Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Its been twenty years since I decided to teach Wilderness Skills as my way of "making it" in this world.  Who would have thought that a displaced "Piney" could eek out a living sharing skills and playing in the woods.  I have opportunities now to work at a college, my school is branching out, my instructors are outshining me in there areas of interest, and we have two books looking for publishers.  It has been a long hard road, and we all have so much more to learn, but I feel it's been long past due that I recognize and honor those who have taught me and the rest of the staff so much in the last twenty years.

This work was made possible by the love and enduring patience of my three families.  My first family is led by a powerful and giving matriarch, my mother Judy Szabo, who never shied from protecting her cubs, taught her children they could be anything they wanted, and gave more than anyone could ask in times of desperation, loneliness, and need.  My present family, and central fire, begins with my wife, who has put up with friction fires in the living room, frogs in the bath tub, and foot prints on the ceiling since 1992, long before we had our three wild and amazing children, Dakota, Ryan and Emily.  For this, my love and this book are dedicated to Karen Douglas.  Finally, to my extended family, the Staff, Instructors, Volunteers, and Students of first, The Good Earth School, and now The Maine Primitive Skills School, I give my continued promise to keep the vision alive.  You have become the Aunts and Uncles to my children, and the inspiration and comfort to my family and me during the hard times.

   Thank you for remembering why it is so important to go outside and play. 


   I want to thank Tom Brown jr. for demonstrating that one person can make a difference, and Jon Young for showing how a community of people working together can change the world.  I want to express my gratitude to Mark Elbroch for showing me the importance of carefully considering all the facts and evidence before committing to an answer.  Hats off to Mal Stephens for his tireless hours of promoting primitive skills education within the context of building sustainable communities based on love and a purpose beyond self.  To Dan Gardoqui, of White Pines Programs for being aloof and keeping the mysteries alive, I tip my hat.  Thanks to Jeff and Alexia Stevens, who allowed me to play “capture the drone” and hang out with the amazing folks at Wilderness Awareness School in Duval, WA.  Rob and Shelly, Ira Michuad, Bob Donahue, Matt Pikham, The Rowdens, and so many others who have been on this learning journey with me, I thank you.

   I want to express my deepest respect to those who have gone before us, the ancestors. With our lineage, we must first recognize the Apache (N’deh). These people, through their expertise as trackers, survivalists and scouts, have influenced the world with their skills. Without them we would not have received the many teachings manifested through Lord Baden Powell’s Boy Scouting, Tom Brown’s Tracker School, David Scott-Donlan’s Tactical Tracking Operations School, Jon Young’s Wilderness Awareness School, and Saponkniona Whitefeather’s teachings. The Akamba of Africa have given us many gifts through Ingwe who brought rights of passage ceremony and cultural traits of a tracking community to the Wilderness Awareness School. We honor the Iroquois for the Thanksgiving Address, the Peacemaker Principles, and the Eight Shields model brought to us by Jon Young, and Jake and Judy Swamp of the Tree of Peace Society. The Lakota people through Tony Ten Fingers and Gilbert Walking Bull have our respect and honor for giving us the traits of a whole human being and many sacred teachings about the importance of ceremony.  Thanks to Paul Raphael and the Odawa for the Sacred Fire ceremony and it’s wisdom.  The Hiada, Cherokee, Wampanoag, and Abenaki have given us countless skills, from baskets to bows, as well as powerful teaching and healing stories. 


   Finally, on behalf of the staff of the Maine Primitive Skills School, I would like to acknowledge our personal elders, who pointed the way, showed us the path of the upright mind, and taught us the importance of listening to the landscape and the voice of the creator.  We understand that grief is what divides us, and that it is not the color of your skin, but the way you live your life that makes you a whole human being.  We thank our teachers for their dedication and vision. The following is a partial list of elders who have personally passed on wisdom to at least one member of our Medicine Council. There are many teachers on the path of life, so if we have forgotten any, please forgive us.  Tom Brown, Jr., Bob Doyle , Bob Ekhart , Dan Gardoqui, Ingwe, Leonard Jacobs, Arny Neptune,  Craig Ratzat, Paul Raphael, Nancy Reitze,  Ray Reitze, Kevin Reeve, Paul Rezendes, Judith Szabo, David Scott-Donlan, Tony Ten Fingers, Saponkniona Whitefeather, Charles Worsham , and Jon Young , we thank you.


