A Walk in the Woods

When I was in the Black Forest for work a couple of weeks ago, I managed to sneak out for a bike ride in the woods one afternoon - you know, to "get a feel for the place". Actually, I was looking for a shortcut from one suburb of Freiburg to another: I had two interviews back to back on opposite ends of the city the following day, and the only thing between them was this fabled forest. I thought it might be faster to cut through it, rather than bike all the way around it.

I was wrong, but frequently, the best moments come out of being wrong. (I know this because I am hardly ever right.) I often forget that though, and then remember again when something goes awry and make a note to be wrong even more often than I already am. For those who know me, this may explain a great deal.

In any case, I was pedalling through the forest, over the flanks of its mountains, but the bike I had wasn't made for the steep inclines, so I wound up pushing it and walking a great deal of the way. It was a weekday and the forest was deliciously empty. It was nearly winter, but that day was warm and cloudless, and the sun cast a sort of diffused fall glow on yellowed leaves.

The scent of dried pine needles burst up with every step, and the silence was intense. I looked down through a rare opening in the trees at a part of Freiburg and I thought: what a great thing to have just outside your back door.

The next day, I visited and did some interviews at a waldkindergarten, or a forest kindergarten,

on the back flank of that mountain near where, on the previous afternoon, I'd had to haul (with much delight) the bike through a great deal of mud and over some felled trees because I'd taken a wrong turn, gotten a bit lost (see above re hardly ever being right), and wound up on a road that had not yet been built.

Forest kindergartens are hugely popular in Germany, and the basic premise is this: pre-school kids go to daycare in the forest all day, and play outside rain or shine, blizzard or heatwave, instead of being cooped up inside a room with a couple dozen other kids. There are no toys - they play with what the forest offers up: sticks, stones, dirt, leaves, etc. It encourages the imagination.

I stayed with the kids and the daycare workers (all men, by the way, though I was told that day was an exception) for the morning and I can tell you that the kids were having a great time. It was chilly and misty,

but they were dressed for the part and moved around so much there wasn't time to get cold. There was bread dough to be made (from scratch) and a fire to be lit in an outdoor oven (three year-olds handling the matches deftly),

songs to be sung, sand to be played with. There was no time for crying (nor, frankly, any reason to) and everything that needed to be done the kids had to do themselves - no help was given unless it was absolutely necessary, but also not dogmatically so.

These kids were way more independent than most kids the same age I know. And they were really confident in the forest, and happy. No one complained about anything - they truly liked where they were, and what they were doing, and were never bored. Just like I'd felt for those few hours in the forest, especially after getting a bit lost.

A few days ago, I started reading Peter Pan. At the very beginning, the author describes the difference between adults and children, and how children form imaginary landscapes, or neverlands. "On these magic shores (of the Neverland) children at play are forever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more," he says.

How true that is.