A "Simple" Walk in the Woods

Sometimes it is a wonder to me that I keep on working at the school. I am saying this not because I am bored with the sameness of the things that we encounter, or with the lack of new challenges that being in the same institution for over thirty years may present. Nothing is ever the same at SVS, nor do we lack new and surprising yearly challenges. The wonder lies in the fact that on a daily basis the students make me feel like a dull and uninteresting person. This feeling is my own, not their attitude towards me. I know that by and large the students treat me with respect, show me often that they enjoy my company and seek me out to talk with. I feel that the kids know me well, respect my abilities, laugh at my foibles and tolerate my faults. The school is a place where adults and children alike have many real and honest relationships. Therefore it is a good place for people of all ages to be, including myself of course.

So why am I telling you that it is a wonder that I am still at SVS? The explanation is in the story of our annual hike to Nobscot Mountain. The "mountain" is in Framingham, about two miles from the school. The elevation is 400ft and the hike is about two miles round trip. I often walk this particular path and it takes me less than an hour to do. At the top there is a view of Metro-West and on a clear day the tallest buildings of Boston can be clearly seen. In the fall the whole area is beautifully decorated with the reds, oranges and yellows of the dying leaves and it is truly a lovely sight.

You would think that this walk has nothing new for me to see since I do it so often. That is in fact true when I walk by myself or with another adult. But going with kids is another experience altogether, an experience that makes me feel somewhat inadequate. A partial list of what the kids did in the four hours of our outing will illustrate my point.

On the edge of the parking lot there is a large pile of tree trunks cut and stacked at random. They form a three foot wide and twenty foot long wall. Immediately upon disembarking from the vans the children ask me if they can play on these stumps. I want to say, "No," fearing that they could fall and get hurt, but compared to our "rocks" or the beech tree this is "safe". So I reluctantly say OK and pray that it would indeed be OK.

When they have enough of chasing each other on the stumps they are ready to move on and we start hiking. Very shortly after we start, we come upon a bridge over a tiny stream which of course has to be jumped across several times. When that gets easy, it is time to walk on the bridge on the outside of the rail. This is fun even though it isn't really dangerous, and I don't hesitate to let them do it. They tire of this fairly quickly (after all without any danger what is the challenge? And if Hanna isn't anxious the fun of it wears thin quickly.)

We walk a bit and then someone gets hungry for a snack or a drink and all twenty of us have to stop. We are a group of seventeen kids aged five to ten and three adults. The kids are all happy to stop and eat, because it is eleven in the morning and it's "time for a little something". I stand around arming myself with patience because this hike is a fun activity in which I strive not to interfere but let the kids call the shots. So I wait quietly until the group gets restless and decides to move on. I notice that for them there is lots of fun in just eating or having a drink. They enjoy everything today and this joy is beginning to infect me too.

We walk for ten minutes or so and come upon a rather large boulder. We have to detour from the path and climb on it from every angle. Six-year-old Sam has to take photos with his little space camera and so do Andrea and I. The kids arrange themselves into various groups and we have lots of laughs in the process and hopefully some good pictures as well. We move on and come upon a small dried pond which in previous years had water in it. Again we have to stop to walk in the middle of this area and check out the muck on the leaves around its edges as well as a rusted and disgusting folding chair that someone threw in the water a long time ago. The very grossness of it is alluring to us.

Now we find an even bigger rock and of course this one too has to be explored thoroughly. After that we keep on walking along, stopping to eat and drink from time to time. It seems like the kids enjoy the leisure of being in the woods and having small picnics more than anything else.

Then Greg sees a stand of young five-foot-tall pine trees lining the path. He asks me if he can go through them. I don't get what he is asking until I see that he walks in between the trees, parting them with his hands. He tells me that it is "like swimming in the ocean waves." Other kids join him and they are all beaming blissfully. I stay on the path of course.

Finally we get to the "summit" from which we have a view of a vast tree-covered area beneath us. It is a flat, rocky outcrop and is a perfect place to rest and have a proper lunch. We have walked a mile and it has taken about two hours! It is a lovely spot and one would think that it would present no dangers. However, Sam gets a bee sting and it hurts him. We put some salve on it and he is his usual happy self in a few minutes. Then Felicity slips and cuts her knee. It hurts a lot but a band-aid gives her relief and soon she is ready to explore with the others.

Now the real fun begins. Most of the children want to climb on the face of the outcrop which is a very scary proposition for us, the adults. A few years ago a little girl fell from quite a height and today we supervise this activity and spot all the kids. They understand our concerns and cooperate without resistance. In fact it seems to me that the dangerous terrain gives the whole trip a thrill, just as rock climbing does for rappelling adults. I station myself beneath a smooth, easy-to-climb rocky area which is rather slippery and is facing a very steep drop. I do not let the kids go on it. Every single kid asks me why not, and I show each and every one of them how if they slipped from this rock they could fall many feet to the bottom and hurt themselves badly. They love the idea that they are above the tall trees below, and the thought that they have to be careful not to fall thrills them. One little guy wants to go on the rock. I show him why he can't. He says, "Yes, I understand." Then he walks toward it. I tell him again not to go there. He says, "Oh yes, I forgot," and proceeds to go there once more. I tell him yet again, and he says, "Oh yes, I forgot"!! It is all so innocent and sweet, yet it makes it clear to me how this little walk in the woods with young kids is an adventure fraught with danger.

It is notable that quite a few kids complained that they were tired or their feet were weak. They were clearly bored with just walking. The minute we get to the rock-climbing area all the aches and pains disappear instantly. Everyone scampers up and down tirelessly, enjoying themselves immensely.

The children who went with us last year know what to expect and in fact remember every single place we had seen before. Their ability to retain the sights for a whole year astounds me.

On the way back we discover a free standing stone fireplace with a chimney that used to be part of a hut. We play there at pretend cooking and other games for quite a long time. Not far from there we find a working old-fashioned hand water pump which every child feels obliged to work. They do it alone and together and that too is a blast - for the kids to do and for us, the three adults, to observe.

Finally, we get back to the car. It has taken us four hours to hike Nobscot Mountain.

When we got back to school the kids instantly commenced playing with their friends. As I stood watching them it occurred to me that it was somewhat of a sacrifice for them to go on the hike and forego four whole hours of their daily play. They seemed so fresh and energetic, while I was exhausted. I had walked only two miles, but I had stood and watched the running, jumping, climbing, exploring children for four hours. I was exhilarated, and somewhat sad as well. I realized how, even though I love being in the woods and enjoy the surprises that being in Nature always present me, I don't explore with the same exuberance and inventiveness as the kids do. Relative to them, when I am in the woods I just plod along and am a boring person. I am so grateful to have the ability to renew my vision of the world by being with children! That is what keeps me at SVS all these years.

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