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  Reflections on Nature Camps: Where are grown NC Children Now?

At Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, MD, there is a gazebo with a framed picture entitled Ever Changing Landscape. It is a painting of a valley with a garden in the foreground. In reality it is a window surrounded with a frame. As seasons change so does the painting, bringing forth new perspectives.

As my own children have grown and changed, as Nature Camps' children have blossomed and grown over these four decades years, I have been the fortunate recipient of their ever-changing landscapes, as in the frame at Ladew Gardens.

My, how they have grown and blossomed!

Their reflections below tell how Nature Camps (formerly Don Webb Nature Camps – DWNC) has influenced their lives. Enjoy them -- and be touched by them as I have been. They all speak about the essential-ness of outdoor experiences that every child needs -- to be whole, to have perspective, to be in touch with themselves -- especially in today's world.

My wish is that today's children and their children's children will continue to be blessed by what their parents impart to them about nature. I also hope that we remember that children's sense of time is different from that of adults. This seems especially true of summertime days. What a gift it is of us to slow down, to be unhurried, and give the gift of a summertime place such as Nature Camps to our children. 



From: Denise Ashman

Dear Don,

It is a time of refection...I have been an outdoor educator now for 28 years! It started at Nature Camps before your program was called Nature Camps:)

I remember my interview with you at camp. You were placing a balloon at the road to mark a family event. I pulled in, devoted to crutches due to a recent surgery on my femur. You asked me how far I could hike on those things. My ego said, 'as far as you need me to:'...and so we went for a hike and we talked and then you hired me for camp. You may not have known how exhausted I was, traipsing thru the forest under story on crutches. But I didn't care. I needed to be in the woods all day, every day, to heal. I had a deep feeling that working for you was the beginning of the rest of my life! And It was!

I remember you asking me to start a campfire many times that first year when my fire making skills were so poor. You sent me out alone with a box of matches. I felt self conscious and worried that you would check in and I would not have the fire started yet. It was there, alone, that I began connecting with my image of the ancestors who depended upon fire for survival. When I left Nature Camps, I evolved from matches and lighters to magnesium strikers to flint & steel and then bow and drill and hand drill methods....I am now referred to as 'the friction fire lady'! I tell this story to students who struggle with fire making skills!

There was a time when you asked me to put up a chicken fence~ handing me a coil of rusty wire when I had no idea what to do. You just said, 'you'll figure it out" and walked away smiling~

Every morning so early, I walked thru the woods to the bath house to freshen up: No one else was awake. The wood thrushes sang so sweetly...the dawn air was so cool...the incredible peace that I felt. I was in love with nature and I knew that every other love would flow from that one love.

There was a time when I paddled your canoe down the Gunpowder and dented it on an unexpected strainer...I came back expecting the worst reaction. You were so kind to me. You did not damage my self esteem. Instead you asked me questions and we processed the scenario together! Years later I would lead class 3 river trips and teach canoe rescue!

When I was ready to move on from seasonal work to full time work in the field, you gently handed me over to a well established organization where I would continue to grow! After working in many states and over seas, you invited me to facilitate components of your staff training~ I could not help but to think of the song, "All my life's a circle..."

Looking back, the apprenticeship that began with you led me to 28 happy years in the field! Your teaching style and professional grace lives on Don, in every student and staff that you interact with! What a wonderful legacy! I know that the trees smile upon you now!

