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Alters and Nets: or How to Catch a Fish in the Forest, and What's To Be Done When You Do

fish found at Crystal Creek

Leading children into wildlands is fraught with mystery. The constant rhythm of forest school provides intimacy with nature, but nothing can ever be taken for granted.

The trek is never certain. Will the path be flooded? Is a storm on its way? Have fresh paw prints left a trail in the snow? Has poison ivy sprung up? Every change in weather, animal birth, and new sprout presents the forest anew to young adventurers and budding naturalists.

After slow and sweltering Midwestern days, the children raced past the playscape fence and bounded down Grass Hill into the shady wood. It was quiet as they found their way down to the creek. Skin and leaves were sticky with humid air. Heat and the hum of mosquitoes couldn't stop them. Water bottles full and wide-brimmed hats on, the children were well-prepared to spend a joyful day at the water's edge.

The smell came first. A stench really. Curiosity sped their pace as the children hastened to the bank. On the tops of rocks and across the low-lying pebbles of where the creek once was, fish lie dead. Just days before, the creek had been full of gently flowing water - perfect for skipping rocks and splashing with tall boots. Now, the water barely rose higher than their ankles.

With love, the children scooped up mud from the bottom of the creek bed. They sat at the edge and formed discs of wet earth. Gently, they plucked each body from its hot stone perch and rested it upon the soft, damp mud bed. In time, each fish, starved of oxygen in the low waters of the heat-stricken creek, had a final resting place - formed by the careful, generous hands of children.

But their hands had more to do. Not all the fish had died. Sunfish were seen darting through the shallow water.

The children set out to catch them and relocate them to a deeper portion of the creek. "Maybe Fairy Creek," a child suggested. The will of children to help beings great and small is impressively powerful. It is a gift they offer the skeptics and glass-half-empty lot. When finding an individual in need (fish or otherwise), there is no hesitation. Children act ... when given the time, space, and opportunity.

Ours is a passion driven school. All academic pursuits begin and end with the empowered wishes of children. This wish was clear: CATCH THE SURVIVING FISH.

It began with bandanas tossed into the water. It didn't work. Then string was tied to the ends of sticks. It didn't work. At last, the meticulous task of making nets from hand. Five and six and seven-year-old children spent their afternoon hours knotting string. Bit by bit, their nets were made and cast.

Then the rains came. For days, it poured from the sky - thunder clapping and lighting flashing. The creek waters rose. The fish could breathe again. Those that were honored remained on their delicately formed beds of mud. In those moments, in the sun and rain, we experienced our humanity through the deeds made for the living and the dead by young children.

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