Berkshire County resident and photographer John Stanmeyer got a phone call last year to join a team for a National Geographic project called "Out of Eden Walk."
The project puts writer Paul Salopek quite literally on the footpath of civilization's ancestors. Over the next seven years, he'll travel by foot through the arid terrain of Ethiopia to the southern tip of South America, an estimated 30 million steps for him to cover the approximately 21,000-mile journey of humankind.
Stanmeyer's assignment is to periodically join Salopek on his journey and photograph whomever and whatever they come across, whether it's workers, children, food, goats, sandstorms or anything else.
In his personal blog about his travels, Stanmeyer recalls advice given to him from a friend in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea: "Expect the unexpected."
While some 7,000-plus miles away from his home and family -- he's currently in the Republic of Djibouti in East Africa -- Stanmeyer said he's found himself on a pleasantly surprising parallel journey with students, who are in turn following the photographer's trip from their classrooms in the Berkshires.
"We get to have a little inside peek at what people are doing at the same time in another part of the world," said Natalia "Tallie" Layne, a fourth-grader at Farmington River Elementary School in Otis.
Since Stanmeyer left for the Eden Walk on Jan. 4, he's been in contact with fourth-graders at Farmington River Elementary and fifth-graders at Monument Valley Regional Middle School on at least a weekly basis through email and his blog, where he also posts photos of his surroundings from his mobile phone.
Stanmeyer is the father of two sons, Konstantin and Richard, with one attending each school.
For the approximately 50 youngsters he's conversing with in the Berkshires, Stanmeyer is the sunshine illuminating streams of information from afar.
"I think the students feel like they're part of a top-secret mission," said Farmington fourth-grade teacher Bethany Mielke. She said what started as "a parent popping in" to offer some insight from their travels "exploded" into a project through which her pupils are expanding their curriculum (typically fourth-grade focuses only on North America), vocabulary and understanding of the world.
Stanmeyer listed a mere fraction of the cascade of questions he's been asked by kids about the region and the Djiboutian people:
"What is the sky like? Gray...blue...clouds... sun beating down?"
"Has anybody there immigrated to the USA?"
"At what age do they have to be in order enter ‘womanhood' or ‘manhood'?"
"Not bad questions for fourth-graders, eh," Stanmeyer wrote.
In the fifth-grade at Monument Valley, teacher Deb Ramsay is working with enrichment educators Donna Astion and Nancy Kane to create ways for students to delve deeper into the concepts of the Eden Walk.
For example, this week students worked in small groups to look at photos Stanmeyer sent them and generate a list of adjectives to describe them.
One group poured over a photo of a Land Cruiser lurching across a steep, rocky, dusty hill.
With the kinds of ingenuity and cheekiness children possess, they produced descriptions like "lumpy," "adventurous," and "zombie-proof."
Children in both classes have pondered how ancestors migrated without the aid of a compass, cell phones, and without permanent homes. They've marveled at a photo of how dirt-caked Stanmeyer's Crocs shoes got in less than a week. They questioned why a cup of tea in Ethiopia costs 20 cents, while it costs at least five times as much in their own country. They've collectively shaken their heads in wonder upon learning that children go to work as young as 8 years old because they are considered able-bodied men and women.
"Through his photos, you can see how he's feeling. I think it's cool how a person gets to do this and lives in the Berkshires," said Monument Valley fifth-grader Christopher Becker of Stanmeyer.
The photographer said he hopes through his exchanges with the classes, students gain an appreciation for all corners of the world, including those closest to them.
"Most important, children need to be inspired not only by what's on the other side of the planet, but also the brilliance in their own backyards," said Stanmeyer. "I stress constantly to be gobsmacked right where they live, in what is truly (and I get around) one of the most beautiful and equally gobsmacking places on earth -- the Berkshires."
To reach Jenn Smith:
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On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink
To learn more ...
To follow the journey of Paul Salopek and the Out of Eden Walk, visit the National Geographic blog: www.outofedenwalk.com.
To learn about the journey through John Stanmeyer's perspective, visit www.stanmeyer.com/blog