Books: Ashman, Denise. Sharing Culture: Rain Forest; Steve Parish Publishing Pty/Ltd. Queensland, Australia, 2001
Ashman, Denise. Into the Rainforest, (editing phase, to be self published)
Articles: Ashman, Denise. At the Hearth of Aboriginal Australia, Bulletin of Primitive Technology - SPT, 2001
Ashman, Denise. Future Camps; One Model for Preserving Culture; Bulletin of Primitive Technology, SPT, 2002



From: Jennifer Koch Finney Jen Finney

I feel a great deal of gratitude as I recall and reflect on the wonderment that infused my childhood summers. Even though 17 years have passed since I last ‘attended’ Nature Camp as the Co-Director, my mind often turns to the many memories from my summers spent there, which spanned the majority of my formative years from ages 5 to 22. Don, a teacher in the truest sense, was the first person to teach me that happiness lies in living simply. With not much more than a sleeping bag, a change of dry clothes,nutritious food, and a handful of good friends, I had the time of my life each and every summer I spent at camp. Again, and again, and again. My favorite camp memories include joyous and spirited singing in “Big Circle” each morning and afternoon; berry picking and making jam, water battles in pouring down warm summer rains, all day all camp hikes to Beaver Dam (at Nature Camp’s original location) and the Gunpowder River, epic “Capture the Flag” game s, making candles, basket weaving, group problem solving activities, stream walking, pool games, making leprechaun houses, horseback riding, canoeing, tug of war, traversing the ropes course, food preparation, singing by the campfire, late night talks with friends, sleeping under the stars, cooking many meals over the fire, building dams, wood carving, making & drawing in journals with hand-crafted walnut ink, making sassafras tea and pillows, tie dying, weaving on a large communal loom made of sticks, and making clay figures & a pit kiln.
During my summers at camp, I played with complete abandon, discovering salamanders, mucking in the mud, and splashing around in the streams in the woods surrounding camp. I discovered an intuitive sense of direction, developed endurance, and a sense of adventure by hiking frequently, ever delightfully surprised by what we happened upon...whether that be a good solid walking stick, an intricately spun spider’s web, a funky tree hollow, a swampy marsh, a captivating small waterfall, or a thicket of raspberries just ripe enough for picking & eating off the vine. And, then there was the exhilarating feeling of swinging up high enough to touch the tree branches -- oh, the awesome tree swings -- to know what it feels like to fly!

There were activities that I went into tentatively, like night walks (without a flashlight) and trust falls, but I always learned something incredibly important about myself and my fellow campers/counselors . . . that we were mightily capable of tapping into our lesser explored senses and strengths. Equally as important, these activities nurtured feelings of interpersonal trust and camaraderie. At camp, I learned what it meant to be resilient by pushing past personal limitations and conquering fears. I discovered my own competence and burgeoning sense of independence.

With gentle urging, Don was the first person to teach me the value in stretching beyond what is comfortable, to look outside the confines of complacent thinking and seek a deeper understanding of myself in relation to others, to the Earth, and to recognize the interconnectedness of all living things. Don’s teachings, as well as simply being at Nature Camp, a wooded sanctuary, instilled within me a deep respect for the ecosystems upon which all life is sustained and dependent. This respect translated into a deep knowing that I . . . that we . . . each have a responsibility to act as environmental stewards, to care for our Earth as though she is indeed our Mother. The impact of camp in my life has been far reaching. Often, sometimes several times each day, I see the interconnectedness and interweaving of its and Don’s influence. I see it in choosing to eat organic, locally produced whole foods; in choosing green energy and natural materials for our home; in creating and using organic, unrefined body products; and, in finding resonance with Waldorf education for my own children’s schooling. The impact extends to finding Spirit whenever I look out or step outside. I experience Spirit when I see flora and fauna; I smell it, breathe it and feel it on the wind, and I know it when I get down on my knees to dig in the earth, with the rich sensation of soil squishing between my toes. I know that by going out in nature, I will find calm, balance, and serenity.

Those years at camp formed the basis of my spiritual philosophy, to approach my relationships with all living things with purity of intention and mindful presence. My heart weeps when I witness land being clear-cut or a large tree being taken down -- have we not learned that we, as a global community, lose vital life force when we behave in these reckless ways? It is up to those of us who have been taught about and have clarity around this fundamental relationship with nature to carry on the message:

~to help others develop a love of,

~to witness and experience the inherent beauty and healing qualities of,

~to cultivate sustainable practices in support of, and

~to leave a much lighter footprint upon the land, and especially upon...

wild places.

