There are times that I stumble upon an activity at the Hudson Valley Sudbury School that make my jaw drop in awe of the brilliance of children: their creativity, their simplicity, and their ingenuity. Coming upon The Sacred Acorn Civilization was one of those moments. I stood at the edge of our natural play-scape wide-eyed as I surveyed several young barefoot boys busily collecting acorns, carefully balancing bark, and finding perfect natural tools to build a civilization. Set amongst several stumps on a gradual hill, were intricate acorn and stick sculptures – balconies, huts, stone paths, and walls, all perfectly set in miniature style. It was beautiful. And it was clear these boys had been there for hours, not only by the exacting work they had done, but also by the dirt between their toes, the seats of their pants, and the expressions of their faces – calm and focused. The language they were using sounded to be a different dialect, familiar yet foreign.
Finally I was able to catch my breath. “What are you doing?” I asked. The response comes matter-of-factly: “We are currently mucking acorns. That’s taking the inside out. And then we put them in the Muck Store. You can smash them with rocks or hard sticks to get the goop out. We call it “mucking.” We try to smash them between two rocks so it doesn’t destroy the stumps. The lighter the goop the better it is. We use the muck as a building material, to keep things together.” With that they went back to work, gathering, crushing and balancing, young primitive workers using natural materials to create a culture.
I am not sure why I was surprised to come across this bustling civilization as it seems to be something each generation of children create at here at school. The first HVSS civilization popped up in 2005 and took over the majority of the playing field. Several kids had their own “worlds” built from rocks, dirt, sticks, moss, flowers, and acorns. In the center of the field there was a circular general store where items were available for trade or purchase. Hours were dedicated to perfecting homes and working out the delicate balance of trading.
The following year the back hill was home to a new miniature world. Two boys around the age of 10 began this new rendition and the general ideas were the same. They were quite literally the kings of the hill, decreeing trading values and where homes could be built. But after discovering a large shiny rock at the edge of the woods a 6 year old was able to “buy” the entire hillside from them and the power was re-distributed. The kids involved in these first two renditions have either graduated or are on the verge of doing so and the details of these games are but distant memories.
In 2008 a new set of children went back to their roots and collected acorns, mashed them up and made hand cream out of them. They sold the cream to others in the school. They also made cities, houses, and bowls from the acorn shells and little cities out of acorns and sticks. One participant looked back, “we had little jobs, you could crack the nuts with a flat rock or chop them if you could find a sharp stick. We would also use a round rock and stick like a mortar and pestle, adding a little bit of water and mushed up flowers.”
After a significant rainfall in 2011, the back gravel path was turned into a study of irrigation. A young girl made intricate paths in the stone, routing and rerouting the water. She created these streams, damns, and collection pools while barefoot, grounded by the earth, just like our ancestors.
Here we are in 2015, an age of technology and consumerism, and a new round of children have their toes in the dirt, discovering for themselves how we as a society began, by making tools, building with what is naturally available, creating commerce out of acorns, and teaching their elders to reconnect with the beauty of the world around us.
Why is this universal? Why do we, as a society, without being trained, without being taught, always come back to the most basic constructs of life? It becomes clear how innate it is to collaborate in the art of foraging, designing, and building. Their ingenuity when it comes to the creation of tools is both resourceful and creative. And there they sit, in a sustained and focused activity, perfecting the balance of bark and rock to create a balcony. They may have iPods sticking out of the back pocket of their Gap jeans, but these kids are connected to their roots, not indirectly, by lecture or assignment, but directly, by sensory experience and imagination, because they have the time and space to connect to the natural world and let the simplicity of life shine through.