The group of 4- and 5-year-olds gathered around a massive tree that had collapsed across the trail. Hundreds of roots splayed out from its bottom. Immediately, the children had questions: “Why had the tree fallen? Had someone cut it down? Did it fall in the windstorm?” They began climbing and exploring the enormous trunk.
My students and I came up with some theories about why and how the tree had fallen. One student’s idea was that “the tree fell down from the big giant rainstorm, and then someone cut it with giant scissors.”
I asked the children how we could find out more about what happened to this tree. One child suggested we ask hikers.
The next week, we came prepared. Several children wrote love letters to the fallen tree to make it feel better. One drew the tree when it was a baby “so it could remember the good life it had.”
Others helped to write a letter to hikers asking whether they had any ideas about the fate of the tree. I placed squares of small white card stock with Sharpies in a Ziploc bag along with our letters and left the bag in a wicker basket on top of the tree.
After we left, I worried. What if no one wrote back? Surely, in the famously workaholic D.C., no one would take the time to read our letters, let alone write back. Maybe the city’s hikers just zip along the trail, checking their phones and barely noticing the nature around them, let alone our wicker basket. I even toyed with the idea of writing a letter and secretly placing it in the bag before our weekly walk.
A week later, we returned. We all ran straight to the tree to see whether anyone had answered our question.
As I opened the Ziploc bag, I saw my children’s eager eyes, excited to see if anyone out there cared as much as they did about this tree.
What I found shocked me.
We received haikus, drawings, letters written in French. People took the time to tell us what had happened and when. Some explained what type of tree it is, their experiences with the tree after it had fallen, and why trees generally fall down.
They wrote to us that it was a beech oak variety and that it had been knocked down by a powerful storm two years ago. One hiker informed us that the tree stayed intact for some time before someone cut a segment out to unblock the trail. (No mention of giant scissors.)
One note read: “Big storm. Can you see the fungi already at work repurposing all the sun’s light energy and water energy captured and stored in the tree. Sooo amazing! Hugging trees is good for people and trees too!”
Another said: “I remember it falling after a big storm. Good luck! I love these trees as much as you!”
A third said in somewhat broken French: “The trees. Les arbre ses jolis.” (Translation: The trees are pretty.)
Over the period of two months, we received 43 letters.
As we continued to explore in the forest each week, we learned about mayapples and mycelium, and we would share our new knowledge with the hikers of the forest.
So, what did my social experiment teach my children? The power of knowledge-sharing and community-building, especially in nature.
But this experiment also taught me something. That D.C.’s hustle-and-bustle reputation doesn’t always hold true. And that in the digital age, we can still forge meaningful social connections IRL, even in the modest woods of Washington.
Daniela Silver is a pre-K teacher at Murch Elementary, a D.C. public school in Northwest Washington.