I am a word lover. I am intrigued by meaning and morphology. I love to ponder where words have been, and what I can possibly sculpt them into. Can I take an old word and use it in a new way? Can I find an out-of-date word and breathe new life into it? I just learned that a lover of words is called a logophile. I think I knew this before but it’s good to be reminded. Sometimes it’s comforting to have a label. I am a logophile. I am a poet. I am a lover of springtime.
This week, my students prepare to take standardized tests, and I am the school’s testing coordinator. My mother would have found this amusing and ironic because as a child I had overwhelming test anxiety. As I dispense testing tips and strategies, the children obediently nod and listen. I tell them that the most important testing tip I needed as a child was not to get lost in the reading passages. I told them I would sometimes get lost in the subject matter (i.e.: yellow-bellied sliders) or wander off thinking about a particular word I came across. I warned them to stay focused and read the passages like they were important directions. Don’t get off track. Don’t dawdle. And whatever you do, don’t daydream. They giggled when I acted out my 9-year-old self getting lost in a reading passage. They could see themselves in me, and they knew that although it wasn’t the best strategy for test-taking, wandering into daydreams can be so much fun.
So here is my wandering for today. I am going to play with the Old-English word, vernality , which came from Haggard Hawks, an account devoted to obscure and interesting English words. I loved the sound of it on my tongue – ver – na- li – ty. Vernality. Can you see green sprouting up along the creekside, can you hear the bird rustling in the underbrush, can you feel the sharp pricks of the thicket around your ankles, the slight chill in warming air? That is vernality, the quality of being vernal or spring-like.
Sun, over the horizon,
warming the winter earth.
Red buds on black branches,
bulbous and dew-kissed.
The straw-colored field,
Dotted with crows.
Cardinals lilt in the air
like crimson marionettes,
sky to blooming branch.
Vernal pools appear,
spring peepers sing,
amphibian love songs.
Forsythia and daffodils
pay homage to the sun,
I am blessed to live in a place surrounded by parks and preserves. Nature is all around me. There are trails and hills and rivers; wildlife is at my fingertips. Hawks circle above my head. Fox slip through the underbrush barely escaping detection. I have always taken solace in nature. When the world becomes too much, I invariably turn to nature. As I walk the trails, I am on the lookout for something to surprise me, something to capture my imagination. Nature is the best cure for writer’s block. There is something always out there ready to be discovered, ready to be made known.
Hiking the Great Swamp in Winter
Twisted and weather-beaten,
A long, fallen branch
Undulates under the pond ice,
Ready to strike
In the frozen air
Suspended in mid-hiss.
Its black, knothole eyes
Search for prey,
Its scale-clad body
Casts a dark shadow.
Nearby, a curious mouse,
Skitters across the ice,
Slides on silent feet,
Pauses for a moment,
Then, without trepidation,
Hurries on home
Through the frosted leaves.
This week, my thoughts came in quick, short phrases. They begged to be placed into poetry. January is a perfect month for reflection, and I am able to get to the center of my thoughts when I compose poetry. Everything seems to fall into place, and I feel comforted by the rhythm of my thinking.
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.