Monday, May 14, 2007

Living Your Vision

During one of our last classes I sat and observed a young man who has attended many of the courses we offer. The profiling process for me, after twenty six years of this, comes without a conscious decision to activate it. Like breathing, it just happens. This individual presented about a year ago thoroughly immersed in his own grief. In a clinical setting I would state that he presented with angst and anger surrounding an abnormal concern for environmental issues he percieves are beyond his control. This time, he was different. His economic situation is far worse, and, at the time of the class, he was living in a shelter. Yet, he seemed at ease, relaxed, and eager to be alive. His whole mannerism was that of wellness. It was apparent that while he had no real long term "plan", he was more than content with who he was and where he was at. "Priceless" was the thought the entered my mind. I have had the opportunity to meet and work with the well educated and the affluent; governors, rock stars, and wealthy folks. In each case I found that the criteria for happiness and being grounded had nothing to do with job security, economics, geography, or occupation. Some of the most "self actualized" folks I have met have been homeless, others with multiple homes across the country. Always, for each grounded and joyful life I have encountered, there were a dozen who were somehow prevented from reaching that level of "success". Joy was what seemed to be the missing component. The joy of a sunset with loved ones lasts as long as the sunset, or the loved ones. The joy of fulfilling ones purpose, ones reason for being, ones "vision", lasts a lifetime. Those embroiled in a life that falls short of this might lash out that this is the realm of the "pipe dreamer" or a selfish fantasy. I would answer that living a life of light and beauty is our duty. That, through example, we inspire those around us and encourage wellness to spread through individual accomplishment and fulfillment. Regardless of where that vision brings us, it is always frought with hard work, resistance, and alienation. The primary difference is that these things are our teacher. They test our resolve, sharpen our abilities, raise our awareness, increase our intellect, and validate our being. Those who are off of their path often see the obstacles that come up as excuses, or debilitating circumstances. So what is missing, and how do we find it?

You have to start from the beginning of your own memory. Your purpose is yours alone to discover or, more accurately, relearn. It starts with that "thing" you always wanted to be, or were drawn to as a child. As you grew it was always there. As you let your life unfold, other things, other voices, tempted you away from your purpose. If you are on your path, there is no doubt that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing. If your not on your path, it gnaws at you, huants you. Your favorite t.v. show, animal, topic of discussion all point the way to where you are supposed to be or be doing.

The next piece is faith. It takes a huge leap of faith and a commitment to live your vision. To do so means nothing less than to completely metamorphose in to the well human being that is your birthright. People around you may not recognize who emerges. Many who have fallen in love with, or have become dependant upon the misery and grief that was a part of your character will feel alienated, even betrayed, as you nurture the wellness within your being and let the "dis-ease" slip away. Oddly, with initial growth in to who you truly are, comes a wall of grief. When you awaken the joy, the strands of pain tug harder and become more vibrant. Addressing these is part of the healing process. Once they are dealt with, they become manageable and less overwhelming. It is after this process, which may take years, that living a whole, vibrant, and grounded life can really begin. This metamorphosis is an event to be celebrated.

So, I said to this young man, "You are a well and found being in a world that seems sick and lost." I wanted to let him know that riding that crest is a great thing. That it is easily lost if we get sucked in to the abyss of so many lost souls. It is much more important to walk with wellness as a living example, than to surrender to, and ultimately drown in, the insurmountable grief of those who don't even know they are lost.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Heavier Side of Survival and Awareness

We all have reasons that bring us to the study of survival, tracking, and awareness. Some folks are drawn to the tactical aspect of each area of study. Some love the outdoors and use the skills to further immerse themselves in to the temples of creation. Other folks see these skills as a means of becoming connected, self confident, or more independent. The reasons, and combinations of reasons are infinite. The results, however, tend to follow a trend. This trend begins with an increase in over all awareness of ones surroundings. Suddenly, there is no such thing as a "vacant lot". Birds that once went unnoticed convey valuable survival and awareness information through their song, location, or their behaviors. We look at plants with an eye toward food, medicine, fire making, or cordage. The pattern of tree branches aides us in direction finding and where to find an optimum location of dry shelter locations, or fire making materials, or water sources. The landscape becomes an extension of self. For the novice who initially finds themselves "plugging in" to the natural world, regardless of initial intent, any disturbance wrought upon the landscape by those less aware tends to have a traumatic effect. The student of survival, trying to test out their debris shelter for the first time, finds themselves annoyed, even threatened by the par tiers who pull up in their off road vehicles to drink and listen to loud music...even if they used to do the same thing. A practitioner of edible and medicinal plant study might get upset when they find that the field they forage in has recently been sprayed by pesticides. Beyond this, there is the grief one experiences when loved ones can not connect the way you do when you are out side. After spending years observing the subtle changes in the seasons, the patterns of growth, and the movement of wild life, it would take hours for you to explain what you see and notice in an instant to someone who has not patterned on the natural environment and how energy flows through that environment.