This book is primarily about getting people of all ages outside as a means of  developing human awareness, intellect, and empathy.   This collection of cultural tools and  environmental activities, started with a boy’s obsession with nature and wilderness survival.  Forked River, New Jersey used to be a small town dominated by Pine Barrens and majestic Cedar Swamps.  Every day after school I would explore old cranberry bogs, fire roads, and deer trails in my quest to be “better in the woods”.  My little tribe of friends would sneak up on older kids partying at the fourth lake or take on each other in games of “war”.  We would have fun as we sharpened skills in movement, awareness, and woodcraft.  Every once in a while a favorite patch of woods would be marked with orange ribbons, than cleared and replaced with a house.  We experienced loss, but it was soon forgotten as we went deeper in to the wilderness to continue our adventures. It wasn’t until years later, when massive development destroyed the entire area, that I realized what the woods gave me.  I also noticed important changes in the community.  Neighbors no longer stopped to talk to each other, people who drove past no longer waved, and a leisure stroll down the street soon became a forgotten activity.  The lakes had the docks removed for liability reasons, and the waters soon became too contaminated to swim in.  Wells had to be capped, and city water was a mandatory imposition on locals who relied on their wells for decades.  I noticed a distinct difference in awareness and empathy levels in those who grew up loving and interacting in the wild places, and those who did not.  My pursuits of wild places and skills took me through Scouting, to the Marines, and as many survival schools and wild places as I could afford.  I moved to Maine and earned a degree in Education so that I could share the skills and an appreciation of nature.  I also wanted my summers free in order to have my own wilderness survival school.  I started that school in August of 1989.  

   After nearly twenty years, I have gathered many survival or “hard” skills of native cultures.  The texts regarding theses skills are few, and many of them are filled with inaccuracies.  My most valuable lessons came from my own experiences and my many mistakes. The “soft” skills are hardly written about at all.  Much of what I have gathered was through the direct teachings of many of the folks mentioned in the acknowledgements.  The rest was by seeing the results when these skills were applied.  Oral tradition and direct experience are not only vital components of this methodology, they are the primary way of learning about the methedology itself. 

    “To write it down is to ruin it”, has been said by many elders and traditional natives.  They say this when people ask them for references.  As a Westerner and a student of the invisible school, I empathize with both perspectives.  When something is written down it is open to misinterpretation or, worse, it is applied exactly as it is written.  It is easy to be completely off the mark, or become too rigid, turning the written word in to a series of protocols, rules, and procedures, devoid of creative energy.  However, the written word is a way to validate concepts and ideas.  It triggers debate and stimulates discussion.  

   It was a hard choice to make, but I decided to write what I know of the invisible school to get folks talking about it. I wanted more awareness about what to do about nature deficiency in our children.  I wanted to see biology classes go outside and hear children imitate actual bird calls in school hallways.  Most important of all, I wanted kids to know they aren’t the ones who are “broken”.  It is okay to want to wiggle after hours in a chair,  it’s normal to wish you were outside, to fall down just for fun, and to sneak around and have adventures.  The heart break of being unable to sit for six hours each day, listen to one voice, of fail at reaching goals you don’t completely understand isn’t what is supposed to happen, and it shouldn’t.  Also, I wanted folks to know that the invisible school is going on without adult supervision, and manifesting in dangerous ways because of our inattention.  Just because we refuse to play the game, doesn’t mean it will “go away”.  I believe it is a design that evolved with our need to interact and survive in a dynamic landscape, not a prepackaged fad to be sold to the local school district.  As such, it is powerful because it is “real”.  The learning has applications that are immediate and last beyond the standardized testing cycle.  Finally, if we don’t “plug in” to what is going on in spite of our best efforts to manage it, than we are guilty of nothing less than neglect.

    The Invisible School is a term that refers to a collection of tools and skills sets present in hunter-gatherer nomadic cultures.  These tools are not limited to the Natives of one tribe, nor are they to be found in only one continent or hemisphere.  The skills we use and share in this book are evident around the globe.  Many are being shared by the few remaining Elders or “traditionals” of tribes no longer connected to the earth.  Some of these people are only a generation from losing a heritage that stretches back for thousands of years.   There is little written about these technologies, as they originate from oral traditions.  Countless generations of  people,  separated by vast oceans, language barriers, and ecological differences,  refined approaches for learning and sharing information that best worked for their children and the survival of the tribe  and came up with similar educational strategies.  These strategies were not written in a book, or mandated by officials.  They instead seem to occur intuitively, organically, and dynamically.  Communities with direct interest in the learning and well being of their children adopted roles around teaching, modeling, advising, and guidance.  An extended family of mentors was the norm.  A child could go from one “Elder” to the next to learn.  Learning was nearly always hands on, or in the form of a vivid story or song.   The experience rather than the text was the primary mode of gaining understanding.  The information was valued by all as relevant, as most of it was knowledge required for the survival of the tribe and dealt with the real and ever changing environment.  The practice of these skills appears to create the cultural foundation for producing master trackers, productive citizens, and individuals with a drive to serve their community.  They are what drove Lord Baden Powell to create the Scouting Movement and are the elusive elements that perpetuated the writings of Ernest Thompson Seton. 

