The morning drive down to the Dixon Springs Agriculture Center in the Shawnee National Forest was good preparation to fill me with an appreciation and a desire for good stewardship of our natural resources.
Going south from Harrisburg surrounded by the green of spring was a visual and spiritual treat. Neat manicured lawns and small businesses beside the silver highway were followed by golden meadows of wild mustard. There were signs indicating horse trails and bike routes and one temporary highway sign warning of the possibility of tractors on the road. I saw nary a one of any of those, but I did see a Black Angus herd vividly contrasting with the bright green grass they fed on. In some areas, the highway down steep hills was bordered by overhanging leaf-laden branches only occasionally broken by the large locust trees hung heavy with clusters of white blossoms. Then there would be more flat land with a village, farm fields and pastures, or another Social Brethren Church. A sign pointing to a side road reminded me I had never seen Bell Smith Springs, a local attraction.
This was my first visit to the Dixon Springs Ag Center although I have heard Gerald and others speak of it often during my adult life. I pulled into the park-like facility set up for the 21st Forest Stewardship Week with tents, port-a-potties, and stations for children from sixteen counties. Jim Kirkland had secured almost l00 resource people to give the region’s school children hands-on experience in outdoor life and for each to take home a seedling at the day’s end.
Classes of children accompanied by their teachers went from station to station to hear twenty-minute presentations about topics, such as gardening, archeology, ecology, and many others. There were eight sessions for each class that could stay the entire day. Some had fewer sessions to meet their bus schedules. A huge activity tent gave kids a chance to make something between sessions. I would have liked to have wandered around the Center and attended the presentations in the other stations, but that wasn’t an option. I did sneak into the darkened faux cave tent during my noon hour and learned a bit from information in lighted display boxes in the cave’s walls.
I enjoyed lunch on Friday with “the bee lady,” dressed in her protective gear. Retired from the Chicago area, she and her husband returned here a few years ago and became interested in bees and now produce and sell honey, when the summer season cooperates for the bees to produce adequately. I was reared with bees both in Jonesboro and on the farm at Goreville since my father kept hives as his Craig ancestors had done. With bees threatened with extinction, I hope the bee lady inspires some children to carry on this tradition.
My station was typical of most—a table and three rows of benches. A very functional arrangement. With the wind blowing strongly both days, I appreciated the large block of wood Jim carried in to hold down my small stack of papers. The second day for even more anchorage, I brought some rocks I keep in our living room—one Indian relict, one piece of granite from the Crazy Horse memorial, one rock Gerald found after the Eiler grandkids made Easter nests on the lawn at Woodsong this spring, and a lovely smooth stone from the base of the Tetons.
I was impressed that this well organized event had what we needed but with little show of extravagance or waste of tax payers’ money. Someone had secured ready-made metal legs and mounted large pieces of plywood on them for the tables. The benches were three short sturdy carpenter horses topped by a long board for the children to sit on. All these could be handily stored for their next use, and the rustic simplicity certainly established the right atmosphere for the sad story of the Trail of Tears. I could easily point up to the sky and down to the grass at our feet when I explained that the treaties our government made with the Cherokee had promised their nation’s land east of the Mississippi River would be theirs as long as the sky was blue and the grass was green.
Sad but true stories of terrible mistreatment of the Indians brought pained looks of sympathy from the children. I also tried to help them see that in the midst of the greed and arrogance of those who thought they were more civilized than others, there were also white lawyers, missionaries, and ordinary citizens who fought for justice. And when they lost that battle, others along the Trail offered kindnesses that reduced the suffering that the cruel Removal caused.
Nearest to my station was one teaching the children to reduce, reuse, and recycle and another station just across the narrow road was trying to teach the children to use firewood where they found it and not contaminate other trees with the emerald green tree borer. A woman there costumed as the tree borer caused a lot of laughter, squeals, and excitement. Probably some parents will be scolded this summer if they start taking firewood out of the forest.
In our rural area, I am sure many of these children live close to nature and enjoy camping and exploring woods and creeks, and now they will be more knowledgeable as they do so. Yet many others living in towns with busy parents and sometimes with few extra funds have little opportunity for outdoor adventures. They had them this week as they trekked from station to station on beautiful warm windy days surrounded by the encircling forest in the not-so-distant horizon.
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