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Certified organic poultry farmer in SE Mass

Teaching 101, Huntington Nature Center
Rather than do what I should be doing, one of my readers reminded me that I am supposed to be writing stories rather than doing something else. So, here is an experience I had while teaching at the Huntington Nature Center in Huntington, Vermont. I was a volunteer teaching guide there for six or so years. Our job was to take city kids (mostly from Burlington, VT) into the woods and show them how life is connected.

Our areas of teaching were the deep woods, the sugarbush, the pond, the edge & fields. The property was owned and managed by a non-profit group. There were many volunteers and a center director. The center operated year round. Much of the activity was generated from school field days. The children were most often inner city kids, most had never been into the country before. I always referred this activity as "taking the kids into the woods and scaring them to death", frowned upon by the director. But I was very good at my job.

This particular day, the sun rose on a new, fluffy snowfall of about 6 inches. Our entire world was covered with a dusty, light snow, a blanket that removed all traces of life. This was the best time to go out into the woods to search for "stories in the snow". The sky was clear blue, not a cloud marked the sky. No wind to ruffle any new tracks. It was cold, maybe in the 20's. Or teens...I was well dressed for the weather.

The buses arrived, the kids spilled out onto the plowed parking area. I think they were fourth graders. The volunteers watched to see how many had boots on. Not many today. All the kids piled into the nature center and we spent some time taping plastic shopping bags over their shoes and up their pants to keep their feet dry. 40 - 50 kids, no boots. Where were the mothers? Out to lunch, I guessed.

After the taping was secured and we (hoped) feet would stay dry, we divided the kids into groups, split up between the volunteers. There was supposed to be adults as chaperones, but never enough to support every group. I took a group of kids by myself.

There had been no time to shovel out the paths, so we hiked up a gentle slope, through the new snow, leaving only our footprints as a trail behind.We hiked from the field into the woods. As we walked, I instructed the kids to use all their senses. I reminded them of what these five senses were and asked them to be silent so we could hear the wild things talking. We saw many birds in the trees, woodpeckers banging on trees, looking for food. What were they doing? I said they were using Morse code to find the insects under the bark. Nuthatches, coming down trunks, asking us where was the bird seed??? Blue Jays, the policeman of the woods, in their blue suits, warning all that people were on their way and "BEWARE".

We had reached a place where the stream was running under the snow and we were listening to the stream gurgle under the blanket of ice and snow. As I looked around, I saw my first story in the snow...a mouse's tracks on top of the snow ending in a drop of blood with the wing print of a large bird. I suspected an owl. I brought the kids attention to the trail, cautioning them not to spoil the story in the snow. We circled the story and I asked the kids to come up with what they thought had happened. None of them could guess. I walked them through what had happened...from where the mouse emerged out of the small hole in the snow, ran across the snow and BAM! the predator took him. There was the drop of blood and the wing print around it, showing the dramatic end of the mouse's life. Some of the kids protested, feeling badly for the mouse. Maybe some of these kids had a pet at home similar to the mouse? I explained how hungry the owl was, now many days had it been since the owl had eaten? Several, I explained. Wasn't it better for the owl to eat than the mouse to starve? Which was worse? And aren't we better off with owls in our world than too many mice?

The kids were thinking about this, all of us quiet. I watched them process this information. The sun was sparkling on the snow, the stream gurgled and the kids were thinking. This is always what I am aiming for...to get them thinking.

Suddenly, like shot, a ruffed grouse exploded out of a nearby snowbank. All of us jumped, some screamed. Our thinking had been so deep, this was such an unexpected event, we were stunned. Some scared. I saw the grouse fly off, leaving a void in the snow. Flying to freedom.

Once everyone had calmed down, I explained how, during a heavy snow, sometimes ground birds, such as grouse, would just stay still and let the snow cover them. The snow acted like a blanket and kept them warm and safe. The bird would fly out when it was ready or when it was startled. Seems as if we startled it and it flew.

The conversation about this bird and the poor mouse filled the air as we searched...now with avid interest on the part of the kids, through the rest of the hike. We didn't see any more "stories in the snow" that day.

When we reached the center at the end of the trip, all the kids wanted to do was look up the ruffed grouse, what it looked like, what it did, where it lived...and so on. The mouse's sacrifice was discussed. Eyes were bright, faces filled with smiles. At the bus, many of the kids, now more educated gave me a big hug.

These were the days I lived for. To show a kid what real life is in the woods. To make them think about life.