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Does a Trail Lead?

During a practicum in May, 1999, a group of six ninth graders (three girls and three boys) from Hawthorne Valley School built a trail under the guidance of The Nature Institute. Leading into a 27-acre parcel of woodland that includes a 9-acre wetland, the trail is one step in a larger plan to protect the land from residential development and put it to educational and research use. The next step will be to build a boardwalk around and into part of the wetland. Purchased by the Rudolf Steiner Education and Farming Association in 1998, the land is under the stewardship of The Nature Institute.

The practicum was meant to integrate meaningful work with nature experience. Excerpts from the students' written reports are given below in italics.

When we first looked at the site in the woods that we planned to build our trail on, we saw nothing more than a tangle of trees, bushes, old logs, and little saplings. There was nothing different about it from any other part of the woods, except that it had a little disheveled, gurgling stream running along beside it (CG).

It was that "disheveled" stream that drew Craig's and my attention on our numerous walks in search of the right path to lead to the edge of the swamp. The path should be practical (allowing later transportation of materials to the boardwalk), ecologically sound (no erosion or heavy tree cutting), easy to walk, and interesting for eyes and ears. Passing particular trees and special places, it should call attention to the characteristic beauty of this part of the woods. In this way the trail would wind down to the swamp, meandering like running water or the tracks of a person walking along the beach.

When the students arrived on Monday afternoon, yellow ribbons around tree trunks outlined both sides of what was to become the trail; green paint marked the trees to be felled.

We stamped our way through the bushes to the destination of the trail-to-be, a bright, luscious swamp. Moss, low bushes, and skunk cabbage covered the swamp floor. It was lovely! (CG)

Sitting down at the edge of the wetland, we all had our doubts.

The first time I looked down to the place where my group was going to make a trail, I wondered if it was possible. As we fought our way down what was to become the trail, we all asked ourselves if we could ever finish this project in a single week (NK). I hardly could believe Mrs. Holdrege expected us to start and finish this trail in only five days (SG).

Then our work began. For safety reasons I divided the group of six into pairs, each to work a safe distance from the other groups — the length of a falling tree.

We cut huge trees, we pulled little trees out of our way, we cut bushes, and we cleared huge old logs (JA).

The "huge" trees seemed very tall, but were rarely six inches in diameter!

The students learned to direct the fall of a tree to avoid damage to the surrounding ones. Once a tree was cut, they used loppers and saws to clear the trunk from its branches. The cut timber was carried to the trailhead (later to be cut into firewood), while the branches and bushes were piled off the trail, providing homes for woodland creatures. Standing dead trees alongside the trail were left as snags for woodpeckers.

By the end of the second day all the trees that needed to be cut down were cut. The work we now had to do was stump cutting, brush clearing, and clean up. This work went slowly and was very tiring (NK).

Given a choice, the students decided not to ask Craig for help with his chain saw. So all the work was done by hand — by woman and man power. A two-man saw was needed once to clear an old log from the path. No one got hurt, and none of our twenty-odd tools was lost.

At the beginning and end of each work session we would walk the path to its destination and take in the changes we had brought about. Then we would decide what to do next. Since we were making a real impact on the land, we tried to do it with awareness and in accordance with the nature around us. It was May and spring flowers were in full bloom, while the trees sprouted forth their delicate green leaves. The students became quite sensitive to the life around them, consciously weighing what should be removed and what could stay.

Many trees and plants were killed during our work, but we were always assured that it was for the better to kill a few trees than for people to stomp wherever and whatever they want (CG).

To avoid erosion we didn't rake the trail, as a student had suggested, but nonetheless in the end the path was distinctly visible. We cleared the little creek that runs along the upper part of the trail so it didn't look disheveled any more. A solitary hemlock with a few surrounding birch trees became a special place after we cleared the area of dead wood. A large, hostile-looking pine changed into a welcoming sight when its dead lower branches were pruned. It was important for the students to experience how, by careful consideration and working with nature, we can create beautiful places. How often they learn only about the negative influence of human beings on nature!

By Thursday noon [a day early!] we were done with the whole path. As we walked down the path for the last time we realized that it took us a lot less time to walk down to the swamp than it took us on Monday. We had to admit: We had done a great job. The path looked as if it had been there forever. And also, now we were professional "tree cutters," which is great (JC). The last time I walked the trail I looked around and everything had changed. The trail looked like an old, well-worn trail (NK).

And so it does. Come, see, and walk it!

Henrike Holdrege

(Originally published in In Context # 2, Fall 1999)

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