of KSER staff, KSER Foundation Board members and past recipients.

“We had about 35 nominations this year,” Clendening said.

Announced Wednesday, the other winners are:

Community Impact by an Organization: the cities of Arlington, Darrington and neighboring communities for their response to the Oso mudslide.

Community Impact by a Business: Whidbey Life Magazine.

Cultural Impact by an Individual: Ken Kraintz, an Everett School District arts supervisor for 27 years.

Cultural Impact by an Organization: Whidbey Children’s Theater.

Cultural Impact by a Business: Historic Everett Theatre.

In Lynnwood, Murphy’s expertise along with the Snohomish Tribe’s partnership and his students’ toil came together at Gold Park, 6421 200th St. SW. The forested area was once the home of Dr. Morris Gold, an obstetrician, and his wife, Barbara. Sold by the Gold family to the city in 1997 to be used as a park, it is now the site of the Stolja Ali Place of Medicine Ethnobotanical Garden.

Students in the LEAF School adopted the park in 2010. On a woodsy walk, Gold Park visitors see native plants — ferns, salal, fairy bells, trillium, bleeding heart and huckleberries — and interpretive signs along the trails. People from the Snohomish Tribe, which does not have federal recognition, have joined volunteers and students for work parties there, sharing Coast Salish songs, dance and knowledge about plants.

Murphy is also involved in a book project about the history of American Indians’ interactions with members of the Mormon faith. He has Mohawk ancestry, and his wife’s heritage is Cherokee.

“My Mohawk ancestors joined the Mormons and came west. That’s how I ended up in southern Idaho,” he said.

He traces his enthusiasm for field work and native plants to a research trip he took as a graduate student. In Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca, he said, “I was awed by the knowledge of children.”

He remembered that one 10-year-old girl could name hundreds of plants and animals, and their connections to each other.

“She didn’t learn that in school. She learned it doing acts of service, collecting and gathering for dinner or for healing,” he said. “It was the most profound experience of my education.”

The LEAF School works with tribes, nonprofit groups and government agencies to address today’s issues, among them salmon recovery and how to keep animals from harm on roads.

Students from EdCC have been involved with the state Department of Transportation in tracking animals along I-90 through Snoqualmie Pass, and with the Department of Fish &Wildlife in conducting surveys of juvenile Dungeness crab.

On Friday, they were in Granite Falls looking for animal tracks near a new county structure allowing wildlife passage at Quarry Road.

“I look for projects with a high learning value,” Murphy said. “We try to make an impact.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460;

KSER event

The KSER Voice of the Community Award Celebration will be held at 7:30 a.m. Nov. 5 at the Tulalip Resort Casino., 10200 Quil Ceda Blvd., Tulalip. Tickets $15, online at:

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