gamut (2006-26)

Kids don’t usually get the truth. They get a watered-down, or sugarcoated version. When grandma dies, she’s “taking a long nap.” Or when divorce looms near, “mommy and daddy still love each other, they just aren’t going to live together.” The thing is, though, that kids can tell. And so they appreciate it when they’re told the truth.

Fortunately, Mickey Larkins tells it like it is.

When teaching his “For The Birds” class at Tremont and explicating the difference between monocular and binocular vision, Larkins describes an owl swooping in for the kill, making dinner out of some unsuspecting rodent. As Larkins, a gruff stocky mountain man who seems at first an unlikely teacher of children, animates the moment of the kill and snaps his imaginary beak, the class lets out a collective “Aww!” Larkins retorts, “Well, everybody’s gotta eat! It’s no different from when you ate some dead pig for breakfast this morning.” Recalling the crispy bacon strips, the kids nod at the undeniable logic.

The fact that everything in the world is connected, be it man-made or natural, is one of the central points of the Great Smoky Mountains Institute of Tremont’s mission. As an educational facility, it aims to teach kids, through a refreshingly matter-of-fact approach, the way the world works, in hopes of fostering an environmental consciousness.

In addition to kids programs such as this summer camp and year-round school programs, there are weeklong adult and family programs at Tremont, too. Publicity director Kent Jones says that these programs “appeal to science educators, but are also for anyone who is interested in nature. That’s really what a naturalist is—it’s not this strict classification.”

Anyone could and would appreciate Tremont. On a hot June day, merely driving into the national park is like entering an oasis; windows roll down and sunglasses are cast aside, as the canopy of green mosaics overhead lowers the temperature by at least 15 degrees. And nature’s soundtrack of water crashing through the streambeds, or just the quiet ruffle of leaves, is better than anything on your iPod.

Tremont itself sits in a scooped-out valley, with steep slopes on all sides, shingled with rows upon rows of trees. The graceful spatial stillness of the foliage, though unsystematic, almost makes a case for Intelligent Design—the designer having more in common with Calder, maybe, than any religious figure.

But this land wasn’t always celebrated so much for its beauty as it was for its marketability. From 1901 until the late ’30s, Tremont was, like much of the Smokies, logging country. The community that sprang up nearby was named for the owner of Little River Logging Company, W.B. Townsend. Such mountain communities thrived by clear-cutting and selling lumber, hauled away on railroads, but they functioned as little microcosmic entities. They even had their own scrip, termed “doogaloos,” which were bartered for goods and services. Recently, a Tremont employee found one on eBay, and it’s now become a subject of lore at the camp. “We ask the kids, ‘Do you doogaloo?’” says Jones.

When the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was formed in 1934, logging trickled to a halt and the forest was allowed to grow back. While technically part of the national park, Tremont functions as a separate institute, functioning through partnerships with the likes of UT and the aluminum company Alcoa. Its educational and research facilities are uncommon enough to attract groups from across the country. And executive director Ken Voorhis will accept the governor’s Stewardship Award in Nashville this week.

While Tremont is for the most part extremely woodsy, Jones says the staff plans to “undevelop” the place even more in the next few years by getting rid of some of the paved areas and converting the 40-year-old buildings into green-powered structures. Originally erected for a Girl Scout camp, the buildings are your run-of-the-mill wooden structures that might be found in any American outdoors camp.

But Tremont’s not like other camps in many ways. There’s no archery or trust falls or “Hole in My Bucket, Dear Liza” singing. There are games and songs of course, but they all revolve around nature.

And whether the kids come here with a prior interest in science or whether they’ve learned it here (and many of them are repeat campers), these youngsters are extremely precocious. Comparing bird-nest building to human house building, Larkins asks the kids what the first step of construction would be. “The skeleton?” says a little girl on the front row, pushing smeared wire-rimmed glasses up her nose. “No, the foundation,” says a longhaired boy next to her. “And why,” asks Larkins, “is there all this fuzzy stuff in the nest?” Without missing a beat, glasses girl says, “So when the hatchlings hatch, they don’t get hurt.” She shoots longhair a smarty-pants look, daring him to challenge her this time.

Yanking out some colored yarn and bits of trash from the bird nest he’s displaying, Larkins muses to the kids, “Birds are just totally awesome, I think. They just surprise you.”

