Monday, July 28, 2008

Walking with Children

I like to live on the edges, where my vantage point can look inward toward community or outward unencumbered. I live on the far corner of town, with views of both farm and field. I am lucky to be within sight of a bike path; a walk with a prairie view.

When I taught young children, we often took walks together. Special things happen when you walk with young people. Initially, everyone is bubbly with energy and excited to be released from indoors. Experiencing outdoors with pals always feels novel to children and hands find friends’ hands and bodies quiver with the joy of anticipation. Children have not yet learned indifference to nature and their fresh perspective, without fail, reawakened some forgotten wonder in me.

We would set off and let the walk unfold of its own volition. We never walked in formation, but higgledy-piggledy and always found areas where we could mingle and stop in a huddle together to examine and talk about inevitable finds. Here an empty snail shell, a cracked bird egg, various scat (always the impetus for some giggles- poop is, after all, universally funny), there an insect to be identified and remembered. I always brought a collection box for items we wanted to bring back to school, and for things that I couldn’t name. For to truly love something, we humans need to name it.

While walking the bike path recently, I thought about the many names of plants and birds that I didn’t know, visible all around me. I thought with regret how my grandfather would have been able to tell me the name of a certain red berry; if it was edible (I really wanted to taste it). I wished for the millionth time that my appreciation for his knowledge had coincided with the short years our lives had run parallel.

I mentioned my wish to know the names of the plants and birds along the bike path to a friend and fellow teacher, Heather Foran, and she graciously offered to ask her friend, Fran Harty. Mr. Harty is a research scientist/botanist/conservation expert from the Illinois Natural History Survey. He has taken time to take our students to participate in a Sangamon River study and is a wealth of knowledge. I felt so lucky to have the opportunity to walk the trail with him.

We set out one Saturday morning and within minutes, I marveled as Mr. Harty pointed out the wonders that flew and grew around me. My neighbors to the east have set up many martin houses and a large colony is thriving. A small wonder of the world within feet of my home.

As we continued, Mr. Harty pointed out the many prairie plants, and their uses, birds and bird song. Identifying birdsong is an art. You must teach yourself to separate the individual sounds from a symphony of noise. Carefully lifting layers of sound, you listen for a specific pattern, a set of trills, or a single note. Others have listened carefully and converted some of the bird song into human words or phrase for easier identification. Listening; it takes practice. Mt. Harty has a talent for it.

I thought about how fortunate that some people are bearers of this forgotten pool of once common knowledge. I watched as Mr. Harty “pished”. To pish is to make a sound or series of sounds (it is an onomatopoeia), that attracts the bird, which flies in for a closer look. The amazing thing is- it works.

We came upon the berries that I had wondered about. They were invasive honeysuckle berries, mildly toxic to humans, but birds love them. Mr. Harty called the juicy berries the fast food of nature. They are packed with short term energy, but have few nutrients. The fruit pass through the digestive tract of the bird within feet of feeding and thus, seeds are spread.

As we walked, Mr. Harty kindly wrote each plant, many trees, and birds in a notebook for me. I thought how nice it would be for people- families with children, to have an identifying list to take with them when they walked the trail (I will provide the list he created on my blog).

In between plant identifications, bird sightings and pishing, great stories were told. Walking is a dowsing tool to divine good, uninterrupted talk. I was again reminded of my years walking with children, for my students would inevitably sidle up during long walks, especially during the more subdued return journey. If my hands were not full of finds, small fingers would clasp mine on either side and the talk would begin. Latest happenings at home were told, worries were given voice- things of importance only in a child’s world were shared. Things of utmost importance. These moments in time, not trips to theme parks, are the real quality time

We need long, unbroken time with each other. Time that is not disturbed by cell phones, noise and distractions. Walking or working with children is a perfect venue to truly connect with your child, to know their soul.

My mother, a teacher at Metamorphosis Montessori School, recently told me a story that moved me and illustrates this wonderful phenomenon. She was working with one of my favorite people, Sarah Perdekamp, age 7. Sarah, lovely inside and out, seems to glow with inner light- she is a wonderful soul. The two were busy with Sarah’s birdhouse; sawing the boards (a job for two), and hammering the wood. The work is long, and sawing requires concentration and patience. In a lull, with saw in hand Sarah suddenly announced in the delightful, “no segue needed” manner of children,

“I think I understand it.”

My mom, thinking Sarah meant understanding how the birdhouse was built, said nothing and Sarah continued in her quiet, thoughtful way,

“I think it’s about thinking about what God wants first. Then thinking about what other people want. Maybe then, just a little bit about ourselves. But only a little bit. That’s what I’ve figured out”.

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