When I was a small child I was lucky enough to be sent to a school that had once been a large country house. Its gardens had long been allowed to return to the wild and it was difficult to differentiate between them and the meadows that came with the property. Lessons on warm summer days were often taken outdoors sitting not on chairs but on a bank of short mown grass. This sounds – and was, of course – idyllic but rules were strict and we had to sit in rows as straight as the chairs in the classroom. At playtime we could run about through the longer grass chasing butterflies and trying to catch grasshoppers in our school caps.
Even in those early days I hated being indoors during bad weather and found it hard to concentrate on lessons in the classroom for there always seemed to be something more interesting happening outside. Our teacher must have felt the same for with the first sign of sunshine we would be back once more in the open air. It is said that every child remembers the name of their first teacher and mine, Miss Vine, I recall with great affection and gratitude for it was she that first took me on a nature walk. The walk – the earliest of all my schoolday memories – triggered off a lifelong love of and fascination with nature.
We were led one late winter’s day wrapped up in our gaberdine raincoats, belts tightly buckled at the waist, crocodile fashion in pairs through the meadows further than we had been before. How exciting to be exploring somewhere new! When we came to an old wooden gate we passed through onto a wide, open path lined with trees, their trunks as straight as soldiers and towering high above us. The path instead of being muddy was soft and springy, our feet cushioned by years of fallen needles. Miss Vine had brought us to a larch wood; an inspired introduction to trees for everything about them is childlike in scale apart from their height which she said led to a magic world way, way above.
We never were told how we might reach the magic world but she pointed out the gifts that were dropped from it so that we might learn all about the birds and animals that lived there. She picked up a fallen piece of branch with its tiny cones attached, perfect child-sized miniatures of the larger Spruce fircones, and gave it to us to look at and then we all found our own and carried our ‘gift’ back to the classroom to draw it in painting class.
As the months went by we visited the trees often, watching how the hard, knobbly, dead-looking branches opened into soft tufts of the brightest green. We marvelled at how the cones formed starting off green and pink before turning chestnut and then brown. And in the autumn we watched as the needles – and it puzzled us that needles could be soft – turned glorious shades of yellow and orange before falling to the ground.
During those visits we learnt about different types of trees, about the wild flowers and birds, the animals and other wildlife. It was only many years later that I realised that Miss Vine had taught us that there really was a magic world – the one that we live in and take for granted every day of our lives.