River of Words Poetry Trail Opens at Constitution Marsh

By William Benjamin

This past Sunday (July 12), elementary students proudly presented their winning poems for the Hudson Highlands Land Trust (HHLT) 2015 River of Words Poetry Trail held at the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center and Sanctuary. From July 12 through Aug. 10, these nine poems will display young students’ artistic interpretation of the relationship between humans and nature.

The event kicked off at 4 p.m. with a welcome by Andy Chmar, director of HHLT, an introduction by Eric Lind, director of Constitution Marsh, and a reading by award-winning poet Irene O’Garden. Family, friends and supporters sipped lemonade to stay cool on the muggy, midsummer afternoon.

Young poet Evan Maasik and River of Words educator Irene O'Garden stand in front of Evan's poem along the 2015 River of Words Poetry Trail. 

Young poet Evan Maasik and River of Words educator Irene O’Garden stand in front of Evan’s poem along the 2015 River of Words Poetry Trail.

“Poetry does something that nothing else can do, and we can’t even put it into words, but we certainly know it when we see it, when we hear it, and the following poets inspired in me these feelings,” said O’Garden, who is a River of Words (ROW) educator and who selected the winning poems.

This year’s featured poems and their authors include “Give Thanks!” by Patrick Cosgrove, “I, Blue Jay” by Samantha Rice, “My Little Friend” by Angelina Martelli, “Fox” by Sophie Sabin, “Forest” by Mike McKeown, “The Breeze” by Steve Robinson, “The Great Oak” by Evan Maasik and “Mysterious Forest” by Gabriela Haggan. Chris Crill’s fourth-grade class in Putnam Valley collectively wrote a poem that was the first collaboration to be selected for the Poetry Trail. All poems reflect the goals of the ROW program.

“The River of Words is a national program that we’ve adapted for our watershed. But it’s a national program that uses local watersheds to put children in touch with the environment,” said Elise LaRocco, HHLT’s director of ROW. “It is meant to teach environmental stewardship and develop some language skills.”

The HHLT sponsors the regional ROW program and connects students with the natural beauty of the Hudson Highlands. The national ROW program was cofounded by U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass and is affiliated with the Library of Congress Center for the Book. It trains teachers to use the outdoors as a learning laboratory and promote the intersection of nature and art in traditional education. This regional affiliate meets the New York Common Core Curriculum Standards. HHLT receives additional funding for the program from the Educational Foundation of America, the Malcolm Gordon Charitable Fund, the RBC Blue Water Project and the Vida Foundation.

2015 River of Words Poetry Trail winning poets receive hats and a butterfly pamphlet at the reception on July 12. 

2015 River of Words Poetry Trail winning poets receive hats and a butterfly pamphlet at the reception on July 12.

“The goal is to go into the classroom and take them outdoors and do an expressive element of their experience — whether it was a science experiment or environmental observations,” said LaRocco. This regional chapter of ROW runs workshops with five local schools: Cornwall, Garrison, Haldane, Highland Falls and Putnam Valley. The ROW educators go to each school and offer free classes for kindergarten through fifth-grade students.

At Constitution Marsh, the ROW program, the poems and the nature that inspires them wrap together like vines around a tree. The center is accustomed to hosting educational events.

“Throughout the fall and spring, we have classes here nearly nonstop,” said Lind. Classes from all over the greater Hudson Valley region come to the marsh to test water, learn local species and discover the natural world around them. They strive to develop biophilia, a term that suggests there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. Whether overturning stones in Indian Brook, looking across the marsh with binoculars or imagining the thoughts of a fox, students throughout the Hudson Valley can learn to love what is alive and vital — similar goal to the ROW.

Young poet Samantha Rice stands next to here poem 'I, Blue Jay' in Constitution Marsh.

Young poet Samantha Rice stands next to here poem ’I, Blue Jay’ in Constitution Marsh.

From the parking lot to the boardwalk, poems hang from trees or railings. The carefully chosen words of each young poet are written on canvas and stretched between sticks that hold the fabric flat. These little sheets of insight into the head of an elementary school student are scattered along the trail and must be discovered. Like a great blue heron in the marsh or a turtle in the mud, the nine selected poems are treasures along the ROW Poetry Trail. The students’ words speak to the strength of the natural world, to the impermanence of life and, possibly most importantly, to the relationship between humans and nature.

“We are preserving this land, but we also have to get the next generation connected to the land and empathetic, because they’ll be the stewards next,” LaRocco said.

Photos by W. Benjamin

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