Moving Forward, Looking Back / A wild calling in Fairfield to find their own Walden Ponds
Last summer, I received an email from Dave Nulf, an English teacher at Fairfield Ludlowe High School. He explained that he teaches a senior course called "Call of the Wild." In gearing up for the coming school year, he came across my series of "Open Spaces" columns that ran in the Citizen in 2011, and wondered if I had any thoughts on helping students with a new approach he was going to try.
The course, he went on, focuses on the relationship between people and the natural world. This year, inspired by a summer teacher institute at Walden Woods, he would ask his students to develop a close relationship with a local open space. During multiple visits, they would collect observations and reactions in a field journal. They would research its ecology, geology, and human history. They would read classic and contemporary nature writing -- from Thoreau to Annie Dillard -- and advance their thinking through writing exercises and class discussion. They would ultimately produce an informational pamphlet about their adopted open space, including maps and visuals. They would describe becoming part of a natural place, and why other people should visit.
"Call of the Wild" is a writing class, but its underlying premise is that through writing, students can learn the value of finding their own Walden in Fairfield. And in so doing, they can develop a stronger appreciation of nature and "sense of place" about the remarkable town in which they are growing up.
Mr. Nulf's email, and conversations that followed, revealed a connection that I should not have overlooked between "Call of the Wild" and those columns of mine. "Call of the Wild" is one of those rare high-school courses that achieve notoriety beyond the walls of the school. Bob Gillette, the legendary teacher who created it in the 1970s, passed the torch to Dave Nulf and his Fairfield Warde counterpart Rich Novak, when he retired in the late 1990s. Our son Dan reminded me that he took "Call of the Wild" with Mr. Gillette in 1995-96.
How could I help Mr. Nulf, who was about to break new ground with this legacy course? I told him about Frank Rice's guidebook, "Walking Through Fairfield's Open Spaces," available through the Conservation Commission, and about the Fairfield Museum and History Center, a great resource for researching the history of the open spaces. He was happy to hear about them, but he had other plans for me. Would I like to join him on a backpacking trip in northwest Connecticut that he does with students each year? Would I like to meet with his "Call of the Wild" classes?
I was "all in" for the backpacking, but while I agreed to meet with his students, I worried privately about what that experience would be like for me -- let alone the kids! I hadn't been in a high school classroom since, well, high school. Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy derailed the backpacking trip, and by the time it was rescheduled, I couldn't make it. But last week, I had my close encounter with about 40 high school seniors.
I signed in at the main office and went down to Mr. Nulf's classroom. We had laid out a general outline for "my" class, but we both knew that even the best lesson plan can go out the window with the first question.
The bell for the class change went off, and I stood to the side as the 8:40 a.m. class filed in and students found their seats, arranged in a semicircle. Mr. Nulf insists that all students drop their mobile phones into a plastic bucket at the front of the room, so after I was introduced, I figured I'd better do the same.
I told them how lucky they were to have a class like "Call of the Wild," and I talked about writing the "Open Spaces" columns. Then the questions began to fly. "What was my favorite open space?" "What did I like about it?" "What did I do there?" I said I liked birding. "What birds did you see? What was the rarest?"
I asked them about the open spaces they were visiting. We talked about how Lake Mohegan and Perry's Mill Ponds are not natural, but were created by excavating the Mill River for gravel. We talked about the tidal marshes at Pine Creek Open Space, only a remnant of the marshland that was here only a century ago. We talked about why stone walls could be found in the deep woods.
Forty-two minutes can go by pretty quickly. I reclaimed my cellphone and walked out amid a sea of teenagers, and returned for the 11:57 a.m. section. I always had great respect for teachers, but it goes double now. It turned out to be great fun, but it's a good thing I didn't have to compete with text messages.
Two generations of Fairfielders, and perhaps three, have been touched by "Call of the Wild," either as a parent or a student. I'd like to think that somehow, while I was writing those columns, I was channeling "Call of the Wild." Frankly, if I had Dave Nulf's course outline, I might have done a better job.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.