Ventana Wilderness Society’s new after-school program helps kids Zen out.
Thursday, April 8, 2004
At 4pm on a sunny Monday afternoon, a blue van filled with exceptionally happy people pulls in front of Carmel’s Monastery Beach and unloads four adults and three kids.
Sheila Foster, communications and development coordinator for the Ventana Wilderness Society, has just finished pulling on her hiking boots and is waiting with a big grin. “So many kids called in sick today,” she apologizes. “Usually we have a lot more.”
Armed with a $30,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atomospheric Administration, VWS launched an afterschool program this past school year for fifth- through eighth-graders. Today they’ve taken the kids to San Jose Creek Canyon, part of the Point Lobos State Reserve not open to the public.
After the kids are shepherded across Highway 1, they climb one by one over a rusty old gate and start to walk down a dirt trail bathed in afternoon sunlight.
“Come very slowly around the corner,” says lead instructor Theo Maehr. “You never know what you might see. One afternoon we came around the trail and a coyote was right there, watching us.”
The kids stop, staring down at the dirt. Jor-el Vaasborg, a fifth-grader at the Waldorf School in Pacific Grove, picks out a bug on the trail.
“Do you see what color it is?” Maehr prods. “How red he is? You wouldn’t have noticed if you weren’t looking.”
“I would just think he’s a rock,” says Vassborg.
The pace slows down even more, as Maehr points out some scratch marks in the dust. The kids stop to look and debate what kind of animal might have left the impression.
“I think they’re made by a bird,” volunteers Alexander Cruz, Jr., an artist come along for the afternoon to help the kids sketch.
Maehr examines a pile of scat. “Do you guys see anything in it?” he asks.
“Fur?” offers Vassborg. “Okay, so if it’s fur, is this from a herbivore or a carnivore?” Maehr asks.
“A carnivore!” the kids say.
Maehr leads the kids into a grassy clearing and asks them to form a circle.
“Okay, we’re going to share with each other anything that we saw in nature over the last week,” he says.
Emily Burton, a seventh-grader from Monterey Bay Charter School, says she saw a dead elephant seal at the beach that was really big. “And if you look at the ground right now,” she says, “there are tons of black spiders crawling around.”
Everyone stares down, and then the circle continues. When it’s Foster’s turn, she talks animatedly of a condor release she participated in over the weekend. Maehr describes mountain biking with his son and “the chain of alarm” that the birds raised as the two humans passed by.
Then Maehr asks the group to turn around and he leads them into an exercise. “What we can do now is remember we are standing on the earth, and all the incredible things that the earth supports,” he says. “From the grass to the redwoods…we can remember all the little critters and the ocean and the breeze that brings us little messages and the rays of sun that bring everything to life…
“Cup your hands over your ears and let’s tune into the quietest sound you can hear. If you want you can close your eyes to let the sound become even stronger. Now reach out and feel the grass around you. Maybe with your eyes closed you can pick something up and figure out what it is. Bring it up to your nose to smell.
“Maybe when you’re doing this you’ll notice you’re not thinking as much, just feeling. We like to call this losing your mind and coming to your senses. One of the things that happens when we quiet down and tune into our senses is that we realize there’s a lot more out there that exists in the world.”
Maehr then takes the kids on a blindfold walk across a nearby field. With baby blankets wrapped over their eyes, the group is instructed to “fox walk” across the field to a pine tree.
The children take off in a pack, creeping across the rutty field, first in a line, then splitting off in tangents. After a few minutes, a smiling Maehr instructs them to remove their blindfolds.
“Oh my gosh!” yell the kids in unison, noting how far away from the tree they are.
“It’s really disorienting, isn’t it?” Maehr asks.
Maehr repeats the exercise, this time beating out rhythm on his water bottle to guide the group to the tree. When the children make it to Maehr, he asks them about the experience.
“How many people were thinking about other things than walking?” The children shake their heads.
“No? So you lost your mind, and came to your senses,” he says. And with that, they head off to explore the watershed, go for a hike to the top of a ridge, pull out their sketchbooks, or just sit.
For more information on the Ventana Wilderness Society programs and Summer Camp contact Sheila Foster at 455-9514.