Yesterday, the first year students from Little Green College, divided into small groups of eight students, wandered throughout several hundred acres of forest and fields, armed with handheld GPS units. The hidden treasures they were looking for? Members of our faculty and staff, waiting to meet each group and talk to them.
I'd been assigned a spot in what everyone was calling the deep, dark woods — a grove of mature spruce trees. I sat alone, writing in my journal and listening to the trees. All around me was brown, the lower trunks of the trees covered with knots and branches, straight and tall, while in the distance, I could see the glowing green leaves of hardwood trees. A squirrel ran through the canopy above, leaping from branch to branch. Every once in a while, pine cones came thudding down as if some invisible person was throwing them.
I checked in by cell phone with Botanist Guy, who was hidden in an orchard. He had already seen three groups of students, and he said that one group was heading my way. During the lag time between groups, he was eating ripe fruit: apples, cherries, and grapes. Since I'd eaten my granola bars within minutes of arrival, I was envious. Biology Instructor, who was hiding in the hardwood forest, had seen just one group of students. She was reading a book while she waited. Chemistry Lab Instructor came walking through the woods to check in with me and reported that Soils Scientist, hidden down by the sinkhole, had already seen several groups of students and apologized for keeping them so long.
I spread my rain jacket out on the forest floor so that I could lie down and look up at treetops and bits of sky while I waited for students to find me. It felt strange to be tethered to one place; my inclination was to wander around and explore. I kept hoping the sun would come out so I could take some cool photos, but the day remained dark. When a wind came up, rain splattered down from the branches of the trees. I could hear an airplane overhead, and some wild turkeys moving through the woods behind me. The tree frogs began singing as the day got later, and red-wing blackbirds chattered above me.
Finally, I heard voices. A group of students! They saw me right away: both my fleece and my raincoat are bright red. I hadn't thought about camouflage when I dressed for the day; usually when I'm in the woods, I want hunters to know I'm there.
The students sat in a circle on the pine needles, happy to take a rest. "You're the first group to find me," I told them. Red Baseball Cap said, "Have you been sitting here all by yourself all this time? Want us to stay and play cards with you?"
We talked about place, the way landscapes can affect our mood, inspire us, change us. "It's been great to spend the day outdoors," Ponytail said. "Even with the rain." Freckles nodded: "It's been hard, these first weeks, living in a city." We talked about books we'd read and the role of literature in the environmental movement. They told me about the other professors they'd met so far: they'd planted seedlings with a forestry professor and gotten water samples from the pond to analyze in chemistry lab.
I love talking to students, but I had been instructed to send them on their way after 15 minutes. They had three more professors to find. And already, I could hear another group of students crashing through the undergrowth. We'd planned the GPS routes so that the groups would come at intervals, but I knew from experience that these things never work out exactly as planned, and that I'd probably be getting a bunch of groups in a row.
By the time I'd seen the last group, the deep dark woods were getting dark indeed. As I emerged from the woods into the field below, I could hear the voices of students: hundreds of them gathered in the clearing, where tents had been set up, and makeshift benches made of planks and recycling bins. On long tables, men and women in green t-shirts were setting out pans of hot food. Time for supper.