There were happy children in our wood last week – twenty eight of them – and they were smiling despite the damp. A school group, coming to learn about temperate rainforest. The oldest child was nine years old, the youngest, six. I was so excited that they were there. But I’d not factored into my thinking the adults that were bringing the children, Mums and Dads all giving up their time to transport and accompany groups round the trails. As small clusters of people walked up the track I recognised parents that I often pass on the school route but don’t know well; I began to feel shy and nervous. I’d spent the previous day putting up information posts, marking trails, signing parking places, imagining the children having fun, but now the reality was here. The tightness expanded in my chest. It had been such a long time since I’d done anything vaguely like this. What if I couldn’t remember what I needed to say? What if the children were bored? Did I still have it in me? Everything else in my life is in turmoil at the moment, could I still do this?
The children sat themselves down on logs arranged in semi-circles beneath a canopy, and waited patiently… I could hear my voice falter as I welcomed them to the wood, then someone put up their hand.
There were harvestmen and woodlice, worms and ladybirds in the leaf litter. We looked at them and the children cared; they were interested. Gradually I forgot the adults watching from behind, I was pulled in by the children’s questions. I found encouragement in the concentration on the children’s faces as I talked with them about what they knew of rainforests and the plants and animals that lived there. We talked about our woodland and why it was special. The children split into groups to follow the trails. We looked at the layers of our woodland, the emergent ash over the canopy oak, the understory that includes the rare Lancastrian whitebeam, the woodland floor, the climbers and the epiphytic ferns. We looked at the life that Celtic rainforests are so important for – the lichens, the liverworts and the mosses – and we looked at fun facts about the wood. Did you know that in mediaeval times, eating dog lichen was a remedy for a dog bite? Or that harts-tongue fern is so called because it is the shape of the tongue of a deer? Or that ash is a member of the olive family, the only member of the olive family native to Britain? I learned all these things when researching the trails.
The children came together again for snacks and we examined antlers, badger skulls, oak apples and hair from red deer. We looked at slugs and millipedes, spiders and fungi. I had planned more, but there simply wasn’t time. We had come to the end of the children’s visit to the wood, it was time to go back to school. Suddenly they were gone – I was left in the silence to clear up. Pressures of life flooded back in and I collected up signs and markers to the thud of an anxious heart, blood pounding in my head.
The next day, at school, people stopped me to say their children had enjoyed the day and told me what the children had learned. The children shouted to me they’d had a great time, that the wood was a brilliant place. Some had written me thank-you letters, the teacher kindly gave me chocolate.
I realise that somewhere I have to find an understanding within myself that the trip was a success, that it was not something that just happened, that I gave my best and perhaps made a difference. It is just a tiny step, a chink of light, but again it is the wood, it is nature, it is the natural world that gives and makes this possible. I hope by sharing the gift of nature with the children last week they have taken away a positive memory. I hope that it will contribute in a small way to their recognition that the natural world is worth conserving. If I have achieved that, I have something to hold on to.