Currently, I live too far away to take my own children to Nature Camp during the summer months, but as I am able I hope to recreate something similar in their own childhoods...and at the very least to pass on a genuine reverence and love for the environment . . . to know the awe and wonder of communing with nature. Thank you, Don, for the many ways in which you’ve taught me ~and the many~ of our one-ness with each other and with nature. I am forever grateful.



From Cecilia Galarraga CC

My father still refers to Nature Camps as “Mud Camp.” Though he says this with a bit of disdain, there is something to this simple renaming: Nature Camps is a place to get your hands dirty, to get yourself in the thick of it, to become engrossed.

I have so many vivid memories of becoming captivated, of becoming utterly absorbed with an activity or a story. Here’s one example: for one afternoon, a counselor offered Dungeons and Dragons as an activity, and my friends and I liked it so much that we asked the counselor to offer the activity again, so that we might continue the story we had created. Each time, we would hike deep into the woods to play, and my friends and I brought clothes from home so that we could dress up as our characters. On another occasion, I became very interested in Nature Dancing. A small group of campers signed up for the activity repeatedly, and together we prepared a performance for the family overnight. The entire camp – campers, family, and staff -- hiked up that steep, steep hill to the pavilion (and if you’ve been to camp, you know the one!) to watch us perform at dusk. The dance ended with me being lifted up by hands under my upper arms. I was above everyone.

What is it about Nature Camps that allows for this kind of exploration, this experience that I had? Think about this: when I, as a child, asked a counselor, as an adult, if they could do something for me, if they could continue to offer me the chance to do Nature Dancing or play Dungeons and Dragons, they said yes. Isn’t that remarkable? How often does a teacher get to say yesto a student, or an employer say yes to a worker? The teacher has so many other demands, so many other students to attend to, lessons to teach, homework to grade. The employer, too, has to get projects done, keep productivity up, make deadlines. All of us are constrained so often by our responsibilities. How often do we get to do what we really want to do, rather than what we are responsible for doing?

So, it is the commitment to saying yesto children that makes Nature Camps a truly extraordinary place. Children receive permission to be themselves, to do what they are most interested in doing, under the careful yet encouraging watch of counselors. As a counselor over the years, I’ve had campers with all kinds of stories and backgrounds. No matter what a parent or family member told us about a camper before the start of camp, the questions we asked, as counselors, were, “How are we going to take care of this child? What can we do to accommodate him or her?” This kind of willingness and flexibility allows Nature Camps to provide a home or a safe haven for so many children, even those who might otherwise be perceived or labeled as weird, troubled, or problematic. I say this not with a sense of pity or a tone of being charitable; I say it because, in school and beyond, children can be defined in ways that do not fully encompass them, that do not always represent their strengths, values, and interests. At Nature Camps, we try and say yes to the capabilities of each child.   

At Nature Camps, the saying of yesis very contagious. Once people start saying yesto you, you want to say it to other people. There have been so many times, as a counselor, where I have watched older campers say yes by looking after or taking care of a younger one, whether that means teaching them how to macrame or offering vocal encouragement on the ropes course. Age aside, I have seen many unlikely friendships between campers, pairings of personalities that you would never expect. But, somehow, these children are saying yesto each other as people, as companions, despite whatever quirks or uncoolness might have ordinarily divided them.

And it goes deeper still. A major tenet of the Nature Camps philosophy revolves around exposing campers to “perceived risks.” These are situations in which the individual’s safety is not in danger, but the individual is challenged to do something out of their comfort zone. These can be physical or mental endeavours; it might mean riding the zip line on the ropes course, or it might mean working collaboratively with a group to solve a puzzle.

