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The Gift of the Woodlot

Ohio naturalist and wildlife artist, Julie Zickefoose has a story about a trip she took into the woods not far from here - with a group of schoolkids. I met a teacher not long ago, the kind of teacher whose students never forget her. Her name was Mrs. Newman, and she knows when to say yes (which is most of the time), and she knows when to say no.

Mrs. Newman teaches science in a large regional middle school near Cincinnati, Ohio. It's an old, low-slung yellow block building, redolent of disinfectant, lunch and kids. Behind the school, on its property, is a big stand of oak and hickory trees, tall and straight and over 100 years old. Mrs. Newman and her students made a nature trail through it, and an outdoor classroom of rough-hewn benches. Only a few hundred yards from the bustling school, the silence and peace, the earthy smells and sibilant sounds of the forest sift down like snow. For decades, the forest had quietly served the school's science classes, hikers and seekers, until hard times and the timber's obvious value inevitably combined to bring it on the sales block. The old oaks were marked for cutting with spray paint and slashes; the bulldozers lined up. And Mrs. Newman said NO, and then she yelled it, and a lot of other people yelled with her, and the trees still stand.

I came to the school to speak, to meet the students and walk in their woods with them. We moved through the forest in jubilant groups of 25, and, because the wildlife could hear us coming and retreat accordingly, I had to come up with other things to discover. And so I asked the fifth-graders to look at the woods as a chickadee might, to spot all the hanging clusters of dead leaves, to pry them open and look for delicious spiders, caterpillars or egg sacs. Calls of "I found one!" rang through the woods. And then a girl named Caitlin called, "I found a BAT!"

Everyone clustered around Caitlin and her find. It was medium-sized, as bats go, and it was hanging head-down from an orange sugar maple leaf. It was the size and color of a cinnamon bun. A cream-colored racing stripe ran up its side. Its ears, huge and spoon-shaped, swiveled behind bright black eyes in a snub-nosed pink face. It was a red bat, resting from its southbound migratory flight, and it was a good ways beyond adorable.

One by one, I called the students up to see it, to look into its face, especially the ones who shrank back, and it was impossible to be afraid of this soft-furred elfin creature, hanging there like an animated ornament. One girl named Bridget looked into the bat's face and couldn't look away; minutes passed and still she gazed and smiled. I knew a girl like that once.

Teachers probably never get used to seeing a life change right in front of them; it's what keeps them working, knowing that, through the noise and fuss and rules and reports, opening the world to children is so worth doing. I watched Bridget watch the bat, her silky brown hair catching the yellow light from the woods, and when she could finally turn away we walked back to the school and gathered up two more groups of kids and a group of teachers and went right back to introduce them to this tiny gift from Mrs. Newman's woods.

I have seen some nice piles of oak lumber, but I have yet to see one that could send a hundred people hurrying out to share a moment with it, that could hold a child in thrall, and set an entire school abuzz with mystery, magic and delight.

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