The five weeks of Jemicy’s summer camp rank as one of my favorite times of the year. While the campers have a full and varied schedule of classes, I get to focus my energy on woodshop projects and the outdoors. When the kids come to us, we take advantage of the extensive woods, wetlands and stream on the Upper School campus for exploration and discovery.
Students from Jemicy and beyond attend this camp, making it a crew of diverse experience and knowledge of outdoor settings. This campus is not my home territory, and I am just as excited as the kids each time we head out to find new treasures.
I have to acknowledge that the thrill of new discoveries, and the delight of spending time in nature with kids, are tempered by the realities of human impacts, ecological changes, and direct hazards that we face every time we go outside. A new gas pipeline left a wide scar that has just begun to regrow. The woods has a thick diverse tree canopy but virtually no understory plants, thanks to heavy deer browsing. And a warmer winter has increased the threat of ticks, so extra precaution and vigilance are required.
While these aspects of outdoor experiences may cause me concern, for the campers who bound out the door in their boots and bug repellant, ready for anything, this is simply the new normal. A few are veteran stream-waders and woods-wanderers, and they make their way over, around and through obstacles with ease. They focus their attention on the pursuit of minnows and crayfish, the collection of interesting rocks, or things that stand out as unusual – a leaf gall, a coiled grapevine tendril, a feather. They seem at home, confident in handling whatever encounters they may have here.
Then there are the kids who are new to this kind of experience. Sometimes they are nervous, unsure of what to expect. Will this be like the wild nature they’ve seen on TV? There is a lot to process with that first step into a place where plants and animals follow their own rules. Yesterday, one boy immediately found a big stick and began slashing at anything that grew within 2 feet of the path, while another slid his hand into mine and held on tightly as we made our way down a steep hill to the stream. Some kids are overwhelmed by sensations that bombard them, from gnats buzzing in their ears to the unpredictable slipperiness of stream rocks, to the motion of branches in the wind. Navigating this territory, with its accompanying unfamiliar names and shapes and movements, can feel like being in a foreign country.
With each group of children that I bring into the woods, I am reminded that any introduction to a new habitat can leave mutual lasting impressions. The living things that we encounter – from the ringneck snake lying across the path, to the water striders effortlessly maneuvering around our boots, to the ferns (“Jurassic plants,” one kid called them) where ebony jewelwings perch as we pass by – are affected by our presence. The kids’ experience will further shape their encounters with various elements of other places they visit, including whether they will want to continue exploring and how they envision their role as a caretaker of such places.
Even if natural spaces feel like foreign countries, all children’s native curiosity and sense of wonder are the common currency of discovery, and they will seek out and draw attention to the unusual wherever it occurs – like this crew of girls at camp who have made it their mission to inspect the windows and walls of the cafeteria where their group gathers each morning. You just never know what you may find.
I treasure the moments that transport me personally back into the role of puzzled traveler. On each of the five trips I made yesterday with different groups down through the woods to the stream, there were new discoveries. “What is it? Why is it like that? What will happen?” When I reply that I don’t know, and we discuss possibilities, I am – happily – a fellow camper.