Arts and Activism
Arts and Education
Inside a Stone: Nature Writing in a City Classroom
by Christian McEwen
One day, I was walking in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens when a couple of children came racing across the grass. There was a boy of about six and his younger sister, who was maybe four. They were chasing each other down a slope toward the lilac trees. Next thing I knew, the boy had stumbled over a root and fallen, sprawling to the ground. He got up slowly, feeling himself for bruises. Then a big smile spread across his face. "It's fun to fall on the grass!" he said in astonishment. "It's fun to fall on the grass!"
For the next ten minutes, he and his little sister practiced falling. They dashed across the grass and flung themselves down on it, lay there for a moment overcome with giggles, picked themselves up, and started all over again. I watched them for a long time, both enchanted and appalled. It was clear that this was a new experience for them. For these children "ground" meant asphalt or concrete or macadam. This springy turf, this greensward, came as a complete surprise. They had never imagined that the earth could be so generous.
My own childhood was a very different thing. I grew up in the country, first in Wiltshire, England, less than a mile from Stonehenge, and then in Scotland--free to run and jump and climb and explore: to follow my own feet wherever they wanted to go. I remember bouncing up and down in the honeysuckle as if it were an enormous scented mattress. I remember climbing trees and building forts and tree houses. And I remember the quiet places too, like the mysterious gap under the barn where the forget-me-nots grew, how I'd crouch there in the long grass, watching them, and they'd gaze back at me, staring with their thousand bright blue eyes.
What was it like to be a child who'd never experienced such things, to whom even shabby city grass was met as revelation? Was "urban youth" as ignorant and deprived as the official pundits seemed to think? In the fall of 1995, I was asked to teach nature writing in a Manhattan high school. It was the perfect opportunity to find out.
I'd been asked to work with all the tenth graders in the school: a total of about 300 fifteen year olds. I knew that some of them were native New Yorkers, some recently arrived immigrants, that some were "bright," some relatively privileged, and others not. But I had no idea where my students came from, who they were, or what most interested them. I had no idea what nature (including human nature) meant to them. And so I asked the following questions: What is your name? Where were you born? Where were your parents and grandparents born? Do you still live where you were born? If not, where else have you lived? Do you expect to stay where you are for the rest of your life?
I had expected a wide variety of responses. But still, the range of nationalities startled me. In one classroom alone, there were kids from Poland, the Dominican Republic, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Peru, Morocco, Bulgaria, Malaysia, Hong Kong, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Iran, India, Vietnam, Ireland, Ecuador, England, Trinidad, Grenada, Spain, Guyana, and the Virgin Islands, as well, of course, as the United States. Almost all of them were bicultural, or even multicultural. Among the mix of heritages were: Puerto Rican/Dominican/Dutch, German/Polish/Yugoslavian/Russian/Dominican, Taiwanese/Indonesian, and Irish/Algerian/Polish.
An immigrant myself, I was interested in their stories. New York was obviously a rich environment in which to grow up. But it was also a complex and demanding one. What did my students think of their new home, I wondered. Some obviously loved it: "This place will always call me, pull me back to all my childhood memories, both good and bad. This is the place that has shown me how to live in the streets and how to appreciate true friends." But others were considerably less sanguine: "I don't wanna live in that project no more with all the killing, drugs, etc. I want better for myself."
"Better" was a complicated issue, however, as the students themselves recognized: "If I could live anywhere in the world I would choose Jamaica if the job opportunities were better than places in the U.S. The only reason I came here was job opportunities, and low education rates." The anguish of such a choice came across most clearly in this piece by a young Polish woman, Rosa (Her name has been changed to protect her privacy.):
In December 15th 1992 we emigrated to United States. With my parents and older brother we were starting a different life. We left all the past behind us. My whole family including two of my older brothers and a sister with whom I spent thirteen years of my life. Thirteen years of my life in my Poland. I don't see myself living in the United States. I'd like to just take advantage of it, get an education and go back into my country. Where I feel free, without money or financial support but free and wanted.
"Free and wanted"--the compressed grief of that response stayed with me. At the same time I saw it as an opening, an opportunity. Poland was something Rosa could write about, something that mattered passionately to her. At our next class, I spoke about Wiltshire, about the big tree I used to climb, and the strange magical place under the barn where the forget-me-nots grew. I drew a series of circles on the board, one inside the other, and asked everyone to think about where their own "special place" might be. "It could be a hidey-hole under the stairs, or the apple tree in your grandfather's backyard. It could even be a particular country if that is easier for you: Morocco, Indonesia, Iran."
