Lichens, Swamps, and Dunes

“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, 
and remember what peace there may be in silence.”  (Max Ehrmann)

After what can only be described as a very hectic and crazy seven weeks since February vacation (and that vacation can not exactly counted as restful coming off of surgery and the death of one of our turtles), for this vacation, I was seeking silence.  These seven weeks have been a whirlwind — dealing with the death of Bowser, getting ready for the MCAS, doing a Saturday conference, a Natural Resources Commission meeting, a CCTV show, enduring watching my students take the MCAS, learning we had placed second in the Disney Planet Challenge contest, planning and executing Turtle Night, presenting at a PTG meeting, and doing two days of professional development.  Add in 19 parent conferences in two days, the regular rigor of a week of teaching, and two field trips, I was spent.  Dragging.  By Friday April 15th at 2:45 p.m., I was done.  Cooked.  Roasted.  Fried.  Could not go any further.  Did not know where my path was taking me.  Spent.

So, on Sunday, my husband and I headed to my idea of the Chinese poet’s retreat.  Back to our shack in the sand dunes of Wellfleet where we had spent ten years visiting on

Sunrise Over the Dunes

April vacation with our boys.  However, our boys have now turned into men, so this was already going to be a quieter break.  Seeking both silence, clarity, and reflection, I headed the two minutes from our cottage to the beach to start looking.  Much had changed in two years, the fury of nature had taken back her dunes.  Amazed, I stood at the edge and overlooked down what was now an incredibly steep path.  This was not going to be easy to traverse.  My husband went down partway to reassure me that it was do-able.  What would this break be without being able to walk for hours on the deserted silent shore.  Silent from human voices, but not from the pounding of the relentless surf and the laughing of the gulls.  Timidly, I headed down the path.  The sand was slipping beneath my feet, making me a little nervous, but I continued on.  This felt like DPC at times, I felt like I didn’t know how to get to the end, but the class and I persevered and made it down that steep hill.  I was rewarded by the feel of the ocean on my face, the beauty of the rocks left behind by the waves, the footprints of others that had visited earlier, but who were now gone.  The silence was welcoming.  I became more in tune with the world around me.  I felt the tension of the past weeks slip away just like the waves retreating back into the wild ocean.

The next day, we were off to one of my all time favorite spots — The White Cedar Swamp at Marconi Station in Wellfleet.  If you are in this neck of the woods, this is a must visit spot.  One might think a swamp would not be so mystical, but they have not seen this swamp.  Leaving the parking lot, you travel

White Cedar Swamp Reflections

down a dirt path, which travels downhill, over roots and down stairs.  It is a place that is extremely quiet, except for the calls of birds and the rustle of the pine branches in the cool April breeze.  After about a ten minute walk, you arrive at the entrance of the White Cedar Swamp Boardwalk.  Surrounded by white cedar trees, the

swamp glistens like rubies on this sunny April afternoon.  All is silent as I quietly walk along, snapping photos as I walk slowly and deliberately along the board walk.  In a usual school day, there is often no chance to ever go slowly and deliberately.  To take in all that is going around you.  To appreciate the world around you.  Here in this magical swamp, I could do all that.  I could suck in the cool air, the beautiful colors, the smoothness of the boards as I snaked around the board walk, the richness of the green moss on the banks, the unusual striped bark on the cedar trees.  With all the craziness, I have not had time to reflect on the DPC award, to reflect on what wonderful learners my students have become, to admire their advocacy for the Blanding’s turtles.  The silence in the swamp gave me an opportunity to be thankful for all that I have.  I could well understand why those Chinese poets craved their retreats in the mountains.  The silence and the beauty of the swamp was helping me put things into perspective.

