Dwarfs Ruediseuli and Kiin Suryan got together with the children from NaturePlay and Sunshine to teach us all about the magic of planting a garden in their delightful play, The Magic Garden. There was plenty of dancing and singing in both English and German. Many friends and family attended and afterwards we shared a delicious pot-luck lunch with everyone contributing yummy dishes all made from ingredients from garden. And the children and dwarfs shared a refreshing Elderflower syrup they made themselves. Many thanks to all the kids, the families and friends, and of course, the dwarf community for a wonderful morning!
And much gratitude to all those who contributed to our gardening fund! We’ll be stepping up our gardening efforts beginning at Sunshine in Stäfa, where the children are already tending their beans and berries on the balcony. Looking forward to next year’s harvest.
And big thanks to Alexandra Volkert for the beautiful photographs on this page!
Some months ago, we began a wonderful relationship with a tree. An every-day ordinary fir tree growing in the darker part of our forest, along a path we often walk on our way to somewhere else. This particular tree was not especially noteworthy other than having a fair amount of sap dripping down its trunk. A wound perhaps? The kids understand sap as the blood of a tree, and this tree must surely have been injured at some time. When the older kindergarten kids discovered the sticky properties of this sap, they began decorating the tree with all manner of forest treasures: colourful leaves, delicate feathers, and flowers.
The younger kids came upon this wonderful tree in full regalia and marvelled. Before long, the tree became a special destination and member of our community. The children dubbed it the Zauberbaum or Magic Tree. Quite regularly a child will suggest a visit to the Zauberbaum. Sometimes to simply renew its decoration and often to leave offerings for faeries and Zwergs (gnomes and dwarfs). Other times, like today, a child has a very special idea in mind.
The forecast was heavy rain and I had planned for a morning of carefree rain dancing, umbrellas and all. As is often the case, Mother Nature had her own agenda. I think she must have changed her mind in answer to young Sukeyna’s request. Mother Nature listens first and best to the hearts of children, I am convinced.
Four-year old Sukeyna, had made a decision to give up her Nuggis (that’s a pacifier for you Americans, and a dummy for you Brits.) This is a big deal for some children as it marks the transition from little kid to big kid, and is a milestone that must be met before entering kindergarten. As early years educators, we take this moment very seriously. Sukeyna had made her own decision which she announced to her mother a week in advance. She would give her Nuggis to the Zauberbaum next week.
When we heard the news that morning, Tatjana and I, were delighted and honoured to facilitate this important rite of passage as was Mother Nature, for the forecasted heavy rain was suddenly nowhere in sight and the cool calm forest beckoned. Sukeyna had taken matters into her own hands. She was clearly ready for kindergarten. It was no coincidence that she seemed to have grown several centimetres in the course of a week!
Sukeyna had three Nuggis with her. Onto each she had tied a long piece of fine thread. It was decided that I would carry them in my pocket on the way to the Zauberbaum. Once there, we gathered round and and I explained to the children that today was a special day for Sukeyna and that we and the Zauberbaum were here to support her in giving up her Nuggis.
In preparation, I had gathered some special friends from the forest. I am searching for a word to describe these special friends. I certainly can’t call them “things.” And “items “or “objects” will also not do. Nor can I simply call them “symbols.” Yes, they are symbols but they are so much more. To call them anything less than “friends” or allies” would be to deny them their life force and our ability to enter into relationship with them. The Native Americans would simply call them “people” – rock-people, plant-people, flower-people, animal-people and so on. This day, these other-than-human people served as our allies and helpers. In both nature pedagogy and neb-humanism, we walk simultaneously in different worlds, everything real, everything symbolic, everything alive.
A lovely river stone served as the altar onto which many friends were welcomed and placed: a small collection of dandelion leaves, a couple of cuckoo flowers, for these are traditionally one of the fairies favourites, a handful of tender purple violets, a beautiful feather, a few walnut shells and an enormous Weinberg snail. We talked briefly about our different friends and the gifts and qualities that they offered today to Sukeyna and her little colleagues. So as not to go on too long and lose the children’s attention, we concentrate on three. Three is a magic number.
First there were Dandelion leaves. Naturally, as it is Spring! Dandelion gets its name from the French dents-de-lion, which translates into English as “lion’s tooth,” reflecting the jagged shape of the leaf. Likewise, in German we say Löwenzahn. Dandelion is a powerful ally. Ubiquitous and strong, the dandelion seems to grow everywhere, from well-fertilized fields, to the cracks in concrete sidewalks of the city and between the slats of a classic Swiss red bench!
