Skitters, Swamps, and Sand: Spring Break Defined

11 04 2013

“Hey, you got long hair?”  The disembodied voice carried from one shower stall over to mine.

“No…”  I replied.

“Than you prolly wanna use this shower.  It’s better than that ‘un.”

So I moved over, and she was right.  The woman obviously was well-acquainted with them both.  At $18 a night including water and electricity, Shepard State Park on the coast of Mississippi made a good stopover on our travels, as well as a cheap place to hunker down for those caught in economic distress.  That night, we chatted with a bird-watching retired couple taking a two-month sojourn from Oregon to visit relatives in Florida, and the next morning I learned from another long-term camper that there was a vent connecting the men’s and women’s bathhouses that every morning brought over the stench of tobacco smoke from “someone smoking in the boys’ room.”  Camping.  There just isn’t anything like it.

Spring Break is all about breaking from the routine and getting refreshed for the last few weeks of the school year.  Which is why I twisted Brian’s arm, slightly, into taking a camping trip.  I was interested in the Florida beaches on the Gulf Coast and in looking at the map noticed that Pensacola was a mere three hours from New Orleans, where coincidentally the National WWII Museum beckoned.  And so we set out.

We spent the first night communing with mosquitoes at Florida Caverns State Park.  In hindsight, camping in a swamp was not the best idea, even in April.  According to the ranger, massive rains about a month earlier had hastened mosquito season such that it was hard to breathe without inhaling a few of the swarming pests.  We set world records getting in and out of our tent and managed to spend a fairly comfortable night without the whine of insects in our ears, although our spaghetti dinner was doubtlessly enhanced with their protein.  Fortunately, by that point it was dark.  Barred owls and howling dogs (coyotes?) kept us entertained through the long night.  2013-04-08 08.31.42

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The virtues of a swamp do not include mosquitoes.

The next morning we broke camp in record time, leaving the tent to dry on the picnic table while we toured the park’s main attraction, the caverns.  The solitary bat we saw there, try as he might, obviously could not make a dent in the mosquito population.  The tour was thankfully pest-free, and we enjoyed our walk through the cave system as our guide pointed out stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, draperies, flowstone, and other features that made this underground section of the park so much more pleasant and remarkable than the topside.  In our haste to leave, we almost made it out of the park before remembering to go back for our tent.

Ahh, the beach.  A short three-hour drive promised the white sands and blue skies of Florida’s Gulf coast at Big Lagoon State Recreation Area.   We pulled in to the park to see a scruffy sand dune desert: rolling dunes covered with saw palmetto, vines, and more than a few dead tree scrags.  The campground map showed us beachside, so upon finding our site, I climbed over the dune to gaze upon the shore.  A swamp.  Again, a swamp!  Yet when I squinted my eyes, I could just barely make out the white sands of the beach.  A walk on the boardwalk gave us the names of the local flora: sand pines, sand live oaks, sand everything.  And in-between the sand dunes, stagnant water covered with duckweed, hiding, no doubt, the gleaming eyes of hungry gators.  Yet a constant breeze kept flying insects at bay, so all was not lost.

We got back into the car and drove down to the beach, which though quite nice, was only on the lagoon (hence the name “Big Lagoon”).  Back in the car, we drove a few more miles out of the car to Perdido Key and paid a few dollars to drive on Gulf Islands National Seashore, where the dazzling white sand and crashing surf confirmed every preconceived notion we had of Florida’s beaches.   2013-04-08 15.36.25    Breathing deeply, we stretched out on the sands, then walked the surfline for a while, snapping shots of a disinterested great blue heron who obviously was used to the invasion of human-types.  2013-04-08 16.12.24All too soon, we headed back to the campground.  Lulled to sleep by the croaking rhythm of a bajillion frogs, we were awakened early by the chirps, tweets, songs, and squawks of a bajillion birds.  Sleeping in was not an option.

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Morning breaks over the swamp

By 8:15, we were on the road, headed for New Orleans and the National WWII Museum.  The next six hours was spent reading every exhibit, watching every short video, and listening to every audio in the entire museum.  No, that’s a lie.  I didn’t get to take in everything, but we did take our time and see as much as we could.  There’s always next time.

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A victory garden outside the WWII museum

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A half-track similar to the one that carried my father across Europe

Although it doesn’t have the emotional angst of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, it did present a thorough view of the War along with insightful observations (America fought Hitler, the world’s worst racist, with our own segregated army).  Back in the car, we headed out of New Orleans at rush hour, an experience with all the thrills and excitement of an amusement park roller coaster.

Into Mississippi, we found Shepard State Park.  Within seconds, the sand gnats found us.  A glance behind our campsite confirmed the obvious:  another swamp.  Again, world records were set in unzipping and zipping the tent door.  A quick meal of partially-rehydrated vegetable soup, enhanced with insect protein, then the plaintive call of a locomotive every half hour to keep us company through the night.  The next morning, we broke camp in under half an hour, eating breakfast at a rest area down the road a ways.  A long drive home ahead of us, we entertained ourselves scaring the several hundred sand gnats who had decided to journey along with us.

