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Poet Kenneth Steven describes a project where words and woods can create a magical mix for children

1 Woodland can generate a creative spark in many children.

The PoeTree Project came about almost by accident some half dozen years ago. It had shaken me to realise that many of the children in the Royal School of Dunkeld, our local primary, had never seen the Parent Larch behind the Cathedral, far less experienced these magnificent woods, here where the Rivers Tay and Braan become one.
But then I was realising more and more in the school events I undertook that children were not outdoors as I had been. In many ways, they werent living rural lives at all for the most part. They were, in fact, living suburban ones more aware of virtual trees and fields than their real life counterparts. I found that sad beyond words; those woods were less than half a mile from their homes and school. There had to be some way to bring them together again. And where better to pilot a scheme linking conservation and creativity than in Dunkeld? After all, its ringed by woods, the result of the wise thinking of the Planting Dukes of Atholl. So we went pupils, staff and me to listen to trees, touch trees, watch trees, imagine trees. We all had little notebooks to scribble down first impressions, and back in the classroom we wrote more detailed accounts, employing what Wordsworth wisely called recollection in tranquillity. Over the next days I worked with each child to grow their poem. For some the task was easy; for many, perhaps the majority, it was a real struggle. I showed them poems by greats like Robert Frost; we got rhythm and rhyme into our heads, but learned that poems can work just as well without those formal structures. In the end, everyone had a poem, something that expressed their response to that visit to the woods. We all went out to the school grounds and gathered round a new tree that had been brought to celebrate the peak of the project. Each child read a copy of their poem. These were then put down into the ground and a tree was planted the idea being that the words would become part of the tree. Since that time, the project has been run by a whole number of schools. Most recently I was down in Cumbria to work with it over a whole week. The project material has been refined, as I think its important to listen to the responses of teachers and pupils alike for that process. But the basic programme remains the same. We visit a local wood and experience trees with all of our senses, we catch something of the visit right away, and we work on a poem that encapsulates our feelings about the visit and about our relationship with trees. And we celebrate poems and trees with the planting of their own new oak a PoeTree. I now grow all the trees that are planted at the schools I visit. Every autumn I collect hundreds of acorns from one of the ancient oaks in the grounds of Dunkeld Cathedral. At present, I have some 30 trees waiting to go out to schools. I dont feel in any sense that I have ownership over the PoeTree Project. Id be thrilled to learn it had been taken by teachers or parents or arts officers and used in a slightly new way. After all, its about making children think what they have about them, about helping them to respond to the wonder of the natural world as they may never have done before. Its about little acorns becoming mighty oaks.
The Nature of Scotland www.snh.org.uk 9

Roots of PoeTree