Trees are easy to take for granted. Standing leafless in the Jemicy woods, dark trunks braced resolutely against the wind, ice, and snow that winter throws at them, they are part of the background landscape. It’s also easy to forget how much of what we deem essential comes from those same solid trunks. While we wait for them to end their dormancy and reveal the first buds of spring, late winter is a good time to look around and acknowledge the presence and value of trees in virtually everything we do. I challenged my classes, as we went about our normal routines and special projects in the last few weeks, to give a shout out to items derived from trees. Some uses were immediately obvious: the classroom furniture, the paper we write on, the wood chips in some animal habitats. But others were more unusual, or creatively Jemicy-esque:
- A paper Valentine delivered to a rat, who added it to her shredded paper bedding
- A hamster maze made of re-purposed paper
- A scrap wood bench custom-built for a stuffed animal
- Trebuchet frames
M Group students, learning about the layers of a tree’s trunk and vascular system, created “tree cookie” pendant necklaces from slices of branches that allowed them to see the annual rings formed in the xylem.
We examined different kinds of fibers and spent a week recycling paper scraps collected from around the school, turning them into our own paper creations.
The best part of learning about the xylem and phloem layers of the tree trunk, though, may be getting to taste what they produce. As the late winter sap began to move from the roots up the tree, carrying sugars formed in last year’s leaves, it was time to see what we could harvest. Once again, we repurposed plastic containers into buckets, drilled holes and tapped in spiles, and hoped for a stretch of cold nights and warmer days.
We managed to collect a few gallons and boiled some of it down over a bonfire (naturally, toasting marshmallows while we waited). Almost everything around us there, it seemed, came from trees: the wood for the fire, the marshmallow sticks, the logs that served as benches, the sap, the leafy mulch beneath our feet.
Once the sap run ended, we turned to our final tree-based winter project: birdhouse construction. Since we do this annually, we first checked previously installed boxes, cleaned out old nests and composted any wood that had rotted. For the new houses, we examined the boards that we would use, learning about their grain, the knots where branches once attached, the way pine trees are grown and milled. In teams, the kids measured, cut, decorated, and assembled the birdhouses.
Amid the sounds of cardinals and woodpeckers announcing their spring territory in the woods, we installed the new birdhouses. Nearby, we are marking off an area to establish a small forest restoration project, with new tree plantings and the replenishment of understory biodiversity: an opportunity to give back to a patch of woods that we have taken for granted.