I remember well the experience of backpacking in Shenandoah as an Explorer. On one particular day, we wanted to hit the summit of a particular peak by sunset. We had to scramble up rocks, squeeze through crevices, and move constantly uphill, all of which was physically demanding for my 14-year old self. The counselors were confident in our group’s ability to make this sunset deadline, and they pushed us to commit to it. We arrived, quietly, exhausted, at the summit in time to face the sunset; the counselors handed out chocolate bars, which have never tasted so good. Surely, the support and affirmation of the counselors was hugely important. But, more than that, I had to do the walking and carry the pack; I had to affirm myself, and say yes to myself, in order to arrive at the summit. This moment, in which the child makes the decision to believe in herself, to move forward on her own, happens every day at Nature Camps, and it allows children to learn self-efficacy beyond the approval of teachers, family members, and other adults.

I do believe that being in nature particularly allows for this kind of self-exploration and discovery. Things are simpler, unmitigated. All the excuses, all the things we usually rely on are not available.  When you are six years old, and must climb over a log on your own to continue on the path, your ability to accomplish this is yours alone. Once you conquer that log, the satisfaction is all your own, too. I wholeheartedly believe that exposure to nature and to a different environment poses unique challenges and opportunities for individuals to grow.

That being said, some of us do not have such access to many acres of forest and rivers. How, then, can we go about helping children to find self-worth, to find their voice, to have confidence?  How can we practice this same thing as adults? Former Nature Camps children and counselors, from my experience, will often moan, lament, and speak with nostalgia of those wondrous summers. What now?

It is a lifelong journey to find one’s place, one’s meaning, and one’s voice. A person’s education potentially can help them to discover these things, but often does not. My hope is that, in my work as an educator, I can bring a bit of the spirit of “Mud Camp” – that real digging in, ankles deep in muck and leaves,  that yes that learners experience when they get deep within themselves.

I’ve done work in various educational settings: as a creative writing instructor, as a health educator, as a teacher in an afterschool program, and as an outdoor educator, to name some. These have all been immensely different experiences, but over the course of this journey, I have learned a great deal about the ways that educators can nurture people as they grow into themselves. I believe that the more opportunities we can give to children -- and adults! -- to value and learn about themselves, the healthier the world will be.  



From David Heroy:

heroy family

In the third grade, I got a headache almost every Monday. It was so painful, I remember having to go to my room after school and shut my window shades and eyes and lie in bed. While this gave me some relief from my headache, it multiplied my anxiety – because I was merely putting off my endless piles of homework. I was depressed, overwhelmed, and no one seemed able to do anything to help me. As an adult, I can see now that my parents were busy with their own problems, going through a divorce. But that was life.

That summer, I remember going to Nature Camps for the first time (in 1979 it was called Don Webb’s Nature Camp). I had been to various camps before, but they were “sports camps”, where campers were locked into a particular activity every day, regardless of what we liked or didn’t like. So, my first day at Nature Camps, with shaggy hair and Zips (shoes that made you run really fast), I was confused when counselors asked me what I wanted to do that day. Did I understand right? I can choose to do anything? Really?

Completely daunted by all the new faces, I chose to do nothing. I remember swinging myself on a swing and playing in the sandbox. I quickly became bored. A counselor had been watching me and eventually came over and asked me if I wanted to make a “god’s eye” out of two sticks and brightly colored yarn. Well, I didn’t really, but the prospects were better than what I had been doing.

As I was making my god’s eye, I noticed all the other kids were having much more fun that I was. For one thing, some actually wanted to make god’s eyes. Others came back from activities with red raspberry stains ear to ear, still others with mud on their pants and shirts. I decided no matter what, from now on I was going to choose something. So, the next day, I chose to go on an all day hike in search of “The Lost Pond”. That’s right, bring your own lunch, there may be wild savages, we’ll be lucky if we ever return, and I was excited.

It poured rain on our hike, and we got completely lost, and we crossed back and forth over a swollen stream, getting wet up to our knees. Two campers slipped and fell in the water. But no one cared; we were already completely soaked, and the rain showers were actually relief from the heat. The storm eventually passed, and the counselors found our way back to camp, and we survived. We received a hero’s welcome, wore mostly dry but still-crusty shirts and shorts and soggy Zips that made squishy noises, and had triumphant smiles. It was a new world, and I was going to stay here in this world as long as possible.

