Three Moments (Part II)

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Hiking down Buck Mt. with some students (that’s Lake George on the right)

 

One

I am sitting at the check-in desk waiting for weekend arrivals. It is early in the fall season, and I’m still adjusting to the shift. Cabins in place of tents, refrigerators in place of bear canisters, paperwork and formalities in place of primal summer wildness. I am sad to see summer go. Even in this bright, wood-paneled room, I feel a little wilted.

Earlier in the day, I took day campers on a nature walk. We walked up the pipeline trail, reading blown-up placards displaying the pages of Owl Babies. I let the kids read. They were so young I wasn’t sure they could, but they surprised me as kids often do. At each sign we stopped and discussed the book. Why do you think all the letters in that word are capitalized? How does that change the way you read it, I asked them. When a word is tilted like that, what’s that called? The kids were proud that they knew the word “italics.” I was impressed with their literacy.

I’ve mostly forgotten about that walk, at least shoved it aside to a different pocket of my brain. It’s that way with busy lives. You move on. You forget. But sitting there at the check-in desk, the staff member that shadowed me approaches. I just wanted to thank you for leading that hike. I was really inspired by your teaching, she tells me. She thanks me again and part of me wants to cry.

She is 17 years old. Still in high school. I hadn’t met her before this morning. And that she came and told me what my hike meant to her, that she learned something, that she thought it was good, it is hard to describe what it feels to be recognized for something small. Recognized and acknowledged and thanked.  Some days it feels like I’m doing the right thing.


 

Two

Today we are working with middle schoolers. Typical kids and a typical program. I’m embarrassed to say how much the schools all blend in, how the faces and activities and excitement become a colored, noisy blur in my head. I pick a random table to sit with for lunch and chat with the kids. One of them is particularly conversational. A boy with blonde hair that falls into his eyes. I purposely choose his group to be with in the afternoon. Because why not?

The kid trails me like a puppy as we hike. We talk about milkweed and deer and how he wants to travel to Africa. He is intensely curious. We swap nature documentary suggestions, and I tell him all I know about bears. When I tell him I lead backpacking trips in the summer, his eyes grow big and his curiosity soars. He asks me if I have Snapchat and I hedge, telling him camp has Instagram, which instantly disappoints him.

Before we switch activities and I lose track of him, I grab him a brochure for our summer adventure trips. He sticks it in his backpack and promises to ask his mom.

Other groups arrive and the courts get busy. The boy approaches me and starts talking, but I only half-listen as I scan the crowd to see where I’m needed. And then, in reference to the summer trips, he says he’s going to come and then mumbles, I could be your ride or die.

I could be your ride or die.
I could be your ride or die.
I could be your ride or die.

I hate that I can’t remember the boy’s name (Logan? I think it was Logan). I hate that already our conversations have become threadbare and all I could do is loosely summarize them without fragrance. But mostly I hate my splintered attention, how right before he said those words my mind was elsewhere, and I think that maybe this is part of growing up, the widening of attention, the growing list of demands, but how I wish I was a kid who could boil life down to a single moment, who could be swept up in the sight of a lone cat or the feeling of sidewalk chalk in my hand, and how being so small but so centered made you feel so big. In a personal essay, Virginia Woolf wrote,  I cannot remember ever to have felt greatness since I was a child, and some days I think she was right.


 

Three

I am walking along the dark forest path to my house. I call it my house because it isn’t my home, but I don’t know what else to call it. Sometimes language fails me. Sometimes feelings are enough. My hands are full of fresh chicken eggs and I tread carefully across the arched bridge that is always slippery no matter what the weather. My headlamp is stowed in my pocket. I trust my eyes. I walk carefully. I carry those precious eggs in my hands.

As I walk, I notice a strange shadow in the darkness. I only notice it because I am walking slowly. I only notice it because I am walking without light. It is oblong and slightly rounded.

An owl.

All of its details are obscured by darkness, but the shape is distinct. An owl sitting on a branch directly eye-level with me. I like to think we are looking at one another.

A moment passes like this and then another and another, and it is just us, two gentle creatures of the woods, two dark shadows watching each other in the night.

And then I leave, chicken eggs in hand. I walk on.

 

(Part I of the Three Moments series can be read here.)

Three Moments

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Fern Boy and his friend were very proud of their fort, as they deserved to be.

One

I have a group of eight students. It is their first week of school.