Its roots are extremely deep and the dandelion flourishes against all odds. The nourishing flower is a beautiful bright circle shining yellow like the sun. It has a purity and symmetry, a reliability and a tenacity that we are wise to emulate. It is a very child-friendly flower and a perfect one with which to cultivate a relationship when you are 4-years-old.
“May you have the strength of the lion,” I say to each child as I offer up a tender leaf for each to sample. The dandelion leaves are delicious and some children enthusiastically request more, yet I ask them for patience. After our ceremony we will have ample opportunity to nibble away like hungry rabbits.
Yes, strength is a wonderful quality to cultivate, but let us temper it with the softer quality of beauty – strength and beauty compliment one another and belong together.
“May you walk in beauty,” I say to each child as I hand them a pretty little forest violet to taste. Violets spring up close to the forest floor when Spring itself has really sprung. Their form and leaves are delicate and asymmetrical yet their color is rich and deep. As we walk through the young green forest among the violets on a bright day, after a long winter, we truly feel that we are walking in beauty. These edible little beauties have a subtle sweet taste the children find delightful.
Next we receive the gifts of the generous Weinberg snail. Although this snail is actually edible when properly prepared, we wouldn’t dream of eating this endangered species! Snails are among the first “friends” a child makes in the forest. Children are fascinated by these responsive slow-moving creatures who carry their homes on their backs and travel along on their tummies leaving a glistening trail behind them. The Weinberg, like a true friend is a protected species.”May you have many friends,” is our wish and the snail’s gift to Sukeyna.
It is now time for Sukeyna to tie her Nuggis on the Magic Tree. She chooses which Nuggi goes first and where she will tie it. I help her get started as the thread is very fine. Sukeyna pulls on both ends of the thread to secure the final knot. We repeat this will all three Nuggis. Three is a magic number.
Sukeyna beams with pride. Next the whole group joins hands and we sing “Love Sukeyna” in our finest voices. Congratulations are offered and photos are taken before the children run off to play in the nearby stream.
After a while, Sukeyna returns to the Magic Tree for one last look at her Nuggis and one last suck. “Goodbye Nuggis, have fun!” she calls as she merrily takes her leave and joins the other children. Sukeyna knows that everything is alive.
Surely all the peoples of the forest must be pleased… even the Nuggi-people.
Spring… how I love it. The days are getting longer and warmer and the air remains fresh and redolent with new life. The forest and the fields are coming alive with wild herbs and flowers. Together we are learning which herbs we can eat and which flowers we can pick for Mama. The birds are back in town. The noisy crows are plaguing a stork as he swoops in looking for a tasty frog. The stork defiantly answers back in a startling new voice. Perhaps the frogs have engaged the crows to protect them!
And the children, they are equally a blaze with new life and creativity. Spring fever has infected them all, and me too! Voices are loud and energy is high. We won’t be seeing any deer today! Never mind, there is plenty else to do. The children climb trees and challenge each other to duels with sticks as long and powerful as lightsabers. On the way to the forest they rescue worms from potential demise under the heavy wheels of a rare oncoming car. They climb a steep and challenging hill, some triumphantly for the for the first time.
On top they build fairy houses, tucking the baby fairies into their walnut shell cradles and gently covering them with a soft feather found on the jungle path. Some sing silly songs about dwarfs and recount exciting tales over snack time. Before we know it, our time together is coming to a close and we must return to the farm.
Together the children collect treasures and once back at the farm, present offerings to our friend the dragon whose taken up residence behind the main farm house. under the shelter of a forsythia in bloom. A few flowers, shells, and stones, of course, are saved for Mama, Papa, Grandma, Gramps or perhaps a younger sibling.
And Tatjana and I hardly have to say a word… We just stand back and smile with delight at each other as the kids do their wonderful thing We are both awash in the magic and convinced we have the best job in the world. Most of these kids have been together in nature since the beginning of the school year last August and have fostered a real sense of community and mutual understanding, not only with each other but with the natural world.
And every Spring new children join us for the first time. We welcome them with open arms and open hearts. These new kids are nearly always receptive to the positive group vibration we have been cultivating and have no trouble diving into our magical world.
And today is but the first of April, we will have many more such wonderful days before the year is done! We are happy.
This piece appeared originally in the February issue of Mothering Matters, a terrific English language blog about parenting Switzerland. The lovely tree illustration is by Laura Munteanu.