Every summer, I cried on the last day of camp. I know my older and much wiser sister (who also loved Nature Camps) cried too. For me it meant back to a world watching The Price Is Right on T.V., avoiding summer reading, and ultimately, back to school. Yuck. But, I had a taste of something different. I had been in a place where I felt at home, I felt comfortable. That place was outside, among the tall trees and ferns or in the field with uncut grasses or in the streams or even on the logs and swings hanging from the trees. I took that feeling of comfort and belonging with me into adulthood.

Outside is where I feel most comfortable. When feel lonely or upset, I go outside (or at least I look out the office window). It’s like a secret strength, to look up to the familiar stars (I remember my best friend and I naming our own constellation, stars I know now to be part of the Summer Triangle), to smell the soil or leaves (the smell of skunk reminds me of making leprechaun houses by the stream, using Skunk Cabbage leaves for roofing material), to hear the birds (the wood thrush to me sounds like an exotic French flute) or the sound of light rain on a pond (sounds like tiny little bells).I only went for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out ‘til sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.                                                       --John Muir

And this summer, my wife and I are starting our own camp called Blackwood Nature Camp here in Texas. I am both nervous and overjoyed at the thought of running my own camp. Strangely though, I know that it will work – in it’s own time and in it’s own way. I simply believe that children learn and grow best as nature intended them to: outside, in natural surroundings, with mixed ages and close supervision of caring adults, doing challenging, fun, and meaningful activities. It’s my hope to recreate the magic of Nature Camps here at Blackwood – to create a comforting and rejuvenating place for all to share.

From Helen Tuten:

When I started high school, I was a dolphin. I had been trained to jump through hoops, to swim along with my fellow performers, and at the end of the show I would be rewarded. My main focus, of course, was the end of the show. I hardly concentrated on the training or the acquirement of my skills; it was all about the fish at the end.

And then I went on my first night walk. I could not see the fish at the end. I was not even sure where we were walking, or if I had ever walked that path before. All of a sudden, roots jutted under my feet, higher than I had ever noticed. The path was not just under my feet but was all around me; if the branches scratched my arms, I knew I was off the path. The moment, each individual step, became the most important thing.

For the first time in my life, the doing of something became more important than the end result. And in the summers that followed, with my performance costume of polished oxfords and blue jumper stowed in the closet, I learned to be. I learned that a hike was not where we ended up, but the myriad of things we saw and smelled and tasted on the way. That weaving a basket was not about what would be carried in the basket upon its completion, but how it would look with flowers woven in it and worn on the head.

My own children reminded me of these gentle lessons learned so many years ago at camp. For a child a walk is a time to gather all of the rocks of a certain color, traveling a speed measured in feet per hour. Each moment in time lives in its entirety for a child. This pure focus, innate in all of us, is so easily clouded by the need to accomplish, to “check it off the list”, to call it done. The focus moves from the heart to the head. Daily, I strive to regain this sense of being wholly present. In working with children with special needs, it is all about the moment. For most of my kids, time is slowed down. Each movement requires more notice, more attention and more effort. Helping to guide their small bodies through space requires us both, as a team, to fully focus on the task at hand. The compassion, love, and honesty that pervaded camp and all its philosophies gives me the capability of answering that painful question, always uppermost in a parent’s mind, “Will my child ever walk?” I can answer that we will first work on head control and in each moment together I know that we will learn something new; we will fill each moment to the brim focusing on the now.

polly webb

From Polly Webb:

The memories of Nature Camp are infinite. I was lucky enough to be born the year Nature Camps started. I grew up at camp as it evolved and thrived. Nothing compares to that time for me. There are moments I smell something that takes me back to that time . . . rope swings, sweaty horses and grass, chlorine scented hair, skunk cabbage, wet shoes, wet dog, and sweet musty woods and pine.

