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Classroom in the meadow

WE take care of a ranch in the mountains of northeastern Oregon. The nearest school is more than 20 miles down a rough, narrow gravel road along a river. All winter the road is covered with ice and snow. Even in spring and fall, when the road is safer, getting to school by bus, being there all day, and then getting home would take almost 12 hours, and we aren't willing to commit our two daughters to that long a day. So we accept the responsibility for educating our own children.

We have read regularly to our daughters since they were babies. They were eager to enter the rich world of books beyond what we could read to them. When Juniper was 6 and Amanda was 4, we helped them learn to read. They were soon reading anything they wanted to read, with occasional help with vocabulary and with some lessons on the structure of the English language, as needed. Their own interests guide them into reading that gives them a large part of their education.

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While I irrigate meadows, repair fence, cut hay, and feed cattle, Laura and the girls have school most mornings at the kitchen table, to keep them current on subjects they would be studying if they were enrolled in a public school.

Some who hear of our approach to our daughters' education are concerned. Aren't our children missing opportunities? I'm sure they are. But they also have educational opportunities that few people, children or adults, have.

After lunch, for example, my daughters and I drove down to the sawmill field. I said, ``See the cranes down on the field? They're gray, and those gray logs are directly behind them, so they're hard to see, but they're there.''

It took some looking, but they eventually both saw the cranes. ``Are they sandhill cranes?''


``Then those are the same ones that fly right over the house sometimes?''

``Yes, they are.''

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``How close can we get to them?''

``We'll find out, because I have to work on a ditch near where they are.''

We crawled under the fence, walked through sagebrush, and started down the ditch toward the old spring house, walking slowly. Behind me, one of the girls said, ``They're already getting nervous about us.''

We stood for a while, then took a few slow steps. When we were more than 100 yards from them they began to call and to walk away. Even though we stopped and stood still, they took to wing, running and jumping to get into the air.

Amanda asked, ``Do you ever get closer to them?''

``I've been closer in casual encounters but never by trying to get closer. They're very wary birds.''

``Are they rare?''

``Not as rare as whooping cranes or trumpeter swans. But we usually only have one pair in this valley. Sometimes the young come back and are here part of the summer. Last year we had two pair. As far as I know, that's the first time.''

We walk down the field, south of the pond, and then turn and walk toward it, headed for a ditch that needs some work.

I say, ``There still are geese on the pond. They're behind the bank closest to us. I can only see their heads above the bank. They're dark heads against a dark background, so they're hard to see, but you can see the chin straps. Look for the moving white spot just above the bank.'' That pair takes to wing and flies past close in front of us, up the field, and glides back to the ground.

I open the ditch with my shovel to get water onto the field south of the pond. Amanda finds a tightly curled orange caterpillar floating in the water. We try to decide if it is dead or just dormant because it's so cold, but we don't reach a conclusion. She puts it carefully into a willow bush. If it isn't dead, it will be all right after it dries out and warms up there. Then Amanda helps me clean dead grass from the ditch. Juniper walks along the bank of the pond, exploring.

When the water is running right, we head back up the ditch. ``Are the cranes shyer than geese?''

``Yes. You were much closer to those two geese yesterday than we were to the cranes today, weren't you, Juniper? Do you see those two geese ahead of us? Look. See that tallest willow bush at the edge of the field? They're right in front of that, but closer to us.''

``Oh. One of them just raised its head. Now I see them.''

``Do you still see them, now that it put its head back down?''


``When they're down flat like that, they blend well with their background. Look away from them and then find them again. The more you see animals that hide from you in appearances, the easier it is to do.''

Later, Juniper and Amanda wash dishes while I cook supper. Laura was particularly busy this morning, getting ready for company coming this weekend and for a lecture in Baker this evening. The girls didn't have their usual morning classes in history, geography, math, and science.

But they had a class in wildlife observation and identification this afternoon, in analytic vision, in deportment in other species' territory.

Our class continues this evening. We talk about scientific names of species. We talk about how some birds let us get quite close to them, and others don't.

I say, ``Remember the way the cranes ran and kicked away from the ground as they were taking wing? It takes some time and some distance for them to get airborne and then to get higher than a predator can jump, because they're such big birds. I think they're very aware of that, and that's why they start to fly when we're still a long way from them.''

Our daughters are our home librarians. They arrange the books in the bookcases and keep track of what we have.

We try to fill the gaps in their education. We sing together, and Amanda's voice improves rapidly. Juniper is starting violin lessons in town once a week. I've been helping Juniper learn to bat, throw, and catch.

They are strongly motivated to learn and to expand their experiences. They will learn what they want to learn, even if some of it comes later than it does for many of the children in public schools.

We have no electricity and no television. Freedom from television gives them a great deal of time to read, to learn, and to pursue their creative interests. Juniper has written many stories and three novels. Amanda has written many songs and poems and some stories and essays. They both draw and paint and experiment with other art forms.

They see and hear cranes, ducks, geese, elk, deer, coyotes, badgers, hawks, owls, eagles, ospreys, snakes, frogs, fish, wildflowers, cattle drives, working cowhands.

They explore. Their classroom is all around us. Down along the river. Out on the meadow. In the marshes that merge with the meadow. In the forest that surrounds the meadows.

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