For the past thirty-six summers, my husband and I have been fortunate to be able to wander and travel around the country – our beautiful diverse country: mountains, plains, deserts, and coastlines. Most summers are now spent in the Green Mountains of Vermont or the White Mountains of New Hampshire, or the rocky coastline of Maine. This year is different. Very different. This year is a summer of home and schoolwork. As I look towards the fall, I yearn for those wondrous summer places. I look back at photographs and remember.
Place is so important to an individual’s identity. It shapes so much of who we are and who we choose to become. Right after college, I worked in a small publishing firm in New York City. It was there that I became familiar with Roger Hart’s work on psychological geography and his book Children’ s Experience of Place, a study of eighty-six children in a small town in Vermont and their playtime experiences. (You can listen to Roger Hart’s interview with Ira Glass on This American Life – Act Three: “The Geography of Childhood”). Almost every child had a secret outside hiding place where he could discover new things and imagine. Hart explains how important it is for children to explore freely to develop a sense of self and strong identity.
When I became a classroom teacher, I brought that sense of wonder to the children I taught. I carefully and deliberately brought their attention to the world around them whether I was teaching reading, writing, social studies, or mathematics. No matter where I taught, the children and I would go out exploring our environment. In the suburban school, we fished in the river near our school and set up a fish tank with the creatures we captured: tadpoles, minnows, and an eel. In the city school, we adopted trees in Central Park measured their circumference to determine their height and sketched them throughout the seasons. We wrote a letter to the Parks Commissioner with a plan to help the trees on our school’s street to grow. The children began to see themselves as integral to their environment. And I began to notice the social and emotional affects the outdoors made on children. They became less stressed, more curious, and definitely more confident. One parent wrote me at the end of the school year thanking me for all I had done. This was not the first thank you letter I had received, but it was the first letter I received that thanked me for teaching her child how to climb a tree. This parent understood how important a child’s connection to his surroundings could be. And that shy, hesitant boy left his third-grade year feeling brave and able to meet any challenge.
The most profound experience I have had with how the environment fosters a child’s sense of place was when I was a 2nd grade teacher. One of my students, Brianna, was exceptionally shy and displayed signs of selective mutism. She spoke in barely audible whispers and continually hunched her shoulders and ducked her head. I spent the year trying my best to bolster her self-esteem and encourage her to take small risks. She remained mostly silent. That is until one spring day when we went on a field trip to a local farm. We were taking a tour and visiting all the farm animals. Our guide gathered the children in a circle and asked for a volunteer to gather eggs from the chickens. To my surprise and delight, Brianna raised her hand. I caught the guide’s eye and motioned for him to pick Brianna. He did and handed her a basket. Brianna bravely skipped to the chicken coop and went in. Immediately, she came running back without any eggs and her head bowed.
I walked over to her and said, “You were so brave to volunteer. Do you want me to go with you and we will gather the eggs together?”
She nodded her head and we turned around quickly towards the coop. It was dark and musty and smelled like chickens. I was going to model for Brianna how to reach under the chicken and grab an egg, but all of a sudden I had an amazing realization. I was absolutely terrified to put my hand under a pecking chicken!
I expressed this aloud: “Oh my goodness. This is scary. I hope she doesn’t peck me. I don’t want to do this, but I want the egg. Okay… I’m going to do it… Don’t peck me… Here I go… Oh, it’s so warm… I have it!”
All the while, Brianna began to giggle and then laugh loudly. I looked at her and smiled.
“Do you want to gather the next one with me?” I asked. Brianna giggled and nodded. I put my hand over her hand, and together we picked another warm, brown-speckled egg. We put them in the basket and walked out of the coop into the spring sunshine.
Brianna ran ahead shouting, “We gathered two eggs. Mrs. Emery was so scared. She was so funny!”
From that day on, Brianna chattered easily with me and her classmates. Taking that one risked changed everything for her, and it taught me the power of place, how interactions with nature can truly heal.
That was many years ago. I’ve heard from colleagues that Brianna grew up to become an actress. And when I think of her, I smile and remember that spring day when we gathered eggs together.
Often my poems express that connection between the natural world and human identity. Now that I’m stationary this summer, I use my backyard and our surrounding parks for solace. I know these days of August are precious, and I intend to keep wandering close to home.
The dark-eyed junco
Flits under the thorny
Brambles and black mulch,
Her blue-black body
The twisted branches,
She is well hidden
Only her sharp, quick
Movements betray her.
How many years have I been
Sitting on awkward hands,
Head bowed wishing,
Wishing to be hidden?
If I could make my body
Small enough, dark enough
I could hide away and
The dark-eyed junco
Perches on tender branch,
Ruffles her slate-gray feathers,
Contemplates the summer green,
Her white tail feathers flash
As she takes off
Into the cloud-filled sky,
Daring to be fearless
Suddenly, she’s gone.
Your golden head rises
Out of the rusty rubble
Just another weed –
You push your way out
Between cracks in the sidewalk
Among rocks, bricks, bits of broken glass
You grow strong –
Impervious to your surroundings
Your leaves, jagged toothed
Spread green along the old gray ground
You are not discouraged –
You’ve never depended
Upon rain or fertilizer
You provide your own sunlight.