Ticks And Tea Leaves

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In the last week, I’ve run my first couple of youth-oriented outdoor education programs. The first was as an assistant with the Community School in Tamworth NH, and the second was School of the Forest’s first session of our “Family Nature Walk” series. In each of these, I got the opportunity to see kids interact with the outdoors, and that’s what this is all about, isn’t it?

The most fascinating aspect of this for me is seeing the incredible variation in what gets a young person excited about the experience. That little bit of information, or the sight of a particular plant or animal that makes the gears in the kid’s head start turning. It’s not always what you’d expect either. Just in these first two sessions, I got to see a beautiful contrast in personalities and what draws them to open the door and ” throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence.” as our old friend Muir said.

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In my time at the Community School, we focused on vernal ponds. Hiking through the woods to where the overflow of streams had created said pools the kids caught me up on what they’d been doing so far in their outdoor course. This group of middle schoolers had already started digging into topo maps, building three-dimensional models of local peaks. They’d even gone so far as to color coordinate them based on changes in terrain, and place markers for campsites, trails and other landmarks. When we reached the pools we talked a bit about the ecosystem that sprouts up in these short-lived bodies of water, and then the fun began. There is no joy like mucking about in mud and grime, and flipping stones looking for things that slide and crawl.

The longer you sit and look at anything in nature the more you see. As Margaret, the instructor from the school and I talked about the easy stuff to spot (Caddisfly larvae, frog and salamander eggs etc) the kid’s eyes were unfocused and bouncing around the pool as little motions and ripples hinted at things not yet seen. After the initial schpiel, the kids got turned loose with sifters and buckets, pulling up all manner of living things from the pools, and as we all sat on our haunches more and more of the tiny ecosystem in front of us started to become visible. Frogs that had been sitting still in the grasses were spotted, a salamander meandered its way across the pool’s floor.

One young man in particular simply sat quietly on a log, not really drawn to the pool as the rest of us were. However as the afternoon stretched on, he started to speak with fascination about ticks. It started an entire discussion among the kids, with opinions following the full range of “I thought I saw a Deer Tick on me, and it was terrifying” to a simple “EEEEW” (read at the highest vocal register possible). The previously mentioned log sitter passed through these two stages and came out on the other side with questions about a tick’s life cycle, and why they were currently in such abundance. As we talked about “the hatch” that was going on as the weather changed towards warmth those gears and cogs in his mind started to supply questions. Questions I could not answer but have been assured he’ll be able to very soon. Ticks. Arguably the most reviled of crawling things had ignited that first ember in this kid and sent him down a path of wondering.

 

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A Red Eft, the juvenile stage of the Eastern Newt.

 

So onto the next one. School Of The Forest’s nature walks are each centered around a specific subject. This week’s was tree identification and an introduction to the art and process of pressing samples from plants. I had sort of set in my mind certain “cool” little bits of trivia about each plant we talked about that I thought would artificially light that spark we keep talking about. The kids (and parents) found these interesting, but the whole “close but no cigar” trope was pretty applicable.

So I was incredibly surprised when the youngest kid in the bunch was drawn in by the idea of making pine needle tea. Something about this just burrowed into his happy little soul and I watched him drop each of his other clippings one by one as he filled his and “Pappi’s” pockets with pine needles to make take home for tea. It didn’t end there either, every five minutes as we walked from spot to spot, he’d walk up to me with a leaf or twig and ask about it’s chances of making his tea better.

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If I learned one thing from this kiddo, it’s that I need to up my knowledge of wild teas.

While building School Of The Forest, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do, but as I work more and more with young people I’m learning to ease up on the reins of each class a bit and let kids just flip rocks looking for Efts (pictured above), and pick potential tea leaves. It’s not about a strict outline, followed point by point. It’s about that spark, and how best to add air and fuel to turn it to an ember that will smolder into something more. Apparently, Ticks and Tealeaves make pretty good fuel.

