Initiation of a Green Man


Danni leads the pack

This week is spring vacation, and May Day falls right smack dab in the middle of it. May Day, or Beltane, as it is celebrated by my Celtic ancestors, has always been an auspicious time for me and I have often marked it with a special evert. In younger years when I was dancing, I would often have a concert the first weekend of May. It was always simultaneously the culmination of something- a great deal of work- and the the ushering in of a new phase. This year I marked the season with two days in the forest with a marvelous group of faeries and green men.


Accompanied by my friend Janie and her three sons, as well as my own two boys, we had two distinct groups — our little four year-old faes and our 8 -11 year old green men. The boys wanted nothing to do with faeries or magic. That’s all make believe little kid stuff and they were much too old and sophisticated for that sort of childishness. I told them a bit about the warrior aspects of the traditional green men of the forest and they perked up a little. “Now that is more like it! We want to be scary and fierce!” I was wondering how these two distinct species of fair folk were going to get along. Each with their own habits and proclivities, these magical creatures of the glade coexisted quite beautifully sharing some wonderful tender moments together.

We reached our special place in the forest and the preparations began. As magic wands and crowns were fashioned by the young faeries, the older boys got together to build the fire, sharpen sticks for roasting and cut vegetables for our picnic lunch. Ah, yes, the Swiss army knife. Getting one of your own, and learning how to use it is very much a right of passage here in Switzerland. But with this great privilege, comes great responsibility. The boys know the rules of engagement and just how fast I will confiscate a knife when the rules are not followed to a tee. Just ask Scotty… I still have his knife.

Lunch was a convivial affair. Fresh fruits and vegetables and grillables in the finest Swiss tradition. Kids will eat just about anything if they have prepared it themselves, I find. Plus, everything always tastes better al fresco! For dessert, fairy bread. Big chunks of bread dipped in sweetened condensed milk, toasted over the fire and sprinkled with colorful jimmies. Yum.

Quite naturally, after lunch we settled in for a little quiet time. The girls paged through the field guide identifying some of the flowers they’d found on the way. I had said nothing about the book, it was simply there. Wow! I never expected the little ones to be so inclined. I had brought the book thinking it might interest the older kids and perhaps encourage a little reading from my action-oriented younger son. The girls were able to identify the dandelion, the buttercup and little common lawn daisies, quite readily. Bravo, young faes! Who knows what other enchanting tales were revealed in this colorful little storybook.

On our most recent visit, just a couple of weeks ago, we passed through our main forest area while returning from an exciting morning’s adventure in the stream. We noticed our forest home had been tampered with. We have a very subtle presence there, hardly noticeable, really, save for the fire pit, small branch and net construction and the half a dozen tree stumps organized in a circle. It took me a minute to realize that these new changes were not the work of severe weather or animals, but rather of destructive human beings.

The fire pit was a mess, our hidden stash of dry fire wood had been discovered and exhausted leaving the usually well-hidden, bright orange tarp calling attention to itself in the middle of the forest floor. The branch and net house the children so carefully constructed was in a ruinous state and most of our tree stump seats were missing. One of the stumps was spied sitting at the bottom of the hill.

My heart sank as I took stock of what had become of our wonderful place. The sense of violation was strong and I asked aloud but rather rhetorically, “Who in the world would do such a thing?!” “A ghost did it!” suggested Millie. “Two naughty boys,” was Danny’s suspicion. “We should call the police,” he added. We vowed to rebuild when we returned after the spring holidays.

Danny was the only child with us today who had also been present on that fateful friday last month. Apparently, he remembered our vow and did what any enterprising young sprite would have done… he elicited the help of the older boys to begin to reconstruct our home. Quite unbeknownst to me, the boys began rolling the logs up the steep embankment, a tough job even for Kyle our 11 year old.

Before we knew it they had rescued not one but two of the missing tree stumps. Danny later thanked Kyle by gifting him with his leafy crown, and young Zoe, threw her arms around Jamie much to his embarssassment.

By the end of the day, the transformation was complete and the green men marched out of the forest with young Danny in the lead. and the faeries flitting behind stopping to pick the flowers.

