In 2023, Rolling Ridge celebrates 75 years of ministry. Every month this year, we're sharing a story reflecting the impact Rolling Ridge has had and is having on people. The Ridge is in the business of transforming lives and helping people find what they need. This month, Michael Reed, our new Associate Executive Director, looks at fearlessness through the lens of one of our eco-partners at the Ridge. If you have a story to share, please let him know.
Keeping Pace with Nature and Christine CohneBy Rev. Michael Reed
There’s a fallen tree that stretches out over the lake. It’s a place where fears are conquered.
I’m walking beside Lake Cochichewick with Christine Cohne, who left a stable career to start a new venture: inspiring adventurous, outdoor play in children and youth.
“There’s hours of play on that log,” she says, pointing. To me, it doesn’t look like much. Just an uprooted tree trunk, clinging by its roots to the shoreline. But to Christine, this is a destination event.
It’s early January when she shows me the spot, and the water has receded far enough to reveal huge swaths of the dry lakebed below. When the lake is low like this, she brings second graders to the log, helping them to climb up and explore. “Three, four, five feet off the ground is such an immense distance when you’re that age,” she says. I try to picture it like I’m eight years old, scootching out on my belly and knees across the expanse. “It’s so exciting when you make it,” Christine says.
In the summer, when the water is high, Christine brings teenagers to walk across the fallen tree, as it spans out across the water. “They help each other and hold hands and find ways to shimmy across.” Christine says she doesn’t tell them what to do, or remind them to be careful. I ask what she does do. She grins and says, “I bring towels.”
Fear of nature is something that Christine Cohne wants us all to unlearn. Or, in the case of children and youth, to avoid learning in the first place. It's the mentality she brings to Nature’s Pace LLC, the organization she founded in 2018, and partner program at Rolling Ridge. “I want kids to not be afraid of the mud, not afraid to get dirty, not afraid to climb a tree,” she says. She spends hours in our woods with the youth in her programs, building bridges over streams, or fortifying bunkers with a lattice of fallen sticks.
Nature’s Pace students experiment with mud painting and fort building at the Ridge. Photo credit: Christine Cohne
She tells me she grew up playing with her brothers in the woods behind her house—getting dirty and making up games. As her own kids got older, she recognized that there were fewer opportunities for children to play outdoors, or to approach nature with freedom and curiosity. It’s the reason she started Nature’s Pace in the first place.
As we walk along the waterfront, Christine shows me the grounds like I’ve never seen them before. She bends down to point out the changing composition of the sand and soil, and gets me to feel the clay. She points out mushrooms and fungal growth, taking particular delight in a yellow gelatinous goo that she calls “Witch’s Butter.” Christine prods the fungi, gently, as it oozes out of a half-frozen stump. I summon my courage and do likewise.
Christine Cohne pointing out “Witches Butter,” also known as tremella mesenterica
Not only is Christine attentive to nature, she’s also attuned to language. She believes that educators and parents often insert their own fears into the first experiences of children. “Simple phrases like, “Be careful,’ and ‘Don’t go too high.’” She shakes her head. “Just stop that already!”
It’s not that Christine is reckless or unsafe—quite the opposite. She teaches her students a different approach, and instills attentiveness and respect for biology and gravity into the language she uses. “When you’re looking at a tree,” she says, “ask yourself, ‘What do I need to be aware of, if I want to climb?’” She teaches her students to look for the handholds before they ascend, to notice the wet slippery rock before they step, to make their way securely on uneven ground. It’s about being present and paying attention, which reflect the values of contemplative spirituality which we teach at Rolling Ridge.
Young Nature’s Pace learners. Photo credit: Christine Cohne.
I’ve been thinking about fear in the months since I first talked with Christine, and how it relates to what we’re all about at Rolling Ridge. There’s no denying the usefulness of fear. If you never venture out into the woods, you don’t have to worry about scraped elbows and muddy knees. For most of us modern people, the outdoors is unfamiliar terrain; there’s a sense of vulnerability that comes over us, as we step out into the wild.
It seems to me that the kind of courageous adventuring that Christine wants for her young learners are the same skills we need as adults. Life in general is too full of opportunities for fear—too uncertain and unpredictable; in short, too wild—not to learn these lessons well. Contemplative spirituality teaches us to recognize and confront the slippery thoughts and jagged emotions that contribute to our fears, and develop the inner strength to live fearlessly in the face of anxiety and self-doubt. Too many of us live with the voice of fear in our heads: ‘Watch out!’ or ‘Be careful!’ Deep spiritual awareness provides us with a different approach to life. ‘What do I need to be aware of, if I want to climb?’ is not such a bad question for contemplatives as well.
Exploring nature at the Ridge. Photo credit: Christine Cohne.
That’s why we love these kinds of partnerships—not only with Nature’s Pace, but also with other groups that foster eco-awareness and eco-spirituality for the people that come to the Ridge. Together, they add something vital to our larger mission: to be a safe and sacred place for all people to connect with themselves, God, and the natural world. Though Nature’s Pace isn’t a religious program, it turns out that approaching the natural world without fear can lead not only to moments of playfulness, but also experiences of beauty and wonder. “Children are so great at this,” says Christine, “because they want to stare at a snowflake. They want to smell the flowers. They want to lay down and watch the clouds.”
I asked Christine what’s next for her and for Nature’s Pace. She’s busy planning youth and adult programming for this spring and fall. Registration is open now. And she’s busy practicing what she preaches, learning to find fearlessness with her own calling as her career changes. She’s blazing a new trail with Nature’s Pace, and not looking back. If what I’ve seen already is any indication, she’s got nothing to fear.
To learn more about Nature’s Pace, please visit www.natures-pace.com, or check them out on Facebook and Instagram.
If you’ve got a story you’d like to share with Rolling Ridge, contact Michael Reed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Associate Executive Director at Rolling Ridge