It was one of the most heart-warm­ing and ed­u­ca­tional gath­er­ings I have at­tended

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS - Paddy Wood­worth

Two very hand­some lit­tle woods, one ma­ture Scots pine, the other equally ven­er­a­ble beech, stand side by side above the south­west­ern slopes of the furry glen in the Phoenix Park. I thought I knew them pretty well, but I have to ad­mit I had never en­coun­tered their guardian tree un­til I was shown it by the chil­dren of the Phoenix For­est School. What we see in na­ture is, all too of­ten, de­ter­mined by what we are look­ing for.

This guardian tree is a gnarled hawthorn, dwarfed by the high beech canopy. But it is nonethe­less quite re­mark­able, its an­cient trunk twist­ing sin­u­ously around it­self re­peat­edly. You just might take it for a great grey snake in the fad­ing win­ter light.

Twenty chil­dren, from sev­eral schools, and their adult for­est guides are gath­ered tightly around this trunk, hug­ging each other as much as the tree. They are “ask­ing its per­mis­sion” to stay in the wood­lands, and singing a song of praise to its bright red berries, high above them, the “haw lanterns” of Heaney’s poem.

Okay, okay, I know, I know. Tree­hug­ging has had a bad rap. Prob­a­bly rightly so, in many cases. But what fol­lowed was one of the most heart-warm­ing gath­er­ings I have wit­nessed in a long time, and we do need our hearts warmed in this win­try time of en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­con­tents.

All-weather sys­tem

The school had ac­tu­ally started half an hour ear­lier, when Dara McCul­lough (8) ar­rived on the outer edge of the woods with his mother, Emma Costello. He runs off at once to the stag­ing post, set up with ropes so the kids can climb a muddy slope. Un­prompted, he be­gins to lay dead branches against one of the ropes, mak­ing an im­promptu shel­ter. It is 3pm and the sky is clear, but the morn­ing had seen tor­ren­tial rain. But that would not have stopped the for­est school. Only ex­cep­tion­ally high winds cause can­cel­la­tions.

Costello watches Dara mov­ing branches for a few mo­ments be­fore head­ing off. “He can never wait to get out­side,” she says hap­pily. “Even when he was a baby he would crawl into the gar­den, turn­ing over rocks to find creepy crawlies. He still has a pet mil­li­pede.”

More and more kids, aged from six to 12, are now gath­er­ing at the stag­ing post. They are play­ing, to­gether or in­di­vid­u­ally, un­der the watch­ful eyes of five in­struc­tors, whose in­ter­ven­tions are min­i­mal. “This is child-led learn­ing,” one of them says. At this stage, much of it is pure play, but per­haps the sharp line we of­ten draw be­tween play­ing and learn­ing is ar­ti­fi­cial. “Look, my gloves are cov­ered in muck,” one lit­tle girl says with glee, hav­ing ob­vi­ously learned here that clean dirt is no bad thing.

Now it’s time to start our trek into the woods, led by the school’s founder, Lucy O’Ha­gan, who teaches tra­di­tional na­ture-re­lated skills to both adults and chil­dren through her own or­gan­i­sa­tion Wild Awake (

She has the happy knack of un­self­con­sciously di­rect­ing ac­tiv­i­ties through song and story, while leav­ing space for self-starters to do their own thing. The af­ter­noon is al­ready re­mind­ing me of the best bits of be­ing a boy scout, with­out ei­ther the ma­cho or re­lent­lessly jol­ly­hockey-sticks adult at­ti­tudes that some­times soured those ex­pe­ri­ences.

Once the per­mis­sion of the guardian tree has been granted, we move on deeper into the woods, un­til we find a clear­ing. A cir­cle of big logs pro­vides seats around a fire­place, cre­ated out of a large hub cap to se­curely con­tain the fire. A lot of the tools used in the school are taken di­rectly from na­ture, like sticks and stones, but in­dus­trial age im­ple­ments also have their place here.

O’Ha­gan out­lines the af­ter­noon’s ac­tiv­i­ties: the chil­dren can make deer­skin pouches to hold kin­dling, or cre­ate wooden rein­deer us­ing what­ever is ly­ing around. (Right on cue, two of the park’s fal­low deer ap­pear and dis­ap­pear, as we ap­proach the fire­place.)

Or the kids can play on swings and climb trees. They can also make bows and ar­rows, which proved to be the most pop­u­lar choice. Or they can sim­ply amuse them­selves. One girl qui­etly builds a shel­ter in the bole of a tree away from the main ac­tion. “There’s so much go­ing on, I need my own space to think about it all,” she ex­plains.

Curiously, none of them dis­plays much in­ter­est in a fox skin – cour­tesy of road­kill – laid out for tan­ning, though one in­trepid girl likes ex­am­in­ing its fur with a hand lens. Maybe tan­ning will be the fo­cus next week, maybe not; the chil­dren make their own choices.

One en­ter­prise that is al­ways pop­u­lar is fire-light­ing, done with­out matches. A lit­tle ball of bul­rush fluff from a nearby pond lies in the cen­tre of bark and twig kin­dling. With great pa­tience and rapt at­ten­tion, a lit­tle boy rubs two fire steels to­gether, over sev­eral min­utes. Sparks fly, from time to time, but they don’t ig­nite the fuel. O’Ha­gan qui­etly shows him how to un­spool the fluff to make it more flammable, and sud­denly it leaps into flame. The twigs fol­low, and soon there is a warm blaze in the cen­tre of the log cir­cle.

Cre­ative play

All around, there are en­er­getic foci of cre­ation, and bursts of play. Un­der can­vas tarps – there are sev­eral, though the weather re­mains cle­ment – three girls punch holes in lit­tle cir­cles of deer­skin. They pain­stak­ing thread twine through them to make pouches. Out in the open, chil­dren are us­ing the sharp edges of stones to strip light ash branches, for ar­rows. But knives are needed to make notches for the bow strings on thicker lengths of wood.

Unob­tru­sively but ob­vi­ously ef­fec­tively, O’Ha­gan and her col­leagues re­mind the chil­dren to re­spect the dan­gers that come with sharp in­stru­ments, fire or with climb­ing trees. Over nearly three hours, I never hear a voice raised, ex­cept in laugh­ter. And I never see any­one get­ting hurt.

Fi­nally, with dark­ness now blan­ket­ing us, wolf howls are the sig­nal for ev­ery­one to gather round the flick­er­ing fire-light for hot ap­ple juice. A “speak­ing stick” is passed around, so that each child can tell The Ir­ish Times what they like about for­est school.

Al­most ev­ery child speaks, and the at­ten­tion with which they lis­ten to each other is strik­ing. So are their an­swers. “You learn what you can make with na­ture.” “You can make what­ever you want out of sticks and stones and mud, and some­times you are even al­lowed to light fires.” “It’s fun, fun, and more fun.” “It’s about na­ture, it’s about the world as it should be.”

Hold­ing that last thought, we gather up our stuff, and all grasp a sin­gle rope so that no one gets lost leav­ing the for­est. That rope idea, like so much on this af­ter­noon, came spon­ta­neously from the mind of one of the chil­dren.


Vol­un­teer Ania Hornowski with Maebh and Zoe, tak­ing part in the Phoenix For­est School, or­gan­ised by Wild Awake.

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