Monday, October 25, 2010

Dirt Love

For many children (and adults) one of the biggest barriers to stepping outside and starting a relationship with nature is a fear of getting dirty. We are taught to wash our hands, and rightly so – but sometimes our concern to avoid germs leads to a near phobia of real good, clean dirt.

If you want your child to develop a love for the natural world, to see beauty and life in the wild backyard, you may first need to break down some barriers of discomfort. One of the best ways to do this is to start with small positive experiences around getting dirty. Below are some activities you could do with a child of any age – just be careful not to push the tentative child too far – better to end on a good note after a brief encounter.

Start by simply going outside. Take a walk on a nature trail. Try to make it fun, and let your own enthusiasm shine. Do you love birds? Let your wonder soar, but be mindful not to overload your young hiking companion with information that may bore him/her. Point things out, and eventually you’ll find something that also inspires their wonder. Maybe it will start as a question, “I wonder what made the hole in that tree?” If you find anything that sparks their interest, explore with them. And don’t be afraid if you can’t answer the questions.

If you find a muddy spot, look for tracks. Where do you see toes, claws, shoe prints? Lean in close to the mud to take a better look. Now, walk through it yourself and observe your own tracks together. There is a hidden message here, and it’s going to start seeping in – dirt is okay. Just the act of role modeling touching dirt will be very profound.

The next step is to find a way to comfortably navigate your way OFF the trail. The fall is a great time to wander – maybe you can find a rotten log to turn over, looking for bugs or salamanders? Getting your hands dirty in rotten logs may still be uncomfortable for some kids, but the life forms found under rocks and logs are so intriguing, that maybe they’ll momentarily forget. They’ll get their hands a little dirty, and this is dirt that brushes off easily. Good gateway dirt! Remember to show respect for the creatures you find, to carefully replace their homes, and to thank them for letting you visit.

Are your hands dirty yet? Good! See if you can keep the adventure going without a trip back to clean up.

Another activity I love is playing with clay. Find a natural deposit as you wander along a creek or stream. It’s such a fun tactile sensation to explore the way you can shape clay – make balls, cubes, snakes, turtles, the Parthenon – whatever you can imagine. The important thing here is that it is now becoming a fun, positive experience to get dirty.

As you wander along the creek bed, find a large, flat rock. This is now your palette. Find different rocks and experiment with rubbing them on the rock to create “rock paint.” You can use this to paint other rocks, your hands & arms, or for the child that is now really embracing the beauty of clean dirt, it is a great face paint!

Our lives depend on dirt. The soil and organisms that inhabit it create the foundation of our ecosystem, a place for plants and trees to grow, which we need for food, shelter, and even the air we breathe. Create time in your day today to appreciate dirt, and share it with someone you love!

Heidi Bardy- Lives with her partner in a yurt outside of Ithaca N.Y. and spends many days of the year in the forest getting dirty with children through her work with Primitive Pursuits, a local non-profit organization.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I am kneeling low on the ground

I am kneeling low on the ground, palms up in front of me, the backs of my hands touching the ground. My face is inches from the forest floor, and I am waiting. Rustling in the dry leaves to my right, I see a line of feet – sneakers, brightly colored rubber boots, gym shoes, and hiking boots. The children, elementary school students, are lined up, quietly and anxiously awaiting their turn to step on my open hands.

How did we get here?

Fox walking, we sometimes say, is the act of stepping lightly on the earth. I teach this skill as an essential wilderness skill – equal in importance to learning wild plants or tracking. We go over the basic logistics of it: relaxed and balanced stance, laying a soft foot on the ground starting with the little toe, rolling to big toe, then setting the heel and whole foot against the ground before shifting your weight. Simple and elegant, yet there is so much more to it than that. Asking them to relax their eyes, and expand their peripheral vision (owl eyes), I tell them to imagine they are stepping on someone’s face – the face of the earth. Can we soften our steps, and quiet our minds enough to actually leave lighter tracks?

As a test, I offer to let each of them walk on my hands. Which brings me to where we started: kneeling low on the earth, hands open, ready, and waiting. I tell them that I trust them, and that I know they won’t hurt me.

I notice several patterns in their steps: some step stiff and awkward, yet the soft earth still cushions my hands. Some fully press on my hands, and I feel the gentle roll from toes to heel on my palms and fingertips. Some, however, are afraid to commit – they lay a foot on one of my hands, then quickly hop to the next foot so their weight never fully lands on me.

I realize another thing: after this brief lesson, they trust me more. It is as if my willingness to trust them, this most simple vulnerability of hands on feet, has somehow won a little bit of their trust.

So my question to them, to each of us is: which are you? The earth is open to us all, palms up and ready to accept our awkward footsteps. Are you striding blindly forward, and ignoring what she is willing to teach? Are you stepping carefully, no matter how awkward and unbalanced, but at least trying to feel her face through your boots? Or, if after seeing her laid out before you, are you so afraid to make a mistake or hurt her, that you will not let yourself fully step in?

How do we move from a place of fear, to a place of exploration? I told them I trusted them, and to you I say the same. I knew they wouldn’t hurt me because they were walking out from a place of intention. As you leave this page, you are now walking out with intention. Walk in awareness and you will know which steps you need to take. You will know where to lighten up, where to step higher, where to stop and listen quietly.

So, I welcome you on this journey. Walk with me. Or, when the time comes, kneel down, put your face near the earth, and lay your palms open upward. We have so much to learn together.