 

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The Big Shift 

I have been a student all my life. I plan on continuing to be one for the remainder of it. However, starting next year, I’ll be making”the big shift” from student to instructor. I’ll be moving (again) to New Hampshire and helping the owner and head instructor of my school in Maine start a youth program

Now, in retrospect I’ve been helping with courses like this for a long time. Different subject matter, but similar formats. In highschool I worked for my fencing coach on occasion, going with him to fencing demos at schools, and teaching/performing at Renaissance Fair’s. Eventually, doing a few demo’s on my own when my coach couldn’t find the time. I helped facilitate groups attending Heifer international’s poverty courses in Arkansas, and organized youth programs for the Midwest-US China association. 

Its a big change in mindset though, to go from student to teacher. It takes a basic comfort in the subject, paired with an understanding that the people you teach may be completely oblivious to the little details of it that you take for granted. 

On top of that, it’s likely the most responsibility I’ve ever shouldered. The purpose of the courses I’ll be running is not just to inform, but to help young people find something that is missing from modern life. A closeness, and deeper understanding of nature and our place in it. I am of the mind that this is at the root of a lot of modern issues, and I’m not alone. In his book “Last child in the woods” author Richard Louv lays out a description of modern children and the way they are educated that lacks any real immersion in the outdoors. He refers to a “nature deficient” generation, that I was born into, but due to the choice of my parents to homeschool my siblings and I, observed from the outside. As Louv talks about all the things previous generations were able to partake in (Unstructured outdoor time, gardening, nature walks etc) that young people today simply don’t do, some mental and emotional puzzle pieces that have been irking me for a long time started to fall into place.  

I was lucky in my young life to have a school structure that encouraged me to be outdoors (this is all your fault Ma), it allowed curiosity to grow that was stifled in the one year I attended a regular grade school. Once I completed the scheduled curriculum content, that was it. Information and understanding was a step in a ladder that teachers would only allow me, and the rest of the class to climb so high on, because if we went to far ahead, what would they teach tomorrow? It created boredom, and a tendency to create problems for teachers. Which really meant I took time away from other students during some classes. To them I apologize wholeheartedly. 

So, the antithesis of this is the guiding factor as I create lesson plans in preparation for this new project. I want to have to say “I don’t know” in answer to questions on occasion, and follow it up with”why don’t we figure it out?” Not only does this mean that I’ll be learning as I teach, but hopefully it will help students to light that spark of curiosity and gently give it air, and fuel until it’s a roaring fire they can cook their ideas on.

Between that as my guide, and the fact that I’m also responsible for these kids safety. (Outdoor activities involve a few potentially dangerous tools, if not used properly, as well as the simple fact that kids fall a lot) the task can seem pretty daunting. However, when I remember all the time I’ve spent outdoors, and the training I received at Jack Mountain, and in all those other projects mentioned earlier, I know I’ve got a good set of skills to start with but plenty to learn as I go. 

So, that big shift? I pretty well stoked for it. Now I just have to ask my siblings about all the stupid things they remember us getting into when Ma took us hiking so that I can keep an eye out for students attempting them. 

And that’s another reason I’m excited for this. Some of my favorite memories involve my youngest siblings and being outside with them. When there’s six of you, there’s a pretty big age gap between the oldest and the youngest. Which meant that I could help them as problems arose, or answer questions if I knew them. 

In particular I remember going to Rockwood state park with my youngest brother, Pj. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight at the time. Inside the visitor center was a row of terrariums, filled with local reptiles and amphibians. One of them contained a large, fat tiger salamander that Pj instantly became fascinated with. I don’t recall being particularly drawn to it, but I remember helping him read the placard below its tank. With every new bit of information his eyes hungered for another bit. At the time I remember mostly being annoyed that he couldn’t just read it himself, but in hindsight I see the beginnings of something that’s still a bit part of his life. PJ has had a whole menagerie of lizards, snakes, frogs, fish and anything else you can think of. With that comes a knowledge base that is entirely built on his own curiosity about them. 

Moments like that are what make being an instructor of young people so simultaneously daunting and exciting. If I had let my annoyance at his inability to read stop me from helping, maybe that curiosity would have had one less match lit under it. On the other hand, I have the opportunity to help light more matches along the way, and I likely won’t even know I’ve lit them most of the time, but I can tell you all this, I hope I help regardless. 

I’ll be sure to let you all know as things progress with the program, and as always if you have questions don’t hesitate to ask. 

Slainte Maithe everyone