Eulogy of a Trail

The nice thing about having my own blog is that there are no word limits. This piece about the Tesnatee Gap Valley Nature Trail is dear to my heart. So much so that my original draft was over 2,000 words! Yikes! That is long, even for me! I cut it down to 1,500 and submitted to the newspaper, who then asked me to cut it to 700. I got it down, but in the process I took out many details of the project. So in conjunction with the story in today’s paper, I am publishing the fuller version here. It includes more details about each part of the trail construction and student involvement. I am also including a few pictures taken by Suzanne Dabate, who was the media specialist when the trail was completed. Hope you enjoy the more detailed version!! Be sure to pick up the White County News this week and check out the shortened version as well.

Eulogy of a Trail

I recently saw an article about the groundbreaking of the new transportation complex for the White County School System on the property of Tesnatee Gap Elementary School. Since I taught at the school for 18 years when it was White County Intermediate School, I was curious where they were going to put this new project. My heart dropped as I drove down the hill. I got a knot in my stomach when I realized the Tesnatee Gap Valley Nature Trail, a magical place students and community members created, had been bulldozed and buried. Now that the trail is six feet under, I feel the need to say a few words. Consider it an obituary or eulogy, of a sort.

There are wild places, untamed, open and free, where the mind is allowed to wander and wonder. Nature is one such place. The benefits of our natural world are immense and have been documented over and over again. The Tesnatee Gap Valley Nature Trail was inspired by the idea that the natural world hums with opportunities for learning. Walking the trail caused classroom cinderblock walls crumble, along with all the boxes into which we try to confine learning. The expanse of the sky broadened young minds to think in new ways. Previous lessons learned took on new applications on the trail. The sky was literally the limit to new knowledge which flowed on the wind, just waiting to blow into the minds of students.

Butterfly Garden photo credit Suzanne Dabate

Thoughts and ideas were swirling among the trees and were as numerous as the leaves hanging from every branch. Animals taught biology. An old Revolutionary War grave taught Social Studies. Science dripped from the tree canopy like rain in the springtime. Math made the Butterfly Garden a reality. Trees whispered stories of the Native Americans who walked these forests. Each part of the path of the interpretive trail had something to teach, each stop fresh with lessons to those willing to receive them.

Every step onto the trail, every visit, increased knowledge and created an appreciation for learning. Smiles and laughter were as common as discussions about ecosystems and conservation. The songs of the birds and the giggles of children blended in perfect harmony, as if they were written together in the same symphony; each movement a masterpiece.

Fine Arts Night photo credit Suzanne Dabate

The children came alive on that trail, whether they were out there to read, spread out among the lush underbrush in the noisy silence of nature, or participating in group activities to deepen their understanding of some concept or another. Or maybe they were racing to show their families their artwork strung through the trees on Fine Arts Night; smiles on their faces as they grinned from ear to ear with the pride of seeing their work so beautifully displayed. In the outdoor classroom, insects hummed and trilled along with the sounds of speakers sharing their expertise. On and on with the seasons and ebbs of flows of nature, the trail taught its lessons. The opportunities for every student were endless because a concrete path made the trail assessable to people of all ability levels.

It was a beautiful thing to see children coming out of their shells to embrace nature and to recognize that the ideas they learned inside could be applied outside the four walls of a classroom. Light bulbs going off in young minds was a sight to see and the trail provided such moments for hundreds of children over the years. It will be missed by all those who benefited from its lessons.

The idea of the trail was born in 2001, when a plan was drawn up for a 3-phase trail system on the property. It was an ambitious project, but the faculty and staff were never ones to back down from what was good for the children. The first phase of the trail system was funded by a Georgia Recreational Trails Program grant and provided the whole community with educational as well as physical fitness opportunities.

Doc Murdoch’s Grave photo credit Suzanne Dabate

In the process of all the construction on the property, two grave sites were found and identified by the Southeastern Archeological Services. Rather than relocate them, a grant was written and given by Georgia Learn and Serve, to restore and preserve them. The 2-year-long project “Who was Doc Murdoch?” was born. Think of it as a hands-on research project for every social studies student in the building! There were in-kind donations of time and materials from businesses and parents in the community. Experts lent their expertise. It was truly a community effort.

