The grass grew almost shoulder height, dotted with wildflowers, with cardinals chirping and a cedar waxwing perched like a pennant on the top branch of a nearby tree. I stood in the midst of these native species and imagined the wonder that Etienne Brule and Jean Nicolet, thought to be the first European explorers of modern-day Wisconsin, must have experienced at seeing such beauty stretch as far as the eye could see.
Today such sights are bound by civilization – the field in which I stood is a plot of a few acres surrounded by subdivisions. Called the Thorson Tory Cleary Outdoor Classroom, it is a memorial to Victoria “Tory” Cleary, a 9-year-old student at Thorson Elementary School in Cedarburg, Wisc. who was killed in a vehicle accident in 1999.
I first learned about the field a few years after it was made into a nature preserve, seeded with native grasses and flowers. At that time, about 15 years ago, a portion of the land was in danger of being sold to permit better traffic flow into a nearby housing development. My sister, then a member of the school’s PTA, joined other parents in protest. They were concerned for several reasons, including the additional traffic and the probability of the preserve becoming crisscrossed by footpaths as people cut through the property from the proposed road. A priority for the parents was that the land be preserved as an outdoor classroom to allow their children to watch the cycle of seasons, to see the tracks of wildlife in the snow, to learn about the importance of preservation.
My sister and the others wrote letters to the school board and attended city council meetings, arguing against the proposed encroachment. Eventually the decision was made in their favor, and as a result, all these years later I was able to watch chickadees flit through the trees, have my sister identify the different native flowers and grasses, and exclaim in pleasure at rounding a bend in the path and seeing a bur oak, a tree native to Wisconsin that she was unaware had taken root in the preserve.
That evening, as I reflected on the day, I said a prayer of thanks for the efforts of my sister and the other unnamed champions of the outdoor classroom. I’m aware that in history’s grand stream, their fight against City Hall is nothing more than a ripple. The fact that they kept the road from encroaching on the preserve probably won’t be mentioned in their obituaries; if a history of the Thorson Tory Cleary Outdoor Classroom is written, not one of them is likely to be mentioned by name.
It’s also true that had they lost their fight, the preserve would have still been usable as an outdoor classroom, albeit with more street noise and pedestrian traffic. That loss of serenity would have come at a cost. The peace that comes from having all the senses engulfed by nature is unreplicable in this modern world where manufactured tastes, smells, sounds, sights and sensations surround us day and night, with no escape except to walk into the wilderness.
The outdoor classroom remains as a place for just such a walk. Its care has passed to a new generation, who have erected a roof over the pavilion where classes can be held, installed a few benches along the path, and perhaps even planted the bur oak. I pray that their example and the experiences the classroom provides will allow today’s students to grow up as my sister’s children did, to study the sciences and enjoy long hikes in the wilderness.
In the meantime, I am thankful that it provides an oasis for wayfarers like me to pause, refresh myself and pray.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic.