One Monday morning at Wicklow Democratic School, a number of students knelt around a fire pit in the schoolyard. It was time for morning activities with Home Groups, and this group decided to use the time to build a fire. They took turns lighting wool and thin sticks with steel and flint, and then, when that small pile ignited, they began to create a waffle pattern with thicker sticks, overlapping layers to build a bigger fire.
“You have to treat a fire like a baby,” Marc, a fellow facilitator at Wicklow Democratic School, told me as he knelt in front of it.
He spoke about feeding the fire continually, tending to it gently, and approaching fire like a living thing – something that is steadily growing but sometimes unpredictable.
I asked Marc about his own experiences with nature and fire as a child. He talked about living near Yosemite National Park in California in the United States, and spoke about how he spent most of his childhood outdoors. Marc said that nature, to him, was more about feeling a sense of connection and belonging to the world than just a pretty thing to look at. Marc continued to say that this feeling is similar to that feeling of closeness that he feels with good family and friends.
“It’s why I fell in love with nature – that feeling of connection,” he said.
I asked Marc if he had attended a Boy Scouts program as a child. He told me that he had, but he often found it too rigid.
“Boy Scouts teaches a lot of skills,” he said, “but there’s a difference between connection and information.”
Marc felt that Boy Scouts approached nature like something to fight against – teaching the scouts to compete for best ways to battle the elements in a hierarchal and somewhat militant atmosphere. Marc, in developing his passion for nature, was more inspired by studying indigenous culture and reading the works of Jon Young ( author of The Art of Mentoring and Coyote Training and creator of the audio series Seeing Through Native Eyes). Indigenous cultures emphasise the importance of approaching nature as though one would approach building any respectful, healthy and symbiotic relationship.
“Once you have connection information flows freely,” Marc said.
We spoke about how connection and trust relaxes the mind enough so that a greater amount of new information can be processed and stored in the brain.
As a young adult, Marc received a degree in Forestry. He was employed for a time in a community-based home school environment in New York where he worked alongside children to build that relationship with nature – examining animal tracks, carving toothbrushes out of dogwood, and identifying best plants for medicinal remedies and food. He brought a lot of the information he gained in the States to Ireland when he set up his own forest school in Wicklow (3 Trees Forest School). Marc offers classes at Wicklow Democratic School and takes opportunities to teach students about nature and outdoor skills whenever a student shows interest in any given day.
Matilda (12) was one of Marc’s students at 3 Trees Wicklow before she enrolled in Wicklow Democratic School. Like Marc, Matilda’s earliest memories are centred around nature.
“Nature feels like I can just be myself,” she says. “It just feels easier, you can learn for yourself, learn by seeing and doing.”