Awareness leads to empathy, and empathy often leads to grief. Like any period of growth, a certain degree of discomfort, even pain, is to be expected. What should not be expected is a prolonged wallowing in this "tracker grief". Some have likened this bout with alienation or hyper sensitivity as a wall. This is a good description in that it feels like you are smacking in to a disorienting wall of pain. But it is more accurately a semi-permeable veil or mist. It is something we can get lost in but, with the right supports, we not only find ourselves on the other side, we find ourselves stronger and wiser for the wear.

This is important. We all know that a positive mental attitude is the number one determining factor in a survival situation. Growing through the primary wall of grief and learning to embrace reoccurring trauma and pain as teachers and opportunities helps strengthen that primary directive. A degree of peace and strength is achieved when we are confronted with the choice as to whether we are to be victims of circumstance, or heroes of our own journey .

The trick then, is to not shut off your empathy, as that is the key to razor sharp awareness, but to not "own" the destruction, alienation, or grief as your own. Simply acknowledge the situation and ask yourself where the lessons and opportunities reside in the event or situation. I use the word "simply" sarcastically. It takes the initial overwhelming experience and artful mentoring by a supportive community to be able to handle reoccurring bouts of grief around the same incident, or new events. This is done through recognizing grief through symptoms, linking what is perceived to the actual event that caused the grief, and finding an appropriate venue to release the grief or turn it's energy in to something therapeutic or productive.

For this, we look to native cultural tools and modern scientific research. They are startlingly supportive of each other with regards to stress, distress, and recovery. Ceremony, quest experiences, and the heroes journey are a small part of the repertoire of recovery techniques. The nuts and bolts of these skills are too extensive to be covered in this one entry, and are best handled through our more esoteric courses. It should be noted that the broader perspective regarding this "cycle" is that it is a cycle of profound learning rather than a crippling one time experience if viewed through the kaleidoscope of a healthy culture. For more information, instructional videos, details about our staff, school, or courses, please visit

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Increasing your intelligence by playing in the woods

The hardest part about really learning, not the rote memorization of lifeless fact found in our public schools, is that it gets inside of you and changes you. Real learning involves every aspect of our being. Nothing could be more perfect an illustration of this than Tracking. Tracking involves memory, measurement, knowledge of physics, behavioral sciences, meteorology, ecology, geology, and fluid dynamics. As we track, the trail rarely remains constant. Strides shorten and elongate as elevation and speed changes. The "formula" does not remain static. We do not have an eraser to fix mistakes on a paper that does not move or reflect our own shortcomings as we accidentally erase the trail with our own in our eagerness to solve the mystery. I would put a tracker against a mathematician any day for problem solving ability, and I teach math and science for a living. When I bring the technologies of hunter-gatherer cultures in to our seventh grade culture, I know of only one certainty....hold on to your hats. I say this because really learning and having adolescents as students in combination is a whirlwind of emotion fraught with angst, uncertainty, and explosive events. In short, it is everything it is supposed to be, but not allowed to fully become. It is the invisible school, and a sort of rehab for injured and atrophied minds. Let me explain.

