The School of the Outdoors

Long time, no post. My move to fifth grade has been good for me, but the change in routine took a long, I mean, a long-long time to get used to. The bell marking the end of class was the crucial factor for me, which necessitated some pretty serious thinking about learning and how I fit into a system of bells and measured time. I may reflect on what the move taught me in subsequent posts.

For now, though, school’s out for summer, I’m back from a six-day paddle in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in northern Minnesota, and I’m getting ready for a week-long workshop on inquiry-based science.

I’m reminded of how much I learn about the world and myself by just being outside for long stretches of time.

I wish I could take the kids out on a field trip to such a place as the BWCAW. We saw a moose feeding at the edge of the lake (how immense they are!); what appeared to be a lone trumpeter swan spend the afternoon in the bay, then trumpet and lift off a little after sunset; and many loons, like the ones in the video, who sang their mournful song at dusk.

We also saw mosses (my partner is teaching herself how to identify the different species), beautiful sedges in the woods, marshes, and along the lake edge, and the first flush of brilliant green aspen leaves against the darkness of the black spruce. Spring comes slowly to the north country.

We experienced several nights in the low 30s, the first black fly and mosquito hatch (oh boy!), and observed dragonfly larvae crawl from the cool lake waters, split open, then transform before our eyes. Even now, I have to catch myself. The dragonfly is BOTH the acrobatic aerialist who hunted mosquitoes gathered near my head AND the monstrous looking larva that crawls from the underwater world only to open and, like the crew members in the movie, Alien, disgorge a winged creature with a very long abdomen and a voracious appetite. Two worlds, two lives, one dragonfly.

Until you actually see the still-wet larva split open and the winged dragonfly emerge, life cycles are abstract ideas.

We pulled out for lunch on a piece of Canadian Shield (some of the oldest exposed rock in the world, the spine of the North American continent), then marveled at the work of the beaver, master builder, whose fur drew hordes of opportunists to the north country and became the tophats of the fashionable people in Europe.


Each night we read aloud an account of a canoe trip the author took in the 1950s that followed the old fur trade route from Grand Portage, MN to the Red River of the North.1 While not great literature, this book reminded me that what counts as a “good book” can be situational. Packed with first-hand accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries, I learned more about the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Northwest Company, the XY Company, and the homme du nord than I had known before. While our fare was meager, it was nothing like the 1 quart of lyed corn cooked with pork grease that was the daily meal during the trip: “All the food that a man needs for 24 hours on the road.”

Small comfort, though, that three hundred years ago the fur traders cursed the black flies and mosquitoes, too.


Beth reads our travel narrative aloud from under her bug net.


  1. Bolz, Portage into the Past.

#walkmyworld — Sunrise from the Hill


Yesterday, the cold was an eagle’s beak, the wind it’s talons. My cheeks? My nose? The liver of Prometheus. But even this sharpness didn’t stop the sun from rising over the hill across the valley during the morning dog walk, hills that are my Stonehenge for the changing seasons. Inexorably the light returns.

For more about the #walkmyworld project, check out this link at NWP Digital Is. I’m excited to give it a try.

Afloat in a Ocean of Stories

So, something interesting happened on the way home from a family holiday gathering. Something that helped me see (once again) that I float in an ocean of stories if only I take the time to notice.

Photo Credit: Vinoth Chandar via Compfight

Driving to beat the winter storm that threatened to dump freezing rain and then 9 inches of new snow on southern Wisconsin, I left for a family visit in my 16 year old car. Just outside Madison, one-by-one the dashboard warning lights flashed on.  Darkness had fallen, and now freezing rain. Ice accumulated on the windshield as the wipers slowed almost to a halt. I stopped to see what might be wrong with the car, but on a early Saturday evening, all the shops were closed. Finally, when the ABS light came on, I took the next exit on the Beltway, found a large (mostly empty) parking lot, and pulled in. The car died right there.

While the story of my family’s rescue of me is interesting — they just happened to be driving by Madison toward the same destination from a different direction — the ending to this story that I want to tell is about what happened at the car repair place two days later. This ending reminds me that there are stories hiding in the most unexpected places. And these stories are for me (and perhaps for others) the very stuff of life.

