Oklahoma Academy of Outdoor Learning
The sound of children’s voices, barely audible at first, became louder and louder, announcing their presence throughout the forest on this warm, winter’s day. No matter how much one tries to keep them silent, the task is a futile one. They are so full of energy that their bodies seem to bounce more than walk down the trail. I could sense that their minds were no longer engaged in knowing the forest; they began to sprint off in different directions as a hapless game of tag ensued. My eyes caught gliding movements high above the canopy of the trees, “Look, there,” pointing upward, I stopped dead in my tracks and so did the kids. A Red Tailed Hawk was making lazy circles in the sky, just like in our state song. Oklahoma, my state, the state I was born in, and most likely, the state I will die in: like most of my family. It is difficult to move away from a place where you are deeply grounded. It is easy to say these words, but not as easy to inspire others to understand what they mean. The problem with society is that we have no connections: to each other, to a place, to a culture, etc. We have successfully assimilated into the melting pot ideology of disconnection. Unlike us, the hawk circling above us is wholly connected to this place and everything in it.
Nora grabbed hold of the tree in front of her and closed her eyes. I instructed the others to do the same. The ground was wet, so instead of sitting quietly, we just stood there, taking in the stillness. Meditation comes in all forms, and it is often misunderstood. Meditation is quieting the voices in your head, not the crazy kind of voices, but yourself. Your thoughts and the voice that seems to argue with every one of them: the one that cuts you down, tells you every negative thing you have ever heard or thought you heard. It is the silencing of the voices so that you can hear that still, small voice – that whisper that can only be heard when the deafening sound of the crowd is hushed. Meditation is focusing on the here and now, the present; being in the moment. Their reserve was amazing, especially since these kids, who were trying to hold back the floodgates of their energy just minutes ago, were now hugging trees in complete and utter peace.
After some time, we continued down the path. Nora broke the silence, “Did you know trees could talk?” “I heard the tree whispering to me just now,” Quinna replied. “What did it say?” Nora seemed excited and fully engaged in the conversation. “I don’t know, I could just hear it whispering to me,” Quinna seemed far away, as if she was trying hard to think about what it had said to her. Nora turned around and directed her question to me, “Do you think Quinna is an empath? My mama thinks I am an empath because I can hear the animals and trees.” I searched deep for just the right words for this teaching moment; I never want to lose a potential moment of connection. My answer came from outside myself, almost a profound whisper, “Trees talk to everyone, but many never listen. It is not the ability to empathize that people lack, it’s their desire.” Whether you believe that trees can talk or not, the concept remains the same. Have you ever listened to a tree?
Empathy is the ability to feel or sense another’s feelings, to be able to identify or understand them. This ability leads to action: one has compassion for, becomes responsive to, and has sympathy for the person or object, for which they have become empathetic. A child that hugs a tree and listens for the quiet whisper in their ear, cannot possible perceive that tree the same as one, who has never seen the tree as something to hug or to listen. A simple way to inspire children to listen to trees is to take them out into the woods in late winter, early spring, when the sap first begins to flow and have them listen for the heartbeat of the tree through a stethoscope. It is not really a heartbeat they are hearing, but the sound of quickening. The tree is no longer dormant, and it is beginning the process of producing energy again. Once the leaves grow back, the tree begins the daunting task of producing oxygen and water for the atmosphere. It takes from the Earth and our waste to sustain life as they have from the beginning. Talking to trees or plants of any kind, makes them grow healthier: It is not just an old wives’ tale, it is science. Our lungs give off a cell waste called carbon dioxide, which the leaves utilize to make food for the tree. We breathe life into them just as they breathe life into us. Have you ever spoken to a tree?
Theorists say memories become etched into our souls and become part of who we are. In other words, they become part of our identity. I can honestly say that I believe that, because in that small moment of our time in the forest that day, I took immense pleasure in the soft interconnected touch of a small child’s hand on the rough bark of a tree; a forehead, gently and lovingly placed against the tree; and the peaceful expression that spread across each face, eyes closed tightly as they thoroughly enjoyed sharing space and time with a tree. The love genuinely experienced in this connective encounter between tree and child warmed my spirit and caressed my heart. In that expanse of time and space, I too could hear the faint whisper, rustling through the limbs, carried in the wind.
Deanna has a Master’s Degree in Education, specializing in Family and Community Services as well as a minor in English. She has homeschooled her twelve kids and mentored Adults and children for thirty years. She is a naturalist with a big heart for the environment, sustainable living and community building. The result is the Oklahoma Academy of Outdoor Learning- Earthschool, the first in Oklahoma.