Ferry Beach Conference Center, Saco, Maine
This was the last day of children’s program of the religious education conference at Ferry Beach. Lisa and I are doing nature and ecology with rotating groups of children in grades 1-6, and this morning we ended up with the 5th and 6th graders.
The morning did not start off well. The children were tired and a little cranky to begin with. Then they found out that they would not be allowed to watch the “Banathalon.” The Banathalon is a strange Ferry Beach tradition — a relay race where instead of passing a baton you pass a banana from one competitor to the next. Years ago, it started out like a triathalon, with running, bicycling, and swimming legs, and then at the end someone had to eat the banana-baton. Over the years, other legs have been added — pull-ups, solving a Rubik’s cube in 5 minutes, etc. And during the religious education conference, the banathalon is a competition between the high school youth and the junior high youth — which means that the 5th and 6th graders are very interested in it.
“This year, we can’t watch the banathalon,” I said. About half the group erupted. We can’t watch!? Why not? We always watch! (“Always” in this context means “last year.”) “It’s not my rule, although I agree with it,” I said. “It’s the conference coordinators who said we couldn’t watch.” They continued to be cranky and upset, so I said I would get one of the conference coordinators to explain why they couldn’t watch. Anne came, and explained why they couldn’t watch. At that point, some of the children said, Well, if we can’t watch, let’s do something else. Two days ago, we had all agreed that the group would spend alone time in the woods, so finally the group calmed down enough that we could walk over to the woods together, and get set up for spending alone time in the woods.
First, Lisa read most of a story about Henry Thoreau (I’ve included the story at the end of this post), and how he decided to spend some time alone at Walden Pond. Then we dropped the children off in the woods for some alone time.
The alone time didn’t go all that well. A couple of the kids started running around and yelling, so I went through the woods and placed them in new spots in the woods, far away from each other. Some of the kids had a great time being alone in the woods, yet on the whole things had not gone well so far.
We collected the children again, and talked a little about what happened. “My take on it,” I said, “is that I pushed you pretty hard, and gave you something to do in the outdoors that was a little challenging. If this group was really well bonded, we wouldn’t have had any problems — and I should have made sure that you were bonded better. So let me ask you — on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 is best, how well bonded are we?” Two. Zero! [this from one of the kids who had been running around] Three. Two. One. Three.
“Well, I’d say this group is about at a 2. So let’s do an activity that will help you bond.” No, we don’t want to. When are we going to have snack? Yeah, let’s try it. What do want us to do? What’s the activity?
So I did a basic challenge activity with the children: “Everyone on that side of the picnic table. OK, now you have to get over the picnic table without touching the table top — if you touch, you have to go back and try again. You have to go over, not around and not under. And everyone in the group has to go over. Lisa and I will spot you so you won’t get hurt.” That’s impossible. This is boring. “You can do it. Yelling at each other won’t work, but working together will work.” Wait, I can jump over! “Nope, you touched.” Here, hold my hand while I stretch over. You made it! Now help me, take my hand.
Gradually, the children started working together, and pretty soon everyone got over the tabletop. We sat down and talked about what had happened. I pointed out that if we were really going to do something in the wilderness, we would have to be really well bonded, because if anything happened, we would have to rely on each other to get out of trouble. But let’s just go into the wilderness, why do we have to do this first?
“I would not take this group out into the wilderness because you’re not ready yet. You’d have to trust each other a little more. And if even one kid is feeling left out, then we have to do more work before we’d be ready to go into the wilderness.” By now, I was beginning to realize that the children who had been acting out the most were the ones who felt least included, and least bonded to the others in the group.
We were going to try another challenge activity, but then the children’s program coordinator came over and told us we were 40 minutes late for snack. We hurried to get some snack before we all had to go to the closing chapel service.
After chapel, Lisa and I talked about the 5th and 6th grade group. Lisa observed that it was a good thing we were 40 minutes late to snack, because if we had ended on time many of the children (and both of us adults) would have had a lousy last session together. In that last forty minutes, we saw some real growth in some of the children, and real progress in the group as a whole. We agreed that if we had it to do over again, we would do outdoor challenge activities earlier in the week. This particular group needed real help in building relationships with one another, and we had neglected that with them.
But that last forty minutes made a real difference, so that we ended on a high note.
