Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Nature can inspire wonder in a child

At the University of Dayton I studied philosophy, and I took that discipline's precepts with me when I left Dayton in the summer of 1966. I studied the transcendentalists and was eager to apply the ideas of Emerson to the gang kids of the South Bronx.

The transcendentalists believed nature is sublime and rejuvenates the soul. An emotional and spiritual rebirth is often a result of a sojourn in nature. I was intent on saving the souls of the punks hanging out in the schoolyard at P.S. 47 on 172nd Street.

I was a street gang counselor keeping the local hoodlums from killing each other. I gave the police chief a deal he couldn't refuse and he gave me the green light to take 12 toughs camping in the Catskill Mountains. After I confiscated BB guns and knives, we set out from my family's deli. A few hours later we arrived in the mountains, a laboratory in which to apply the theories of transcendentalism.

Forty-seven years later, I'm still enamored by the same philosophies and always willing to accompany children on excursions into nature. Recently, Martha Inofuentes, the director of the La Cañada Girl Scout Summer Camp, asked if I would accompany scouts on an overnight camping trip to Gould Mesa. When a lady the likes of Inofuentes requests my services, I immediately say yes.

I met the Scouts at the Gould Mesa Trail. I tightened oversized backpacks, distributed equipment and doled out small prescriptions of encouragement. It was endearing to witness the children clinging to their mothers for a tender farewell. We took a group picture and off we went down the hot dusty trail, clanging mess kits and canteens. I saw the excitement on their faces. They were filled with the exuberance of adventure.

I was most impressed by their leaders, Sonja Cwik and Kirsten George, both La Cañada High School graduates. These young ladies are the best and the brightest of our community. They were attentive, resourceful, and outstanding role models for the children.

The wonder of life is found in the small incidentals of the experience. Haley Lowes-Bicay found joy splashing in the river. The diverse environment of the Mesa amazed Elise Alvarez-Salazar. Katherine Besch loved sleeping under the stars and listening to the night sounds. Savannah Rogan, the little girl with the Yankees hat, was mesmerizing while telling a Native American myth as we sat around the campfire.

The children strolled in the woods, infusing wonder into emerging souls. Would they learn that nature is the tonic that embraces humankind? Getting eye to eye with the smallest flower, they may understand the transcendental perspective that wilderness is the preservation of the world.

Let me get back to my story of camping with the gang kids in '66. A ranger woke me on our first night. Some kids had set the latrine on fire — with the ranger in it. We had minutes to clear out. As we left, the ranger ran the license plates of our borrowed van. It didn't belong to one of the boy's parents. We were apprehended for grand theft. The following year, I would try again, and did it two more years after that.

Kirsten George, one of the La Cañada scout leaders, remarked during our recent trip, “I'm amazed at the spirit of the girls.” I understood when she said, “I will keep this memory always.”

Transcendentalism believes that the natural world transcends the soul, thereby bringing the individual to an elevated spiritual, social, and intellectual state.

The blessings of a sojourn in nature often lay dormant; they'll come to the surface unannounced. Perhaps one day the little Girl Scouts will experience an epiphany and realize the magic from a walk in the woods at a Girl Scout camp.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at

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