"And now," cried Max, "let the wild rumpus start!"
- Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
All along the creek were miles and miles of beaver dams in all stages of construction and deterioration.
The children ran their fingertips over the tooth marks on pointed stubs of trees that the beavers have gnawed down and hauled away, some so recently that wood chips were scattered around. Behind dry, deserted dams, the silt was built up to dam level, making it clear that it was time for the beavers to move on. Further along the stream we came across an active dam and the difference was visually obvious. If we crouched down to eye level with the dam breast, even my one-year-old son, Bryce, could see how it raised the water level a few feet. The beavers built a dam right where the trail crossed, making our ford thigh deep; they were clearly in charge.
That night, our eagle-eyed daughter, Sierra, was the first to spot the beaver, silently gliding in the pond by our camp. She ran wildly back to our tent, so excited she could hardly speak.
I’ve spent enough time in the wilds to know that when a beaver chooses to emerge, it’s a rare gift, so I grabbed the binoculars and cam- eras and trooped back to the pond.
Creeping toward the stick dam, we watched as the beaver chewed a willow branch in two with its sharp teeth. Then, sprig clenched in his mouth, it swam to the dam breast and disappeared. We waited; scanned the pond trying to guess where the beaver would resurface. The kids gasped, when the slick round head parted the water and the dark, beady eyes reappeared.
While we were watching the beaver, a small summer shower moistened the land, bringing a brilliant double rainbow that stretched right over the beaver pond. A golden eagle soared over our heads, its mighty head glowing from the setting sun. I looked at my husband, Todd, and we exchanged a look that clearly said, “These are the times of their lives. This is what we leave home to find.” Sierra wasn’t happy until she snuck barefoot through the mud to stand closer to the dam, where she watched the beaver swim back and forth for an hour. Not until dark- ness fell and her beaver friend retired for the night did she skip back to our campsite, saying, “Mama, today was one of the happiest days of my life.”
Months later, we were visiting friends in southern New Jersey. We had just spent a few hours in the car and the kids were anxious to run around outdoors. Our friends lived on a quiet, rural road, and a large field behind their house led to an expansive scrub pine forest full of winding deer trails and hiding rabbits. A child could look at it as the gates to adventure, like C.S. Lewis’s cupboard doors that lead to the land of Narnia—or not.
" This kind of learning was creating a life for our children filled with abundance, passion, purpose and gratitude, and it would stay with them for the rest of their lives, because they had lived it. "
- Cindy Ross, The World is Our Classroom
My friend, knowing our love for nature, was anxious to show my children their new computer application, “Acorn Pond.” Her daughter skillfully clicked on areas around the pond and the animals came out and told us what they were doing.
When she clicked on “beaver,” the computer simply said, “Beavers build dams on streams.” I watched Sierra as a look of slight confusion covered her face. It brought her right back to our beaver friend—hearing the slap of his tail, seeing the light glisten on his wet fur,
smelling the pond water, feeling the warmth of the lowering sun. The computer image did not have any of this.
This is when it hit me: how much we were teaching our children just by placing the world of nature in their path. Experiential learning is better than a book, better than a school building, better than a com- puter program. This kind of learning was creating a life for our children filled with abundance, passion, purpose and gratitude, and it would stay with them for the rest of their lives, because they have lived it.