Bits 'n' Pieces: TreeSong center takes root

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian neighborhood news coordinator

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It all started in January when she found her "Little Red Schoolhouse in the Woods."

Once the 1,000-square-foot cabin, amid lush surroundings on the banks of the Washougal River, went up for sale early last year, Michelle Baumann knew it was a place she could plant her dreams.

Sprouting from an idea that first came to her about 14 years ago, the former teacher enlisted help from friends and family to fully realize TreeSong, an educational center dedicated to preaching the wonders of the wild through nature-themed classes and retreats. She lived on the Washougal River a few years ago and fell in love with the beautiful surroundings.

As its first year comes to a close, TreeSong Nature Awareness and Retreat Center now has a volunteer board of directors, a monthly youth program called Circle Keepers and is poised to apply for nonprofit status any day now. Baumann said it never would have happened had it not been for her friend Danielle Ireland, owner of Vancouver's Earth Glaze and Fire, who footed the bill for the 1.24-acre property.

"My hope is people, upon connecting with nature, will care about it," said Baumann, a Vancouver massage therapist who also teaches yoga in town. "It's my dream and it's my passion. It's a labor of love."

As a child, Baumann's parents regularly took her camping. So she learned at a young age that there are few things like setting aside the stresses of everyday life and taking a deep breath of fresh air.

Much of TreeSong is centered around children, with Circle Keepers being the most popular program, though the center also hosts cooking classes and other gatherings for adults.

Baumann taught preschool and elementary-age children for about 30 years before becoming a massage therapist. She leads the Circle Keepers, which meets throughout the year in two age groups to learn about wildlife and stewardship while telling stories and playing games. Each half-day gathering costs between $40 and $50.

With digital devices encroaching in most parts of modern life, especially for kids raised in the online age, Baumann believes it's becoming more and more important to usher kids outside. There's a magic to watching children use their strong sense of imagination when playing outdoors, she said.

"Removing children from nature really is so hard on their whole being," she said.

While Circle Keepers has been a modest success so far — attracting a handful of families who support TreeSong's mission of promoting an appreciation of nature — Baumann said the organization is still finding its path. She is trying to boost its presence online and in the community.

"It's all a big learning experience," she said.

She'd love to one day be paid as TreeSong's executive director, but for now Baumann said she'll continue forging on as a volunteer.

She wants to grow TreeSong so more people can learn to cherish nature, just as she does.

"It's something that feeds me and I believe in the power of it," she said.

Learn more at http://treesongnatureawareness.org.

Bits 'n' Pieces appears Fridays and Saturdays. If you have a story you'd like to share, email bits@columbian.com.