Into Alabama, with only five or so hours separating us from the comforts of home, we came to a brown sign on the highway indicating that Tuskegee Institute was a short distance off the road.  “Shall we?” Brian asked.  “Silly question,” I replied as we veered off the highway: yet another reason why I love my husband.

Not knowing exactly what we were looking for, we passed a cemetery with the obvious grave of Booker T. Washington, etched with “Education is the answer.”  We drove through the impressive campus of Tuskegee University: distinctive, well-kept buildings with a student population still thriving after all these years.  The campus was, however, an island of prosperity amid an ocean of poverty.  The city of Tuskegee had the paint-peeling run-down feel of a scrubby deep South town where laundromats, tattoo parlors, and Quik Cash marts were the only thriving industries.  On the way out of town, we came to Moton Field, training site of the famous Tuskegee Airmen.  We stopped and went through the hangar where exhibits told the story of the famous experiment that proved Blacks were capable of serving in combat operations.  I always feel embarrassed that it took us so long to admit what should have been obvious.

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Moton Field, training site of the Tuskegee Airmen

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Inside the hangar at Moton Field

The rest of our trip home was spent in a state of boredom-induced drowsiness when Brian drove the long highways and wide-eyed two-handed alertness as I drove through the convoluted construction-ridden areas around major cities.  Home again, after three days of camping and some 1400 miles, history and nature seamlessly interwoven on the wings of countless insects, reminded once again of the world outside my classroom, thinking all the while of ways to bring it back within the walls of my school.  Spring Break, indeed.


On Squids, Kids, and Praying Mantises

16 10 2011

I don’t often read political commentator Bill O’Reilly’s column in the paper, but his headline today grabbed me: Adventure in the Woods with Kids. Those three nouns–adventure, woods, and kids– are what I am all about. So I read his column as he whined about his experience trying unsuccessfully to get a group of seven children to tear themselves away from their electronics to go for a walk in the woods. He concluded with the implication that today’s children are too namby-pamby and as a result our country is going to go to hell in a handbasket.

I don’t buy it.

Let me explain.

On Friday, I spent 12 hours with a group of fifth graders on a field trip to Hunting Island. While most had been to the beach before, many had never had the experiences we had with nature that day. We explored a maritime forest, slapping hordes of apparently malnourished mosquitoes as we learned how slash pines use fire as a survival mechanism. We prodded the rotting carcass of a horseshoe crab, holding our noses as we looked at her underbelly and discovered that she was closer to a spider than a crab. Legs shaking, we climbed out onto the rim of the lighthouse and gazed upon the wide and glistening ocean panorama. We found sharks’ teeth, sand dollars, blue crabs, ghost crabs, and hermit crabs. One group of students even found a dead squid washed up on the rocks of the groin. Gross as some of these things were, the children were engrossed. They were also excited, active, and engaged. I heard more than one student declare firmly that this was the best day of their lives. I didn’t hear a single complaint.

Who wants to hold a dead crab? Pick me, pick me!

On Saturday, I participated in Dig in the Dirt Day, the annual clean-up day at our school’s Outdoor Classroom. It never ceases to amaze me that children who can’t be bribed to pick up the socks from their bedroom floor will spend two hours on a hot Saturday morning dragging away branches, pulling weeds, clipping briars, and generally having a blast. There were children there who had never used a hoe in their lives. There was also a child who could drive a tractor and explain how to start a recalcitrant weed-eater. The big hit of the day, however, was a four-inch (no lie!) praying mantis that they found. This praying mantis obligingly climbed from one hand to another as each child experienced one of nature’s most interesting assassins. Again, no complaints, just excited, active, engaged children engrossed in exploring the great outdoors.

Which is scarier, a four-inch insect, or purple fingernails?

Later that day, my weary body dragged myself over to the university, where the annual S.E.E.D. event was taking place. I told my students that after “digging in the dirt,” the next step was to plant a “SEED,” and Science Enrichment Education Day was all that. Over 3,000 children and adults participated in hundreds of hands-on science activities, making paper, building straw towers, petting alligators, and testing for radioactivity. The atmosphere was like that of a carnival as children dragged their parents from one exhibit to the next, talked with scientists of all kinds, and collected souvenirs: slime, fossils, and pipe cleaner models of neurons. And all this without a complaint or a Game Boy anywhere around.

If I had a choice between being in a climate-controlled environment with a pantry filled with snacks and a game system with enough games to keep me occupied the rest of my life, or experiencing the sweaty (or frigid) outdoors with smelly objets d’nature and danger lurking around every corner and under every rock, those who know me know where I’d be. But let’s not leave those decisions to children. If you get children outside, if you let them experience the real side of nature and our world, you will see a blooming of creative energy and interest akin to the blooming of a desert after a rainstorm.