We’re going to do some get-to-know-you games, I say. To start, let’s go around the circle and say our name and favorite holiday. You can go first. I gesture to my left. The boy shakes his head as he looks up at me.

You won’t know my favorite holiday, he says.

Try me.

Eid.

I know that one. Why’s it your favorite?

We go around the circle. Several kids say Eid. One says Ramadan. No one but me says Earth Day.

Those three are new to school this year, a teacher tells me as the kids take a water break. They’re refugees from Syria. 

We play another game. The children run back and forth, switching spots on the polydots.

You can leave the polydots on the ground, I tell one of the boys as he picks them up laughing. Just run from one to another. 

You said to steal them.

I pause. I did say that. Steal the dots meaning sneak onto them. It’s a baseball term. 

I never phrase the instructions that way again.


Two

We’re building forts at Red Fox Hollow. I let the kids choose their own groups, or work by themselves, if they prefer. I instruct them to use only dead and downed material, but one boy picks a handful of living ferns anyway to use as insulation. I know he’s been labeled as difficult by his teachers. I take the ferns from him and tell him to find something else.

At the end of the session, all of us tour the forts and the students explain why they built them the way they did.

Fern Boy and his classmate have the most impressive fort by far.

I was inspired by Winnie the Pooh, Fern Boy says. See, there’s this one episode when Eeyore is trying to build his house and it doesn’t work, and eventually all of his friends help him. But I remembered how they used one long stick between trees as the top, and leaned other sticks against them. And then all these leaves are insulation.

I ask all the kids to vote on which shelter they’d prefer to spend the night in. All but one vote for Fern Boy’s.

The kids tear down their forts as we head back to camp, but I let Fern Boy leave his up because I love it so much.

A week later I pass by it on a hike. It is still standing. I think of Eeyore.


Three

Minority high school students from Albany and Schenectady flood camp for the day. I lead seven of them on a hike to Stewart’s Ledges, a short but rewarding trip that offers beautiful views of Lake George. The leaves are bursting with color.

We pass several private residences on our way to the trailhead.

Look at those houses! Ryan remarks. They’re made from wood, actual real wood.

Two girls comment how their houses in Nigeria were made from concrete blocks and how you could never punch those walls.

Ryan is seventeen years old.

We take pictures and admire the view from the top. We have extra time, so I lead the group off the rocks and into the trees. Shelter building time. Only dead and downed material, I tell them.

Why is there grass up here? Ryan asks me.

What do you mean?

Why is it here? There’s no one to mow it…

One of the kids snickers. None of them call him stupid or offer an explanation.

It’s wild, I tell him. It’s probably a different type of grass than grass you’d find in a front yard, grass that you’d mow. Wild grass seeds are brought by animals or the wind and then it grows. It grows more over here because there’s no trail, no one’s walking on it. Animals keep it short so it doesn’t need mowing.

He nods and then wanders back to his shelter. He finds a mushroom and picks it to use as a doorknob for his fort. I don’t tell him that mushrooms aren’t dead and downed material. I let him use it. Ryan is seventeen years old. I want this world, the outdoors, to be as magical and welcoming as possible. I don’t want to tell him no. I let him use the mushroom.

Wild Child(ren)

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      “What’s this tree’s name? C’mon, we just went over it.” I point to a slender tree with gray bark peeling off like wallpaper. The kids look at it uncertainly.
       “I know it!” A girl exclaims, tugging on her braid. Her eyes widen in revelation. “A shaggy hickey!”
       I look at the shagbark hickory and stifle a laugh. “Not quite.”

Outdoor education is exhausting. Thirteen-hour days filled with sixth graders and mud and “No, that’s not edible!” Mashed potatoes with the consistency of Drano. Thin vinyl mattresses that you slip off of if you forget to put a sheet beneath your sleeping bag. There is never enough food, never enough sleep to fill me up.

This was supposed to be my in-between gig, a brief respite before my next full-throttle adventure. But then the lake water receded, the buds burst on the trees, and I dreamed less and less of faraway places. For the first time in years, I wanted to stay.

“Is Farrow your real name?”
“Do you ever wear make up?”
“Have you actually been to all those places on your water bottle?”

The questions flow ceaselessly. I answer them honestly. Most of the time. The kids distract themselves with their disposable cameras, taking pictures of half-eaten grilled cheese sandwiches and their own muddy boot prints on the tile floor.

“What time is it?”
“When’s lunch?”
“What would happen if I accidentally fell into the lake?”

