As I make my way down the trail winding through the Aquinnah highland forest, the strange call repeats itself.
I look around for the colorful bird that is surely the source of the noise. Perhaps it is one of those migratory species the Island is home to these autumn days.
The source is a strange hybrid: A pair of small human legs scurry along, supporting a gigantic bundle of fallen leaves, a bundle so big it eclipses his torso and head. I follow the creature to where it dumps the leaves on a lean-to of sticks. With the leaves released, the part-hominid-part-leaf-pile is revealed to be a boy, six-year-old Robe Delatorre. And that noise he was making?
“Oh that’s the crow call,” he says. “We use that when we want to call a meeting.”
Robe is a student at Saskia Vanderhoop’s Sassafras Earth Education Program, a Saturday afternoon program where kids learn survival skills and interact with nature on her rambling property in Aquinnah. Ms. Vanderhoop, who also teaches Salsa dancing, has been doing outdoor education for more than six years, through programs with the Wampanoag tribe and the charter school. This is her first year leading activities during the off-season on her land.
“We follow the same approach as a Vermont wilderness school called the Institute of Natural Learning,” she said, adding, “We include oral history and storytelling, as well as practical survival skills — we’re trying to reconnect people with nature.”
The leaves Robe was carrying are a good example of the program’s underlying philosophy: activities are both fun — the leaves were previously piled four feet high, for doing flips and jumps — and educational — they are later cleaned up and piled as insulation for a shelter that older students will spend the night in.
David Vanderhoop, Saskia’s husband and co-instructor at the camp, turns to Robe and asks, “Now was that a crow call or a real crow?” The students agree it was the real thing.
Next up after the shelter are “five-minute-fires.”
I remark to Noah Garcia, another student in the age 6 to 8 class, that I didn’t get to make fires when I was his age. He looked at me with pity, saying, “Well, if you came to this camp you would be able to.”
First the young students look for a dry patch of ground and clear it of debris. Then they look for “tinder bundle” material, the core of any good fire. Island plants that seem to work well are the dried flowers of Queen Anne’s lace, the flakey bark of grapevines, and especially dry briar branches.
Imani Hall was nearby at work on her own orderly fire. “It’s good to use most of the same kind, but also kind of different. Briar is the best kind of stick for a fire, but the last time I got pricked and my thumb was bleeding a little bit.”
The key to this kind of experiential education is that children are given more responsibility than they are usually trusted with, but in a structured, safe environment where they can make small mistakes — getting pricked by briars — but not big ones.
The fire building exercise, led by David Vanderhoop, is a success. After checking for possible dangers and making sure the stick tee-pee is the right shape, Mr. Vanderhoop uses a single match to set the dry tinder ablaze.
It starts out slow, but as Imani puts it, “It has to build up like anything else — just like you built up the sticks, the fire has to build up.”
Alexander, another student, crouches near the flames, “I’m gonna’ warm my hands — it’s very warm. Superwarm.”
After observing the younger group, we head over to the older kids, who are busy on a small hilltop beech grove, overlooking a stream. They are whittling sticks with knives. Again, safety is the first priority. Before I can sit down, the students hold their knives at arm’s length to make sure I am not in their “blood bubble.”
They are carving pointed sticks that can be used to dig up roots, such as sassafras, which the students brew into a tea. Natural foods — the berries, roots, nuts and flowers that can be harvested from the different Island biomes — are another part of the curriculum.
Ethan Hall, who is nearly 10, holds up the stick he has carved, “I think this would be a good Jedi stick for me,” he says, referring to a game which involves balancing four people on two crossed logs and swatting at a ball with a stick.
Later they will learn to carve a fire-starting set, which involves a bow-drill ball and socket mechanism for creating heat through friction.
When asked what he likes best about Sassafras, Ethan says, “It’s really fun and I love being able to climb trees. Being in nature is great, and this place is so beautiful.”
The older students begin work on a more ambitious fire, this one using beech leaves as the substrate. Sadly, the program only lasts three hours, so they are unable to see their work burst into flames. There never seems to be enough time.
Though the session ends in a few weeks, the students will have the whole winter to perfect their fire-building skills, and for those who want to brave the cold (and learn new ways to avoid it) a new session will start in January
Sassafras Earth Education Program will open for a Family Day on Saturday, Nov. 22, from 1 to 4 p.m. The public is welcome to come and participate in activities at 5 Church street in Aquinnah. For more information, e-mail Saskia Vanderhoop at email@example.com.