WAKE COUNTY - In the middle of a forest on a 30-acre nature preserve on the outskirts of Raleigh, there are students walking around wearing blindfolds. The blindfolded students walk tentatively, arms outstretched. They are nervously laughing, as opposed to the guides behind them who are laughing loudly, in between giving directions.
All the laughing ends, however, when they come face to face with a tree. The blindfolded students touch, examine, and study the tree. Is the bark smooth or rough? Are any new branches starting? It is a pretty thorough examination because the students will be asked to find their tree in this small section of woods once the blindfolds are removed.
If it sounds difficult, it is.
However, the idea behind the “Meet a Tree Blindfolded Walk” is not whether a student correctly finds the tree for which they were searching. The main idea is to get students to experience nature in a new way. This is nature up close and experienced using other senses, beyond sight. After all, we know what tree bark feels like. Or do we? Several students were surprised to discover the bark of the oak tree is actually rather smooth.
“Our goal is to be able to get children and adults to participate in nature, by taking part in restoration ecology projects, and reflection and journaling,” says the late Ross Andrews, one of the founders of the Center for Human-Earth Restoration (CHER). “We like to think we put the heart of the experience of being in nature back into environmental education." Andrews passed away after he was interviewed for this story. His love for nature is carried on in CHER.
Andrews, and the other staff members at CHER, a Raleigh-based non-profit, passionately believe that in this busy, run around world, adults and young people must learn to slow down and take the time to get out into nature. After all, the thinking goes, how can students learn about the earth sciences, or become interested in earth science careers, if they've never been exposed to a forest or a stream? The same is true for adults. How can an adult learn to better protect the earth if they have never interacted with it? CHER’s education programs follow that philosophy.
All of us have been outside: whether it’s in the park, the playground or in a field. But not as many people have really been in the outdoors, such as hiking or camping in the forest or canoeing on a river with nothing else around.
“I think it’s an innate thing all humans have but we have to remind ourselves there’s a great peace in nature and we can find comfort there,” Andrews said. “With some of our kids the first day of nature camp can be a shock, with bugs all around and a cricket on the skin can really scare some kids, but once they get past that, there’s an innate feeling of comfort and joy that comes out.”
The experiences for students on this day are wide ranging — eating peach cobbler cooked over an open fire, listening to a falconer explain his sport and seeing the majestic bird up close, and daily journaling about the experiences.
Ross Andrews, a restoration ecology expert, and Randy Senzig, a North Carolina Environmental Educator of the year in 2007, started CHER as a way to introduce a new style of environmental education that connects people to the planet. It is through that connection that lessons in earth science, ecology and environmental science are taught.
The classrooms are the lands protected by the Triangle Land Conservancy. This class is meeting at Temple Flat Rock, a rare outcropping of 400-million-year-old granite in the middle of Wake County.
“I hope they would find these environments inviting,” says Leigh Ann Hammerbacher, who was with the Triangle Land Conservancy. She’s now a water conservationist with the City of Raleigh. “We are standing on rock but this land is very sensitive because there are a lot of ferns, mosses, and even cactus growing in the nooks and crannies of the flat rock.”
The group is working with the YMCA of Wake County as well as Wake County Schools to offer their programs, which range from summer camps to track-out camps, teacher workshops and adult study groups. The students who participated in the tree exercise were from the Kerr Family YMCA in Wake Forest.
“I used to be scared of bugs and other stuff in the woods,” said 13-year old Tranae Freeman. “Now I like it and I even want to get closer to see the bug or the animal better.”
“There’s no way you could get me in the woods before I did this — monsters and wolves and bugs and snakes,” exclaimed Elijah Dagner, who is 11. “Now I think it’s kind of peaceful. It makes me happy.”
Anthony Kardison with the YMCA confirms the children’s stories and the theory behind the CHER’s nature education program. The time spent reconnecting with the earth in the forest has a transformative effect.
“They get a deeper appreciation of what nature is and how we are an active part of that and taking care of that, and learning more about it so we can take care of it so the next generation can be appreciative of it as well,” adds Kardison. “And we’ve seen that through the week, from Monday when 90% were deathly afraid of all the bugs and now they are comfortable, and enjoying it and they’ve learned a lot through the week.”