Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Magic Spots

It's lame to post old essays from long ago. One reason to do so is that I am tying to get me in the swing of posting about gardening. Another reason is that it's an easy way to get the formatting of the text in a more easily transferable format. Right now all I have are the posts recovered from a Topica list which doesn't appear to be visible to the public, but somehow is still on the servers there. Try as I might I can't get the line breaks right. Posting them here allows me to get the text into a form I can work with. In addition it allows me to put in hyperlinks which I didn't know how to do at the time.

It's January and it's cold in Western Pennsylvania. Around six I carried a bit of firewood to my house and noticed the fading sunset. The days are getting longer, but as my grandmother would say: "The days get longer but the cold grows stronger."

The photo is a tree that came crashing down last winter. A few days before Christmas a Blue Spruce was blown down in strong winds. I thought of the picture because of the magic spots I remember most, they've on grand fallen trees. I distinctly remember as a small boy exploring I discovered a tall Tulip Poplar that had fallen down a small hill, such that as I walked out on it I was high above the ground below. I rather shudder about the idea of being unsupervised at such a young age. On the other hand that tree was one of my great discoveries of my life. It was not just the tree, but the decision to explore in it that was so revealing to me. Surely had I been supervised, I would have been told to stay out of it.

I can think of a couple of other occasions being on a fallen tree which were transcendent. Perhaps you too have memories of finding magic spots in nature?


August 12, 2001

The Incompetent gardener was once an incompetent teacher, and I worked for a time at an environmental learning center. Groups of mostly third though fifth graders would come through for multi-day engagements. So they got to spend the night in a camp-like setting. One of the stock lessons that we did was called Magic Spots. The kids were led into the woods and told that they could have a minute or two to find a spot to sit alone to be still and quiet for a while.

Of all the activities, this was the one that caused the most controversy with parents. Some were convinced that the whole exercise was a “New Age” plot to proselytize young pagans. Most educators have little concern for proselytizing. Groups of education majors came to the center for practical experiences in teaching. In explaining the activity, never once did I hear a critique from a religious perspective. But the activity was generally met with skepticism following two types. First was about the objective. Education majors are primed to think in terms of measurable objectives. This is considered an “immersion” activity and the objective here is a skill: observation. This still didn’t satisfy many new teachers. They asked:
“What exactly are they observing? How will we know if they saw it?”
The second area of skepticism was about what is euphemistically known as “classroom management”.
“So the kids are going to sit quietly in the rain for twenty minutes - right?”
But I saw hundreds of kids trooped into the woods and they loved this activity more than all the others.

The treks into the woods were neatly choreographed so that the groups entered at various trailheads; it seemed to each group that they were the only ones in the woods—on a good day. The leaders would take the kids to a predestinated area, stop with them to read something short and inspiring then let them choose a spot nearby. Much of being a teacher is simply keeping track of kids, so the leader would have to find a spot where she could keep an eye out for the kids and then wait. Twenty minutes can seem like an interminable amount of time in a slushy drizzle. But, while the kids might be boisterous on their way into the woods, they were almost always silent on the walk out. In the cafeteria at lunch, the podium and mike was opened for some of the children to tell about their experiences. The kids clamored to tell their stories, and they gushed with enthusiasm. The magic of Magic Spots was still lost on many of the teachers, but it was obvious to everyone that the kids really gained from it.

As any teacher knows, children are first-rate observers; it’s just that their attentions are so varied. And trooping one’s charges through the woods it was often difficult to keep them from testing the projectile characteristics of different objects, from turning every stone, and from felling dead trees. Somehow these same kids could sit still and absorb the world around them better than I could with much practice. They saw skeletal leaves, birds, squirrels, and brightly colored fungi. They created poetry about the spot. Because I was located near them, I saw many of the same things that would so move them:
Goodness, there’s a pileated woodpecker. Here’s a hickory nut there must be a hickory near by. Ah! A fine patch of wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens.
But in naming the world around me, I was never enchanted so much by the sights and sounds, colors and moods, textures and smells, as they were.

