Into the Woods
Kids learn to rough it and love it
Tes Reed demonstrates a spoon carving technique, using a whittling knife and Bass wood, to the Red Eft Clan during their time in the woods.
Photos by Christina Rahr Lane
“Children are our greatest teachers,” says Tes Reed, an animated, petite 51-year-old who has been teaching off the beaten path for more than 20 years. Her hair, a mass of graying curls, gives way to expressive blue eyes that hint at her sense of adventure. Ragged Carhartt pants resting on her boyish hips make Reed nearly indistinguishable from the 12 adolescent girls gathered around her for a day in the woods.
“Everyone is exactly who she is meant to be in the woods,” says Reed, whose nature-based educational programs aim to teach young people to “respect the earth and support it, not just consume it.” What began as cultivating an education for her own daughters, now 25 and 23, has turned into the wildly popular, albeit enigmatic, “Girls in the Woods” and “Boys in the Woods” programs, where groups of nine- to 12-year-olds take to the woods to reap life’s lessons.
“I love the freedom it gives me—and the responsibility [that] goes along with it,” remarks Angus Kerr, 14, of Mill River, who is finishing his third and final year with the Great Horned Owl clan. Reed grew up knowing the land in a way that few do. Her family’s 1870s eyebrow Colonial stands upon an unassuming triangle of property, deep in New Marlborough, where 18 acres of dense woods converge with open, grassy fields.
She describes her father, a New York City dentist who wanted to be a farmer, as “a man of the land, a man of the cloth”—a nod to his conservative, Catholic viewpoints and to the well-loved books he shared with her growing up, like Euell Gibbons’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus and Lee Allen Peterson’s A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. His teachings and his desire to live off the land proved deeply influential for Reed in shaping her life’s work.
In a family of New York City professionals, Reed found balance in the model her parents espoused. Her father, quiet and reserved, worked in the city three days a week so that he could return to New Marlborough and spend long weekends connecting to his family, who lived there full-time, and to nature. Reed’s mother, a fiery artist of Puerto Rican descent, had resisted coming to the Berkshires and leaving Bloomingdale’s behind, but she ultimately left the city to support her husband’s dream of raising Reed and her younger brother in the country.
Reed attended local schools in the Berkshires and graduated from Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. After her parents died, newlywed Reed and her husband, Paul, moved to her parents’ empty farmhouse to start a family. When a friend mentioned homeschooling, Reed never looked back.
She began taking her girls into the woods to explore their natural surroundings. She eventually met Michelle Apland, of Flying Deer Nature Center in New Lebanon, New York, when her girls got involved in a program called Daughters of the Earth. As word spread, a community of mothers looking for help raising their daughters began to take shape. Reed took the inaugural group of girls into the woods in 2006.
Soon, mothers of boys began reaching out to Reed, who responded by expanding her programs to include boys. At present, she works with 40 to 50 kids in roughly six “clans.” Each group spends one day in the woods each month, a week during the summer, and several overnights throughout the year. Broc and Fiona Kerr, of Mill River, have a son and daughter currently “in the woods” with Reed. Of his kids’ experiences with Reed, Broc says, “I love the independence it builds.” Fiona cites the challenges, unique fun, and strong bonds that are formed.
On a recent outing with the Red Efts clan, an impromptu rain shower presents a simple challenge: to build a one-match fire in the rain. A dozen bandana-clad 11-year-olds converge in an exercise that teaches courage and perseverance, collaboration and communication. There is debate as to how much birch bark is needed. Pairs of girls dart into the woods to gather tangled handfuls of twiggy hemlock and kindling in varying sizes.
As a trickle of smoke becomes a thick plume and fire appears, a round of applause erupts. But the girls’ success is tempered by persistent thunder. “Never react in a safety situation,” Reed cautions. “We make bad decisions when we rush.” Suddenly the lessons of the woods don’t seem so foreign to everyday life.
At the root of Reed’s mission is her belief that kids are our legacy. “I love this work,” she says, smiling. “This is what feeds me.” She has years of stories to share, of kids who have gone into the woods tired, angry, sad, or in pain, only to emerge and find it’s all gone away. “Healing happens in there for everybody,” she says. “You can’t miss it—it’s happening all around—and kids notice it in themselves.”