I’ve spent this summer outside. Most of my pictures are archived in memory and can only be shared with words. Like this one: on an early mountain morning, mist rising from the dew-drenched ground, I am in a peach nightgown and a blue jean jacket and picking blackberries. I make my way down the path to the woods by the river. I am smiling, but not for a camera… there isn’t one; I am completely alone. I am smiling because we will have blackberries for breakfast on the screened porch and because I have recovered my ease with nature. I have thrown off the fear of snakes, bears, and the last of the predawn bats. In this memory snapshot, I have recovered something I lost without knowing it; a treasure I squandered, not knowing its value.
There is another picture in my memory… we are hiking and it is pouring down rain. We find ourselves in a rhododendron thicket with huge pink and white blooms. I can smell the mossy forest floor and rain glazed slate.
And another… we are canoeing on the New River in North Carolina. We look for a place on one of the banks where we can stop to have our picnic. We find a waterfall. And suddenly, tomato sandwiches and peaches are a feast.
The nights were beautiful, too. Scrabble tiles lit by campfire light. Night-piercing stars hang above our tent. Whippoorwills remind us how quiet it is.
My husband and I have camped, biked, canoed, and hiked our way through the mountains. We rode through towns with names singing from their signs: Trust, Luck, Walnut Gap, Bridal Creek, Huckleberry Ridge, Cherry Cove and Sugar Grove. As Ben drove, I read the Appalachian folktales that I have researched. These stories center on Jack—the youngest of three who set out to seek his fortune. We traveled to many of the places these these stories have been collected.
After this mountain trip, I came back to Richmond to take a course with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on the James River. I took in a lot of good hard science that will be valuable in my classroom: we learned about the fragility of this ecosystem. We learned about fish and birds; watershed and runoff; waterways and wetlands. But I learned more than that: I began to see how central my love of nature is to my sense of biology, scientific process, and conservation. Nature helps me read poetry, literature, and history more critically. It inspires my writing.
I am good about getting my third graders outside. I know they need fresh air and sunshine and time to play. I often read to them outside and even let them work outside, but I’ve realized that isn’t enough.
I have come to understand that access to nature usually doesn’t come through school. It is not part of the curriculum. So some kids have cups that are filled to the brim with the beauty, wonder, and love of the world. And others don’t… because, too often, these cups are only filled (or not) outside of school. This is a gap that is not addressed by reformers. It is not a gap that can be narrowed by tougher schools, pacing charts, scripted teaching, more drill, more assessments, or longer school days. Aligned science books, power points, and movies related to standards can enhance the outdoor experience, but they can’t replace it. Children, if at all possible, need to play in streams, hike through woods, and walk through wetlands. And then they need to write about it. Read about it. Draw about it. Talk about it.
I spent a lot of time outside when I was a third grader. The river and woods were right behind my house. I took it all for granted until this summer. In July, I set out on a journey and found my fortune… just like Jack. And just like Jack, I plan to share it. Nature should not be left to chance.