The kids dash the last 40 or so yards across the big clearing, having caught sight of the salt-and-pepper-haired man sitting in a folding metal chair under a stand of trees, tuning an acoustic guitar. He sits with his back to the three small ponds — ringed with four-foot cattails and alive with the sounds of birds, insects and the occasional call-and-response belching of bullfrogs — that are the centerpiece of the spring-fed wetland area opened to the public last fall at Ruffner Mountain Nature Center.
There are a dozen children, ranging in age from 6 to 10, taking part in Ruffner’s annual summer day camp program. About half the group gathers in a loose semi-circle around the man, while the rest take seats nearby, on one or another of the lichen-covered boulders that dot this shady spot. One stocky boy, blonde hair spilling from beneath a faded green ball cap, hops up on one of the rocks and busts some air-guitar moves worthy of Pete Townshend.
“Can you teach me to play?” another boy asks.
“Not today,” Charles Tortorici answers, rising from his chair. “But I’ll teach you something else. Did you know that your voice is actually a musical instrument?”
As the kid shakes his head, Tortorici begins to strum a blues progression in the key of A. After once through, he begins calling out the chord changes, sing-songing in raucous rhythm with the tune: “A, A, A, A, A, A… B, B, B, B, B… E, E and A.” For now, at least, he has their attention.
A longtime teacher of children with learning disabilities, Tortorici, 55, has forged a second career over the past several years, that of poet and folk singer-songwriter. After honing those crafts performing at schools, festivals and public events, Tortorici recently was awarded a fellowship by the Alabama State Council on the Arts. He’s just resigned a part-time teaching job to put all of his efforts into his primary area of current interest, composing and performing poetry and songs that teach children about literary arts, the environment and the connections between the two.
Tortorici is here today at the invitation of the nature center, which continues to expand the scope of its educational programs in advance of opening its new visitor center this fall. This is the second of two sessions he was asked to lead; the previous week, he had older kids. Waiting for the group and their two counselors to head over from the nearby pavilion where they were finishing lunch after a mile-and-a-half hike over the mountain, Tortorici had allowed that he was a little concerned about keeping this bunch interested for the full hour-and-a-half allotted him. Regardless, he reasoned, the objective was the same.
“First of all,” Tortorici told me, “I want them to have some appreciation for music, including the human voice, which has all kinds of rhythmic, percussive possibilities. Second, I want to help them understand the role the environment plays in our lives, and why taking care of it is important. Third, I want them to be able to use their senses and imaginations to express the things they learn in creative ways.”
For roughly the first half of the session, Tortorici sings his songs, accompanying himself on harmonica as well as guitar. C sharp, C flat/See the cat in the hat, one lyric goes, Imagine this, imagine that/Write it down/Write it down. Another song is about “artist stew… made up of ingredients that come from inside you.” The highlight comes on “Watershed, a tune in which Tortorici name-checks, among other critters, mussels, darters, cardinals, honeybees, box turtles and tree frogs before the kids chime in on a chorus that, like that of many a beloved song, lends itself easily to audience participation: Watershed/Watershed/Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, watershed.
Through it all, the kids are mostly attentive, with only two or three instances in which one of the counselors has to call someone down. Tortorici’s method for dealing with potential disruptions is simple; whenever he spots someone filling their shirt front with pebbles or poking a fellow camper with a stick, he strolls over, stands in front of the kid and sings directly to them. At one point, the Pete Townshend impersonator asks if he can tell a joke; Tortorici stops blowing his harmonica long enough to reply, “No, we’re in the middle of a song, young man.”
The last song done, Tortorici sends the kids on a “scavenger hunt for poetry,” asking them to make a list-poem of things they see, hear, smell and feel in the wetland (“Don’t taste anything,” he admonishes. “But you can write down what you imagine something may taste like.”). Soon, the kids are wandering around the boardwalked paths around the ponds in groups of one or two; most are scribbling furiously, and almost all seem fully engaged. I walk among them, overhearing several similes — “cattails taste like corn dogs,” “this must be like heaven for frogs,” “the pond smells like dust in the fall” — being tried out verbally. One of the girls asks me, “Can I really write anything I want?” When I say yes, she exclaims, “All-right,” and skips off ahead, stopping to peer intently into the water below the boardwalk.
Back in the shade, with time for only a few of the poems to be read by the authors, Tortorici says goodbye to the group. “The world is full of poetry,” he tells them. “All you have to do is look for it.”
“That was great,” he grins when they’ve gone. “What was it Picasso said? Every child is an artist, but the problem is how to remain an artist when he grows up. I think it’s important for kids to know that the option of being artistic is open to them. If just one or two of these kids out here today becomes a writer or picks up a paintbrush, another one or two pick up a musical instrument, another few become environmentally conscious, then we’re really helping to create and preserve a lot of beauty in the world.”
Mark Kelly is contributing editor of the Birmingham Weekly, and is currently at work on the book Back to Nature: A History of Birmingham’s Ruffner Mountain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org