Patrick McMahon learned mindful walking with Thich Nhat Hanh, and practices “Mountains and Waters” meditation backpacking with the Ring of Bone Zendo. He is a member of the Educators’ Sangha, seeking to be and teach peace in the schools.
The series of “Neighborhood Nature Walks” I conducted with my fifth-grade class this past autumn started with my own lunchtime ambles. The previous year, my first at Beverly Hills (not Hollywood—South Vallejo) I’d stayed mostly on campus. Usually, wherever I find myself teaching, I manage to scout out a nearby park, grove of trees, pond or stream, where I can shake the chalk dust out of my cuffs, and where the all-too-human environment of the classroom can shrink back into perspective. But here I felt out of my element, a white teacher walking the depressed and depressing neighborhoods of my Black, Hispanic and Polynesian students. Post-WWII stucco houses peeling paint, junked cars collapsed on dead lawns, broken wine bottles in empty lots—I clung to school as a sanctuary. But as the year wore on, and I shuttled day after day between classroom and the teachers’ lounge, I could feel the dust accumulating.
Then one breezy February day the outside world summoned and at lunch break I struck out into the wasteland. Just around the corner I came upon a gloriously unpruned old plum tree, profusely blossoming. I returned that afternoon a little pinker. Next day I was back, and the next, until all the blossoms had blown away and the old plum was glossy with new leaves. By that time I had overcome my initial prejudices, and the neighborhood opened its treasure chest—a crumbling retaining wall, crevices busy with spiders; a family of sun-lounging cats; cornflowers turning blue against a chain link fence; bees swarming in a hollow tree. When I found a park within walking distance, I began taking my lunch there in company with three Monterey pines.
Earth Day was coming up about this time, and a young environmental education teacher was piloting suitable lessons in my class. Sincere as he was, for some reason the material just didn’t go over. My students couldn’t care less about the rainforests, and recycling was for them just a scam for making candy money. After several agonizing weeks I intervened to suggest that the visiting teacher allow the kids to speak frankly. It quickly became clear that their pressing issues were social, not environmental: drug dealers, gangs, guns and an often tumultuous homelife. Even if their personal well-being were not at risk, as burgeoning adolescents they had other concerns. As Rodney said, “I care about the environment, but I’ve got better things to do than worry about it.” Was the environmental movement, indeed, as I’d suspected, the province of the educated, white, adult middle class?
In spite of my questioning, I was infected by the young teacher’s mission, and when he moved on I reviewed the materials he left behind. Much of it required access to wilderness or semi-wilderness. I schemed about how to get us to the Marin Headlands or Mt. Tamalpais, but in the end realized I was missing the point: Our wilderness was just outside the door. I would simply take my class along on my noon outings!
The following September I initiated these walks. Most Fridays, from the equinox, as it happened, to the solstice, we spent lunchtime exploring the nooks of our neighborhood. The following entries were selected from my journal of the time.
Still not ready to take kids off the grounds. Why am I so uneasy? Is it the wildness that comes up in them outside the fence? So went out to the playing field instead. Distributed Hula-Hoops and installed a pair of students in each, with instructions to take note of what was within those limits. “Bor-r-r-ing.” But when they stopped hooping and attended, the turf came alive. Jessie and Kevin zeroed in on a column of ants and followed them to the entrance of the colony. “They’re carrying eggs!” Jajaira and Estella found the remains of a butterfly. (“How did it die, Mr. McMahon?” How, indeed, do butterflies die?) Rodney, always the fisherman, grubbed up some earthworms. He’s going to start a worm ranch back in the room. Anthony found a nickel. Cesar and James got a lot of mileage out of some lime-white dog turds.
We’re getting over our initial uneasiness at being on the street as a class. It’s sad that the kids feel so out of place. The neighbors look at us suspiciously—Why aren’t you in school, learning? Children are institutionalized away from their community, as surely as criminals.
In the past few weeks, we’ve just been walking around the block but today we ventured down the street that dead-ends on a pasture. I’m always surprised afresh to come upon this leftover rural patch. Curious about the noise, a pair of horses ambled over. What a panic! A few of our bravest touched their steamy noses. Warm animal breath. Barely managed to get us turned around for school. How we crave that contact with our nonhuman brothers and sisters. On our return I read to them D.H. Lawrence’s “The White Horse”:
The youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on,
And the horse looks at him in silence.
They are so silent, they are in another world.
Assignment today was to collect things autumnal. I expected leaves, and wasn’t prepared for the inventiveness of their gathering instincts. Rock wanted to pull up a six-foot-high fennel, roots and all. The lunch bags we brought weren’t nearly adequate. Back in the room, I had them do drawings. Some dashed them off, not seeing beyond the letter; but some, like Lisa, really let herself enter the spirit of her object. All afternoon she traced the bumps, cracks and lichens of her stone. Unique attached this note to her drawing:
On the nature walk I seen lots of things. I seen a funny looking leaf. It was pink and green. When it seen me it ran away. I ran after it, then I got it. We went back to the class. Then I traced over it and colored it pink and green.
