For the last few years of leading the Biodesign Class, I had a longing to participate on a trip, but not be the leader. I fancied that I would enjoy being the camp-cook and dish washer, as long as I could observe the young adults interacting with the wilderness. It never happened! However, 20 years after I retired, I was gifted with an experience that would parallel my past activities.
Our oldest daughter Maureen, teaches 3rd grade at Mark West elementary school in Santa Rosa, Ca. Adopting John Muir’s theme, “going out for a walk is really going in,” she organized a study unit on the redwood forest and planned a field trip to nearby Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve. The students were required to prepare for the trip by becoming familiar with the plants, animals and environmental factors; basically, they were becoming junior ecologists. Furthermore, she included discussions designed to encourage her students to get as close as they could to the heart of Nature.
Christie and I gladly walked at the end of the line of hikers and I was only asked to clarify a few details. It was a pure joy for us to watch her interact with 23 budding biologist/thinkers. As Pierre Lecomte du Noüy described in, “Human Destiny:”
“The quality of a child’s memory is surprising and is rapidly lost. The coordinating power between his ears and organs of speech is prodigious and rarely lasts beyond the age of ten.”
We watched them stand in awe as they unsuccessfully tried to see the top of the “Parson Jones” redwood tree that towers over 300 feet tall. It had a huge poison oak vine, with a 4-inch-wide stem, climbing up its bark. We saw them exult over a bright yellow banana slug, inching along a stump, just at their eye level. They saw mushroom caps and understood that they were recycling organic nutrients into the thick humus. California bay trees, sword ferns, tanbark oaks and wood sorrel were spotted. Two very young deer caused them to stop reverently on the trail and silently try not to disturb them.
Maureen and I showed them how to use an isosceles triangle to calculate the height of a tree. It was a stretch for 3rd graders, but several hands shot up and students shouted, “I get it!” Archimedes would have been proud. They marveled when they formed a circle with a 25-ft. diameter, to see how wide some of the virgin trees were.
They talked about how John Muir was one of the first men to call for a halt to cutting down redwood trees and began to understand the battle over money vs. saving the trees. The fact that one giant redwood tree could provide enough lumber to build five homes was astonishing to them and they were grateful that without Muir’s vision, the park they were enjoying might have been destroyed.
The 3.5 hours flew by too quickly and for me, concluded with two miraculous events. In preparation for departing, I walked 100 yards to use the restroom. I thought I saw a familiar face approaching from the other side. As it happened, we arrived at the door at the same moment. We both froze and he looked like he had seen a ghost. After a silent pause, I said, “So,” and mysteriously paused. He smiled knowingly and completed my pending question, “Yeah, what are the odds that we are here at this precise moment?” It was an often-discussed theme of Biodesign. His name is Brandon Amyot and he was in the Biodesign Class 20 years earlier. He continued, “I live in Chicago now, but my wife and I are out to attend a wedding. I just mentioned to her that we should post a “selfie” of us on your Facebook page, wondering if you had been here before.” We laughed, hugged and said our good-byes.
He doesn’t know it, but I have come to think there are zero odds for moments like ours. They are humanly impossible to create or comprehend and I suspect that the reason that he paled was his realization that we were experiencing a sacred moment of supreme perfection.
The final miracle occurred at the “Redwood Forest Theater.” Christie and I had gone ahead to carry two guitars. On the way, we met an older gentleman who asked if we were going to perform. We laughed and said that a group of 3rd graders were coming to sing some camp songs. He asked if he could attend.
As the students approached the clearing, their eyes widened and their happy chatter yielded to whispers of “wow” and “cool.” Maureen prepared them for possible moments like these and they could not have been more reverential if they were entering a cathedral; perhaps they were. She and I got out our guitars and led them in songs that they had learned in the classroom. However, this time, their voices sounded like a choir of heavenly angels as love and joy radiated out of every precious face. They inspired me to adapt a phrase from Loren Eiseley:
They sang because life is sweet and the sunlight streaming through the redwoods into a natural temple filled them with unspeakable joy of being alive.
If John Muir had been there, I am certain that his heart would have overflowed with joy by the inner and outer discoveries the 8-year-olds had made. He was keenly aware that no words (including his own) could help a single soul to know these woods. “You must go there,” he preached and understandably wrote:
“See how willingly Nature poses herself upon photographer’s plates. No earthly chemicals are so sensitive as those of the human soul. All that is required is exposure, and purity of material.”
As we left the theater, the old man approached us with tears in his eyes and mentioned that he had never heard more beautiful music.
There is no diagnostic tool to measure what Maureen’s students learned on their walk into Armstrong Redwoods. However, if Muir was correct, she exposed them to “purity of material” and the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feels of the redwood forest were imprinted on their little souls and “Parson Jones,” offered them a silent sermon that they will not likely ever forget.
“Let the children walk with Nature,” indeed!
Brava! Maureen, Brava!