Throwing Out The Lesson Plan

`AUNT RADINE, why are the trees so tall?''

I looked down at the top of Jennie's head and wondered, once more, where children's questions come from. We were sitting cross-legged on my ``thinking bench,'' resting from our morning's labors. Jennie had been helping me plant pine trees among the oaks and hickories north of our rural cabin.

So far I had heard ``Why don't snakes have legs?'' (as she held up a green legless creature), and ``Why are these rocks in our way?'' (an obvious question from a child trying to plant trees on a hillside in the Ozarks). There had been several ``what's that?'' questions when she encountered beetles, spiders, lizards, caterpillars, seed pods, moss, and lichen; followed by ``why is that?'' questions about their bumpy, twisted, broken, green, yellow, or brown characteristics.

These are normal questions from any child, and good questions for an adult, too. If my own interests had not brought me to an almost constant curiosity about the world of nature at Spring Hollow, the visits of my small niece certainly would have.

Why are the trees so tall? For the moment, Jennie was distracted by the activities of a pair of squirrels playing below us in the valley, and I was released from the need to answer her question immediately. I felt proud that my niece thought I was a sure source of meaningful information about the natural world, but that pride was almost a torment when I didn't have a very wise and correct answer at the ready. Respect for the world I was defining wouldn't let me fudge.

I looked up at the trees. The forest that surrounds the ``thinking bench'' is made up of older trees, uncut for probably 50 years or more. They are crowded together, fighting for sky room, so they grow up, not out. Most of them have no branches near the ground, and Jennie had discovered some time ago that they were not good trees for climbing.

Lost in the stillness of the trees, I almost forgot about the child beside me. Forgot, at least, until she suddenly wiggled off the bench and scooted downhill toward the creek, eager to explore some movement of perhaps another ``what's this?'' in the valley. With my mind only half attentive, I watched her poke into the creek with a stick.

Why are the trees so tall? Well, I could explain the growth habits of various species, especially the sturdy oaks. ``Oaks live a long time and are very strong,'' I would say. ``They can live 500 years or more, though very few of that age remain uncut. Oak is so strong that the famous battle frigate nicknamed `Old Ironsides' during the war of 1812 was actually made from oak.''

I would speak of the importance of light in the process called photosynthesis, using sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to nourish tree growth. I could explain how most trees reach up toward the light source that activates photosynthesis, each tree fighting to be taller than its companions so that it can grab more of that all-important light.

I STOPPED rehearsing a lesson plan, remembering that my pupil was now off exploring in the valley far below me. I could see her splashing water in the small pond that had formed when a fallen tree and storm-washed rocks dammed the creek. She must be getting wet. Even though it was warm for October, water in that part of the creek comes straight from the cold spring under our hillside. I decided to go get her a dry sweatshirt and called my intentions down to the little figure in the valley.

She turned her face toward me in surprise, and I was sure that questions for Aunt Radine had been temporarily erased by her interest in whatever treasure she was finding in the pond. Tadpoles? I doubted it. Snakes? She knew enough to be cautious about unidentified snakes. Fish? Not in that pond. Why all the splashing with a stick then? I tried to think what new questions might be coming as I hurried to get a sweatshirt.

When I arrived at her side amid a slide of small rocks dislodged during my descent, she accepted the dry shirt without question and stopped splashing while she pulled it over her head. I looked into the pond. All I saw were a few floating leaves and the everpresent clumps of watercress.

I waited for a question, but Jennie said nothing. She just went back to splashing in the pond, less vigorously this time. She had evidently decided I didn't want to be wet. Drops bounced up and down and, staring, I saw that each drop contained a rainbow. Funny, I'd never noticed that before. But then, I'd never hunkered down at the edge of the pond and splashed with a stick.

The desire to analyze the `whys' of nature is certainly nothing new. Humans who lived many ages ago left evidence of their curiosity and their discoveries in solstice markers, cave drawings, and carefully arranged stones. How did they explain rainbows?

Splash, splash. Jennie's head bobbed up and down as she watched the bouncing drops and their captured light. I located a flat rock and sat down (I've never hunkered well). My thoughts began to float, unwilling to muddle over facts while I contemplated rainbows. Why? How? Did it really matter? I saw them; nothing else was important.

Jennie stopped splashing and dropped the stick. ``What are we having for lunch?'' she asked.

As we struggled back up the hill together, she stopped, puffing, and looked up at me. ``Aunt Radine!''


``I'm glad the trees are tall.''

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