In April 2013, Sue Holloway set out to celebrate Earth Day a bit differently with her students.
Sue, a self-described “mother, author, artist, educator, and entrepreneur,” is the founder of The Forest School, an alternative learning centre in South Gillies, Ontario, a rural community just outside Thunder Bay. The school’s curriculum is steeped in social and environmental responsibility.
“At the school, for lots of Earth Days, we’d done what most educators do: talking about taking care of the planet, discussing environmental issues like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch” — the world’s largest accumulation of ocean plastic, located between Hawaii and California.
“But that year, I was dreaming about what the planet would look like in 100 years. And I asked the kids to tell me their visions of that future. I’d imagined they’d say things like, ‘Those trees will be so big,’ or, ‘That pond’s going to be completely overgrown.’”
One kid, says Sue, didn’t go there. “She didn’t want to think about what the world would be like in 100 years because she thought that we would’ve destroyed the planet by then. And she looked so sad, confused, and lost. It was heartbreaking.”
That moment sparked something inside Sue. “I thought, ‘They’re already getting the messages of the destruction of the planet. And they really need to hear a different story — a vision of what the earth could be.’”
She began working on that story, writing down her thoughts and visions, and reading early drafts to her sons, Walker (now 14) and Rowan (now 12). The boys — like their Forest School classmates — loved it, and pushed Sue to keep writing. The following Earth Day, and for several years after, Sue and her students participated in a new ritual: reading the story, laughing and crying about it, and then tweaking it. The kids acted like a juvenile editorial committee, letting Sue know what worked and what didn’t, what inspired and resonated. In April 2017, “They said, ‘That’s it. It’s done. You’re ready.’”
With a finished manuscript, Sue, 49, set out to find an illustrator and came across Amanda Clark. She launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to publish the book. A World Worth Imagining launched in December 2017. The book paints a picture of just that: a world 100 years from now, after “the old world” of reckless living “fell apart and the new age truly began.” It’s a world “guided by respect and compassion,” where people coexist peacefully, learn from each other, help and heal each other, where forests thrive, and birds sing, “where everyone understands that we are all connected. The people, plants, animals, bugs, and birds are each a strand in the web of life. What happens to one strand affects them all.”
“It’s amazing how many parents have said to me, ‘Thank you for this,’” says Sue. “I originally thought I’d written a book for kids, but it turns out that I wrote it for the parents as well. And that makes sense. Parents need hope for their kids, too.”
Sue has also created a set of activities and lesson plans that parents and educators can use conjunction with A World Worth Imagining. The book is, in many ways, an illustration of Sue’s vision for the world — one that she and her husband, Derek, have tried to create for themselves, their family, and their community. The couple and their kids live on about 130 acres of mostly forest, in an off-the-grid house powered by solar panels and heated by a wood fireplace built by Derek — he also builds wood-fired pizza ovens, including the one behind the family’s restaurant, Both Hands Wood-Fired Pizza & Bakery in Thunder Bay.
The property is also home to The Forest School, which opened in 2008. Rowan and Walker, says Sue, were the driving force behind its creation.
“What’s important to us is to help develop kids who are resourceful, courageous, open-minded, compassionate, connected to the land and to each other, who are able to bridge gaps between people. We wanted them to learn how to make choices about the kind of world they want to create and who they want to be, rather than just having choices made for them.”
The students at Forest School, for example, choose their curriculum. “There is an underlying philosophy that guides the school, but beyond that, the kids decide what they’re learning, and we all follow through on those decisions, and they get to see the results of their choices.”
After running the school for a dozen years, Sue recently launched Wild at Heart, a monthly subscription zine aimed at parents and educators. It’s filled with ideas for hands-on, often nature-based, activities that help kids connect with peers, themselves, and others.
“It came from a look at my filing cabinets, filled with all these amazing things that we’ve done over the years. I wanted to get those resources into the world and save people from the hassle of having to put in the time and the research I put in. It feels good to share all that knowledge.”
Sue and her family were in the car recently, listening to the radio spew out all kinds of bad news — political unrest, the dismantling of environmental protections, war, and turmoil. Everyone in the car was feeling a bit bleak, she recalls. “And then, Walker piped up from the back seat, ‘But what if mom’s book came true?’ And I started to cry. And I thought, ‘That’s why I wrote it. What if it could come true?’”
SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and co-editor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.
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