Crosing the Stream

diego splashes in stream

The road up to the farm house was blocked due to a repairs on the old stone wall so we gathered by the little stream at the bottom of the road. It’s a great little stream babbling its way through the green field. Rohan spotted a big fat frog there last week. We kept busy hoping for a repeat performance. Kadek and I had our work cut out for us making sure nobody stepped into the stream. Soaking wet feet at the top of the morning is a real kill joy for everybody. One day last spring Lucas experienced two full changes of clothes before the morning was out! No time for that today, we had places to go and people to see!

Today was the perfect day to go to a special place in the woods I call the secret place. You get there via a hardly noticable path leading from a point where the road curves round rather sharply. We seldom walk down this road as it does not lead back into the woods but rather empties out onto the busy road through Esslingen. I didn’t find the secret place, rather my colleague Tanja did early last summer among the thickening lush vegetation.

I’ve been waiting for the right moment to take the kids to the secret place. Today seemed like a good opportunity. It was relatively dry and we had a smaller than usual group as some children had left early for vacation.

The secret place is not for beginners. The hill down from the road is steep and requires thoughtful navigation preferably with a sturdy rope. There is a stream at the bottom and the banks are steep and peppered with decaying tree trunks and large stone outcroppings offering physical challenges and fertile ground for fantasy play. The forest canopy is dense and provides good shelter from the sun and rain. It is a beautifully contained world unto itself. Last years crop of kids had some of their most rough-and-tumble adventures there and Robin even found a bone. That was a thrill for all.

On that same morning, Lara and Jana sat quietly on the hillside under a little tree painting their fingernails pink. The rest of the morning was spent with hands poised out in front air drying their shiny nails. I don’t know how they managed to get back up the hill. Tanja and I laughed and considered channelling our inner forest goddess by showing up in full make-up and hair, and maybe even a dress!

This year’s group is much different. I was quickly reminded that I needed to lose my preconceived notions about this place and let it be whatever it was going to before these children — which was decidedly not secret. Holding on to the rope we chugged our way into the woods. With Esmee calling out “Woo Woo!” I had to explain more than once that that being the caboose is every bit as cool as being the engine.

After a long slow train ride we reached the not-so-terribly-secret-after-all place. The spring has been late this year and the foliage is just beginning to pop so the entrance was hardly hidden as it has been in previous years. Never mind. With our rope, we rappelled down the bank one by one. Or in some cases, slid down on our bottoms. Lucas took charge at the spare rope at the bottom barking instructions to the others. We then settled in for a much deserved snack time. Rohan made himself comfortable in a special spot under a tree and looked like a real mountain climber with his gear hanging from the tree above.

With tummies full, the real adventure began. The kids met the landscape of the creek with an unexpected confidence and aplomb. Millie declared herself queen sitting on the throne while Dani negotiated for a place. Would he marry into the monarchy or over throw it? I wondered.

Kadek and a few of the the kids were way ahead of me, as I lagged behind concentrating on helping someone with their buckles and snaps. They had ventured further than I thought we would. The kids were fine. it was the shoes we worried about! Not everybody had rubber boots on. I looked at my phone for the time. 11:15. The day was temperate and we’d be back at the farm within the hour. “Will the parents be angry?” Kadek asked as Diego stood ankle deep in creek water. “No, they know that this is a big part of what we do and they are on board.” We had reached the point of no return.

Suddenly everybody was in the stream and wanting to cross. to the other side.

Some carefully plotted their course so that they could step from stone to stone,

and held out their arms and asked for help.

Some needed just a steadying hand to guide them.

Still another labored quietly yet tirelessly on her own with one false start after another.

And then there were those who crossed confidently, alone or with others.

Trusting themselves and their rubber boots or lack thereof.

And they seemed the happiest of all.

The Gifts of Attention


diego oussywillow stick

We’ve have nothing but endless grey days lately- no sunshine, no rain, no big bursts of color or new life. It seemed the spring was somehow on hold. Now that was a silly thought. I just needed to pay closer attention. And as the morning unfolded, a series of beautiful and unexpected gifts emerged from the grey.

My dear friend Kadek joined us in the forest in Abadit’s absence. If I had to describe Kadek in in a word, it would have to be “grace.” Yes, indeed. Kadek graced us with her gentle, intelligent, loving, good-humored presence. The kids took to her immediately.

