Naturally, I was interested when I got the news that my daughter’s 7th grade class was going on a field trip. Not to a museum, this time. Or to a national monument, or a place where nature’s creatures are partitioned into cages and fed by humans. This was to be a true field trip into the the wild nature surrounding Richmond where creatures only eat if they feed themselves. I imagine the original “field trips” were of this ilk. They were trips away from the schoolhouses and the population centers and into places where children observe the land or refresh themselves in places where water gathers after pouring from the sky. Places where we remember our deepest roots as living organisms, and we read from the green and wet pages of the original text.
Kyle Burnette and Georgia Busch, educators for the James River Association, met our group of teenagers and chaperones at the Deep Bottom Boat Landing 28 or so river miles east of Richmond on the northern bank of the James. They were to be our guides for a canoe paddle through the mouth and into the throat of Four-Mile creek.
Before launching, Kyle gathered us into a circle to make sure we were all facing each other. He had us each introduce ourselves and mention one original expectation for today’s adventure. I might have been mentally prepared at this point to criticize the pre-packaged learning experience. I was mildly skeptical. But then it was Kyle’s turn to speak. He said that he was especially interested in this day because most of the educational trips he runs launch in the morning. He was interested because today’s afternoon paddle offered him the chance of a fresh perspective. Anyway, he reminded us, it is commonly said that a person can never step into the same river twice.
It was in this manner that Kyle first found my ear. I can only respect a man who recognizes and appreciates the subtle but significant differences that are often the only distinctions between today’s experience and the experience of the day before.
Georgia paddled the lead boat, but I had not learned to appreciate her yet. She hadn’t spoken much, and when she had it was mostly with the intent of young person crowd control. The kids had just finished their last exam, and the intoxicating brightness of summer vacation shined full in their faces. Georgia seemed to recognize that for this trip to become a positive learning experience law and order must be maintained. Using her experience and training, she kept us in ranks and on task as we offloaded the canoes from the trailer and launched ourselves onto the glimmering surface of the James. I would have never guessed at this point that just beneath the outer shell of educator and tactician was poised an unruly and playful child just waiting her turn.
A few hundred yards into the creek Georgia instructed us to “gunnel up,” which is the boater’s equivalent of “huddle up” or “cuddle up.” Our canoes were gathered to become a strange floating barge fastened together by human hands. Kyle stood up to speak. He taught us wonderful facts about the river, its history, and its connection to our lives. There were mumbles and giggles at times from the young floating congregation, but after telling us about the small, yellow Caribbean migrant known as the Yellow Warbler, Kyle called for a 15 second moment of silence that was properly honored. While the dense noise of 7th grade socialization has its own experiential merit, this here was an old-fashioned field trip, and Kyle silenced us to hear the healthy sounds of feathered life. He knew the sound of the Yellow Warbler by its four high-pitched chirps. “There! That’s the warbler!” he exclaimed, teaching our ears to recognize the shrill signature of this migratory bird’s existence. This Kyle was really growing on me.
He sat meekly in the “Princess” seat of a 3 person canoe, and I saw little of him except when he stood up in his canoe like a preacher to share with his small flock the facts of the creation. Kyle is a “fact-preacher” to be sure. I heard little of politics or religion in his voice. Only “creation-lover,” “Yellow Warbler-lover,” etc.
The tide was dropping steadily, and we followed the creek to where it narrowed to allow only single file canoe passage, and the boats floated inches from the bottom. We gunneled up, and Kyle stood one more time to caution us that the river and its tributaries are not as healthy as they might be, but since people began taking an active interest in their welfare in the 70’s, they are much healthier than they were and otherwise might still be.
Some of the boys were still goofing off a bit, but I could tell they were more engaged than they probably are on field trips to indoor spaces. They were enjoying what all the children would later acknowledge as their “best field trip ever!” Even the class clowns answered questions and helped to hypothesize the future of the river. This natural museum captured their interest in a way that a Van Gogh or a Matise never will.
Georgia watched silently as Kyle showed us how to sample the oxygen content of the water. He made a strong argument for the importance of oxygenated water for subsurface life of many varieties. After displaying the respectable oxygen-content result presently obtained, he shared his optimism that people who care for the river really can make a difference. Even little people like us, if we care, can nurture a healthy river. He encouraged us to dip our heads in the water, and showed us how to do it, and how good the water felt on a hot day under the sun. The lesson had become interactive, and our relationship with the river and its tributary more intimate.
Georgia led us back down the Four-Mile creek towards its meeting with James, but before we reached the end of our field trip she called us to gunnel up one more time against the bank of a wetland. For the first time, at least in any measurable or preacher-like fashion, Georgia took to the pulpit. She explained how this mushy place can absorb the energy of hurricanes, how it provides abundant habitat and relatively safe harbor for the small producers of the food chain, and how it filters the water flowing into the James. Thick, nutrient rich muck. “Pick some up,” she said. The boys had only been waiting for an excuse to dig in, but the young ladies were more hesitant.
Georgia said the marsh mud was a great skin rejuvenator. “Here,” she said, pointing to a place on her chin. “I have a blemish right here.” She picked up a handful of brown slime from the base of the creek and rubbed it first on the blemish, and then smeared it over the rest of her face. Now she had the attention of the young girls, and the entire group of children squeezed the mush through their fingers and smeared it on their faces. “Go ahead! Play in it!” said mud-faced Georgia, and the children did. They bailed out of the canoes and an epic mud fight ensued, where one might only recognize his own child if he has a good knowledge of the structure and appearance of her teeth. All of the rest was muddied out. All blemishes, all fashion, all reservations, all muddied out. Then, especially then, the beginning of a healthy, intimate relationship with earth. The greatest reason of all to protect the wetlands, culminated the sermon on the creek — “fun!”
Kyle and Georgia gathered us into a circle when our feet were set firmly again on the solid bank of Deep Bottom Boat Landing. We were told to each sum up our experience in one word, and everyone must use a new word. “Awesome!” “So Cool!” “Amazing” from the kids. “Blessed,” “Peaceful,” “Grateful,” from the adults.
Though nobody signed anything or made public professions of faith, I am sure that converts were quietly enlisted. Small, deeply-centered professions of faith were being made in the 7th grade hearts. Not faith in religion, or faith in government, but a simple faith in the pure goodness of the creation. A faith that can save mountains if not move them. A faith that can save rivers.