Here's a guest post from our friend Elaine Blanchard, a wonderful storyteller, who read this piece at last month's Old Forest Jamboree. Thanks, Elaine!
I grew up in Gainesville, Florida. We lived in town and next to Sweet Water Branch, a fabulous creek filled with tadpoles and crawdads. Elephant ears hung from the creek bank. Tall ferns were everywhere. There was a heavily wooded area, about the size of a city block, by the creek. That’s where my brother, Stanley, and I built our hut. That’s where we kept our treasures. That’s where we danced our wild dances and played goofy games. We belonged to the woods and the woods knew it. Our imaginations blossomed there – like wild flowers.
Last year I went on a field trip with a group of fourth graders, urban kids who haven’t had opportunity to play in the woods. We took them to the Old Forest in Overton Park. On the way to the forest there was much speculation about horrible biting bugs, man-eating monsters, wild animals with sharp bloody teeth and mean men. Clearly the forest was a scary place in the minds of these fourth graders.
Jimmy Ogle was our forest guide. Mr. Ogle met us at the bridge by the playground and began our outdoor adventure by sharing some of the park’s history. Overton Park was developed in 1901 and named for Judge John Overton, one of Memphis’ original founders.
Our guide explained, as we walked along the path, that even dead trees are important in the forest as they feed the forest floor. The children collected leaves: oak, magnolia, persimmon, pecan, tulip poplar, sweet gum. One child discovered a spider and every child swarmed to have a look. They were a happy bunch of kids as they discovered fungus, a gnome home, and grape vines to swing on.
As we listened, I could see in their ten-year-old faces that they heard their own names called. Hello, Emerald. Welcome, George. You belong here in this place of life, growth and mystery. You belong to the beauty here.
On the way back to school there was no talk about man-eating monsters in the forest. The children had discovered a new classroom. A place to learn and grow. A place where even dead things are part of a rich life. The Old Forest is intended for all of us and especially for our children. It’s a place where imaginations blossom like wild flowers.