Not having been in the forest with the kids quite as often as I, Kadek has a very sensitive “safety alarm,” especially when it comes to sticks. As a recovering over-protective, not to mention, American, mother, I greatly appreciate this. Stick safety is a major theme for forest kids and most kids learn pretty readily how to handle a stick with care. Alumnus forest kid, Jemima, who is now 5 going on 6 and visiting for the day, told us all about it. “Never hit anyone with a stick. Never put a stick near anybody’s face. Always point the stick down at the ground. Never run or climb with a stick in your hand.”

Now Dani, who was also with us today, is much younger than Jemima and rarely comes to the forest with us. It was clear he had a little catching up to do in the area of stick safety. Kadek made him her own special project that morning. Dani found the biggest, coolest stick in the whole forest. It looked like an enormous pair of deer antlers as he proudly held it aloft.

Every child needs stick safety reminders now and then, especially when in the throes of am exciting episode of fantasy play or a moment of conflict. On any given day, I am reciting my stick mantra: “Watch Out,” “Be Careful!” “Hey!” “Easy does it,” the occasional, ” What in the world are you doing with that stick!!” and finally, “Ok, that’s it. Hand over the stick.”

These are all ways of simply asking the children to pay attention.

Attention. That is what we practice in the forest. All of our play and our investigations are, in the end, about paying attention. We pay attention with our eyes, our ears, our touch, our bodies, even our faculties of taste and smell. And as the children develop, their blossoming intellects begin to take part more and more. And in so doing, we learn about our world and ourselves, and each other. We learn the fundamentally important life skill of risk assessment, step by step, moment by moment, as we simply pay attention. I am learning this as well, every single day.

For instance, the farmer had just trimmed some trees and left an enormous mountain of branches on the side of the path. Stick heaven for a four-year-old! Certainly, there is a potential danger to playing in such a pile of sticks, but rather than me forbid it, we paid attention and practiced our risk assessment skills. I watched closely as Rohan climbed aboard, what I’m told later, is an airplane.

A few kids followed. Instinctively they knew they ought to sit at the back of the plane where there is little chance of getting a sharp stick in the eye. As one child began to make his way forward, I simply invited him to notice all the sharp pointy sticks. He came to his own conclusion that it is safer to stay closer to the back. Don’t worry, if necessary, I would swoop in like a mother eagle and pluck the little bird from harm’s way. Yes, there are many times when it is better to learn from someone else’s experiences, rather than suffer any real damage. In such cases, out comes one of my many cautionary tales. Some true, some fictional, I can come up with a story for every occasion. “Did I ever tell you the story about the little boy who… ” (fill in the blank)

Now, had I seen this tanglement of tree limbs as nothing but a potential hazard and forbidden the kids access, look at what we would have missed! On the far side, buried underneath, was a slew of the plumpest, most gorgeous pussy willows you ever saw. We collected them greedily, Kadek and I included. We negotiated the spoils so everyone had enough to take home. Thank you Kadek for sharing with me! We studied these wonderful pussy willows closely, marvelling at the animal-like quality of the fur and paying attention to the softness against our cheeks. Just like my dear old cat, Ned.

The noticing continued as Spring served up some more unexpected fun. The snow came early this winter and stayed, beautifully preserving fall’s deep blanket of leaves. The day was dry and the leaves were ankle deep. Why not enjoy them just as we did last fall.

What began as simply an urge to pile and play with the crispy airy leaves, evolved into a most interesting game/ritual/ exercise in.. you guessed it… paying attention.

One by one the kids buried each other in the dry leaves, leaving only their faces exposed. There was a small learning curve in terms of “leaf safety,” as Rohan will attest to as he got a handful in the face. We managed that particular risk, as Kadek demonstrates, by carefully shielding our friends’ faces, as we gently placed, rather than threw, the leaves. Remember to leave plenty of breathing room!

Good Night Millie, Good Night Millie,
Good Night, Millie,
We’ll see you in the morning.

And quiet as mice, (who are not, actually all that quiet) we watched each child sleep. We waited patiently to see when they would choose to wake up. True to form, Lukas policed us all with more than one well-place “ssshhhh!” Simon was nearly imperceptible in the leaves and remained still longer than I ever thought possible. And Esme, with her companions Piggy and Lion, the mittens, bore witness to the entire proceeding.