She and the leaf came alive together.
None of them want to part with their treasures of last Friday. In our crowded room, I’ve given over a whole counter to display. What had been taken for granted is now charged with attention and imagination. Today they wrote from the point of view of their object.
One day I was laying on the ground when this big old black kid picked me up and put me in his pocket and said, I got something. Then he closed his pocket. It was hot in that pocket. I started swelling.
So the raging hormones of this age attach to whatever’s at hand. I’d prefer that what’s at hand is a leaf, rather than a video-game joystick.
When I stroll around in the city,
I vow with all beings,
To notice how lichen and grasses
Never give up in despair.
I need Aitken Roshi’s courageous gatha today. Nothing dispirits me more than seeing the deep-seated fear these kids have of the natural world.
There was a great hubbub today toward the back of the line. When I doubled back, I found several of the boys stomping on a family of beetles, the girls shrieking in mock terror. What can I say to turn their heads around? It’s not just that they’re snuffing out life, it’s that they’re snuffing out what I think they also sense as their own bugness. They are so vulnerable to being stomped on by an adult foot, parent’s or teacher’s.
A little later we came upon a dead cat on the street. Their response? Stone it. Are they trying to cast away the fear they carry inside themselves? It would be a worthwhile experiment to bring it back to the classroom and observe it through all the stages of putrefaction, as in the Therevadan corpse meditation.
I’ve always wanted to take the kids all the way to the park, but I didn’t believe they could make it. But the autumn wind blew us along like leaves today, and before we knew to complain, we were there. I felt curiously protective, as though I were exposing something to violation. This is, in Native American terms, my Secret Place. I should know by now that a teacher’s secrets are all eventually revealed.
It was enough to let them play on the swings before heading back. Next week will lead them in one more small step to the world of my three pines.
Took our mindfulness bell with us to the park today. This is the first time I’ve sounded it outdoors; it carries well. The awareness we’ve cultivated with it stood us in good stead. After letting the kids disperse into groups, rang it once to signal our customary “three breaths;” a second to attend to the earth under us; a third, the sky; and a fourth, again three breaths. Some eyes opened.
I saw a bird building a nest. It was in the tree. It was working very quietly. It was getting sticks and putting them neatly. It was the first time I’ve seen a bird making a nest.
So meditation must have had its beginnings, in silence watching a bird make its nest.
Cesar stayed conscientiously with the format of earth and sky, then let his imagination fly:
I saw all the birds flying south for the winter. I saw frost on the ground, and I saw the sun and the blue sky. I would like to go down the Kiddie Walk and find some things, like trees, birds, and wild animals like a bear.
Time to read them The Ohlone Way with the passages about grizzly bears wandering this area just two hundred years ago.
Assignment today was “Signs of Winter.”
I seen a couple of winter signs like birds flying south, dead baby bugs in the grass, leaves falling off the trees, flowers dying, all kinds of things. But most of all is that the people who planted the flowers can grow some more, and the birds can come back, and the bugs can grow, and the grass can too. And the leaves.
An unusual grasp of the larger picture, for a nine-year-old.
Shortest day of the year, still dark coming to school. And bitterly cold—the North Bay winds cut through my jacket as I stood yard duty, watching students arrive in huddles. Been planning a solstice walk to cap off our autumn ambles, but, once in the cozy cave of the classroom, kids couldn’t be coaxed out. Neighborhood walks ended for the year as they’d begun—with me on my own.
Paid a visit to the plum tree that had kept me coming back day after day last February. Wished the students could see those bare old branches, miraculously to blossom in another couple of months. Passed the tumbledown retaining wall, spider webs empty. Had lunch under the pines, watched a V of wild geese cross the gray sky. So where, I reflect over my sandwich, have we gotten over the last months? No further than around the block. No expansive views like those we could have had from Mount Tam. And yet, we do know these streets now, fennel and corn flowers growing up around the junk cars, broken glass sparkling in the rough lots, beetles on the sidewalk and dead cats in the road, sky shifting overhead, earth rolling below. This environment is ours, welcomes us home as we attend to it in silent observation or active drawing, writing, discussing.
I unfolded my stiff legs and headed back to school. All I can say for sure, I realized, is that they’ve taken a few steps into the environment and perhaps into themselves. If environmental education is to make any headway with these kids, it will be by way of these small steps. I recall Aitken Roshi’s gatha about the perseverance of lichens and grasses, and by the time I return to the warm classroom, I have this gift of the wind.
As I walk around the block
I vow with all my neighbors
To discover the Secret Place
Among wine bottles and wild geese.