Looking at Lichen with a Different Lens

On the next day, we decided to venture to a new swamp.  I read about the Red Maple Swamp in Eastham and wanted to see how this one would measure up to the White Cedar Swamp.  So off we traveled to our second swamp in two days.  Once we arrived, a sign on the trail sign said that the Red Maple Swamp boardwalk was closed.  I was disappointed as I really wanted to see this spot.  My husband and I decided to go along until we couldn’t go any further to see what was ahead.  As we headed into a grove of red cedar trees, we came to a boardwalk, that didn’t look broken, so we kept going.  Red maple buds were in full bloom, giving the entire swamp area a birth of sorts.  But what really caught me eye was the large amount of lichens all over the swamp area.  There was turkey tail fungus adorning an arched branch, a mushroom vase, lichen decorated a log.  When you are “open-bowled” as our poet Steven says, it allows you to take in the world in a different way.  So, I switched the setting on my camera to “TV” (I don’t know what that means, need to read the instruction manual) and started to shoot this really unusual lichen growing straight up off a branch.  This setting really allowed me to really look at the tender little plants reaching for the sunlight.  It almost looked like its own forest right on that branch.  This was a delightful experience, looking at lichens in a whole new manner.  Usually, I love my reflection pictures the most, but today, I was really into taking pictures of these plants that I don’t usually spend a lot of time examining.

So, as I head into the home stretch of this school year, silence will be hard to find.  Those moments of being open bowled need to somehow find their way into both my and my students’ days.   I need to be mindful of that not only myself, but that my students need to have these open-bowled moments.  As I head off of my retreat and back to my more normal routine, I need to incorporate those dunes, swamps, and lichens into my routine.


Taking the Time to Be Open-Bowled


"Leaf Litter"


Too often, our days go by and by and by.  During our school day in Room 305B, we often move from one thing to the next without any real “down time.”  Yesterday, our Poet-in-Residence, Steven Ratiner started with an assembly for the entire fourth grade.  He started off with a story about how when he was driving to Thoreau, a bright yellow leave landed momentarily on his car windshield before soaring off to its next location.  He talked of “should I have pulled over and written a poem right there and then about the beauty of this leaf?”  After a few comments from the students, he began to address the concept of “Open Bowl”.  Even though I have heard this talk many times before, I always take away something different each time.

Picture your mind as a bowl.  According to Taoist theory, there are three types of bowls.  The first one is when your mind is like a turned over bowl.  You can’t store anything in it and the world can’t get in.  The second type of bowl is right side up, but has cracks and holes in the bottom.  You could fill it up, but it would leak out the contents.  Things might enter and leave right away.  The third way is a true Open Bowl — empty, yet complete.  This bowl is so taken with the world around you that the world will fill you up.  The interesting point is that you need to let your bowl be empty for this to happen.


Rocky Bottom


After hearing Steven’s story, two things came to mind from the past week.  The first was an instance of when I was “open bowled” during the week.  My husband and I went up to our cottage in New Hampshire to pull our boat out on Monday.  Last Columbus Day, the foliage was beautiful up there, but this Columbus Day, it wasn’t as spectacular.  But, I was in an open-bowled frame of mind.  Walking on the dock, I noticed some beautiful leaves in the water.  Just like Steven had said, my bowl suddenly became filled up with the beauty of these leaves and I quickly began shooting pictures of them.   On our boat ride, my husband kept obliging my need


Blue Duck


for him to stop the boat so I could take more pictures.  Because I was in an open bowl state of mind,  I was appreciating all the beauty around me and letting it soak in.  On a day to day basis, this doesn’t always happen.  I am too busy to notice how beautiful the world is every day.


Leaf on its branch


In the classroom, I try to incorporate time for the students to be Open Bowled.  Our trips to the river are designed to be an open bowl experience.  This past Thursday, it was a rather gloomy and cool trip down to the river’s edge.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from the students’ writing.   It wasn’t that colorful or interesting to my eye initially.  But, one by one, each student brought me over their field journals.  I was blown away by the depth of their writing. One student compared the falling leaves to their traveling to a warmer climate.  I was immediately reminded of the folks who travel to Florida each year.  Another student created an imaginary journey for these leaves.   One student was fascinated with the above leaf on its branch.  At a quick glimpse, it doesn’t look all that interesting, but because this child was truly open-bowled, he was able to look at it in an entirely different way.  I asked them to reflect about why their writing was so fabulous during this trip and they said, “there was just a lot to write about.”  Too often, we take the changing of seasons for granted.  We don’t slow down and appreciate the beauty of a fallen leaf.  One of my goals this year for my students is to allow them that time to become truly open-bowled.  One of my goals for this teacher is also to allow herself the time to also be open-bowled as well.