Stony Brook’s camp restores my faith in kids, in teenage counselors, in adults who make learning happen and open spaces available to everyone. A cursory walk on the sanctuary grounds and along the trail with the campers reminds me of lazy summers I spent as a youth when time seemed suspended indefinitely and each day was a revelation. More than anything, the camp works because of the relaxed pace, the effortlessness with which kids learn, the room for play and self-discovery, the continuing expectation of something new and surprising around every corner, behind every tree. But there’s more…
There’s Marla Cohen, who is, of course, the driving force behind things. Her energy, her enthusiasm, her creativity, her zaniness, her commitment to detail, her ability to hire great people are essential to the success of the camp. But it’s the counselors ultimately who have direct contact with the kids, and this year’s group is special. They are pursuing degrees in education or sociology or natural sciences at Harvard, B.C., Stonehill, St. Lawrence, and Assumption. They are bright, engaged, open and friendly, organized and creative, and always aware. They value campers’ questions and acknowledge their ideas. They encourage curiosity and allow everyone a chance to be silly or foolish or “smart,” in equal measure. They speak with authority and yet are reassuring and calm or just plain funny when the situation demands it. In short, they are great role models for kids.
There’s the setting. As I walk through the Sanctuary grounds, I hear the whoop of kids calling to each other across the pond, the excitement in their voices, the drone of insects, the croak of bull frogs, the constant chatter of birds in the trees. Geese walk the trails with impunity. Swans hiss from behind the bushes. Chipmunks scatter behind rocks and into their burrows. The sun is warm and the air is full of the sweet smell of pepper bush. Dinosaur rock beckons after a lazy walk on the boardwalk spotting for turtles and black racers. The wild and unfamiliar are here for the taking. I am in heaven.
There’s the curriculum. A group of young campers is sweeping the field for insects and collecting them into large plastic bottles where they can be looked at through hand-held magnifiers. They hold the bottle up to their ears and laugh at the drum-like sound of the bugs beating against the plastic. One girl takes an inch worm and places it on a tree where it can find its home, inspiring a boy to imitate the worm’s crawl and another to begin a race.
Farther on a few boys proudly show me their habitat homes built for imaginary gnomes. One tells me he “didn’t know what it would look like until the end,” then adds “a gnome added the roof when I wasn’t looking.” We laugh and then switch our attention to a camper who has found a plant gall along the path. He cracks it open to see what lives there, inspiring others to share stories of the grossest bugs they’re ever seen. A girl spots a red fungus that even the counselor can’t identify. A boy points out a dragonfly and comments, “Look how thin its tail is!”
I let them go and proceed to the boardwalk for the Great Sea Monster Release. Hawk (one of the counselors) supervises with the help of Storm and Robin. The goal is to see whose monster floats the best. The creatures run the gamut from elaborate cardboard constructions, painted and decorated with designs, to bare Styrofoam cutouts with nothing more than an eye. Everyone is excited and curious to see what will float beneath the bridge. Recognizing that some of the campers are worried they might litter the pond, Hawk promises that Storm will catch anything that breaks off its string or fix anything that goes wrong. Storm laughs and says, “Because if things can go wrong, they usually will!”
But nothing goes wrong. Everyone is happy. Kids sing and tell stories as they walk back to the Nature Center, one camper seemingly re-enacting the wake-up call he received from his parents that morning. No rhyme or reason to his monologue. No one questions or laughs. Everyone is well-behaved, relaxed, and enjoying the freedom they have to be themselves. For me it’s restorative to bear witness to the generations that will follow, to the passing of the torch. To the fact that some things are eternal.