River Bend Park: Hunting like the Algonquians


Today, on a sparkling clear low-70s fantastic spring day, I went on a school field trip with Thing 3 who is eight to River Bend Park with his class to learn about long-ago Native Americans in our region. He is an inquisitive little guy, articulate and sweetly awkward. He’s on an accelerated intellectual path and he gets dreamy and cozy with his big ideas, speaking to me tenderly about his designs and thoughts about how the world works. While he’s dreaming big, emotionally he’s still tender about being asked to “come back to us,” and he struggles to articulate the feelings he experiences and why he has them.  I like to equate this stage as similar to when little kids fall down: because they’re short, they don’t have far to go; but to them, it’s still a distance and it can be hard on them, a surprise. Optimistically speaking, the younger we catch these snags, the softer the reaction, the more “in the moment” we can inspire them to be. 

He absolutely loves field trips. He loves nature and being outside as much as he loves legos and his DS and video games. When it comes to being in the moment, he loves it; loves to live there and for the most part that’s OK. And he’s quite flexible about social experiences. When we were at lunch at the picnic tables, he was delighted to sit and gaze softly at the river, calmly focusing, sort of taking it all in, his hair gently lifting in the soft breezes that licked our forms. It was still a little crisp, but undeniably lovely outside. We all were happy there. 

I observed his classmates in all their different flavors and styles, races and mannerisms. I was delighted that it seemed to me that Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a colorblind society is growing closer every generation. Girls were not considered weaker or slower or smaller or softer than the boys. As a mom of only three boys, I was over the moon to see that a boy’s tenderness or perceived slowness or clumsiness or were not the subject of criticism. Competition existed on a skills basis only. One girl shot a bow and arrow more than 30 feet and it cleared the tarp that was supposed to catch it. No one said, “great job for a girl!” They all said, “Wow! That was amazing! Way to go, Sally!”

At River Bend Park, Thing 3 enjoys the view from the deck my tax dollars built. 

I strolled with the other parents and children under the dappled sunlight streaming through the breaks between bright, translucent leaves that popped three weeks early. My feet landed silently on the powder-sand soft, multimillennia-old pathway of this amazing park today along the Potomac River.  I listened to the sing-song conversations of the kids; grateful for the moment to “record” in my memory as one when the children are still untainted by social anxiety and inadequacy worries. They were all about the environment. All about each other, about what they saw, ladybugs and butterflies; remembering the snakes sunning on the banks of the river, and what they heard, crows ca-cawing and bees buzzing. Every once in a while I’d hear “fart” talk or “poopy” but that was about it. The kids were in the moment, happy to be away from their desks on a wonderful day with parents all around them. If the parents weren’t their own, they were parents of a good friend, familiar loving people were all around.

Our guide, who had an unusual British accent; sort of Swiss and British in one, took our group to a clearing just before the path forked. I was showing my friend who is moving soon what poison ivy looks like as the guide talked about the botany and native animals of the area. Walking forward a bit slowly now, she talked about the ancient Algonquian people who lived in this area 15,000 years ago and about the tribal children in a comparative sense of the children whose attention was now rapt, hanging on her every word about the very enthralling topic of hunting and gathering. Even more exciting for them all was when she talked about what “animals leave behind them…” and the kids said, “food!” and “farts!” and one little girl said, “I know the answer, but I don’t think it’s polite to talk about.” 

Our guide kindly laughed and said, “Yes, it’s OK to talk about. Poop. The animals leave behind what we call ‘scat’ or what you know as ‘poop’.” The kids laughed in an uproar, easily frightening all the fauna to beyond a mile’s distance. 

Once the laughter subsided, our guide explained how the Algonquian used their senses to hunt. Slowly and more quietly with every sentence, she explained that total silence was essential to be a good hunter. The best hunters listened to everything with all their might. Did we want to be good hunters like the Algonquian? She whisper-spoke to the group. Heads nodded in assent and children hushed, “yesssss” in reply. 

She had us. We were ready to hunt.

In order to get us into the zone, she asked us all to put our own feet very close to each other and stand still, like a pole. The ground was so soft and quiet, like a pair of fantastic and well-loved mocassins, that standing there, in this idyllic place, with all this breathtaking scenery and its gentle, nearly silent breeze was an indulgence for we oft-harried Fairfax County people. Next, she said, I want you to breathe slowly through your nose if you can, and then close your eyes and listen to everything you hear. Keep your eyes closed for one minute to take in all sounds, and breathe deeply and slowly because as an Algonquian, you would be able to smell your prey as every creature has its distinct odor. Listen for the breezes and the snaps of twigs; and of the wind rustling through a hawk’s feathers kiting overhead. And so we were ready, especially the parents, waiting, desperately for that command . . . 

Close your eyes and listen. 

We heard everything: woodpeckers di-li-gen-t-ly lo-ok-ing for b-u-gs, cardinals and sparrows singing out, “wittow-woo! wittow-woo!” and “tweet-woo! tweet-woo!” for their mates; ducks on the water to the east dipping their necks and ruffling their wings as the chilly rivulets ran off, squirrels leaping from “swoosh!” branch to “swoosh!” branch, the wind rustling the leaves just so. . . on and on went the wonderful melody that is nature. And then an airliner. And then she told us to open our eyes. 

In unison, we parents looked at each other, our eyes if not our words, expressing: “Wow . . . that’s it? Can’t we go back? That was wonderful! Must we stop now? It was so good. That wasn’t a minute….” 

We were tricked! We didn’t care about the airliner. We were totally fine with that foreign sound, we could cancel it out, disregard it, not mind it… can’t we go back? C’mon, let’s try  . . .  even the kids seemed a little disappointed; their little Walter Mitty moments as hunters broken. A collective consent and compliance took over the group. 

No. Keep the line moving. 


So bummed. You could see an entire class of 20 parents just deflated. I wanted to kick a rock or flick a beetle. We were in a momentary nirvana — I mean, all of us were there, man. Timothy Leary or not, we were there. 

We continued on the path, blah blah blah. 

Who cares what happened next. The kids shot a bow and arrow at a tarp, then they used some other device to throw a spear. Whatever. We were interrupted. 

What I realize now, as I type this, that while we were all slightly disappointed that we were brought back to reality before our 60 seconds were up, we could take ourselves back there any time. Even though there’s something special, something seemingly better about going there, under the trees, along the river, on the path, near the bugs and the birds, where the Algonquian did it, we all can “go hunting like the Algonquians” anywhere, anytime.  We just have to remember to let ourselves go.  

thank you.  

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