I put a tape in the tape player and asked everyone to close their eyes. If they were in their special place, what would they hear? (birdsong, their sister's radio?) What would they feel if they put out their hands? (the bark of a tree, a gravel path?) What would they smell? (wood shavings? city garbage? someone baking bread?) What would they taste? (if anything?) And last of all (because we almost always put it first), what exactly would they see?
I turned the tape on, and everyone began to write. I stood in a corner by the blackboard and watched as they sat hunched over their desks. Some wrote fast and furiously and were finished in six minutes flat. Others chewed their pens and stared out of the window. "Ms. McEwen! Christian! What are we supposed to write about again?" I crouched down in the aisle and explained it one more time.
Later, I took a look at what they'd done. For many of my students, faced daily with the filth and racket of the city, the place they loved the most was their own room. In some cases it became a sort of shrine, orderly and tranquil. As one put it, "My room is my Paradise." And again, "My room and I are best friends." Some retreated even further, literally, into the closet, where they sat in the dark among the swinging clothes, finally in private, and unassailable.
Others found a temporary haven under a table or a desk, down in the basement, or out on a balcony or a verandah. Of those whose special place was out of doors, at least half wrote in lavish, loving detail about trees: "Very far away, there's a special place, back in my country, where you look into the distance and what you see is not hate or sadness, but bright dawn colors. On the top of a mango tree, every season is different: branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit."
Writing about their trees and other special places (a garden in China, a beach in Puerto Rico, even a night club in New York City), the students instantly became experts. Their writing was confident and joyous. Rosa, in particular, was delighted at the chance to describe her beloved Poland:
My special piece of land was near my house.... It wasn't a safe place. You could meet some drunk people, or homeless men, but the fear of that place, I guess, made me love more and more that hill.... Where the meadows are more beautiful than anywhere else. Where I could see the whole town preparing to sleep.... The smell of flowers and young grass would make my soul fly in my own world, on my own islands.
Later she slipped me a poem, thanking me for giving her the chance to recover those early memories. It was as if the writing were itself a kind of homecoming, a compensation for all that she had lost.
Among the handouts I'd given out the first week were some pages from Orion's issue on "The Place Where You Live" (Spring, 1995). The students loved the map by Hannah Hinchman, and when I stumbled on her book, A Life in Hand, I was inspired to use her childhood map in my next session.
Every item on Hinchman's map is seen from a child's point of view, whether it is the "tall, easy-to-climb tree covered with pitch" or the "pass thru for milk bottles--good for secret messages." Some details only she could have recorded, like the imaginary "hole leading to the center of the earth" or the memory of her grandfather saying "Hello, Peaches." They are part of her own private, inside story. I pointed this out to my students, asking them to make such a map for themselves, drawing on fact and fantasy, memory and imagination, just as Hinchman had done. "Don't get too hung up with things like scale or accuracy," I told them. "Just try to get the facts down in a way that seems right to you."
Deprived for so long of the chance to draw (why is high school so unremittingly verbal?), most students were happy to be kids again, reaching for crayons and colored pens. Their maps, on the whole, were wonderfully varied, with a nice balance between text and illustration. Some told the story of a single day, or of a year or two in early childhood, while others stretched, however sketchily, across a lifetime. Many were set indoors, inside an apartment, or even in a single room. But others portrayed an entire neighborhood: the school, the bakery, the haunted house, the swings and slides and monkey bars of a cherished urban playground. Often their maps were records of both physical and emotional territory, as in this example by a recent Chinese immigrant: "The place where I cried. The place where I climbed. Place where I began to like someone. Place where I feel free."
By now it had become clear to me that, whatever the usual stereotypes, my urban fifteen year olds were sharp and appreciative observers of the natural world. It was true that they often found it hard to name birds or trees (naturally enough, since few people had ever thought to teach them). But that didn't mean that they didn't know nature, didn't carry beloved places in their hearts and minds, couldn't describe them, draw them, write about them, often with real skill.