Bill O’Reilly should stick to political commentary, because he obviously doesn’t know squat about children. You can’t love what you don’t know. You can’t know what you don’t experience. There should be no choice in the matter. It is our job as adults to give children experiences with our world. There is a place for electronics, but children don’t need much coaxing to use technology. Instead, let’s give our children real experiences with nature. Then stand back, don’t mind the dirt, and hold your nose, for as everybody knows, squids will be squids.

And next week, my students will learn another of my favorite poems:

Praying Mantis

by Mary Ann Hoberman in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children

That praying mantis over there

Is really not engaged in prayer.

That praying mantis that you see

Is really preying (with an “e”).

It preys upon the garter snake.

It preys upon the bumblebee.

It preys upon the cabbage worm,

The wasp, the fly, the moth, the flea.

(And sometimes, if its need is great,

It even preys upon its mate.)

With prey and preying both so endless,

It tends to end up rather friendless

And seldom is commended much

Except by gardeners and such.

Hitchcock Magic

19 09 2011

Exploring the chalk cliffs in Hitchcock Woods

Monkey trees…the Crow’s Nest…the sawdust pile…digging kaolin out of the side of an embankment to use as sidewalk chalk…sucking up all my courage to walk across the cement dam…playing Pooh Sticks on Barton’s Pond Bridge…This was my life, my backyard growing up on the edge of Hitchcock Woods.  The woods was a magic place, a place of imagining, of learning, of growing.  Many children today don’t have these rich experiences.  Parents, believing in the danger that lies outside each and every house, don’t allow their children to explore the woods, don’t show them this magical place.   The woods are still there, still waiting…

Below is an essay my daughter, a senior in high school, wrote about Hitchcock Woods.  I’m proud to say that this essay was chosen as this year’s winner of the Celestine Eustis Prize, given by the Hitchcock Foundation for the most compelling essay about experiencing Hitchcock Woods.  I’m even more proud that she has experienced for herself that old Hitchcock Magic.

Life in the Woods

By Annalise

On Behalf of My Cross Country Team

Tree branches blind me.  Roots trip me up.  The sand muffles my footsteps.  I’m sweating.  I’m dirty.  I’m exhausted.  I’m so utterly lost, but I know where I am.  I’m in Hitchcock Woods.  Isn’t that enough?  And even though it’s getting dark, and this trail is foreign to me, I don’t need to panic- the woods is my second home.

Ever since I can remember the woods have been a part of my life.  Although it might sound absurd, Hitchcock Woods has raised me.  Since my grandparent’s house is on Clark Road, many visits would end in a woods adventure.  We were explorers.  Hitchcock Woods was uncharted territory.  We’d splash through the “raging rivers.”  We’d discover new lands.  It was our personal playground.  You could do anything in the woods.  You could be whoever you wanted to be.  Hitchcock Woods is for the dreamers, and I was a dreamer.

Years later I took up horseback riding lessons at Fulmer Stables.  I wasn’t great at riding horses.  I didn’t do any shows or camps.  My form was nowhere close to perfect. I was completely and utterly mediocre.  But I loved to ride.  I loved the way the horse felt underneath me, its strong body gliding over the sand, kicking it up as I held on for dear life.  The days I loved the most were the “woods days.”  Riding in the woods was a treat.  We would walk, trot, canter, and gallop.  We flew down hills and over jumps. The woods sheltered us.  It was quiet, save for the sound of hooves pounding the earth.

After I decided to stop horseback riding lessons, I took up a new sport.  I started running for my school’s Cross Country team.  It turned out to be  a great decision since every day we would practice in the woods.  After spending so much time running in the woods, I now know almost everything about it.  I know where that twisty trail ends, what parts of Sand River I should avoid stepping in after it rains, and in which field I can stop running and not be caught by my coaches.  But I still can’t find the mythical Gravel Pit!

This is where we would go on hour long runs.  We would do hill repeats on Cole’s Hill.  Even our home meet course wove through the woods.  Suddenly practices became a whole lot more tolerable.  How could you hate running in pure serenity?

I have a problem of getting distracted in the woods while I’m running.  I want to stop and soak up everything.  I used to think the woods was quiet until I actually stopped and listened.  The woods is alive with sounds.  The trees sing with chirps and twitters, and the ground moves with hungry squirrels foraging for food.  One day I just stopped running and sat down on a decaying log.  Sometimes I get so busy in life that I forget to just listen.  I’m so caught up in school, in my sports, and in my social life that doing absolutely nothing for ten minutes is unthinkable.  So for that day I just sat and reflected on life.  Surrounded by nature, I found peace.  It was a beautiful moment for me.

Hitchcock Woods has become part of who I am.  Wherever I go in life, I know I’ll take with me my own personal slice of the woods.  I’ll remember the deep sand, the wind in the trees, and the sweat on my brow.  The woods might be for the citizens of Aiken.  It might be for adventurous tourists.  It might be for my school’s Cross Country team.  But the woods will always be my home.