With Respect to Nature

There’s a quiet revolution gaining momentum on ten wooded acres in Aquinnah. It’s a place where children and adults convene to learn about the natural world – without cell phones and laptops, armed only with their senses – a place where dirty fingernails and muddied feet are the norm.

It’s a quintessential late July morning, with deep blue skies and a warm, gentle breeze moving the tops of the old trees surrounding the Vanderhoops’ gray-shingled home. The tepee across the field and the unspoiled distant water view evoke a simpler time. A three-minute walk down a well-worn path through the woods leads to a clearing where a small group of boys and girls sit in a quiet circle with several adults. All eyes are fixed on a primitive object: a twig with shells, beads, and a feather suspended from it on strings.

“What kind of bird do you think this feather came from?” the leader, Saskia, asks the group. She is fair-haired and blue-eyed with a penetrating gaze and a no-nonsense demeanor. The children offer suggestions. “A woodpecker?” asks one. “A yellow-bellied sapsucker?” offers another. Instead of answering their questions, Saskia patiently coaxes information from her rapt audience. They discuss how woodpeckers would have stiff tail feathers and conclude that this feather must come from another species. In another minute they are up and on a mission: to move as silently as they can – in spite of their obvious enthusiasm – to sneak up on and observe a nearby bird.

“We teach people of all ages how to watch, listen, and engage all our senses in nature,” explains Saskia Vanderhoop, founder and director of Sassafras Earth Education, a year-round experiential learning program. Sassafras is located on land owned by Saskia and her husband, David, just a stone’s throw from town hall and a century away from the world as we know it.

Focused primarily on introducing children to the beauty and richness of nature, Sassafras allows Saskia and David to share their intimate understanding of the environment in a relaxed and unspoiled setting. With Saskia working full-time spearheading the programs and David serving as her part-time “right-hand man,” the Vanderhoops have enjoyed deliberately slow but steady growth since offering their first summer camp in 2005. “We had a wait list this summer,” Saskia says of 2010.

From day-camp sessions in July to off-season weekday and weekend programs, Sassafras is a wilderness-based program. In other summer camps across the Island, children learn to ride horses, stage performances, grow crops, sail, snorkel, play tennis, or care for alpacas. At Sassafras, they follow streams, sing songs, tell stories, create shelters, track animals, build fires, carve wood, play games, identify edible plants, and make crafts – all with respect for the natural world and personal safety as constant themes. And while much of what the campers learn is derived from indigenous traditions, Saskia says, the teachings are not Wampanoag-based.

Vanessa Fink of Edgartown, mother of Ethan, age eight, has watched Sassafras transform her son. “He loves to go,” she says. “When I think about how I want my kids to interact with the natural world and their surroundings, this gives them anything I can imagine, including an awe of nature and practical life skills. He has a new inquisitiveness. He’s paying attention to what’s around him.” Vanessa marvels at Ethan’s easy recognition of dormant poison ivy and edible plants in the woods, and mole trails on the beach. “He can safely start a fire from one match,” she says with pride.

Saskia says her goals are to guide people toward an understanding of their importance in nature, to encourage them to spend more time in the natural world, and to help them find strength and passion through their discovery. A native of the Netherlands, she grew up surrounded by an unspoiled environment, riding her horse to friends’ houses, exploring the woods, and learning about animals and plants.

“When I had my son Evan seventeen years ago, we were living in Amsterdam,” Saskia explains. “I took him to parks to get him outdoors, but it was a sad comparison to my own childhood. He saw dog poop and trash. That’s not how children should experience the outside world.”

After traveling around the world and earning a master’s degree in cultural anthropology, Saskia moved to the Vineyard and studied survival skills for the next ten years, learning about mentoring methods from internationally recognized naturalists and survivalists Jon Young and Tom Brown Jr. In 2005, she launched her own outdoor education program. Sassafras is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making nature-based education accessible to as many people as possible on the Vineyard – with reasonable rates, discounts for multiple sessions, barter, and scholarships available. Saskia is committed to teaching others to connect – or reconnect – with the natural world. She also travels throughout the United States and Europe representing the nature-connection movement and getting others involved as mentors.

Parents are encouraged to attend introductory sessions on the Sassafras approach and to become involved as volunteers or as nature-connection trainees. Other adult offerings include Women Circles, which focus on sisterhood and connection to nature, and are held in the tepee during colder months and under the stars around a campfire in summer.

“Adults seem to really enjoy when we suggest that they find their own outdoor private space,” Saskia says. “They bring back stories of the plants and birds they suddenly see everywhere, as well as a new joy and sadness. There’s a joy in connecting to nature in a way they haven’t experienced, and a sadness in knowing how they’ve missed it. They realize that life is too rushed and that they need more time.”

Gabe Gaston, fourteen, has participated in wilderness programs since the age of six. From Wallkill, New York, his family summers in Katama. He has spent the past four years assisting Saskia. As he reinforces safe carving techniques to other children slightly younger in age, he explains: “I love passing on the skills I’ve learned. I try to help kids reach the level of connection I have with the woods. This experience has given me greater ingenuity and imagination. Out here, you have to learn to work with less.”

Just down the hill from Gabe and his intent coterie of whittlers, a group of four- to six-year-olds sits in a circle, singing songs and listening “with coyote ears” to the sounds around them. Above, on a well-traveled trail, a small pack of nine- to eleven-year-old girls puts the finishing touches on two handcrafted “debris shelters” built from broken tree branches, sticks, and leaves, enthusiastically pointing out the attributes of each.

Out here, miles from the frenetic pace of modern America, you can hear warblers trilling and crickets chirping, the warm summer breeze stirring the tops of centuries-old trees. And, if you’re really quiet, you can almost make out the sound of the clock rewinding to a much simpler way of Vineyard life.