Why it works

 

 

DSCF5031Stony 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…

DSCF5034There’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.

DSCF5035There’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.

DSCF5032There’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.

DSCF5037Farther 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!”

DSCF5055I 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!”

DSCF5048But 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.

Life is a verb, not a noun

MillssiteremnantsFor Gus Pearson, a long-time friend of Stony Brook who grew up just around the corner and who passed away a few years ago at the age of 93, this land was a playground and, as a teen, his workplace. We would not recognize the Stony Brook he knew. Most of the trees along the Sensory Trail or causeway did not exist when he was a child. Cows wandered down the causeway path to graze along the glacial Knoll which was dotted with apple trees and a small meadow. The island across the way had no beech trees and was little more than an out-cropping off the knoll. Gus fished out there and lay upon the grass on sunny days, much like a latter-day Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer.

Millphoto-In sharp contrast to the idyllic nature of the causeway, the area along the mill pond dam was an industrial site, home of the Norfolk Woolen Company where Gus worked for a while until it was torn down in 1938. Gus’s job was to stir old remnants of clothing and rags into an acid bath until the fibers could be fished out and incorporated with new wool strands into a cheap cloth known as shoddy, or Rag Wool. Gus took the remains, the buttons and pins and buckles and acid, and tossed them into the stream at the base of the dam where many of the remnants can be found today. According to Gus, the brook was always clear of vegetation and fish, no doubt because of the pollutants that were routinely spilled there.

I smile when I think of Gus sitting around the Library table sticking labels to our brochures in the group process known as “the mailing.” His stories filled the room with laughter and tears, good-natured fun and teasing, and not a little boasting in the case of Gus, who considered himself quite a ladies’ man.

Norfolk Woolen Co 1915To me, Gus embodies the sweep of history that colors this place. He represents, first, the dynamic energy of a people long ago who harnessed the land and its waters to grind corn in the 1700s, to mill wood and then cotton in the 1800s, and manufacture woolens in the early 1900s. These were people who saw in Stony Brook potential and profit and a fitting place to settle and work. They had little regard for environmental impact or pollution of streams in those days; they were trying to carve out a life at whatever cost.

MillsitephotoMore importantly, however, Gus represents growth and change, in particular the vision of a small group of people who wanted to preserve the beauty of this property forever and convert the former mill site into a haven for wildlife and a source of joy and comfort and self-discovery for those who come here looking to connect with Nature. Gus represents the wisdom of a community that seeks to find intelligent ways to balance our need for economic survival and prosperity with our longing for a higher purpose, our desire for meaning and beauty that lasts.

When I look back at the photos of the old mill site, I do so with reverence and respect, despite the fact of the ecological damage the workers there may have caused or suffered themselves. Despite the smoke stacks and crowded housing and short life-spans. The dam itself, the spillways, the giant footings are works of art of a kind, aesthetically pleasing on their own, but even more so as symbols of a by-gone era upon whose shoulders we stand. We do not get here without having been there.

Life is a verb, not a noun. And so are we.  A process, not a final product. Evolving, not static. Eternal, not finite. A hundred years from now our children’s children will wonder at how much we didn’t know, how little we did to effect change, how primitive our methods were, how shallow were our dreams. We can smile at their naivete and hope that they will be able to see remnants of the spirit that moved us every day. I am confident that we, too, will leave indelible footprints like our ancestors’ that will occasionally give them pause.