The Lewis & Clark National Historical Park holds an annual nature-writing contest for high school students. This year organizer Will George asked me to judge the contest, and I said yes.
The contestants were asked to write a 500-word nonfiction essay under the theme “Tales From The Trail.” My job was to rank the top 10 essays and pick a winner.
I remember reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as a junior in high school and being absolutely enthralled. The next great nature writing I remember reading was Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Then there was Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire … Picking favorites can be hard.
But here is the essay that won me over, and a picture of the ninth-grader who wrote it.
By Gabrielle Hendrickson
An intricate archway of branches frames the entryway to my forest, a place of comfort and familiarity. It is Wonderland, and I am Alice. No rays of light were able to penetrate the tightly interlocked branches, offering no warmth, no light. The silent wood was cast into eternal night.
Hush. The carpet of orange needles and twigs hardly made a sound as my quiet feet cast down upon it. The cool soil chilled my feet that were bare but did not deter me from reaching the sacred place. I remembered the way involuntarily: forty paces, turn right. Breathe. Thirty-six paces. Open your eyes, and there it was.
A large, two-story log cabin sat derelict before me, dark wood reeking of moss and rain rot. I was sure that between its wooden slats many secrets hid from its previous seekers, myself included. Directly across from it was an imposing but stalwart dead tree trunk, about ten feet tall, dwarfing me with its presence that the other nimble pines seemed to lack.
It was here that I felt secure. With the damp aroma of sap and earth invigorating my love for nature it made me feel alive, alive, alive. It held a place not quite as special as the warm and enveloping atmosphere of the stable, not the calm, but rather the fierce reality of the woods drenched in secrets and alertness. Home.
As I was reading through all the “tales from the trail” essays, I couldn’t help but notice the stories in the news about parents and students protesting Portland Public Schools’ proposal to cut funding for Outdoor School for sixth-graders.
Last year, The Portland Tribune’s Sustainable Life publication published this editorial about pending cuts to Outdoor School programs. In her commentary, Rachel Byron-Law said:
“Anyone who has lived this magic knows that it is simultaneously indescribable and invaluable. How to even come back to the cold streets of the city after a week like this? How to explain to the world back home that something has been lost in our urban society, something precious, that we have had a glimpse of something better?
… The question is not, ‘How can we cut down Outdoor School?’ The question is, ‘How do we make the rest of our world like Outdoor School?’
I think there’s a bit of wisdom there that’s unrelated to funding for Outdoor School, and I think it applies to what I found in the collection of high school nature writing I read. Each of the students seemed to find something on a trail that they were lacking in their daily lives. Freedom, security, peace and quiet, relaxation … it’s great to go and find these things in nature. But why can’t we have them with us all the time?