From the archives

This article first appeared in the Primitive Pursuits introductory guide “Not Your Typical Classroom.” Booklet was prepared by Melissa Mueller in November 2009. Contributors included Heidi Bardy, Beth Bannister, Tim Drake, Dave Hall, and Jed Jordan. 

Walking through the woods, I’ll send students on quick warp speed errands. I’ll say “Quick, who can find something to make tea?” The group will dash around and come back with various plants or leaves, some useful, some not. Then I’ll say:

“Oh what I really want is hemlock needles – those will taste so good with these rosehips we collected earlier.”

Hearing me say the word “needles.” the students have a hint of what to look for, but are still a little uncertain. Depending on the woods we are in, they may return with white pine, hemlock, red pine, or other examples of needle-leaves. Then they gather around, waiting to see who “passed” the challenge.

I like to go slowly through each item they brought, pointing out the differences, and drawing out the suspense. “Look, this one has flat little needles with stripes underneath, and look how this one has long, soft needles in clusters of five.”

Their bodies are tense with the anticipation of hearing the word “hemlock” and finally, I tell them what the different plants are called and what they are good for. Maybe we’ll keep both the hemlock and the white pine to add to our tea, which they will cook later over the fire. As they drink the tea, it will warm them outside and in, and they’ll remember the needles clustered on the branch, the search for the tea-needles, and perhaps look at “pine” trees with new eyes.