Story for session four: Henry Thoreau at Walden Pond
Iâ€™m going to tell you a story about a man named Henry David Thoreau. I suspect many of you have heard of him before, and some of you may know about his most famous book, a book called Walden. In this book, Thoreau tells how he spent a little over two years living in a cabin he built in the woods, near Walden Pond in Concord. You might also know that Henryâ€™s family all went to the Unitarian church in town — although Henry himself preferred the Universalist minister to the Unitarian church, but Henry basically stopped going to church once he grew up.
But even if youâ€™ve heard about Thoreau, and know something about his stay at Walden Pond, chances are you know very little about how he came to stay at Walden Pond, and thatâ€™s the story Iâ€™m going to tell you now.
The year is 1844, and Henry Thoreau is in his mid-20s, living in his parentsâ€™ house along with his two sisters. But his older brother John, whom Henry liked best in all the family, had died a couple of years earlier.
Henry liked being with people, and he had lots of friends, but he also needed to spend lots of time alone. Not only that, but Henry thought he wanted to be a writer. He had started out working as a teacher, and he had run a school with his brother John before John died. Now Henry wanted to write a book, a book about a long boat trip he and John had taken together on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
But Henry had a problem. As someone who needed lots of time alone, as someone who needed lots of quiet time so he could write his book, living in his parentsâ€™ house was a problem. Mrs. Thoreau, Henryâ€™s mother, was the kind of person who always loved to be around other people. So she invited lots of friends and acquaintances to spend the night in the Thoreau house. She invited some very interesting people to visit, and Henry loved talking to many of them — especially her Abolitionist friends, people who wanted to abolish slavery in the United States. But theirs was a small house, and even though his room was way up in the attic, it was difficult for Henry to find quiet time in the house.
Henry worked for his father a lot. His father had a business manufacturing pencils. Mr. Thoreau had a small building behind their house where they manufactured the pencils, and Thoreau pencils had the reputation of being the very best pencils you could buy in this country. They were the best because Henry and Mr. Thoreau figured out a really good way for making pencils — which they had to keep absolutely secret, so none of their competitors could steal their ideas. Henry liked working in the pencil factory, and figuring out better ways to make pencils, but working didnâ€™t give him time to write.
Henry liked living with his family. He liked all his motherâ€™s friends. He liked working in his fatherâ€™s pencil factory. But more and more he began to feel he needed time to be alone and write. When he thought about where he might want to spend time alone, he knew he wanted to be outdoors as much as possible. Henry loved the natural world, and he was a real outdoorsman: a tireless hiker, an excellent boater, a good fisherman.
Henry had a friend, a man named Ellery Channing. Ellery was what we call a â€œneâ€™er-do-well,â€ because he never did anything very well. Ellery neglected his wife and children, and went off on long trips by himself leaving his wife to care of the children by herself. Ellery wrote bad poetry — well, it wasnâ€™t all bad: there would be a couple of good lines, but it always seemed like Ellery got lazy and just finished the poem any old which way.
Ellery said to Henry one day: â€œYou need time alone. For a year now, youâ€™ve been threatening to build a shack in the woods somewhere and go there to live. Why donâ€™t you stop talking about it and do it?â€
Henry was a little bit wary of taking Elleryâ€™s advice. As much as he liked Ellery, he knew that Ellery was a neâ€™er-do-well.
But Henry really wanted to write that book. Henry also knew that, unlike Ellery, he would be sure to help out his friends and family when needed. He wouldnâ€™t just run off and leave them.
And so it was that Henry decided to go off and spend some time living by himself and writing his book. He talked to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, and arranged to use some land that Emerson owned over by Walden Pond. Henry built his little cabin on the edge of Walden Pond, and went there to live. He says he lived there for â€œtwo years, two months, and two days.â€ But he didnâ€™t neglect his family — he went home periodically to help his father in the pencil factory. He made the time to eat Sunday dinner with his family, or some other meal, once a week or so.
But although he kept up with his family, he made sure he had plenty of time to himself. He finished writing his book, and started writing another book. He had plenty of time to be alone, which he needed right then. And he had plenty of time to spend being outdoors.
When he finished his book about the trip on the rivers, he decided it was time to leave the cabin at Walden Pond. So one day in September of 1847, he moved out of the cabin, and went back home.
Lots of Unitarian Universalists like to hear the story of Henry Thoreauâ€™s time at Walden Pond — lots of us Unitarian Universalists also try to figure out our own ways to have quiet time outdoors. In fact, the story of how Henry Thoreau went to live in the woods at Walden Pond is maybe one of our most important stories, as we work out ways to create our own spiritual practices in the outdoors.