Learning from the earth

With a guiding hand from Saskia Vanderhoop, Mackenzie Luce gets a hands-on impression of a wildflower. — File photo by Lara O'Brien

There’s an ongoing program in the heart of the woods in Aquinnah that can only be described as life-changing. I know, I’m watching one life change — slowly, like water dripping on rock, changing its shape over time. I see my daughter, Francesca, aged seven, embrace the world around her and above her and under her and in her.

Saskia. With the help of her husband, David, Saskia Vanderhoop founded Sassafras Earth Education in 2003. She is a blonde Dutch native with intense water-blue eyes; he is a member of the Wampanoag tribe. They take earth education very seriously, but in a seriously fun way.

On Thursdays after school, Ms. Vanderhoop runs a program called Girls in the Woods. On Saturdays she runs a co-ed class called Saturday Squirrels. A group of 8 to10 kids meet and explore nature all day; they walk on the silent trail, they Sherlock Holmes after animal tracks, they run their fingers through mud. They build fires of beech leaves and brush. They sit in chosen quiet spots and listen; they play in a teepee; they build fairy rings; and they observe the white flower of the wind shaker, shaking in the breeze. They hike to the sea and discover what lives in the sand. They hear the call of the golden-shafted flickers. They discuss, they observe, and they listen. Nothing that the earth has given gets by them unnoticed.

The Sassafras website declares an intention to teach nature connection, self-awareness, and a wish to build sustainable communities. Ms. Vanderhoop has become a leader of the East Coast division in the Art of Mentoring program based in Vermont. She studied with Jon Young, author of the “Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature,” and Tom Brown Jr. of the Tracker School.

When asked if Sassafras focused strictly on indigenous Native-American culture, Ms. Vanderhoop pointed out that the curriculum crosses all cultures, because all cultures at one time learned to survive by their connection to nature. By teaching our children nowadays the importance of that connection to nature, we teach self-awareness and awake in them a passion for nature and for self-learning. It is this passion that will branch out and into who they become.

“So Francesca’s not learning to be a nature guide then?” I asked.

“No, she may become, a musician, a teacher, a doctor,” Ms. Vanderhoop responded with a laugh. “But whatever she becomes, she will know what she wants and she will be passionate about it, and about the world around her.”

From an outsider’s perspective, it might all seem a little trivial, but it goes quite deep. Recently, Francesca was invited to an all-girl outing off-Island with her cousins. There would be dresses, manicures, very expensive cake, and lots and lots of consumerism. “We’ll leave on the 9:30 am ferry to be there for 11,” I told her.

I expected at least a hug, a shriek, a cry of joy, and was slightly taken aback when her head drooped and a tear trickled. “But I’ll miss Sassafras!” she said.

She didn’t.

Talking “more scientific,” as she describes it, Francesca now talks in terms of scat and last meals, and her yucky-pooh-pooh days are over. Sometimes I wake to the sound of a bird off-key and realize she’s imitating a whistle while getting ready for school.

She has brought her joy in nature home to us, in the most colorful way: with bird feeders and houses that now litter our garden. At breakfast we sometimes stop in the midst of our chaotic mornings and look and listen to these new feathered-friends. Cardinals, blue jays, and happy chickadees have entered our lives, not to mention a regular woodpecker that seems to work from 6 to 8 am on weekends. We recently caught the woodpecker pulling and destroying a sparrow’s house on a tree in the garden. I was sure she would be upset about this, but she watched calmly as he pulled the finely crafted nest from the box. With an air of nonchalance, she declared, “Thus, is the life of birds, Momma!”

Nowadays, thanks to Sassafras, Francesca reads books while curled up in the sunlight, goes online to research an animal or bird — out of interest, not because anyone told her she must. When I see her enthusiasm and love of life, I might say there is a spiritual quality to what is being taught at Sassafras, embracing what sustains us, using simple gentle words like gratitude, and seeking silence — all in a very busy world.

Ms. Vanderhoop on June 10 leaves for two weeks in Haiti where, as part of the Green Haiti project, she will co-lead a workshop on reforestation, organic gardening, and trauma relief for teenagers in Legoane.

For details of the school-year camps and upcoming Sassafras summer camps, or if you would like to sponsor for Sassafras scholarship or donate to the Haiti project, please contact Saskia Vanderhoop at 508-645-2008 or saskiav@mac.com. Or refer to the website: www.sassafrasmvy.org.