I felt princess-like in the woods, feeling like they were my woods for I knew them inside and out, in light or dark. Choosing every day what activity to do as it spoke to me was wonderfully liberating. I remember meeting a former staff member years later that recalled me as a young girl, always climbing a tree or playing in mud and streams. It makes me remember such times fondly, as I think how wonderful it was to be so lost in what I was doing and creating. I had my independence early on and that has always stayed with me. I cherish that immensely.

At camp I was fascinated by critters and creatures as they were all around, big or small. Turning rocks over had the same feeling as opening a Christmas present . . . the anticipation of what could be or what was there was exciting and intriguing. To my delight I was never disappointed, learning or seeing something new with each rock, with each day.

My love affair with horses began early on. My initial fear and sense of wonder, turned to respect and love, as I was challenged how to communicate and even relate to these amazing creatures. I took riding lessons, then eventually became part of staff and helped teach. In addition to riding at camp, I became part of a separate riding school, where I flourished in proper riding and genuine care of horses. It lead me to Colorado, to work on a ranch leading trail rides into Rocky Mountain National Park. I became involved with the Equestrian Team at college. Years later I pursued a degree in Equine Sports Massage Therapy as well as my Veterinary Technician degree. I now own my own business, Hands for Horses, providing massage therapy to horses. I love the work I do as I get to be outside with my favorite smells. I am fueled by the Colorado sunshine and my equine companions.

As I recall the words to the Circle Song, I think to myself things do have a way of circling back on themselves. And I am forever touched.

From Seth Webb:

Thinking about the gifts of Nature Camps is a bit like attempting to discern the sublime; growing up and living with camp was so magically integral to the rest of my life. Part of that was that my father, Don, organizes and lives his life in a way that extends the Camp experience to more that just the three summer months - it is a way of living in the world.

One of the many beauties of Nature Camps is the unhurried time children enjoy to explore their natural surroundings. Through slowing down and taking their time, looking at the familiar from different perspectives, children at Nature Camps deeply explore the wild spaces around them. They develop a way of knowing that comes from being genuinely part of what they are attempting to understand; that is, an authentic knowledge rooted in sensorial experiences that tickle and surprise. The children form an intimate connection with the world, and that relationship resonates within them. This relationship is ‘love’.

Today I live with my family in New Zealand and teach in an elementary Montessori classroom. Working with children, my job is one of setting the kindling for the wonderful sparks of curiosity and interest to spring forth. It is up to the students, alone or collectively, to do the work of the synapses – to make those links, to leap the gaps between experiences and ideas towards a holistic understanding of everything around and within them.

Nature Camps is about just that: making connections, becoming so familiar with the natural world that the children receive it as a source of deep insight and practical wisdom.

Watch children as they play in nature. There is an intensity and exuberance that appears so wonderfully organic. They appear to distil joy from their experience of the world: the taste of a ripe berry, the feel of cool mud between one’s toes, the warm whip of the wind before a rainstorm.

Nature Camps facilitates a life-long conversation between children and the environment around them. These moments provide children with an intrinsic, spiritual connection to what is wild around them – and within.


seth webb and family

From Mandy Koch:

Nature Camps has been my home ever since I was just a little bump in my mama’s dress at camp – she was the nurse there, in the ‘Happy Hollow’ woods when she was pregnant with me. My sisters, just little girls then, were flitting through the forests like tree sprites, learning what I would later know too – of magical trees, dear friends, of the secret stillness and beauty of animals and plants native to those woods, the notes that make up our symphony of nature and ultimately a gentler way of living.