There was plenty of mumbo-jumbo in the curriculum and the purpose was theatrical more than anything. So perhaps it is not so surprising that these Magic Spots were controversial. It is not uncommon to think of places as having a life and history. We speak of holy ground, sacred space, and of hauntings. Asking the children to find a “special” place and telling them that they’ll know it when it feels right certainly contributes to their enchantment. But it also overlaps with our adult constructs of place and morality. It was our ancestor, Cain the gardener--apparently an incompetent one at that because the Lord didn’t look favorably on his offering--who slew his shepherd brother Abel. The Lord confronted Cain asking:
What have you done? Listen to the sound of your brother’s blood, crying out to me from the ground.
And from that story on comes a sense that it’s probably not good news when the ground is doing the talking. Dowsers are still often employed to find spots for a well, but this harmless occupation is suspect for other than merely scientific reasons; it all seems a little too witchy.

Still after a school term of sitting quietly in the woods daily with children, I resolved that I should continue to practice Magic Spots. I haven’t really applied myself. I suppose I have thought about special spots around the property and considered making certain spots commemorative and memorable too. The closest thing to magical spot on our property is a stone outcropping. The kids have always located it when they come to visit, even though they have to plod through a bit of bramble to claim it. I can look out my window sometimes to see our cat surveying the hunting prospects while sitting on it, and I’ve used it for sunbathing. The sense of enchantment that can come from a Magic Spot, though, has generally happened without a thought of where I sat and certainly without deliberately fashioning the place.

The other evening I was sitting on the lawn and happened to observe the silhouette of a tall Ash, Fraxinus americana, on the edge of the property. It is probably the tallest tree on the property; the first limb of the straight-as-an-arrow trunk is over twenty feet above the ground. Rather too close to it is a mature Boxelder, Acer negundo. The wood of the Boxelder, or as it is sometimes and more informatively known, Ash-leaved Maple, is soft and not particularly useful. Its shallow root system prevents anything from growing beneath it and the tree regularly sheds dead branches. But it is a huge tree whose mammoth trunk bifurcates only about five feet from the ground, so I've envisioned building a tree fort in it some day. On that evening it was the Ash that caught my attention. Before I could fully register the thought, a fearsome face appeared through the blank spaces of the black leaves. Then as quickly as it appeared the face in the tree soften and seemed rather cartoonish.

I gazed in amusement and wonder at the tree for time before the outline silhouette became visible to me again. It was beautiful. On subsequent evenings I’ve gone out to look for the face. The next night all I could see was the cartoon face. But on the evening after that I waited for the moon to rise and at first saw the cartoon face. And I thought that it was the upturned mouth that made it appear friendly. Suddenly again the monster face appeared and it was the mouth that looked so frightening, like the square mouth of a lion with sharp incisor teeth. It didn’t really startle me, after all the face is just a play of light between the leaves of the tree and my imagination. Soon the more friendly face returned. The tree still surprises me because I’m never quite sure what face I’ll see.

I’m glad that I look at the tree at night and see its face. It is the subtle confusion between it and me that’s so enchanting and magic. It’s fun and informative to learn the names of the plants in the garden, to study their habits, their uses, and their attractiveness to man and beast. But one can become a little too possessive in these activities. The world around us has things to say that we never dreamed of until hearing them. The kids in their magic spots watched and listened and the distinction between outside and inside was not so clearly made. They were enchanted by it.


Magic Spots is an activity outlined with many others in: Van Matre, Steve, Sunship Earth: An Acclimatization Program for Outdoor Learning

One the best books on tree identification is also one of the least
expensive: Harlow, William M., Trees of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada. New York, Dover 1957. Searching on Amazon and not finding it made me suspect the book was out of print. Of course Dover had republished it as the original was first published in the early 1940's.

Dover Publications is a treasure. The Wikipedia entry tells the story of Hayward and Blanche Cirkers and their Dover Publications. I'm delighted that the Courier Corporation is continues the brand. Nonetheless my first instinct thinking the book was out of print was to go to ABE (Advanced Book Exchange) and plug in William H. Harlow into the database. Sometimes I'm amazed by the high prices out-of-print books command. But most of the time they are very cheap, and that's the case with Harlow's books. If you are interested in knowing more about trees, an old textbook by the distinguished dendrologist Harlow might become one of your prized possessions.

1 comment:

Vincent said...

I was glad to have found your essay on Magic Spots, a topic dear to my heart, though I never till now called them that. I am not sure what I have called them, must check my writings (on blog) to see.

Found you by searching, in an idle moment, on blogspotters who list "O Lucky Man" amongst their favourite movies. Interested in quite a few of your favourite blogging topics too, or rather the tendencies they illustrate.