Kindling the Curious: Whitey’s Tour of Trees

November 17th, 2009

I was running along a trail in the mountains a couple months ago when a woman walking in the opposite direction stopped me. “Have you seen Whitey Lueck?” she asked. “He usually travels up here on Thursdays to walk, but he doesn’t use trails.” She provided a physical description that didn’t resemble anyone I had seen. I pondered how I was supposed to spy him if he didn’t use trails. Cascade forests are dense. I spared her my musings and simply answered, “No, I’ve not seen him. If I do, I’ll say you’re looking for him.” We parted ways.

A couple weeks ago I received an email about a tree tour at the University of Oregon hosted by none other than Whitey Lueck. What a coincidence! Far from the mythical, hobbit-like person I pictured, Whitey is a well-known, well-respected local naturalist and all around outdoor guru. He knows more about trees than I expect I’ll ever gather about a single subject. I signed my family up.

Two elements of Whitey’s tour particularly intrigued me. The first was the simplicity of the curriculum: trees. Whitey took us from one tree to the next, gave us a few interesting facts about each, then invited questions. The second striking aspect was his wholesale engagement in his subject matter. Whitey’s interest, passion, and knowledge were unmistakable and inspiring.

Our tour group comprised a blend of adults and children. Kids are natural learners. Curiosity is in their being. One need not teach them to learn. They want to know and make meaning of what they see and experience. Their questions are often pure, unrefined, and earnest. They want to suck meaning out of things to satisfy their curiosity, an appetite I find contagious.

I encourage you to take a tour, with children, if possible. Note what made the tour helpful or unhelpful. I’m a believer that the qualities of a good tour guide are the same qualities that are central to good teachers, parents, and managers. You will see this most clearly in how he or she responds to the questions people ask. The best tour guides welcome questions and contributions from the group. Second, notice the children’s questions. How would you describe them? Study their faces and notice what curiosity looks like. This is how we get close to curious and how we rekindle it within ourselves.

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