The family I found at camp stays with me still, and I love the thrilled way that counselors now (who used to be my campers when I was a counselor) say, “I’ve been coming here for 11 years!” They have found the same family there that I did when I was in their muddy shoes. Camp nurtured me as a child, an adolescent, and young adult the way that all parents hope that children will be cared for by the larger community: with tenderness, guidance, and plenty of space for growth and wild play. I was free to wander through the woods and examine the natural world with wide curiosity and joy, holding the hands of more genuinely loving friends (both child and adult) than one young girl could ever hope for. These friends helped me grow into a confident, secure adult with values rooted in the traditional Quaker way: humility, passivism, consensus-building, equality, gentleness, responsibility, and acceptance. It was a place that I learned how to recognize and celebrate the innate goodness in myself and in others. This was and continues to be a real family to me – in the same way that Don’s is for so many other young people. Camp is a place I’ll always return to for safety, belonging, nourishment.

At camp, I felt heard, understood, appreciated and challenged from the littlest age onward. Gradually, I took on new roles: I quickly mastered the art of choosing my activities for the morning and moved on to figuring out how far I could take each new adventure – could I learn how to hold a snake, a turtle, a rabbit? Could I ride a horse? Just how muddy would I get if I jumped into the swamp (and did I care)? I walked through streams, picked up new rocks, wrote stories about magic fairies in the woods, made leprechaun houses by the streams, and lead night hikes for wary parents. I learned to identify plants, make stew from wildest ones (with help from books), and even make a fire from wet wood. I can remember, as a 5 or 6 year old, leading other kids (and counselors) to ‘my’ secret berry spot. We picked berries and sassafras leaves and roots, and used our harvest to make wine colored pillows full of the sweet smell of sassafras leaves, and drank a tea to celebrate our labors. I remember lying on my belly on damp pine needles for hours, tracing the path of the ants and spiders that crossed the paper of my journals. I remember searching the woods of the Gunpowder River for onion bulbs to spice our stick-and-stone stew, and ending up hiking farther than I ever thought my little legs could take me. I started thinking of myself as a tough little girl, one who could do anything (!) – even if at school I was so shy, so quiet, and had a harder time making friends. At camp I was free . . . felt confident, sure, and so wildly happy. I wished those feelings could go on forever.

Eventually I officially became an ‘explorer,’ then a junior counselor, a senior counselor, and then I led the teen groups on their own adventures. And then I moved on to other things – college and beyond to work and a lot of travel. I figured out that the older I became, the more challenging it was to stay connected to the dreaminess of childhood – much international travel demonstrated a whole new world where I saw poverty, fear, inequality, and hatred. It would have been easy to let it change the confident, secure person I had become, but I still strive to see goodness in people, even when their actions shadow the genuine ‘light’ they possess. As a young adult, and now approaching my 28th year, I have taken many turns in the path towards a career, at different times teaching reproductive health with young adults, at another time managing a clinic in the highlands of Guatemala, pursuing a masters degree in public health, working as a doula. A college education in a Quaker, liberal-minded approach formed my critical thinking abilities and secured my commitment to work with under-served populations. Now I’ve been managing a community health center that primarily serves immigrants and I imagine that I’ll pursue a career in nurse-midwifery in the next few years.

Through all of these loops and curves in my path, the principles of Don Webb’s approach stay with me. I think about the conflicts that arise in this traditional southern community where I live and the challenges of accepting a new, often different group of immigrants. I imagine ways of negotiating peacefulness between the multiple groups struggling to obtain limited resources, and am reminded of the sweet safety where I first learned peacemaking principles as a child. I’ve even asked Don for a copy of his “operating agreements” to use when meeting with my large staff as a group – and yes, we meet in circles, just like we did at camp – doctors, nurses, assistants all on equal footing and striving to work together as a unified, consensus-seeking team.

