Three years prior to the invitation to visit the Lincoln Street School, a treasured, massive, but dying, Champion Norway Spruce was cut down. When I arrived, the loss of this tree was still evident in both the landscape and the community psyche. This tree had been more than a simple fixture on the land; it was a gathering place, one where deep memories and bonds were forged. People shared stories with me of first kisses, fathers teaching daughters to climb, and boys carving initials into limbs – everyone had some connection to this tree. I began to see this spot as sacred, yet now deeply scarred.
While still brainstorming possibilities for my visit to the school, I was surprised to find the logs languishing in the brush a distance away. At once, I realized this wood and this particular place had to be the focus of my work here. I began to consider the stump as a locus for an outdoor classroom – an excuse for teachers to bring students out-of-doors, into the wild to experience the real. The motif of a Native American Medicine Wheel came naturally as I considered the stories and histories of this place – now an elementary school, previously a women's' seminary, and long ago part of an indigenous network of hunting and fishing grounds. The Medicine Wheel is traditionally a device and site used for physical and spiritual healing, thus our Medicine Wheel became a gesture of healing and peace to reframe the abandoned stump and logs from a point of loss to a point of celebration looking both backward and forward.
The real work of landscaping and building the benches was a community effort. Students worked during my residency period, teachers came after hours, parents joined in when they could, and, generously, The Timberland Company collaborated by selecting the project as an annual service project. On Earth Day 2009, 50 Timberland volunteers arrived with everything from rakes & shovels to power tools and snacks. In one day, we transformed the site by cleaning up trails, weeding and mulching the classroom, building the benches and planting vines to grow along (and ultimately hide) the fence. Each stone placed around the wheel has a specific reference to a particular animal, and there are deep layers of meaning in each placement. Four newly planted anchor trees represent the compass points and the promise of the future.
The students created clay relief sculptures of the local wildlife creating their own Native American inspired iconography. Each sculpture was then cast in aluminum, using a simple sand casting technique, and made from soda cans collected by the students. We then inlay these aluminum pieces into the benches providing a reminder to honor the creatures surrounding this place.
Now this tree is once again a site for sharing stories and learning. Teachers have brought the students outdoors again to study, meditate, journal, create music and poetry, and to perform. Repurposing the lumber to create benches, recycling the cans to make sculpture, and the symbolism to the wheel's elements and sculptures are not lost on these children; they collectively take great pride in our accomplishment and continue to celebrate the spruce.
The outdoor classroom has since been awarded a "School Yard Habitats" designation by the National Wildlife Federation.