“If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.”
~ Mary Oliver
When poet Mary Oliver describes her reasons for walking alone in the woods in “How I Go to the Woods,” I understand. Few places are as calming and centering as nature—and meandering along forest trails is especially powerful. Woods and trails are truly special places, as illustrated by the many stories and poems describing their magic. Think of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things.”
When the pandemic hit, record numbers of people took to nature to escape the confines of their homes and their worries. Oliver describes forest life as separate and hidden yet so close to our daily lives. If only we take the time to sit calmly and wait, we might observe “the foxes run by unconcerned.” How often do we take this opportunity?
At Shaker Road School, we are incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by the forests, fields, and ponds that make up our beautiful campus. In my travels through the woods to and from school, I have seen fox pups wrestling, spied deer grazing, and listened as peepers enliven a night’s quiet. There may be no greater gift than being an observer of nature. In recent years, the students have expressed more interest in exploring their natural surroundings.
For these reasons, when we were looking for a new after-school activity, I suggested hiking the Concord trail system. This would get the kids off campus and introduce them to new trails and forests in addition to those they know at school. The Concord trails are an incredible resource in our backyard. Many are unaware that the city has more than 80 miles of trails open to the public, a part-time trail ranger, and even a master plan governing the development and use of the system.
About a dozen students from fifth through eighth grade signed up for this after-school club. This surpassed my expectations. Ms. Carter and I led students on trips including Oak Hill in East Concord, Marjorie Swope Park in the West End, and the Audubon Trails by Turkey Pond.
When our hikes began, I was concerned when the kids talked too loudly, so I “shushed” them. After all, many of us go to the woods to escape the noise of daily life. I did not want to disturb someone’s walking meditation. Upon reflection, I realized this is what the kids needed: to be free to run, climb, laugh, and allow their voices (and echoes) to carry. Ordinarily, I would agree with Oliver about going “to the woods alone, with not a single friend, for they are all smilers and talkers,” but there is enough time and plenty of trails for that. We saw few people on our hikes, and those we did seemed thrilled children were experiencing nature and time away from screens.
Our club hikes began in early November and concluded in mid-December. Knowing mid-way through the fall we would face earlier darkness, we were forced to leave a bit earlier and adjust our plans. The city trails are not open in the dark, so the students had to strategize which trails to take to arrive back at the bus before darkness. Of course, we were prepared with headlamps just in case.
Of the dozens of after-school activities on and off campus, this may be my favorite yet. Combining a love of nature and teaching, Ms. Carter and I taught the kids how to read maps, navigate steep and slippery slopes, and read trail signs and symbols. No matter how stressful our days— for adults and children alike—our many miles on the trails were filled with laughter and exploration. Climbing rocks on the Swope trails was a favorite activity. Spooking a deer on the Heritage Trail reminded the students we were not alone. When polled, the Pond Loop in the Broken Ground Forest came out on top. We remained on campus for our concluding hike, which turned out to be more of a celebration complete with ghost stories, a campfire, and s’mores. It was the perfect way to hang up our boots.
These weeks with the students in the woods reaffirmed the power of nature and the importance of exploration in children’s lives. It was certainly a great way to bid farewell to autumn heading into the holiday vacation. When the snow flies, the kids want to continue on snowshoes. Nothing could be better.
Photos by Becky Carter