Natural wonders

Sign up for camp

The 25th Rappahannock Nature Camp is June 20-July 1. Sponsored by the Piedmont Environmental Council, the camp is open to boys and girls 8 to 12 years old. Campers will explore the forests, meadows, rivers and ponds of Singing Creek, three miles south of Sperryville. Activities are all outdoors and will include study of all kinds of natural communities, identifying insects and snakes, catching and releasing wild animals, producing a camp newspaper, and camping out for one night. Contact camp director Lyt Wood at 540-675-1088 or singingcreek

If it turns out that nature is indeed your mother, then Lyt Wood is pretty sure she wishes you’d call more often.

Wood, a Rappahannock citizen for going on 35 years now, will turn 59 this summer during the 25th annual Rappahannock Nature Camp — a two-week day camp for 8- to 12-year-olds he helped start and began leading in 1986 down at the old Shaw House on Rock Mills.

His point about nature’s call is that it’s the call most often dropped these days by kids otherwise engaged with all the cell phones, video games and technological distractions of this media-rich, attention-poor 21st century.

“We always ask the kids what they’d be doing if they weren’t at nature camp,” Wood says. “The No. 1 answer is, ‘playing video games.’”

His jacket covered in a light dusting of wood chips, Wood took a few moments’ time off from his usual work — that is, he agreed to sit indoors at his place on a wooded hillside off Woodward Road south of Sperryville — to talk about the popular, long-running camp program.

And about why he feels he’s been lucky.

Turns out it’s not just because his paid work — tree consultant, and before that forestry work for the state — happens to coincide with his real name, or his own essential nature. It’s that the camp, he says, continues to provide useful, enduring lessons not just for the two dozen kids who show up every June, but for Wood himself.

“The great lesson I’ve learned — and it was the children who taught it to me — is that nature’s lessons are life’s lessons,” he says. “They’re the same thing.

“For example, to learn to listen to the song of a bird, to identify that bird, you have to listen very closely. Is it such a great leap to learn to listen, and I mean really listen, to your fellow human beings?”

Lyt Wood shares the wonders of nature with youngsters at Rappahanock Nature Camp every June. Rappahannock News Staff Photo/Roger Piantadosi.

Since its first year, Wood says, the camp has focused on the kids’ experience of discovering for themselves the natural world’s mysteries — and to come to understand, through writing, drawing, discussion and the all-important “quiet time,” what it means to be part of it.

“We don’t feed them a lot of information,” says Wood, speaking of himself, co-director Trista Grigsby and the two other counselors who run the program, which moved in 1998 to Woods’ own Singing Creek property on the Hazel River, where a converted open-sided barn doubles as a gathering place and classroom/laboratory. “We need them to just get outside, get their feet wet and their hands muddy, and observe things in their own living habitats.”

That said, it’s not hard to get Wood started on why the camp means a lot to him.

At the 1988 Rappahannock Nature Camp, in the back row, counselor Beth Conover, director Lyt Wood and instructor Robin Purnell help the Rappahannock Nature Camp’s class of 1988 show off their artwork. Photo by Linda Coit.

“Yes,” he says, goaded on by a loaded question posed by a representative of the Main Street media in his living room. “The modern world, it seems, conspires to rob children of childhood. They’re pushed at an early age to pursue intellectual things, pass tests, operate electronic devices, and even in their leisure hours, they’re taken up by a virtual reality.

“It’s not my place to say intellectual pursuits are bad for children,” says Wood. “It’s just that I’m trying to fill in — to add that balance.”

Wood recalls more than once pointing out something “really beautiful, say, a moth” — and having a child say, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen that on the Internet,” and walk away.

“Our job is to guide children past that experience,” he says. “For a while, I felt very alone in thinking this way, but we’re at the point nowadays where the value of this approach is beginning to be acknowledged.”

Even on, say, Facebook?

Campers and counselors pose on a footbridge over the Hazel River during the 2003 Rappahannock Nature Camp.

“Interestingly enough, this year’s theme for study is . . . community,” Wood says, smiling. “We’ll be hoping to allow the kids to discover for themselves what a ‘community’ really is, and what a ‘friend’ really is, so they have the foundation to make those judgments for themselves as they grow up.”

Wood says there are no “conservation” or “preservation” lectures made to the kids, and that’s been true since the camp started — with the original help of the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) and the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP) and others. (PEC still pays administrative and insurance costs, and tuition and community donations pay for the rest, Wood says.)

“These are young children, who need to feel at home in the world,” he says. “What goes missing often in modern life are the opportunities kids get to explore and understand the world, and feel a part of it, instead of feeling detached.”

Wood says the kids’ experience at camp has evolved over the years but always remained grounded — in an exceptionally literal way, and especially during its one overnight camp at the end of the two-week term.

Dylan Dwyer helps with instruction as a counselor during the 2007 camp. Photo by Anna Oehser.

Since the 1986 camp, co-directed by Wood and Hunt Harris, it has moved over the years from Rock Mills to Hazel River Camp to the Sharps’ Mountain Green and the Birds’ Horseshoe Hollow Farm, and has been directed or co-directed by Tutt Stapp-Harris, Bobette Swindler, Trish Bartholomew and Robin Purnell.

In a retrospective article he wrote for last fall’s RLEP newsletter, Wood recalled an 11-year-old girl from a camp session long ago who had a penchant for finding tiny things.

She was “proudly holding up the tip of her finger, on which was perched a minute green inchworm, proclaiming, ‘And just think — I used to take all these things for granted!’

“This is what we want to accomplish,” Wood wrote. “To allow children to discover for themselves the wonder and beauty of the natural world, and to understand what it means to be part of a community of living things. Without such an appreciation and understanding, any concepts of ‘conservation’ and ‘environment’ acquired later in life will inevitably be abstract and self-serving. We have to remind ourselves: That 11-year-old girl is now a 30-year-old woman.”

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 545 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.