The swamp was full of delicious-ness last Monday. (Due to neither frogs nor cabbage…) The scents and slight warmth brought us closer to spring, though any true spring warmth seems so elusive this year. I had only boys with me and the kind of energy that seems to accompany them. As usual, I briefly considered actively instructing them about any number of spring nature topics. Should I ask them to get out their magnifiers and inspect mosses? Maybe they would be interested in inspecting leaf buds on different types of trees? We should do a 5 minute sensory time during which we sit silently in, “Sit Spots,” and collect all that we can via nose, ears, or eyes. A nature craft? I could pull out some sketch paper and pencils to do some rubbings or quick drawings… or not. There are the compasses; I haven’t really taken time to instruct… but no. How about a nature treasure map? Get out the tree field guide and go about identifying some local species? Frankly, I just wanted to go sit on a mossy log and take it all in quietly. But they didn’t. They wanted to run, yell, climb, and play with sticks. And why shouldn’t they? It is spring. They were inside all day being asked to listen and follow directions, to share their space and conform to school-type rules which almost always favor girl-types. Or perhaps most girl-types have just been taught, culturally, to conform to school? Whatever the case, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do that to them on this beautiful, green day.
I believe in what I’m doing, even during the times I appear to be doing very little. I am providing the opportunity to kids who wouldn’t be doing this free-in-the-wild thing otherwise. I am offering the opportunity to fall in love with the earth in hopes that if there is any left by the time they grow up, they will fight for it. They are getting to be kids, free of technology, free from hurrying from one thing to another, free of all the messages that our culture is teaching.
Everyone heads into the swamp. I notice that the kids are so drawn to the challenge of balancing through the swamp. Somewhere in my brain I can remember vaguely something from child development about vestibular and proprioceptive feedback or something in the body, but I really can’t remember it all right now. But I can feel it in myself as I walk along narrow logs and jump from place to place. I watch M. leaping confidently from fern island to island with his stick in hand. He knows his way now and I don’t worry that he will get lost. Meanwhile, two others have disappeared from sight but not from hearing, and I know that they are safe. They will stay together and come back toward me when or if they can see the cars on the nearby road. In fact, we all end up meeting, unplanned, at the Fairy Tree only minutes later.
As is often the case, I. and E. remain near me and together we “discover,” skunk cabbage growing all over the place. I recognize it immediately and tear off a piece of leaf for them to smell. They are impressed with the odor and promptly encourage the others to give it a sniff too. One of the other twins declares it, “Fart cabbage,” and the name sticks… I cannot help correcting them a few times but I quickly give up as I realize I am only fanning the flames of their enjoyment in shouting, “FART CABBAGE!” within my hearing. I finally give in and grin back at them because, let’s face it, “Fart Cabbage,” is hilarious!
Someone discovers a tiny frog while I am showing everyone the newly opening poison ivy leaves. We quickly lose interest in the poison ivy and everyone who wants to hold the frog hurries to the swamp to get our hands muddy and wet. H. holds it the longest, all of his energy focused now and so calm, so gentle as he cups the tiny amphibian in his muddy hands. I love how careful he becomes, and in that moment I know I can trust this boy with the life of small creatures in his midst. After we have our fill of looking, H. gently returns the frog to a protected area unlikely to be stepped upon.
I don’t think I will ever stop being amazed by the creative ideas kids will come up with when left to their own devices in nature long enough. Three of the boys have been playing with a very long branch, finding a variety of purposes. Now I look over to see they have found a way to lift the smallest of them up on it and he balances with delight, shouting that he is floating (or flying?). I am stunned by the trust he places in them and their teamwork and strength in holding him up like that between them. He holds onto another tree part of the time, but also lets go to show me how brave he is or to convince himself that he is, in fact, flying?
It is difficult when one or two students want to go to the Enchanted Forest because it is too far, really, for me to feel completely comfortable dividing us. I must remain able to hear them, at least. I do consider looking for an assistant or a volunteer, but I have so many reservations. What if they can’t let the kids Be? What if they change the dynamics? What if they don’t know what I know and see what I see? But in short order the whole group shifts their focus to the Tilted Tree and suddenly there is a cluster of boys around and on it. Several climb the now-precarious initial expanse of tree-trunk that has lost its bark. I use this opportunity to point out how the tree itself still lives despite its missing piece. The boys good-naturedly yell at each other to move or get down, but they aren’t really fighting at all; just happily and loudly verbal with each other. They sit along the one low branch and whoop and holler with sheer freedom and abandon.
Beneath the trunk of The Tilted Tree, C. and H. work together to tie our little rope to their multi-purpose branch (now called, “The Bazooka,) and create a see-saw. C. works at it for quite a while, using the engineering process to plan it, to redesign as he works at getting it balanced properly. He then sits down on it and announces cheerfully, “This is the worst see-saw ever!” I laughed.
While the other boys climbed, jumped down, balanced, and built, I notice that I. has beckoned me silently, asking me in the quietest voice to come and see what he has found. It is right at the base of The Tilted Tree and I see that it is a furry caterpillar, similar to the banded “Wooly bears,” we are all familiar with. (Isabella tiger moth) I use a leaf to scoop it up, unsure of its stinging abilities. We admire it and talk about how these caterpillars can hibernate through the winter. One of the boys over our heads observes that he didn’t know bugs hibernated.
At some point we realize that our newest explorers haven’t been to The Secret Fort Tree, so we head over there to show it off. I am pretty sure one of them said, “Secret Fart Tree,” but I don’t take the bait this time. They all climb fearlessly until it is time to go home. I am vaguely sad that this year will be an “off” year for our wild apple tree and that our newcomers won’t get to enjoy the feast that we did last fall. For the moment, though, they seem pretty content. They climb, yell, discover, and laugh. It is enough for now.
Yes, I would find it more peaceful by myself in the woods, needing nothing more than the wilderness. But I get to do that when I go home. It makes pieces of my life worth living to get to connect kids to their own wilderness, to hear them laughing and see them learning about themselves and about the living, connected, science-magic of nature.