A morning well spent.

As we returned to the farm, I noticed Diego negotiating the gifts he had received from the forest that day: the strength of a big noble staff and the tenderness of a handful of pussy willows. Gifts to last a lifetime.

Choreography and Counting


Our morning began with a customary visit to our little garden. “Tickets please!” A small dark-haired boy with a with a most serious look on his face, holds his hand out and collects the imaginary admission fee and the children file into the garden one b

We’d already detected the tiniest sproutings of our tulips a good two weeks ago. Since then the progress was marked and the little plants were standing at attention in a fine line. Who could resist the urge to count them! Different kids gave it a try in both english and german. Most petered out around ten and started randomly pulling numbers out of the air, 7, 10 13, 4… Others had the sequence down pat yet had not made the connection that the numbers correspond to the objects at hand. Next we counted the young tulips plants altogether, pointing gently to each one as we went. One, two, three,… ten, eleven, twelve,… twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty three! Twenty-three tulip plants in a row!

To date, we haven’t done much else with our little garden, other than plant these bulbs, and visit our dragon weekly. There are, however, a collection of sticks in the corner. I assume these are fence posts of some kind the farmer has left for us to utilize. And utilize we did.

Abadit and I stood by quietly grinning to each other as we watched the strange and wonderful dance unfold. One by one, the children acquired a stick and began slowly and purposefully walking around the small rectangular garden space, poking the ground from time to time. A couple of girls paused to offer some slow-motion jousting movements upon encountering each other. The boys, lifted a pole horizontally overhead then the construction dissolved and the choreography continued. The dance of the nursery school druids proceeded for a while then came to its natural conclusion and we propped the sticks in a row against the wire fence. “One, two, three…”

For, me, the once and future choreographer, this was a fascinating performance. “Purposiveness without a purpose.” I remembered Kant’s description of the aesthetic act from my university days.
The same can be said of play, I mused. In fact, from my vantage point, creativity and play are pretty much expressions of the same impulse.

This particular constellation of children has an uncanny ability to come together, cooperate and play as a unit, both with and without purpose. Community at its best, and, I suppose, a sinister sort of Borgian group-mind at its worst. But don’t worry, there has been to date no evidence of the latter among our kids. The children have a much-loved game in which they all lie down together in the middle of the street, usually to ambush Abadit and me and scream at the top of their lungs as we approach. The purpose of this game is, of course, to scare the Bejesus out of us, and we gladly oblige by clutching our hearts and letting out our own startled shrieks.

Often, they plunk themselves down, one by one, in a row on the edge of the path and rest together, even in the snow, or all climb aboard the big tree stump and play bus. Today in the forest, all were participating in a classic game of domestic bliss complete with Mommy, Dad, Big Sister, two small cats and two dogs. As Big Sister was attempting to herd the cats, the two little dogs took a break from the action. They filled our little plastic specimen container with nuts, leaves and small pine cones, took a requist look through the magnifier, then laid the items out neatly on a tree stump and began to count together. “Eins, Zwei, Drei…”

How is Spring like a Child

Sunshine 1

fresh (in more ways than one)
full of wonder
full of promise.

Lambs, Storks and the Search for Spring

millie watches the stork copy

Winter returned to us this morning yet again, running back like a little child for just one more goodbye kiss from Mother Earth. Reluctant to take his leave, Winter gave us one more squally little outburst.

All the while, the Spring continues to be born, she cannot be stopped.

There are new lambs on the farm this morning, still fresh and wet and miraculous. We are allowed to visit them. As we stood before the barn door ready to turn the big old key and enter, I explained to the kids that we needed to be very quiet so as not to frighten the baby lambs and their mamas. Millie was still reeling from her difficult farewell with her own mama this morning. It was impressive how quickly Millie braved up and got the crying under control with baby lambs as incentive! Not that I’m surprised, this lovely child is the queen of picking herself up, dusting herself off, and starting all over again… quite literally.