Later on, the kids are assigned to build their own birds’ nests. But on the way outside, one boy notices a Dobson fly—he identifies the fat brown bug creeping on the side of the building himself. Everyone gathers around and snaps pictures with their disposable cameras, as another boy over to the side whines, “There’s a Luna moth over here that no one’s even noticing! It’s endangered.” He snaps a photo and scurries to catch up.

During the nest-building project, the kids prove that while they may be bright, they still have childish impulses. Broken down into two groups of five, one group is assigned to make a cardinal’s nest. “It looks like a hippie,” says one boy. “It has a weirdo hairdo.” Peals of laughter resound from the others. Looking at the plumply illustrated birds, one girl adds, “Cardinals are pretty fat.”

From the outset, this group has difficulty. There’s no real leader; instead all five have differing ideas on how to build the nest. One girl named Jordan carefully ties four twigs in a square, using thick grass blades as precarious roping. Then Chad takes one look at her structure and says, “We need mud,” sending the three others off digging in the nearby dirt. Returning with grimy handfuls and befuddled looks in their faces, the mud-fetchers are at a loss. Larkins chuckles, “What’s the mud gonna lie on…imagination?”

“Dude, I don’t get it,” says Haley, her blond hair falling around her shoulders as she collapses hopelessly to an Indian-style sit. “We worked so hard getting all that mud!”

Larkins, who tends to make comments that soar right over the students’ heads, says, “You all aren’t being true cardinals here. They’d run you out of St. Louis in a minute!”

But a sudden epiphany saves the wayward cardinals. “Guys, let’s start forming the mud around in a circle and make a cup,” says Jordan, who seems to be the oldest. Larkins says that Natalie, a diminutive honey-haired girl, should be the builder. “I have to build?” she says in a surprised, wispy voice. “Oh, duh, I was in pottery class…OK, I need more mud.”

Larkins marvels at the difference in the dynamics of the two groups. The second group’s already nearly finished with a pristine nest by this time. Each kid seems to have a role—there are builders, gatherers and coaches (“put that twig there”). Larkins gives them all sour gummy worms after they wash up. “We’re learning more than nest-building here,” he says. “We’re learning to work together.”

“My butt’s really wet!” cries a little slip of a girl standing next to a stream, craning her neck to see her drenched rear. This group is just nearing the end of its creek expedition. They’ve been finding and identifying all sorts of creepy water critters, and now they’re sitting in a circle, reflecting on the morning’s activity. The question of their favorite animal of the day prompts some interesting responses from the 9-13 year olds (there is also a camp for ages 14-17). “I’d like to be a salamander because I’d just lie around all day,” says one boy. Another wants to be a salamander too, but with the more scientific reasoning that he could “decide whether to be in or out of the water.” But the creativity award goes to a spiky-haired young man who says, with all the panache of Jay-Z or Ludacris, “I wanna be a rock so I could be home to all the bugs—I’d be a sweet crib.”

After the group wraps up, all the soggy campers trudge up to change clothes for lunch. It’s pizza day. Sweet. Even mealtime at Tremont pays respect to the environment. There are two pizzas per table, and there will be no seconds, says a counselor at the beginning of lunch. There is a salad bar and fruit, too, but there’s a focus on not being overindulgent with resources. The kids, who’ve acclimated to this practice by now, take one slice at a time and most are careful to eat even “the bones,” or the crust. That’s because, at the end of the meal, the appointed table leaders scrape the food waste into one big bucket, which is then ceremoniously carried to the front of the cafeteria where a counselor hangs it on a scale.

Haley gets a worried look on her face as she cries, “That’s a lot !” Tension in the room seems to heighten as the red arrow boings over to the right a smidge. But there is only a modest pile of crusts and carrots in the pail, and the counselor says, “That’s not so bad,” as he marks 1.25 pounds on the food-waste chart.

Without being told, the campers stack their plates and cups neatly in the center of the tables before leaving the cafeteria. One has to wonder whether this practice carries over when the kids get home from camp. And that notion of fostering good habits parallels the overarching mission at Tremont well. “We teach children and adults how special this place is,” says Jones. “But you can take all these ideas and use them in your backyard and your community.”