Last summer I visited camp on a family overnight. After dinner was finished, the raucous crowd of children and their families settled into a circle around a campfire. Don posed the questions, “What does everyone feel about conflict?” “What are ways that we can transform hard times into opportunities where we can grow and learn from each other?” In the Quaker way, one person spoke at a time, when they felt moved to share something. Children and adults took turns sharing their feelings about conflict in all areas of their worlds – from sharing at camp, at home or at school, to worldly conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan. With such elegance and grace, children matched their own words and feelings to conflict-resolution possibilities – which included pea-shooters instead of guns (aiming at bellies-below only, of course), taking turns talking by using talking-sticks to discuss problems (one at a time), crying together when we are sad or scared, and being able to step aside when your opinion isn’t shared by the broader group. If only such sophistication was shared in the international political and economic realms. If only adults could take a break from our seriousness to imagine such simple possibilities.

Nature Camps is an idyllic retreat. A place for healing, re-connecting, to slow down enough to allow growing and exploring, where everyone can find their niche, their strengths, and be reminded of their innate goodness. I’m so grateful for my carefree years there, and for the millions of ways those days shaped the adult I am now. I’ll have to go back this summer for a visit.






“A Respect for the Natural World and a Sense of Wonder When I Look at Simple Things around Me”

Kristen Gounaris Allen attended Nature Camp in the 1980’s.  She shared with us her reflections about that experience.  She works as a Natural Resource Management Specialist at the Richmond National Battlefield Park.

I attended Don Webb Nature Camp for 5 summers in the early 80’s, from the time I was 10 until I was 15 or 16. Some of my happiest childhood memories consist of all-day hikes to Beaver Dam Creek (at the camp’s first location) or the Gunpowder river, tree climbing, writing with homemade walnut ink in my hand-made journal with my hand-carved pencil, night hikes with no flashlight (I find few people who know that you can even do this, let alone know what an amazing experience it is.), overnights sleeping under the stars and quiet fireside times reading from “Opal” or singing “The Circle Song”.

It’s difficult to imagine what kind of person I would be if I hadn’t attended Don Webb Nature Camp. Even before I went there, I loved stones and dirt and those helicopters that fall from maple trees. But I imagine, as with so many things associated with youth, those interests may have faded away, and I would have been left to wander through life in a very different manner. The most obvious result of camp is that it allowed me to carry this interest into my teen years and fostered an environmental ethic that I carried with me into adulthood. I passionately and relentlessly studied ecology in college, graduate school and during two internships in Northern California and am now working as a biologist for the National Park Service. Camp gave me the rare gift of being someone whose aspirations never changed from their teen years and who is doing exactly (well, nearly) what they envisioned when they were 15. In fact, when I wrote my college entrance essay about Don Webb Nature Camp, that aspect is what I focused on.

But now that I am the mother of two little girls, I can look back and see what might be some of the more important gifts that Nature Camp gave me. It showed me that “outside” is a place where I can think, dream, and feel peaceful, secure and happy. I have used this gift so many times when things got confusing later in life. I spent hours as a teen and in college sitting in the woods, or by a river just watching and listening. Things felt clearer to me then, like I could make it through whatever problem I was having at the time. It gave me a respect for the natural world and a sense of wonder when I look at simple things around me. Even now, when I am momentarily lost in daily frustrations, I can look around and find (if I remember to look) something beautiful.  This sense has the power to provide perspective when things don’t seem to be going well.

When I was a Junior Counselor, I remember a little girl at camp who was afraid of the rain, and one of the other counselors took her for a walk during a summer shower. They set off and disappeared down the path. When they came back around the loop, they were skipping and laughing.  I think of that so often as a parent, and my daughter and I have taken many walks just like this. Removing this fear of the unknown (or misunderstood) provides a sense of self-sufficiency, independence and respect for nature that enables a person to go out in the world and really experience life.


The above remarkable validation of the effects on children’s experiences in nature has been noted over the past fifty years, especially in books such as Anna Comstock’s Nature Study, Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring and Sense of Wonder, in Opal – The Journal of an Understanding Heart, and in the 2006 popularized book Last Child in the Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv and Don Webb's Published Papers.

These powerful, touching thoughts and feelings from NC grown adults and these books, all cite the continual body of research that indicates engagement with the natural world is essential for healthy childhood development, and for the physical and emotional heath of both children and adults.