Five pairs of fifth graders are scattered on the Buster Brown Trail. In each pair, one is blindfolded with a colorful bandana, being carefully – the teacher hopes — led in a circuitous route by their partner.
“Remember, when you start to head off the trail toward your tree, make sure to not step where other people are stepping, and try hard to avoid the plants!” This is what I, or another Mountain School instructor, will inevitably say, loving this lesson but feeling the nagging omnipotence of the leave-no-trace ethic.
The students are mindful, taking care to not crunch the Mahonia and Salal understory. The blindfolded student is led to a tree. Maybe it’s a Doug fir, with its thick “bacon” bark (or akin to the cracked top of a pan of brownies, for the vegetarians). Other naturalists tell me bats can roost in there, when the tree is old and the bark is deeply furrowed, though I haven’t been lucky enough to encounter that yet. Perhaps the student is escorted to a paper birch, its thin, peeling bark being a telltale give-away of its arboreal identity. There’s always the vine maple, as well, dressed in moss and reaching from the mid-story canopy with its flexible, green branches.
“Okay, start heading back to the trail!” After five or ten minutes, the students reconvene briefly to trade bandanas and head out a second more time. I enjoy watching them “meet a tree”, as this exercise is called. They use only touch, smell, taste and hearing – and these last two are arguable since, respectively, I don’t encourage students to eat unidentified plants, and the trees aren’t usually feeling loquacious. Can you find your tree? It’s a fantastic lesson in sensory awareness, considering it activates four of most peoples’ less dominant senses. What does your tree feel like? What about the plants at the base of the trunk? If you hug it, can your hands connect? Is there a smell if you scrape at the bark a little or crunch the leaves? If you knock on the trunk, does it make a notable sound? What did the ground feel like beneath your feet as you were led, without sight, through the fallen logs and leaf litter of the understory?
We come back together in a circle, everyone’s eyes open, and “debrief” the details the students relied upon to find or, sometimes, not find, their tree. This is one of my favorite lessons, and the students tend to recall it fondly as well. On the evaluation sheets their classroom teachers fill out at the end of the three days, they usually rave about it, saying it helps open their students up to a deeper level of observation, care, and empathy for the natural world.