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Color Whore
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight

The mechanics had just begun to decide the fate of my car when I found a vinyl chair in the waiting room. Next to me was a woman, about my age, working on a laptop. I pulled mine out of my bag to work. Whatever we were working on, however, wasn’t as interesting as the possibility of a good conversation, so we got to talking. We soon discovered our shared connection as educators and began asking questions. And telling stories.

Where do you teach?

What’s it like to teach in Wisconsin these days? Have things changed after the fights over public education and budgets that Governor Walker had initiated?

How did you decide to be a teacher? What keeps you there working with the kids each day?

Turns out she was a school counselor in a district north of Madison and had been in the schools in various capacities for 29 years. I talked of my own move into teaching at the ripe old age of 42. She told of a long-term passion for it. We told stories about why we did this work despite the changes in our profession.

Soon a man stood up, walked over to us from across the room, and introduced himself. He’d overheard our conversation and wanted us to know that he was livid about the changes he’d seen. Coming from Switzerland, though now settled in the US permanently, he couldn’t imagine why the US was so set on bashing its teachers or privatizing its public education system. He told stories about the learning his children had done in the “excellent PUBLIC schools” in Madison.

While we were talking, two others joined in the conversation and began talking about schools their children had attended, teachers they’d had, and more generally about meaningful work, about families, about learning.

Finally, a woman who had recently arrived to the room caught my eye and smiled. She leaned toward the conversation and said, “Thirty-three years in middle school and high school in Connecticut, with some time off to raise a family. I’m retired now, but it was the best job for me.” Then she told us a story about a brave and scared girl she’d known back in 1963, now fifty years ago, a girl this older teacher had taken under her wing. Turns out that the girl had been moved by the connection with her teacher so, when hearing of her teacher’s pregnancy, she had entered her teacher’s name in a contest. A local business was to give away a new baby stroller, which the girl had signed up to receive “for my ‘mom’s’ new baby.”

The story brought tears to our eyes.

Imagine a group of adults sitting silently on vinyl chairs on the day before the day before Christmas, when all that should have been done hadn’t been finished, collectively waiting for broken cars to be repaired, sitting silently and teary-eyed because of some kind act that a child did so many years ago, and because of the awesome example of compassion offered by a woman who carried this story in her heart for fifty years.

One by one the cars got fixed. As people left the room they paused to shake hands, solemnly smile, and to thank the others in the room for the stories and the chance to meet. Each left with a look of puzzled wonder in her eyes about what had just happened.

Slice of life — a poem

Here’s a poem I started at the Iowa Writing Project Summer Institute and have been working on. I was trying to capture an early morning moment in a cafe. I began to overhear conversations and wonder about the lives of the men I saw there.

Dottie’s Cafe

What is it about old men and grease,
men who rise early for
eggs and pancakes and bacon
frying on an ancient flattop
blackened by years of fat burned
into the finish?

Old men who
through habit woke early
for work at the slaughterhouse,
launched into the kill line by 7AM,
the smell of bleach and offal and shit
with the last swig of morning coffee;

Old men who trudged to milk cows
every day of the friggin’ year —
at 5AM, a light on in the barn
the smell of manure and feed
and cow — even when cold hands
hung useless as rocks;

Old men whose wives
are now long gone,
dead and buried (Nine years already?),
or simply melted away,
traded for the bar
and a daily six-pack;

These men arrive at Dottie’s Café,
and at 6:13 AM,
though the ancient air conditioner
wheezes valiantly above the door,
these men seek simple warmth
and a belly fully of grease.

Slice of life poem

I’m thinking this blog could also be a chance for me to post some writing as part of the slice of life project. Here’s a poem I wrote about a small moment.

wood stack

a stack of split oak squats
between two trees
at the edge of the woods.

two months ago
I felled three trees,
split the sections

into quarters
hopeful that
two years from now

they will glow brightly
in the wood stove
in the basement.

around the stack’s base,
faded oak leaves drift
over frozen ground —

lingering between
slabs of wood
built from thin air

my long-dead grandfather
exhaled when
he was a boy.

squatting next to
the stack,
I rub the rings

of grandfather’s life
with my thumb,
and learn that

a person’s life extends
deeper beneath the bark
than I realized.

–Steve Peterson