A watercolour map of the Ottawa Forest and Nature School

By Petra Eperjesi, Manger of Forest School Canada


The Elephant Tree. Forest Root Trail. Rocky and Mossy Places 1, 2, 3. Rocky Red. Mining World. Cliffs and Valleys.

These are the names children have given to different spots in the forest where the Ottawa Forest and Nature School (OFNS) has grown.

All of these names are stories. All of these names are memories, and webs of interconnected humans, and more than humans. The time we found that tree and marveled at how much like an elephant it looked—impossible! The time the owl just appeared before us, locking us in her gaze. The time we cleared and marked the trail from the cabin to the main path. These names emerged out of children’s delight, wonder, necessity… Love? Rocky and Mossy—how can there be such flint and such softness, together?!

A closeup of the ground covered in moss, dead leaves and rocks

“Rocky Mossy 2”

The children I first worked with at OFNS, who gave many of these names, they’ve outgrown the programs, moved on. I no longer work at OFNS.
New children come, including my own.
New educators come.
New names come.

Some of the names from those early days endure, but many are forgotten, along with their stories, those memories, those children. The web endures, though, and I believe the Land remembers each of us, the way our particular steps felt on her, the way our particular names for her sounded. A vision of the forest floor as layers and layers of forgotten names comes to me, sedimentary rock under silt and soil and the leaves that fall each year. Layers of forgotten names, and names that were deliberately erased, forbidden. What did (do? will?) Algonquin Anishnaabe children call Rocky Red? Did/does/will their name also come from the magic of the thick layer of red pine needles that blanket that spot?

In January, we asked a group of Forest/Nature School educators from around Canada, “How do we know children are developing a reciprocal relationship with the Land?” Naming kept coming up.

The forest floor covered in red pine needles

“Rocky Red”

In those early days at OFNS, before we had names, landmarks, memories, and a shared history, the forest seemed—to me, anyway—like a wall, an undifferentiated mass of trees, and a mystery. Naming was part of our getting to know the forest, a movement inward and downward, from big to small, toward intimacy. At the same time, as we came to know the forest, the radius of our movement, our comfort, our knowledge, expanded. A vision of ripples from a pebble tossed into a pond comes to me, concentric rings undulating outward from our homebase at the cabin. Somehow the forest was at once object to be known, knowing subject, witness. In her article Frictions in Forest School, Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw tells us—reminds us?!—that we shape each other, forest and human, in each encounter. Many of us experience(d) the Land as receiving us, as we are.

So what does it mean for children to be in reciprocal relationship with the Land? What does it mean for me to be in reciprocal relationship with the Land?

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, tells us—reminds us?—that the Land loves us back. The Land loves us back! A revelation to me. How could I have missed this? What did I think all her gifts were, for heaven’s sake? What is a strawberry, if not love?

So that’s part of it: the Land loves us back.

And it has something to do very intimately with gifts. With offering of ourselves without expectation of return.

We give names; a turn of phrase that is not an accident, it seems to me.

The Elephant Tree. Forest Root Trail. Rocky and Mossy Places 1, 2, 3. Rocky Red. Mining World. Cliffs and Valleys.

Gifts from children to the Land, of the Land.

Thank you, forest.

A winding, grassy path leading to a forest. The sky is blue and sunny.

“The Savannah/Rocky Mossy 3”