The western mind of today, that's yours and your children's way of looking at and interpreting the universe, has patterned on very short pieces of information and images given at a sixth grade reading level and spoken with loudness and repetition. These "sound and image bites" come at us in two to four second bursts. Time a cartoon or television program to see how long it takes a scene to change if you need verification on this. In our cities it tends to be even more compressed, as we expect our food, comfort, information, and transportation to occur almost instantaneously. As a result, we have developed a brain that expects a "reality" of instant gratification. With quick and darting eyes we scan the landscape for that which can serve us and discount the rest. As a result the gifts of our ancestors lie dormant. Our innate yearnings are stifled, ridiculed and soon forgotten under the pressure of quizzes, tests, exams, and deadlines. The time piece becomes our master, delegating how much time we spend at each event as our mind races from the last appointment toward the next. We talk in our cars as we speed across invisible landscapes, building a mythical future at the expense of the moment. All the while, that yearning small voice knows there is more, that something isn't being satisfied, that a very important piece of the personal landscape is being neglected.
We wake up one morning as adults. Moments before the alarm goes of your mind, trained as smartly as a soldier, commands you to turn it off and begin your routine. You can no longer sit comfortably alone and without distraction. Your logical mind has been so conditioned that it automatically craves the distraction of the cell phone, the blackberry, the laptop, the news program, or the text. Welcome to the Matrix.
For hundreds of years we have intuitively known that nature has "therapeutic" benefits. Now we can prove it. Everything from the shades of greens and browns, to the sounds and smells of the natural landscape effect our entire being. We know that children who are allowed to climb trees and play in the mud are better adjusted than their near sterile counterparts. Creativity increases and stress levels decrease as we head to the wild places to "get away from it all". Every major belief system hails the importance of "the temples of creation". In modern brain research we know that the natural landscape induces the "alpha" state. In other words, we find our selves relaxed, yet aware. Our creative juices begin to flow. Our physical resistance to disease and self healing mechanisms are optimized. We can learn faster and easier as well as remember things with greater ease and accuracy. We now have the technology to see how the Reticular Activating System (RAS) no longer filters out the "crush" of sounds that is our modern society once we are removed from it. Suddenly we are moving with more efficiency, talking less and hearing more. Our whole body begins to awaken. Our senses tingle and our stress melts away. Three days in to a wilderness experience a hermit thrush singing sounds almost deafening, yet we don't cringe. Instead we are surprised to have never heard such a beautiful song. The RAS in our minds filtered all that wasn't necessary while we ran, like hamsters on a wheel, the never ending cycle of from home to work, work to lunch, lunch to work, and work to home. When we leave our quest for "manifest destiny" we begin to see what we already have. This is the magic of learning anything that gets you deeper in to the out of doors. Many folks I know are old and broken. They have become bitter at the realization they worked hard for a living, sacrificing health and happiness for forty plus years, and they have never truly lived. Now, at the end of their trail, they look back at the wasted and meaningless efforts of thankless toil, all at the expense of the youthful joy they yearned for all of that time. If only someone could have shown them that the clock could be forgotten and that the backyard had all that they needed. Life would have been the joyful dance I experience every day, along with the many others who track and play in this wild landscape.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Notes from the Director

Running a Wilderness Survival and Tracking School is not nearly as fun as learning and teaching at one. This blog is designed to help emergent skills schools avoid all of the mistakes we made and also to fill in some of the skills gaps that the other instructors aren't writing about. I know I should remain professional and detached when I share thoughts here, but that isn't possible. I have this thing bout being a human being and there is a certain degree of honesty in sharing thoughts and ideas that might challenge folks, including you. First, I want to address some "reality" shows and how they have impacted a lot of wilderness survival and nature education programs. I feel the show "Survivor" did more harm to the wilderness skills community than any other show. Instead of delving in to skills and community cooperation, or group survival strategies, it turned in to a soap opera. The newer "reality" type programs where one guy goes out with a camera and suffers by dragging himself out of the woods doesn't do a lot for the public either. Most of this is due to the producers obsession with having to get out of the situation instead of real techniques being demonstrated that could actually save lives. The shelters are usually haphazzard, the skills are barely touched upon with regard to water gathering, fire making, food procurement and real versus perceived hazzards. There is also a degree of "lack of knowledge" by those who advise and produce each show. One man slept in a metal aircraft on ice and wondered why he was so cold, the same guy harvested the aerial parts of Cattail in the fall and complained they were already past the time they could be eaten when the rich starchy tubers lay in the soft mud inches from his feet. On a similar show a man risked his life belaying off a cliff to get to a high way on parachute cord. The technique is well established, but completely unnecessary, and hardly worth the risk in a real situation. Either, might I add, is the need to squeeze moisture out of animal dung for water. This type of sensationalism is often impractical, inaccurate and at times, dangerous. There is no reason to point the finger at the host, or any one person for these productions and what they portray. Who knows what was edited and who made what decisions. The best one can do is take notes and test the skills presented on your own or against your own experiences. We are lucky here. I go out atleast once a month in a full or semi survival trip, and have instructors who do the same. We train as a staff four times a year and practice skills on our own at least twice a month related to survival, tracking and awareness. Every day I find myself learning or sharing new things within our staff and community of students and other schools. My only regret is that millions of viewers, having seen the "Survival Dude" type shows may actually believe they can whip out a bow drill fire from materials on the landscape any time they need to after seeing one episode. For more information, instructional videos, details about our staff, school, or courses, please visit