When ashes are better than branches

One of the things that I love about my forest school is all of the unpredictable avenues of conversation that take place round the fire whilst the children are off doing Important Things. This week I met a mum who told a story that fitted in so well with my current educational worldview that it was almost as if she’d come along at exactly that moment, to tell exactly that story, just so I could feel assured that I am doing the Right Thing. (Don’t you just love it when that happens?)

Having decided to emigrate, this mum was faced with the task of sorting through several years of her children’s extensive collection of homemade arts and crafts. They were all, no doubt, lovingly created – some presented as gifts, some made to express their thoughts, some as clear representations of the mad fantasy world that exists within a child’s mind. I’m sure that in their own way, each of these pieces of art, having already been selected for saving, represented a special moment in life which this mum relived in melancholy waves of joy and sorrow whilst facing the reality that her babies were growing up.

And yet, she vetted, she thinned, she shook the wheat from the chaff. Eventually she was left with a couple of boxes of indisputably indespensible Art which was then stored for safe keeping in their house which, though unoccupied by humans, was stuffed to the gills with memories and treasure. And then the story took a darker turn.

Emigration achieved, an unexpected phone call informed the family that the house had been ransacked, the boxes of art upturned and used as tinder to set the place alight. The irreplaceable record of her children’s evolving artistic endeavours was incinerated without remorse.

And even though she was crying when she told this story, she said she was happy. Because the decision had been taken out of her hands. The weight of owning ‘things’ had been lightened and somehow she felt that, though it was sad, it helped her to move on with her new life in a new place.

Shame then, that a ten year old did not quite see the simple beauty of being freed from the bonds of possession when he arrived at the woods to discover that his den, the den that had been meticulously and passionately planned and debated and which eventually took the shape of something resembling a den, had been destroyed by thugs (I’m sorry if I just called your child a thug – they’re not – it’s just an expression).

Because for him, that den wasn’t just a den, it was a physical manifestation of his ideas and his plans. Its existence was proof that he was capable of developing an idea and turning it into something tangible. It really didn’t matter if, once built, the den had no practical use and lay abandoned, doomed to become firewood for one of my roaring blazes.

And I get this, I do. Building something – dreaming it, vsualising it, planning it, developing it, testing it, and then setting it loose on the world – is a beautiful thing. But the thing about things is they keep us still – they keep us tied to a place (or an idea or a pair of shoes, or whatever). So if we want to grow and evolve our lives, we have to be willing to walk away from the things.

And even though he’s ten, and even though he was devastated, he found a way to get over it and get on with his day. Certainly it was a harsh start to the morning, but perhaps there’s something vital in having the decision to free yourself from your things taken out of your hands. That mum couldn’t throw away the art. That boy couldn’t dismantle his den. But once someone had done that for them, they were free to get on with other things.

There’s no way of knowing, when you build your den, whether the next people who come along will think it’s amazing and look after it and use it and eventually start to build on it themselves and make it better until it’s the best damn den on earth. Or maybe you leave your den in the woods and the next people who come along jump on the branches and turn it into a bonfire. (I guess if it was a roaring bonfire that might feel a bit better).

But you have to leave it there. Because you can’t take the den with you. You can’t travel the world with ten years of your children’s art in a backpack. You can’t hang onto your ideas and keep them yours and believe that everyone else better just stick with the programme or else.

And even though I’ve promised that I am Absolutely Not going to keep looking for the hidden learning opportunity in every. single. thing. the children do, please permit me to do that for just a moment here.

Surely when your den is wrecked you are learning a most valuable lesson. Out of the destruction of a den comes the realisation that usually when you have to make something a second time it turns out better. Perhaps you also learn that it was the process of creation which inspired you to act rather than the possession of a finished object – and surely it is willingness to create and innovate which gives us pleasure as humans. No doubt you’ll learn that you just can’t take it with you anyway.

If you’re lucky, you’ll also learn to acknowledge that, just as you gained wisdom and pleasure from building the den, someone else will be able to grow stronger and healthier because of what they did with it once they made it their own. (Who knows, maybe a den turned into a bonfire could enable a late night conversation which could spark a great idea which will eventually change the world?)

Have the ideas. Build the stuff. Create the art. Enjoy being in the moment. Embrace the process of creation. And then be glad that you have learned to walk away.

That way it doesn’t matter if someone makes a bonfire of your hard work.

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