City Kids Unplugged
These Seattle students don't know much about their school's iconic namesake, but they learn to share the bearded white guy's love of the wild
By Dashka Slater
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IslandWood discoveries, from top:
You can trust your friends, vegetables don't come from cans, and creepy-crawly things—like these tiny crabs—are really pretty cool.
Afterward the kids are exhilarated, and they dance along the trail, leaping from rock to tree stump, comparing notes. "Did you hear a splash?" a blond boy named Nathanael asks Lucas. Marjorie Lamarre's plan—"When you confront your fear, it breaks down the barrier for all other fears"—is working.
Lamarre has been bringing students to IslandWood since it was first being designed. She calls the kids "baby," "darling," and "sweetie," and her ambitions for them are as high as if she had given birth to each of them herself. In Haiti, she recalls, nature was simply a source of food and firewood. "We cut down trees so we can cook our food, and if there are no more trees, we go to another part of the forest." She hopes for better for her students, that they will become stewards of nature, "so when they hear there's some problem, they will make the time to go to those rallies and do like many of the white people do."
THE KIDS WHO GATHER in the garden the next morning are far less edgy but still skeptical that the plants could possibly be safe to eat. "OK," says Christian when staff instructor Maddi Schweitzer suggests he try flavoring his bottled water with lemon balm. "But if I die ..."
Resistance fades. They smell rosemary, peppermint, and chives and taste chard and arugula. When Schweitzer gives them pea shoots, they nibble cautiously at first and then voraciously. "It tastes like peas," says a silky-voiced girl named India. "It's the bomb."
Even insects seem less disagreeable. Lucas squats in the dirt, watching pill bugs munch on nasturtiums. "Look at them!" he shouts. "They're going crazy!" A girl named Delannah walks around holding a ladybug in her cupped hand. Not everyone, however, has been won over. "I don't do bugs," announces India, who is fashionably dressed in flared pants and silver sunglasses. "I don't do ladybugs, spiders, potato bugs, moths. I don't do any of it."
From the garden, Schweitzer leads them to IslandWood's composting area. There is an enormous, four-and-a-half-foot-tall worm bin and a large "earth tub" of hot compost that can be spun with a mixing motor.
"It smells nasty!" says India.
Delannah covers her nose. "My armpit smells better than that."
Christian and Andre learn to navigate the rainforest instead of the urban jungle.
Schweitzer takes samples of the compost, sits the kids down at microscopes, and asks them to draw the creatures they see, reminding them to count legs, body segments, and antennae. As the slides go into the microscopes, there is a sudden burst of gasps: "It's moving! It's so cool! It's having a baby!" "Oh, I see it! Oh my gosh!" Soon the kids have chosen nicknames for their creatures and conjured them onto the paper. Some are cartoonish, others detailed and scientific. A few are both. Even India has overcome her squeamishness and carefully drawn a bug that looks neither evil nor dangerous.
THE NEXT DAY, THE KIDS WALK. At the brushy top of a ridge, half of them don gloves and yellow hard hats and learn how to yank out invasive species like Scotch broom and Himalayan blackberry. The others sit in a nearby clearing, folding seeds of native plants like slough sedge and salmonberry into disks of clay, rolling them into balls, and patting the outsides with compost. The finished seed balls look like cocoa-dusted truffles. The kids work quietly, meditatively. "I don't want to leave IslandWood!" Eternity bursts out as she rolls a ball in her hands.
That night in the dining hall, the table scraps are weighed a final time. By choosing to pile less food on their plates, the 120 kids from John Muir have managed to throw away a mere seven-eighths of a pound of food and drink—a waste reduction of more than 12 pounds.
Afterward the kids walk to an outdoor amphitheater with a fire pit in the center for a talent show. There are skits about stinging nettles and long hikes, and several girls do a rap and dance of their own composition. "Nature is our home!" they chant as they spin, stamp, and shimmy. "And we don't want to go! No way!"
Earlier that afternoon the Team Marsh kids stood in a clearing in the woods, holding the seed balls they had made. On the count of three, they sent the clay missiles whizzing into the forest. With time and a little rain and luck, the seeds inside would find their way into the soil where, nourished by the compost the children had packed around them, they would sprout, and grow, and flourish.
Dashka Slater is a regular contributor to Sierra. Her articles have also appeared in Salon, More, and the New York Times Magazine. Visitdashkaslater.com.
From his home base in Seattle, photojournalist Dan Lamont (danlamont.com) covers issues related to the environment and land use for national and international media including Life, Time, Newsweek, the New York Times Magazine, GEO, Smithsonian, Stern, and Le Monde.
Building Bridges to the Outdoors
This article was made possible by a grant from the Sierra Club's Building Bridges to the Outdoors project, whose goal is to give every child in the United States an outdoor experience. As part of this effort, Building Bridges funds environmental programs at Seattle's John Muir Elementary School and IslandWood.
For more information on Building Bridges, go to sierraclub.org/youth; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; or call (206) 378-0114, ext. 303.
Photos by Dan Lamont; used with permission (see bio above).