Learning the names of trees and plants at the Ivy Creek Natural Area provides the beginning of a lifetime of naming the things we see and may eventually hold dear.
This show originally aired on January 3, 2008 on “The Rivanna Rambler,” a weekly public affairs show airing every Thursday at 11:55 a.m. on WTJU 91.1 FM or wtju.net.
The School Trail at Ivy Creek Natural Area got its name because it’s just right for taking a group of kids on a 45-minute guided walk in the woods, something the Ivy Creek Foundation guides have been doing free of charge since 1980. It’s three-tenths of a mile long, traverses both field and forest, and ends up at the Barn for a closer look at natural history artifacts and exhibits. On a sunny fall morning, I’m with a some kindergarteners from Free Union Country Day School, so young, and so very small compared to their teacher, myself, and Tom Walsh, our guide for the day.
Though Tom claims he’s not very experienced, I know he’s been around the trail with kids before when he stops at the row of trees in the middle of the parking area and asks, “Now, who is the leader here?” in a firm but kindly way letting them know the rules of the trail. Follow the leader, don’t take anything from the Natural Area, and stop and listen when he has something to show.
And from this moment on, it is all show and tell, starting with an inspection of the dogwood’s red berries. “And what happens to the berries after the birds eat them?” They all look at him, silent, until he says, “Well, the seed inside the berry gets pooped out, and this is where a new tree grows.” The word “poop” gets their attention, and suddenly they are all making noises and thinking this adult is OK after all. We start down the mowed trail through the native grasses stopping at clump of thistle, thigh high with seeds scattered from their brown heads. Tom bends one down so the kids can inspect it, telling them that just a month ago, goldfinches had built their late summer nests here and raised and fed their young. Empty of both nest and food, we use our imaginations.
We enter the woods where the School Trail veers off to the right and begin to learn about some of the 20 most common trees in Virginia. You can get your own guide from the Ivy Creek website and with the signs marking the trees, this could be a self-guided tour. But today, we have Tom introducing the holly tree with its pointy green leaves. Musclewood, its sinewy trunk easy to identify. High as the sky, we look up to see seed pods on tulip poplars. Stopping in front of another tree, its smooth gray bark scarred by initials cut by a knife, Tom tells the kids that it’s just like cutting the skin of the tree, and asks “You wouldn’t like someone to do that to you, would you?”
We traverse the hillside, making plenty of healthy noise pushing through the dry leaves, our learning stops getting shorter as attention spans wane. By now, each child has picked up a small branch to use as walking stick, or to rake leaves or tap the trees. “Will we see any animals?” Tom shakes his head slowly, not wanting to diminish their joy of being outside in the woods which is, along with the learning, the point of our being here today.
It is difficult for me recall exactly what I knew, or was taught, when I was the age of these kids. Blessed with an abundance of outdoor time, did I know the names of the trees and plants I encountered? Though naming something is not the same as truly knowing it – this requires understanding habits and ecology — without names, we cannot learn or converse about what we see, nor be specific about that which we hope to protect.
“Now, what’s this one called?” Tom asks in front of a tree we’ve seen before. “Hollywood!” shouts one of the kids, which seems as good a mnemonic as any for a tree that is ever green. I hope that the trees these young children have learned to name may become the basis of knowledge based in memories of this walk in the woods at Ivy Creek Natural Area.
2008 Copyright Leslie B. Middleton