They start off a little shy, uncertain about me as an instructor. But then their caution melts. They smile as I play off of their Vine reenactments. Their eyes widen when I reference the twisted towers from Fortnite. Their eagerness grows as I tell them yes over and over again, boundaries from their daily lives slipping loose, delivering them fresh and breathless into the wild.

Small acts feel like gifts. Can I put mud on my face? Yes. Can I lick this tree? Yes. Can I get my shoes wet? As long as you don’t complain later. The kids splash unceremoniously into creeks and hold salamanders in their hands. Tree branches crack as boys beat them against rocks. Girls rub sand into their hair.

There’s a sense of pride I get from being the one to say yes, the one to give them this tiny sliver of freedom and wildness. How strange that it’s a luxury to get dirty. How odd that climbing rocks feels like a privilege.

“So that’s poison ivy? Can I eat it?”
“How do snakes poop?”
“A crawdad? The counselor over there told me it’s a lobster.”

People say to dream big, but I’m dreaming smaller these days. A clean thermos, a book, and a child brave enough to interrupt me during a lecture to tell me I have a tick on my face all feel like bliss. Some days this is enough.

EarthWorks Institute

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Kids running wild, as they should, during one of EarthWorks’ summer programs. (Photo courtesy of EarthWorks Institute)

The quintessential American childhood is built upon exploration. We see it time and again in children’s literary classics, such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Bridge to Terebithia, and the Little House on the Prairie series. More often than not, the freedom of exploration is linked with the outdoors. Even when the kids are housebound, they often find a way to circumvent their situation—say, via a secret garden or an enchanted wardrobe—and hidden, natural worlds once again are theirs to pursue. Nature is the most accessible landscape for—to borrow a line from Dumbledore—the flighty temptress adventure.

I don’t need to tell you that kids spend a lot of time in front of screens these days. If you haven’t witnessed it yourself, then you’ve definitely been bashed with a dozen or more headlines about it. Like the debate on artificial sweeteners or millennials choosing avocados over houses, screen time for children is a hot-button issue that never lacks in “news” coverage.

It’s something Lindsay Cray has noticed, too. Lindsay is the Co-Founder and Executive Director for EarthWorks Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on connecting residents in the Greater Rochester, New York, area with the world and community around them. Typically this is done through developing a closer connection with or a better understanding of the outdoors. Although EarthWorks offers classes for a variety of ages, its emphasis is on kids.

“Kids are lost,” Lindsay told me in a phone interview. “I’ve met children who literally don’t know how to climb trees, or don’t know how to cross a creek. And I’m not talking a raging river creek. I’m talking a creek that’s five or six feet wide with stones to step on. I’ve worked with children who have stopped dead in their tracks in front of a small body of water and looked at me like, ‘what do we do from here?’”

Before dedicating herself to outdoor education, Lindsay worked as a research scientist studying facets of the human condition, knowledge which influences her work today.

“We’re not as far away from our primitive ancestors as we like to think we are,” said Lindsay. “Doing things like climbing trees increases your balance and also helps you become good at math. Being outside and learning how to push your physical limits helps you to control your mental limits as well. Kids who are constantly dealing with sensory overload don’t understand how to process information and that information can either be schoolwork, or it can be social emotional learning, or it can be critical thinking skills. They’re losing that because they don’t physically challenge themselves in ways that are healthy.”

EarthWorks has many programs designed to get kids reacquainted with nature. They offer courses in tracking, foraging, primitive tools, zombie slugs, and even a Jedi-themed summer program where kids will learn “the true power of the FOREST AWAKENED.”

And the programs are working.

Lindsay says that the response from participants—both kids and adults—has been overwhelmingly positive: “A lot of people tell us that the work we’ve done with them or their children has changed their lives, that the children have become people that the parents didn’t even realize they could be, or that it’s brought them out of their shell. Kids beg to come back, especially for our forest school and our summer camp program.”

In 2016 alone, EarthWorks reached 2,180 participants. They conducted around 700 hours of programs, 620 of which were oriented at children.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would’ve been a very different story if Huck had been given an iPad in the beginning. Forget building a raft. He could have rented a kayak and booked Airbnbs along the way. But where’s the rip-roaring adventure in that?

We need adventure in our lives, especially the wilderness variety. As adventurer and indie vanlife god Chris McCandless once wrote, “I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions.”

So let the kids run wild. A little bit of mud never hurt anybody.

(Interested in learning more about EarthWorks? Click here!)