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Of this Earth

Kids explore nature at the Ocean Song Farm and Wilderness Center

By Gretchen Giles

The wind is snatching David Berman's words away almost as quickly as they are formed. But as we stand among the waist-high wild radish, mustard, and leaning stalks of fava beans on the lush, greeny-blue bluffs of the Ocean Song Farms and Wilderness Center above Occidental, words don't seem to matter. The view, as they say, speaks for itself.

Situated on 360 pristine acres of woods, meadows, and ponds--recently purchased from an indulgent landlord for only half of its estimated value--Ocean Song Farms and Wilderness Center is part organic garden, part--and at 240 acres, it's a large part--Sonoma Land Trust, and part nursery, whose most important job is in growing up people who have a respect for the cycles and rhythms of the earth.

With parents carpooling their children up the winding Coleman Valley Road every weekday from June to August, leaving them to spend the day exploring the terrain and participating in such themed activities as "Sensory Exploration and Artistic Expression," Ocean Song Farms' Discovery Day Camp and Residential Teen Programs get "between 50 and 60 campers a week," according to Berman, the camp's education director. Staff ratio is 1 to 7 for young campers, and 10 to 1 for children ages 8 to 13. With an array of oaks to climb, creeks to wade in, and a natural pond for swimming and canoeing, the Ocean Song property makes it easy for kids to forget that they'd really rather be inside playing bloody video games and fighting with their siblings over snuck-in sugar snacks.

"All of our programs here are outdoor-based," Berman says, stopping to gesture at the magnificence around us. "The kids are outdoors almost the whole day." Later, he adds, "I'm surprised at how many children from the Sebastopol/Santa Rosa area just don't seem to get outside and play in the creek and run around. [The kids] here just love to explore and check out the frogs and the snakes. The snakes are a big draw," he laughs, adding quickly that "there are no rattlesnakes out here."

Begun as an organic farm, Ocean Song anchors the activities in its gardens and the work they demand. While campers may play and learn wilderness skills, time is always set aside to work in the garden. Specializing in perennial herbs and edible flowers, Ocean Song sells some of the produce at farmers' markets, and shares some of it with community members who make a small cash investment in order to receive weekly deliveries of field-fresh food. "A big part of what we do," says Berman, stopping before one early-spring section of plots, "is to eat things right out of the ground."

Open to the public on a year-round basis, Ocean Song Farms hosts school groups and scouting troops regularly. A ropes course is popular with teenagers who don't even realize that they're getting a big old healthy dose of Outward Bound-style self-esteem and affirmation work while they're lugging themselves and their friends over the ropes. Teens ages 13-15 camp on-site in weeklong blocks, with the first two sessions reserved for young women only.

With plans to revamp existing buildings, provide wedding and reception facilities, and accommodate overnight campers and family campers, Ocean Song is peaceful if not exactly restful for its employees. With evident satisfaction, David Berman looks around. "Part of our goal out here is not to just be some other west county place, but to be a place that really embraces people of all ethnic diversities and backgrounds. When you bring the kids together," he smiles, "you really bring the parents together, too."

Ocean Song Farms and Wilderness Center is located at 19100 Coleman Valley Road, Occidental. Discovery Day Camp sessions begin June 17 and run through Aug. 19. The Residential Teen Programs begin on June 23 and run through Aug. 4. Prices are sliding scale, beginning at $100 per session. The grounds are open to the public every day. For complete details, call 874-2442.

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From the April 11-17, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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