The fourth grade boy with round glasses and a gray variation of the underarmor sweatshirt that half the fourth grade boys wear, answers briskly when I ask him and his classmates sitting among the camas and blanketflower what this forest will look like in 200 years.
“We won’t be here,” he tells me.
“Yes,” I start to respond, “but fourth graders just like you…”
I’m interrupted by a girl with hair the color of walnut, speaking so assuredly I stop to listen,
“We’ll be here,” she says, “we’ll just be recycled into another form.”
I smile and nod and tell her, “Yes,” before anyone can dash the proposition. The statement hangs for a moment and I imagine the fourth graders imagining themselves as beetles and ants and worms living in luxurious, decaying log cities. The humans have crowded in, splattering big houses all over this valley, but the fourth grade insects are sequestered away in their log homes, oblivious to everything outside.
Every weekday in May I’ve taken fourth and fifth graders out to wild places around Missoula. On most days, I hear something that gives me hope.
Some days when I’m done reading the beautiful book “The Other Way to Listen” and I ask the kids in the circle what they heard, they say:
“You need to not think your better than toads.”
This paraphrases a line in the book, but it also tells me on some level these students are internalizing the thought that there is something out there besides humans worth caring about.
When a fourth grader tells me at the end of a ten minute walk alone through the forest that they appreciate being alone because they can hear more—they can hear the wind and the birds—I begin to believe that all of us have a note within us that yearns for quiet and rest in a world of increasing noise. Sometimes I want to take these ten year olds and transpose their fascination of nature, their eagerness to understand, their willingness to let humans fit alongside toads, into their adult bodies. There is so much between now and then to separate them. There’s an intricate cultural switchboard of what they are to be, and how they are to be that already is channeling their trajectories.
But every trajectory has a deviant. Have you seen Minority Report? Or Gattaca? For many students, this could be their only outing to a wild place this year where they stopped to look at what was around them. It’s a deviant, a nick in smooth skin. Perhaps they’ll go home and ask their parents to take them to Maclay Flat because they saw an osprey tuck and dive and come up with a fish. Or maybe next time they’re playing with their friend they’ll tell them not to rip the legs off a captured beetle. Or perhaps, it’ll be years later, in high school, or even college when they see a poster for an outdoor trip and they remember their half day outside the classroom in fourth grade and decide to give it a try.
In fifth grade, I did a solo hike through the cypress tunnels on the bluffs above the Pacific Ocean at Salt Point State Park. I remember time moving much slower. I remember noticing the branches gnarled like knots of hair and the passageways they created for all the animals who were smaller than me. I remember not wanting to reach the instructor on the other end. I wanted to keep walking, occupying the breathing world I had become aware of.
When I ask fourth graders what this canyon of pines will look like in 200 years, they tell me it won’t be here—it will be city. But when I ask what they hope it will be, they say—forest. The forest will need caretakers. It will need advocates. It will need people who know that when the camas blooms each spring it is a special event, and one not guaranteed to last.
(Photos in this post are from an early spring walk along the Selway River)