For the entire month of August in 2005, 2006 and 2007, Nico’s family (Alex, Luis and Nico) left their life in the very big, loud, vibrant and magical city of New York for the very big, loud, vibrant and magical woods of Maine.
This trip is central to our lives as individuals and as a family for a bunch of reasons. Its a radical shift from how we live at home. It reminds us that we can create real family that we keep central in our lives out of mutual respect and love. And it gives us balance – we are able to feel really thankful for our city, our home.
Below are three of the things that were profound experiences for all of us last summer in the woods. I don’t use the word “unschooling” in this post until close to the end, but for us it is all about unschooling. “Life is all you need to learn all you need to live.”
~ Pumping our water from the ground by hand every day, and then drinking it. Our friends who we stay with have a ground water well with a pump, which pulls water up from the water table under many layers of earth and rock, that is not only safe but delicious to drink. After 11 months of fluorinated tap water and the occasional super-filtered bottled stuff, this water with nothing but tons of trace minerals is really incredible.
~ Caring for, harvesting, cleaning, cooking and eating the bounty of our friends’ garden. In August there were chives, lettuce, onions, wild blueberries, yellow summer squash, zuchinni, and an obscene amount of many shapes, sizes and flavors of tomatoes. Along the logging roads that multiply yearly around our friends’ house there are large patches of wild blackberries in August. Wild strawberries come in late June, raspberries in July. Finding one of the last raspberries was a major cause for celebration, and resulted in a spontaneous chorus of “You say raspberry, I say blackberry – lets call the whole thing off!” … It is very easy to be that corny when the only ones around to see you doing show tune remixes are the birds and insects. It is also a bit of toddler-friendly, non-violent direct action: There is more logging of these mid-coast woods – some of the poorest rural communities in the U.S. – every year; as you walk the logging roads gathering berries, asserting your humanity with great joyful expressions of thanks to the berries reclaims this space from the sounds of skitters (logging machines that drag felled trees out of the woods) and clear-cutting.
~ Living as an active member of a rural community. Things that are a radical vision to be attained for most urban people – relying on community instead of cops for safety, on the earth and your friend’s animals for food instead of the store, on the land and each other instead of a computer for learning and entertainment – are, for many people from poor rural communities, often how they have had to do things for many generations and are now as basic as breathing. We ate what we grew and what our friend’s neighbor, Vendela, bartered (eggs, butter and raw milk for our veggies). We helped our hosts’ friends with their projects. They helped us. We sang, told jokes and long, long stories. We stood around all trying to talk to the same person who was on speaker, listened to the radio, read out loud to each other. A trip to get eggs / mail a letter / get gas became an all-day visiting fest. The paradox that kept coming back to me is that the friends we stayed with, who live so deep in the woods it takes at least 20 minutes to get to the nearest house, are involved in the work and the lives of their friends far more than any adult I know in the city, where we live piled on top of eachother.
Experiencing all of these things as part of the fabric of life makes them possible. The context could not be more different from where we live, but experiencing them in context gives us the tools to build similar systems of self-sustainability with our urban communities in New York.
~ The most defining thing about Nico’s life in the woods is based on something he can do there that I never, ever could growing up (in New York City): here, in the woods, he can decide to walk out the door of the house, climb off the porch, and go anywhere. He is two. Here is how Nico spent his days in the woods:
* Going on berry walks with buckets. Bringing (some of) them back.
* Picking a few elderberries from the big bush by the house when walking by. Saying “Thanks bush”.
* Helping one of us wash clothes. Hanging them with clothespins on the line.
* Following insects that did not sting or bite.
* Running from insects that tried to sting or bite (or standing very very still).
* Making biscuits.
* Weeding the garden.
* Mulching the potato plants.
* Playing with the kids of neigbors who dropped by.
* Playing with the kids of our friends from Portland who came up for a weekend.
* Sitting naked with two pots and a cup in a puddle.
* Helping gather kindling sticks.
* Tending the fire – Nico has better instincts around fire at this point that many adults I’ve seen.
* Getting lost. Calling “Maaaaaaaaaaamaaaaaaaaaaa! Paaaaaaaaaapaaaaaaaaaaaa!”… Being found by Tina the Dog, and then Mama, Papa, Carol or Michael.
* Climbing trees.
* Figuring out the tire swing.
* Picking around in the leaf litter (the layer of leaves on the forest floor). Watching a beetle.
* Grazing in the vegetable garden.
* Watering the garden.
* Helping to harvest things for an upcoming meal from the garden.
* Dumping out the kitchen compost bucket on to the big, BIG compost pile in the garden that didn’t smell at all. Aerobic bacteria. Wow.
* Stepping on Carol’s flower plants and hearing from one of us what the plant was feeling when they got stepped on.
* Talking to plants.
* Talking to the moon (Where are you Luna?)
* Counting the stars.
* Peeing everywhere except (mostly) in the vegetable garden.
* Running around without a headlamp on a full-moon night, with more than enough light to see.
* Feeding the cats and the dog.
* Falling down the stairs. Walking more carefully after that.
* Falling asleep with crickets, between his Mama and his Papa. Waking up to birds.
… I could go point by point here and say “This is science / math / reading” or “This is large motor skills / sensory exploration / developing empathy” – but how ridiculous would that be? I doubt I would have to work hard to convince anyone of the value of Nico’s experience in Maine. The importance of kids being able to go off and safely do their own thing helped fuel mid-20th century “white flight” from American cities and was a central selling point of the American suburbs. Today, thousands of New York parents pay huge sums of money for second homes in rural communities so that they can give this kind of experience to their urban children. School reform continually strives to find time for children to have “self-guided” experiences… “after test prep.” “If there’s time.”
There is time. I believe it is Nico’s right as a human being to live in ways that allow him to become who he is, on his own terms, for as much of the time as possible. It is his time, his life. We all have a right to this. Once we get home, the list above quickly changes from berries, wandering and naked puddle-play to the music of block parties, helping Papa in the workshop and weekly collective cook-outs in the community garden. It is sometimes a struggle, but it is always a vast and endless list of learning-living. A list of a rich, real life.
November 25, 2007