I just spent four days at a sort of summer camp with twenty-three school kids and two colleagues. Although this is a yearly event in our school, it was my first time going along. They needed me because the group size had grown too large for one house and two teachers. I had no idea what to expect I only knew we would sort of take things as they came. My only tasks beforehand were to go shopping for a crateful of the least offensive snack foods I could find and to bring art supplies for this year’s craft project: carving and painting hiking sticks.
Monday morning the kids piled excitedly into the bus, ignoring the smiles and waves of their giddy parents who were obviously looking forward to the next four quiet evenings back home. Those parents, still smiling, wished me and my colleagues a nice vacation and we pretended not to hear them. And so began the first of four consecutive 24-hour work days.
The first half of the bus ride was surprisingly quiet, but after the rest stop where the kids had their first chance to shop, the volume in the bus rose in direct proportion to their blood-sugar levels. By the time we arrived at the camp, they were primed for the Battle of the Room Assignments. They needed almost half an hour to get themselves into groups of three or four and another half hour to state their cases for why they should have the rooms with balconies or not be relegated to the second ”Witch House”. They finally all agreed to let chance decide and each group pulled their room assignment out of a hat. There were some cheers and some tears, bags were thrown onto beds and we were all off to a late lunch in the dining hall. Swimming, exploring, and playing games filled the rest of the day. Bedtime ruckus was graciously short-lived.
Day Two went similarly to the first afternoon, with the addition of the arts and crafts project. When the kids had been told about it earlier, more than half had said they wanted to join in. When the time came to get started, only one boy showed up. But in our school, that is all you need. I showed him how to whittle the bark off and suggested some patterns and shapes he could try to carve in. We sat there with our sticks and knives, carving away, and two more kids came over to see what we were up to.
“Can I make one too?”
“Of, course! Go pick out a stick from the pile over there.”
This pattern continued as kid after kid joined in and pretty soon, about half of them were in on the project. All I had to do was get them started; from then on they could work on their sticks whenever they wanted. Those who weren’t interested were busy making bracelets, playing badminton or volleyball or board games. My colleagues joined in here or there, sometimes they just sunned themselves or watched the kids with smiles on their faces. There were no arguments or spats or tussles. The kids were grouped in ways I had never seen them before: older kids played with the younger ones, girls played with boys, usually sedentary kids were doing sports and the more hyperactive ones were sitting quietly with their complete attention focused on the stick in front of them . . . The whole scene was almost idyllic.
Day Three was my favorite, though. At breakfast, my colleague, Mark, announced that he wanted to do Land Art with the kids, something I had heard about but had never seen before. I asked him what I should do and was told to just improvise. He then traipsed off with his roll of red plastic ribbon.
When the kids and I got back to the main house, we saw that three large areas around it had been sectioned off with the red ribbon. One was the big grassy lawn in front of the house. The second was a wet and woody area between the house and the lake. The third was a section of the forest behind the house.
We gathered the kids and Mark told them that they would be randomly divided into three groups: the Prairie Tribe, the Swamp Tribe, and the Forest Tribe. He pointed out the lands of each tribe and said, “As soon as you know which tribe you are in, you should go to your lands, meet up and decide together on your gathering place. Then you go out and explore your lands. You should gather the bounty of nature you find there and bring it back to your gathering place. Some of it you will keep and use to create a work of art - a way of thanking nature for what it has given you. The rest of it you can bring to the trading post.”
”What is a trading post?” the kids asked.
”That is a place where the different tribes come together to trade. The other tribes can get things from your lands that they don’t have and you can get things from them that you don’t have. And when you are done, you can go back and finish your artwork with the new things you traded for.”
The kids then pulled slips of paper from a bag to see which tribe they were in and they were off.
Fifteen minutes later, the Swamp Tribe - who had renamed themselves the ”Swamp Gekkies” got into a border skirmish with the Forest Gekkies about who was allowed to gather in a disputed region along the red ribbon. Meanwhile, the Prairie Tribe was complaining about there being nothing there until they started noticing the many different tiny flowers scattered around the lawn. The planned artwork suddenly took a different form in their minds. Two of the boys proclaimed they had no interest in flower arrangements. One of them left and established his own Tribe of One. The Last Moritzcan. The other boy was threatened that if he made any more trouble, they would trade him at the trading post. He said that was fine with him.
Meanwhile, the plants and flowers and branches and interestingly shaped pieces of bark and pine cones and rocks and moss and feathers started piling up at the three gathering places.
After a half hour or so, we called the Tribes to the Trading Post and they came setting up their wares to trade as enticingly as they could. Then the bartering started. I was amazed at how seriously they went at it.
“I’m sorry, but this pine cone is worth more than that swamp reed!”
“Well, what do you want for it?”
“At least three reeds.”
“Well give you two.”
Of course the most intense negotiation was over the exiled Prairie Tribe member who was on display along with the rest of their wares. The Swamp Gekkies and the Forest Gekkies had their second hot dispute, but the Forest Gekkies eventually won with their cool shaped piece of flat wood with a hole exactly in the center. The perfect vessel for flower arrangers. The Prairie Tribe delighted in their trade as their former tribe member traipsed off to become a part of the Forest Gekkies’ artwork.
They went about constructing their works of art with a passion, completely okay with the fact that they were absolutely temporary. They were tributes to Nature and Nature would take them back. The sun would dry them out. The wind would blow them over. The rain would wash them away. Only the ex-Prairie Tribe member would be spared. After 15 minutes or so of playing along, he was forgiven and set free.