But asking them to give that same full-hearted attention to their local park, or even their own backyard, was far less successful. They did not want sit down by themselves under a tree, to listen to the birds and smell the air, to touch the grass or the leaves or the ground underfoot. When I gave that as a weekend assignment, only a handful followed through. It was clear to me, reading over their work, that they simply didn't enjoy what passed as nature in New York. Then too, they were pained by much of what they saw. They'd been taught to avert their eyes from the drunk man peeing in the empty lot, to step over the crack vials and discarded condoms: not to notice. It embarrassed them to have to find words for such things, and then to read those words aloud in front of their friends. They felt angry and humiliated. No wonder so many of them "forgot" to do their homework.
Troubled by this, and anxious to make sure that at least some kids had a chance to write outside, I took several groups up onto the roof the following week. There were the makings of a garden up there, with sad little trees in wooden boxes and yellowing tangles of tomato plants. The students sat about in corners, giggled, whispered, looked around, and wrote. Some even tried to draw. A few found it too cold or damp or grim, but most of them managed to enjoy themselves: "I am sitting on top of the school roof. I see clouds moving, wind blowing the tree leaves, and planes flying overhead. The sun is sort of shining, but hiding behind the clouds. The whole city seems harmless. There's no gunshots, or cars crashing. This is how New York should always be."
As a visiting writer, I was not allowed to take my students to the Botanical Gardens, or even around the corner into Central Park. Instead, I did what I could to bring nature into the classroom. Fruit and flowers for 300 would have been prohibitively expensive, so I made use of my collection of rocks and stones, bits of colored sea glass and tiny shells. I handed one to each student, asking them to look at their objects very carefully, as if they'd never seen such a thing in their life before. What color is it? Are there any patterns on it, funny shapes? What if you were very, very tiny, microscopically small, so small that that stone or pod or shell became your landscape? What if it could somehow open up to let you in? What would that be like? I gave out copies of Charles Simic's poem, "Stone," and read it aloud to them:
Go inside a stone
I played flute music that day, a haunting piece called "Changes" by Native American flautist Carlos Nakai. The students used it to help them "enter" their stones: "This rock reminds me of a twirling pool with all kinds of colors. It keeps spinning and spinning like it's trying to put you in a trance.... If I were inside the rock, I would feel constant spinning. I'd be in tune with the earth. With the whole world around me."
I'd been afraid that at fifteen my students would be too old for such props. But not at all. Their pleasure and concentration were unmistakable. Again and again I saw students fondling their stone or shell, passing it from hand to hand, tracing its outline on a piece of paper. "Miss McEwen," someone told me pitifully at the end of class, "I really like this stone." Of course I let her keep it. How could I not? If I'd had 300 stones with me, I would have given them all away. As it was, some things got broken, others lost or stolen, and I didn't care. What mattered was this new thing that was happening among us: this easy playfulness, this charged attention, this strange, unerring pilgrimage inside the stone.
By this time Thanksgiving had come and gone, and suddenly it was very nearly Christmas. Our time of writing and talking together had come to an end. I pulled together a huge anthology of student work (rejoicing in the unlikely title of Nature Calls!) and asked everyone to fill out a short evaluation. Only then did I begin to realize what our ten weeks of nature writing had meant to the students: the pride, the pleasure, the sense of mutual accomplishment they experienced. As one young woman put it, with startling accuracy, "We got to hear the other person in everybody."
We celebrated these achievements with mini-festivities in each classroom, eating cake, drinking soda pop, listening to each other's words for one last time. Late in the afternoon of the very last day, I was standing by the copy machine when one of my students came hurrying down the corridor. He'd written a gorgeous piece about a tamarind tree, which his mother had mislaid. Now, finally, he'd gotten hold of it again, and was bringing it to be xeroxed, so that it could be included in our anthology. I could hear him in the hallway as he approached, calling out in passing to one of the older teachers: "See, Mr. Callaghan, you always told me I couldn't write a poem. I wrote a poem now!"
A tree, a beautiful smooth tree with birds and big, long, high branches. It has stubs like a ladder that only I can climb. I can go to the top of this big tree and just sit on my throne of leaves and branches. I can see over the whole land, smell the greenness and watch the little unsuspecting birds and just be invincible.
Christian McEwen lives in the hills of western Massachusetts and teaches poetry for Lesley College. Her latest book is Jo's Girls: Tomboy Tales of High Adventure, True Grit & Real Life (Beacon Press, 1997).
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This essay was originally published in the Spring 1998 issue of Orion Afield. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at email@example.com.