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Feeling One's Way Across the Chasm
William Service
July 26, 1971
The world of children is beyond the grasp of most adults, as the author soon discovered while running a day camp to introduce city kids to the joys of nature and the woods
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July 26, 1971

Feeling One's Way Across The Chasm

The world of children is beyond the grasp of most adults, as the author soon discovered while running a day camp to introduce city kids to the joys of nature and the woods

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What we were kneeing and elbowing our way through, vertically, single file, was a little knottier than a laurel thicket, a little more open than what is called a laurel hell. Piedmont in July, "Mr. Service?" What. "Maybe I'll go into the woods again sometime. But I ain't ever going with you. Not ever."

Back in June I had said, "Tony, ecology can't be taught to kids 6 to 11 in only two weeks, not even an introduction. It's a purely derivative science. One must presuppose a certain background in biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics." (Like contributors to the Congressional Record, I tend to edit some of my talk.) Tony Mulvihill had dropped by with a middling-size bag of continued federal grant money and a sheaf of engaging ideas, some of which had considerable fuzz on them.

The squad that I was leading consisted of a dozen boys and girls—that day, as usual, most of them black—and two junior counselors, Robin and Leonard. I was not lecturing anybody on how rapidly we were traversing from typical flood-plain flora of sycamore and gum through Appalachian heath to open, near-climax, mixed mesophytic forest. The children were sniping and bitching at me and at each other. "Quit droppin dirt on me." "Can we go back now?" "We have to do this?" "I'm tired." "Move, girl." "Leggo me, I ain't pullin you up this hill." "Prickabriars. I'm stuck." "Mr. Service...you sweatin." "Take us back." On such days I was often to act, or fail to act, out of anger or boredom or confusion or frustration or simple malaise. I was now about to act, for what I hope was the only time, out of spite. We had followed the irregular arc of the lake, scrambled up one of the steeper drop-offs and were about to cut straight across the arc through easy open woods back to the lodge.

"You tired?" I asked. Uh huh. "Want to go back now?" Uh huh. But also some stalwart noes. "All those...all those who want to go back the way we came can go back with Leonard. All those who want to go on ahead with me straight back to camp, and I vow straight back to camp, come over here with me." They unhesitatingly split six and six, with all but one of the little girls electing to turn back—the round-faced girls, their features already setting into placid, no-nonsense domesticity.

Little black kids have a way of saying "Bye" that suggests they are moving toward life's very good things while those told "Bye" are into a very bad thing; the least it can mean is that you had better reconsider your position. A lot of those special "Byes" were thrown back and forth, and then Leonard and his squad plunged down into the laurel jungle we had just won through. Back in camp, I told them to save seven cold juices for Leonard and his group, they would be very tired. I was feeling much better.

"If you can't teach them ecology," Mulvihill had said with a shrug, "teach them what you can."

It was to be a program of four two-week sessions, each with 100 kids, black and white. The "day" began with a half-mile jog from the buses to a light but nourishing breakfast at the camp. Then one group might be led off (no, no, not led—invited) to perform free expressive body movements to music; another would be crossing a chasm on a single-rope traverse or tracing the nutritional path of a hickory nut through the flesh of a squirrel and the guts of a hawk and back to the forest floor; another would be doing isometrics or noncompetitive group strenuosities; another sculpting free forms from fresh-dug, hand-sifted clay, or tie-dyeing T shirts in pigments wrung from berries, roots and toadstools, or playing slow-motion tag. Movement, muscle, freedom, music, the cycle of life, confidence, joy, color, texture, endurance, love, respect, identity. All that. This wildly idealized version of our day existed only in bits and pieces. All too often the children ended up with pot holders, Kool-Aid, kickball, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, aimless hikes along a worn path.

Do It Bite? Do It Sling?

Millipedes are obscure, humble folk. I know little about them beyond their vegetarian or scavenging diet, their harmlessness and their stately way of progressing on the sea waves of their own legs. I should have known this one wasn't a millipede. It was living under one of the 40,000 rocks we turned over in those two months. The way it moved: sinuous, fast, questing. I tricked it up into my hands where it raced and twined among the fingers. I didn't like the thing but in the face of 15 children—whether they are awed, repelled, or utterly in-different—you permit yourself no qualm. "Do it bite? Do it sting?"

I said blandly, "I don't know. Do...does it?" Uh huh. Oh yes. "If it bite, bites, how come it isn't biting me?" (Subtly steering the course of discussion, you see.) The answer was right there: "Cause you white."

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