Nature and Learning

I recently took a large group of university students in first-year biology for a forest field trip. At the outset, I inquired as to how often they walked along a wooded path.  A few liked to take their dogs on the trails, yet the vast majority (over 90%) had never, in their life, gone into the forest.  I was astonished.

As a child, I made regular sojourns into the neighborhood wilderness.  Whether it be the park or ocean down the road, the local trails by the stream, or simply the small wooded area of our backyard, I lost myself in adventures of the imagination fuelled by being outside.  I found it hard to fathom that these young adults had abandoned the great gift of hiking.  Or perhaps, more precisely, that their upbringing had never exposed them to this experience.

My students and I stopped here and there along the path.  Before moving on from the stories told by leaf, bark and cone, I asked them to offer one reason why it was important to walk in the forest.  By the end, and with some coaxing, they had voiced dozens of ideas. Afterward, I felt the need to answer this question myself.

In the forest, the trail offers purpose and direction.  Birdsong signals danger and delight.  Cedar and fir personify stillness and strength.  Fern fronds are a lesson in geometry.  Taken as a whole, the forest is a place of connection, a vast ecosystem of learning.

Nature is the Great Teacher.  Of all her treasures hidden under leaf and wing, none are so commanding as that of storyteller.

The path in the forest unfolds as a story.  Around each bend a new scene arrives.  A new character, a new surprise.  Our life is not a straight road.  Up and down we go, turning left then right.  Brambles cling to us along the way, yet we experience such spectacular triumphs when we break free.

The forest does not lecture or instruct.  She teaches from a regal tranquility.  If we learn to listen to the song of the river and the dance of the leaves, we can hear the voice of ancient wisdom.

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