It’s amazing how, when motivated, especially by love and care, even the wildest kids, or a child like Millie, in the throes of some big emotion, can can find within themselves an unexpected capacity for self control. Last week, one of my most rambunctious and distractible kids managed to stay hidden and quiet as a mouse behind a wood stack for at least a full five minutes motivated by the delicious feeling of fun his game brought.

After our visit with lambs, the farmer asked his grandson who attends the group if we could go into the forest and bring back the spring. The kids were divided as to whether or not that was possible but the search kept us busy all morning.


And finally, on the way home, we stopped for a little bird watching as we spotted a stork in the distance at the pond. Someone was walking their dog on the path on the other side of the pond, and from our vantage point, looked rather close to the stork. Would they startle the stork so that he would spread his enormous wings and take flight? We wouldn’t want to stork to be scared, but it sure would be wonderful to catch a glimpse of him flying! We watched and waited as the dog got closer then further away from the stork, as the person drew nearer and then receded. No luck.

The figure and the dog continued their walk and soon caught up with us. It was the lovely English woman who lives nearby. We see her once or twice a year, usually in spring and she always has something interesting to share with us about the area. She explained how the storks like to eat the frogs who return to the pond to lay their eggs. “Yuck!” was the general reaction. Suddenly there was a wave of excitement, as a second stork flew in and settled down near the first. Drat, I missed it. First one stork, now two! And look at the funny way they walk!

I really wanted to see a stork in flight today and I was determined to wait it out and some of the kids joined me. The rest played happily in the snow. Our patience paid off and we were rewarded with not one but two flights across the field.

I think we just might have found spring after all.

The Crows of Nutcracker Way

bon appetite!

A much as I love the spring, I love the slow transition from winter nearly as much. Two days ago I spotted the first butterfly of the season and then this morning more snow fell. I am not disappointed. I get to bask a little longer in this liminal time and enjoy the lovely anticipation of the warm colorful, flowery days ahead. Plus, it offers me a chance to spend some time thinking and talking about the birds before we are distracted by the butterflies and completely consumed by the gathering of wildflowers as happens every year with pretty much every group of three and four year-olds.

My inner little-old-lady-bird-watcher came out to play with a vengeance just after I procured my first pair of bifocals a couple of weeks ago. Just in time to witness the returning of the birds from all vantage points.

But when it comes to kids, we simply have to start with the crows whom I love dearly for so many reasons. First, they are not shy. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to see them, or hear them for that matter. They carry with them a rich mystical lore and are known to be quite intelligent. I read recently that they have a problem solving ability akin to that of a four-year-old human! No small wonder they are right up my alley.

Our cheeky friends, the crows, are observable all year round which is allowing the children and I to develop a deeper connection to them. They are part of our visible landscape every day. With crows there won’t be any thrilling stories about rare sightings like there are with the more unusual birds like herons and storks that inhabit this area. Instead, our crow stories will be of relationship and gained intimacy. We had one such lovely story the other day.

On our way to the woods, we must first cross the big road then take the small road through the farmers fields to the entrance of the forest. There are always a million things to do and see along this road. In fact, in the early days of our forest play group we used to joke that we should call our group the “on our way to the forest play group.” And with the fields on either side of this narrow road lying fallow and covered with snow, we had occasion one morning recently to discover something previously unnoticed.

Week after week we walk down our road only to to find the edges littered with broken walnut shells. Occasionally a child will collect a few and float them like boats in the large puddles that form in the low lying areas near the horse stalls. Many times a kid will kick a single shell the whole length of the road Huckleberry Finn style seeing how far he can go before it is lost in the grass. Sometimes someone will make a game of stomping on the shells just to enjoy the big cracking and their utter destruction.

Today however we noticed the shells with new curiosity. There is not a walnut tree in sight yet the road is littered with shells. Where did they come from? A few interesting possibilities were suggested then I offered one of my own. “It’s the crows!” “The crows?” “Yes, the crows, the big black birds. They fly over and drop their nuts on the hard street to break them open… just like a like a nutcracker.” I think the kids were as impressed with the idea as I was. On the way back we filled my entire mitten with walnut shells, talked about how cool birds are and practiced our flying and nutcracking skills.

Back at the farm we filled each shell with bird seed and set them out under the big sheltering pine like a tray of scrumptious hors d`oeuvres, an offering and a welcome home to the birds and the coming spring.