Soon after, more teachers wrote and received a grant from the League of Professional Schools, from UGA, for building a butterfly garden to be the starting place of the trail. There were more in-kind donations of materials and time from the community. Gardening companies helped build it; showing students and parents how to turn their sweat into beauty. Master gardeners came to explain to the children what plants would be best to attract butterflies and why. Butterfly houses were built. A quilting group came and made a quilt with the kids, which hung in the school and helped identify different types of butterflies.

Interpretive Trail Station photo credit Suzanne Dabate

An additional grant was written and received from the League of Professional Schools to create interpretive stations along the trail. It included more in-kind donations and time from too many in the community to name. A Boy Scout built the roof covered stations at the gravesite and the entrance to the trail, as well as all the smaller stations along the way for his Eagle Scout project. Those two covered display structures listed all of the community members involved in the project, pages of them, now gone. Classrooms picked a station to research and did all the writing for the displays. One class learned a station along the trail had some endangered plant species, another found a Cherokee trail tree; their displays told all about these rare treasures. Each and every station had its own story. Each one a project within the larger project.

Another teacher built an outdoor classroom, which meant more Boy Scout projects were completed. Classes could go outdoors and sit on benches while observing different experts from the community come in and talk about different subjects. The trail bonded us as an educational community, but also as a social one. It was a magical place. A magical time.

The school was recognized with numerous awards for the 4-year project. We were a recipient of the Civic Star Award in 2005. Being selected by the American Association of School Administrators and Sodexho School Services as the national winner for the state of Georgia brought our system national recognition. The project was also written up in PAGE One Magazine put out by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. Those of us who wrote the grants for each part of the project were invited to speak at educational conferences all over the state. The way this project involved all the stakeholders; parents, students, teachers, county leadership, and local small businesses was unique and unheard of. It was a crowning accomplishment for which we were known all over the country.

Now that it is buried under dirt, I am grieving.  All the work.  All the thousands and thousands of dollars. All the effort of so many people. All the fun. All the hands-on learning. Gone. I am sorrowful just thinking about it.  

I am no longer a part of the school system here but I am still a part of the community. I was surprised I hadn’t heard of any meetings regarding this choice of location, or any discussion among the stakeholders in the former trail project. I assume there were some discussions at some level at least and that I am just unaware because I am no longer directly involved. The teachers I know say they didn’t hear anything about it and were as surprised and saddened as I was. I hope there were some public discussions, it would be sad to have such a great community resource buried without the knowledge of the community it served. I understand that growth means change. I know hard decisions have to be made, and I know that sometimes it means the bulldozer wins over the forest.

I hear the graves were not moved, though I don’t know how you can take a classroom full of kids to see them safely when they will have to cross through the bus yard to get there. I don’t know how quiet it will be to take kids to read in what’s left of the butterfly garden when the transportation building will be butted up against it. I am hopeful there is a plan to develop the rest of the trail system on the other side of the school to “replace” the old trail. What I do know is that this trail will be missed by students, teachers, and community members. I know I took for granted that it would always be there for generations of students in the future.

To the trail…

Our time together was too short. We will always have the memories; may you rest knowing you gave all you had to the betterment of all of us who knew you. Thank you making learning more fun for hundreds and hundreds of children. You will never be forgotten.

Here is a progressive poem, written along the trail by students under the guidance of Mildred Grear, an award-winning local poet who is no longer with us. It seems a fitting last tribute to the Tesnatee Gap Valley Trail which is now buried alongside Doc Murdoch…May you rest in peace.

Come Walk with Me

The butterfly garden is pretty in the spring

It starts the nature trail

The butterflies know when to come,

And my teacher knows when to go.

And I know it is a peaceful place for me.

Butterflies move away,

I follow some of them to the crossroads

That lead to safe or risky places.

I ask myself which way to go.

I hope I will take the risky way;

I hope to follow my life path.

There is a grave at the trail center

Where Dr. Joseph Murdoch and his son sleep.

At the garden and the grave there are sculptures from stone,

And again, I feel peaceful.

2 thoughts on “Eulogy of a Trail

  1. Mildred is turning over in her grave! Her voice is as clear to me as during my visits to her kitchen where she spoke her mind clearly and emphatically regarding reverence for nature and changing times that sometimes desecrate the history-holding and memory-holding places of our past. Thank you for this article. The photos wouldn’t open for me but Ted & I will look for them in the White County paper which reaches us by ground mail.

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