There is a wonderful tree outside our window. Over the years, this tree has become our good friend and teacher. I first noticed this lovely being when several other trees in the courtyard had to be chopped down. I suppose they were growing too close to the apartment buildings for comfort. I was sad to see them go and happy to see this beauty spared. I began observing the surviving tree regularly only to discover that she puts on quite a show as the seasons change. Year after year she reveals delicate pale green and red blossoms in spring and rich dense double-toothed green foliage in summer. My son’s birthday falls on the autumn equinox and our friend the tree never fails to mark the occasion offering the first golden leaves of the season. As winter approaches and the first storms pass through she finally releases her sun-filled leaves and launches a flock of helicopter seeds into the frosty air. Our tree has everything it needs to grow: rich nutritious soil, enough room to stretch out, plenty of sunlight, regular water and time to rest. The tree is flourishing.
Happiness is flourishing.
We too are most happy when we are flourishing and the nourishment that makes this possible is that of connection – to our families, to our communities, to the natural world and ultimately to our own natures.
“Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”
― W.B. Yeats
Likewise our tree does not live in isolation in the yard but by her very nature, offers herself in service establishing her place in a vast mostly invisible network of life. In winter her thick tangle of bare branches provide a terrific perch for the little birds that remain in the area. The fallen seeds and leaves gather in clumps around thick roots creating a warm blanket protecting the teeming life forms beneath. In the warmer months the tree’s dense foliage provides safe haven as well as sporting ground for cheeky magpies.
For an entire year, my son Jamie and I tracked the changes to our tree, which he documented in writing and pictures in his 6th grade “Baumtagebuch.” Soon we began referring to the tree as “Jamie’s Tree.” It took us a while to figure out what kind of tree it was. Our forays into the online field guides left us more confused than illuminated. Jamie collected samples of leaf, seed and bark and his teacher was quick to identify his tree correctly as a “Hainbuche” or in English, a hornbeam. Carpinus Betalus. Named for the beech in German, often considered related to the hazel, the hornbeam is actually a member of the birch family. No wonder the confusion. Like most of us, the hornbeam defies easy categorization. Jamie understands this well as he explains, “My Swiss friends think I’m American, and my American friends think I am Swiss.” Jamie knows he is not either/or but both/and. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Our research and observation of the hornbeam continued. One spring afternoon the neighbor’s cat ventured out onto a limb only to be aggressively dive bombed by crows. Jamie didn’t witness this spectacular piece of theatre which has since become legendary. Legend also has it that if you listen to the trunk of a hornbeam with a stethoscope you can hear the pulsing of the tree sap within like a heartbeat. And according to Harry Potter, the hard wood of the hornbeam makes an excellent wand!
After the first snow of the season blew in fiercely the other day, I noticed a good-sized branch lying on the ground beneath Jamie’s tree. I immediately and happily went to retrieve it, brought it inside and received it as a gift from my friend the hornbeam. It will make a beautiful holiday decoration.
As this lovely tree has made its way quite literally into our home, it has likewise entered our hearts. By taking the time to observe and interact with this tree we have forged an ever-strengthening connection with it. I am grateful to this elegant tree as it has also allowed my son and I another way to strengthen our bond. And this makes me happy.
Happiness is a grateful heart.
By connecting with the tree outside my window, I am connecting to the deeper ecosystem of which it is part. But am I a part of this ecosystem as well? I am not native to these parts. Even after 15 years, I often feel like a strange, delicate hothouse flower imported from another land or worse like a dreaded invasive species.
It’s true, I am less a hornbeam than my son. But the hornbeam and the rest of the natural world can teach me to see through native eyes and find my place in this new land if I am willing to pay attention.
My first and best friend here in Switzerland has been the land itself followed by those closest to it, the children. Both are my teachers and my role models. The children don’t care if my German is less than perfect, or think me strange if I talk to raindrops. The children hear the tone of my voice, like the song of a bird offering a safe place to play and be themselves. And the forest offers me a receptive place for my loud exuberance and spontaneity.
The hornbeam flourishes because it is integrated into the larger system yet remains every bit itself. My son flourishes for the same reason.
As neuropsychologist Dan Siegel puts it, Integration is not homogenous like a smoothy, it is a fruit salad. Individual parts of the whole remain distinct yet are connected. And so a new whole is created – a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Now that is a happy proposition!
The more integrated we are as individuals, as members of a community, and ultimately as inhabitants of planet earth, the more whole and happier we become. We find our place not only in our family, our neighborhood, our country, but more fundamentally in what poet Mary Oliver calls “the family of things.”
“… the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
– Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
Happiness is finding your place.