I'm back on the Island, and spring has been set back at least two weeks, maybe three.
I knew this would happen--the Island is farther north than campus is, so their spring is later, and I remember the difference from last year, but it's still kind of shocking to get in the car in the morning and everything is green (though not fully leafed out) and then step out of the car in the afternoon and all the trees are bar, skeletal, their buds just beginning to swell.
I came up with Charlie and, to my surprise, Allen and his family. Last year, the masters all traveled with us (except for Greg, of course, who stayed behind). But this year, Allen decided to head up a few days early with his family and make a family vacation out of it, and so all seven of us (Allen, Lo, their kids, Charlie, and I) and all our stuff piled in to this old minivan that Lo has and we went north.
It's kind of a long trip, especially for little kids, so Charlie and I sat in the back,on either side of Alexis in her car seat, and we tried to keep the kids entertained.
I hadn't spent much time with them and I guess they were curious, so Julie spent a lot of time asking me questions. Why I'm at school, what I'm studying, where I came from, what I plan to do next, whether I have any brothers or sisters or children--
"Children!" I exclaimed. "I'm only twenty, Julie," I told her.
"I know. You said that already. But Kayla's thirteen and she has Aidan." She had me there.
"Yes, but that's unusual."
"I know. But you're unusual or you wouldn't be here." She had me there, too.
"Hey, Daniel, you can ask her to leave you alone, if you want to," Allen reminded me from the front seat. He was driving. Julie looked at me and waited patiently for me to make up my mind. I noticed she didn't take her father's comment as an admonition that she should leave me alone. I suppose that, as the daughter of two psychologists, she's familiar with the idea of personal agency.
"No, it's ok," I decided. And so Julie kept asking me questions. Charlie, meanwhile, was listening gravely to Alexis talk on and on and on about something that was either the story of Little Red Riding Hood or something she had made up entirely on her own. I couldn't quite catch most of her words, but Charlie paid as much attention to her as he would have given to one of his adult students. David stared morosely out the window.
After our first pit stop, Julie asked Charlie to play I Spy and David perked up a bit. Apparently this is something he does with them a lot. It's not the same game that I learned as a kid, where you might say "I spy with my little eye something green," and then everyone has to guess which green thing you mean. Instead, they always spy things like an American goldfinch, a gymnosperm (any plant whose seed is not encased in a fruit, like a pine tree), or a winesap (as in the kind of apple). In the car, of course, whizzing by things at sixty miles an hour, there's no time to say the ritual phrase "I spy with my little eye," so the game was basically naming what you saw out the window and seeing if anyone else could spot it before it was gone.
"I see them--there!"
"There--behind that mountain!"
"Oo! Horses! And llamas!"
"You can't do two things in one turn."
"But they're in the same field!"
"So? You have to pick."
That was David, arguing that Jane couldn't do two things. He argued a lot in a bossy sort of way, though he remained respectful of the adults. I think he was in a bad mood for whatever reason.
"I spy a bird!" squealed Alexis, pointing. Of course, pointing was kind of giving it away, I'm not sure she gets the point of the game.
"That's not a bird" pronounced David, "that's a turkey vulture."
"No," corrected Charlie, somewhat sternly, "it is a bird. There's nothing wrong with accurate vagueness." David scowled and looked away. "You are correct," Charlie told Alexis, "that is a bird. A turkey vulture is a kind of bird. Do you want to know how to recognize a turkey vulture?" Alexis nodded, so he told her. There were several soaring around, high enough that they stayed in view a long time and Alexis leaned over nearly into Charlie's lap so she could look out the window as he pointed out field characteristics to her.
I'm not really surprised that Allen's kids can pick up all this stuff. I remember when I was little I was obsessed with baseball for a year and I learned everything I could about the game. I could recite rules and statistics and team rosters until everybody around me got bored and wandered away. Another year I got into looking up random words in the dictionary, just opening up a dictionary and finding something, and then using my new word whenever I could for a week. Kids are really good at soaking stuff up. They're natural geeks. What surprised me was how thoroughly Charlie seems to have taken advantage of that and how thoroughly these kids have responded to him. He's made learning natural history (and, I suspect, interesting tidbits about language and the finer points of literature) their special game they can use to connect with him.
I made eye contact with Allen through the rearview mirror.
"I learned my birds from David," he told me, guessing my thoughts. David perked up a bit at that and smiled with pride.
David is thirteen now, or nearly so--I don't know when his birthday is, but he was twelve last year. Everyone seems to think this is his last year as a Sprout, or maybe it will turn out last year was. There's no rule about it, but they usually lose interest in being treated like children and start spending most of their time with older friends, being teenagers. Or, if they do keep hanging out with the others, they start acting more like babysitters. It's something that happens inside each Sprout, but I'm not sure it's something they choose, exactly, either. I think it's happening to David, that this is his last family vacation as a child, and I think he knows it and that is why he is argumentative and morose.
We finally got to the Island and pulled into the campground. This early in the year, we had it to ourselves, pretty much. I had expected to camp with the others, but I hadn't asked about it and it turned out that wasn't the plan.
Allen, of course, wants time to spend with his family, and when the other masters get up here,they will want time away from students, so I can't camp with them. On the other hand, the students will be here in order to bond with each other as a group of yearlings, so I can't camp with them, either. But Charlie hates campgrounds and prefers to sneak off and stay in illegal sites and so I'm staying with him.
He had given me a very strict and minimal packing list so that my stuff and the other gear he gave me all fit into a single large backpack. He had his own pack and we walked down the road to the little stone beach where we all played in the water with Allen last year, and then we stepped into the woods and found a place to hide.
We are not allowed to do this at all, but Charlie justifies it by saying that the rules are made to protect the Island from idiots, and we are not idiots. And it is true this is super-Leave-No-Trace camping. We're even going to move our site every day or so, so that we don't trample the vegetation or compact the soil. And of course, we're going to pack up everything during the day so that no one can find our site. We're just two guys hanging out on the beach with backpacks.
The camp is interesting, since we don't have tents. Instead, each of us has a hammock strung between trees, with a line above the hammock to hang a tarp off of when it rains. Getting into a sleeping back in a hammock is a bit of a trick, and you need foam padding to line the hammock for warmth, just like you would on the ground. The hammock lines are broad webbing so the pressure doesn't hurt the trees. There's water, a little stream that flows into the beach and sinks down in among the stones, and we're going to keep our food back at the campground in the van overnight so as not to attract animals. We're not going to cook anything, so we have no stove and no cooking pots to deal with, just ourselves, our extra clothes, our hammocks, and my notebook and maps. Charlie doesn't need a notebook apparently, a map.
The first day was warm and sunny, though last night I heard the fog roll in, a dripping sort of thing, a muffling of sound. In the dark, I listened to the small waves crashing among the rocks of the beach at the change of the tide, the larger crashing of the waves on the exposed headlands farther off, and the dinging of the navigational buoys and I fell asleep, smiling.
[Next Post: Friday, May 9th: Leading the Hike]