     After using elements of the invisible school for twenty years with adults as well as children, I have seen an overwhelming effect on individuals and groups.  People become   more enlivened,  more confident, with a greater sense of humility and centeredness.  Groups experience a bond as close as family that, in many cases, lasts for decades.  The assumption is that our collective ancestry, in order to gather food, learn, and pass on information, used similar strategies. 

    Over thousands of years of interacting with the landscape we have developed thought patterns around survival and learning in a natural context.  This ancient mode of building a dialogue with the landscape, learning from each part of the environment as an active participant,  is far older and much more ingrained in our students than is the construct of many modern school formats.   It is important to understand that these tools have been with us far longer that any other traits, or survival strategies.  We have, for instance, only recently eliminated most of the predators that would have hunted us.  As an unforeseen result, our awareness levels have atrophied.  “Tracking” is no longer a life sustaining skill, requiring years to hone with hunger as the primary motivator.  “Tracking” is now more associated with public education and grouping students by ability.  As we have removed the threats and rough edges to our environment, our environment has shaped us as well.  In the times of our ancestors, food was not a given.  Fasting was normal, and calories were precious.  Lazing under the big tree on the Savannah was a survival strategy meant to conserve what energy we had so we could digest food, or have energy for the hunt.  The bi-product of this collection of tools and strategies are individuals with a heightened sense of self and a deep understanding of their environment; master trackers and superlative (self-actualized) beings.  For over fifteen years I have been studying primitive skills and the learning and teaching strategies of hunter-gatherer societies.  My studies have brought me in contact with cultural tools from Australia, Africa, Asia, Old Europe, and North and South America.  Each of the cultures studied or represented are unique and as individual as one would expect (being from landscapes so far removed from each other).  However, there are to be found some common threads, or tendencies, that bind them to their landscapes and provide us with some trends inherent in cultures representative of our own collective ancestry. 

     These rare, but similar traits, offer a common place from which to reconstruct an educational model based on the evolution of the human mind rather than the post industrial philosophies of a handful limited to the valuable but exclusive context of Westward European expansion.  While certainly valuable, there is much in danger of being lost to the overwhelming dominance of European educational philosophy and ideology.  The collection of similar traits found in hunter-gatherer nomadic cultures will be referred to as “The Invisible School”, because its participants don’t realize that they have been “schooled” at all. The people who field-tested and refined these learning strategies responded to the demands of their environment by learning or perishing.  Over thousands of generations, many valuable strategies were woven in to a cultural experience without being separated from existence and defined as “school”.  Each learning experience was tied in to a meaningful life and the development of the individual as an active member of the community who could increase their value by furthering their own skill and knowledge base.

    The presence of mentors, individual ownership of ones skills and understanding, and the nurturing of an innate sense of wonder and curiosity about all things are a foundation and the dominating tenants for the invisible school.  Instead of relying on one point source of information for learning (the teacher or school) the invisible school is about amplifying the student’s innate awareness and curiosity in order to interpret everything as a source of teaching, learning, mystery, wonder, empowerment, and enlightenment. The invisible school thrives off of the idea that people are actually happy to be alive, not plodding miserably from place to place dependent upon others for happiness.                       

    In the ecological lab of the natural world, biology refines those skills important for survival and, following natural processes, culls those less efficient systems of information gathering and processing out of the genetic pool. The information gathering organs are developed and honed over thousands of years to couple with a dynamic environment to accomplish specific goals.  These goals are the needs for physical survival and breeding.  The more complex the society is, the more diverse the needs and the more complicated the approaches to those needs.  It is why westerners wrongly believed that the native peoples of the world were uneducated savages.  Without desks, curricula, and in most cases, without the written word, it was assumed that hunter-gatherer nomads were less intelligent.  In actuality the opposite is true.  That is to say, our ancestors, with the same sized cranium as us, utilized more of their physical and mental faculties, problem solved more actively with those faculties, and did so dealing with broad-spectrum situations in an environment where life and death situations were more the compelling motivators then they are today.   In short, it takes more problem solving skills to track and hunt your prey than to take a box from the freezer and put it in microwave.

    The results of modern research based neurology and educational psychology indicate correlation's between increased problem solving abilities, creativity, and a general sense of health and well being when aspects of the invisible school are employed.  Typically, they are often employed as the latest in “modern educational research” or as part of the latest educational fad.  The Invisible School is as powerful as it is subtle.  

     The construct of the Invisible School emerges in spite of formal educational models and manifests in our daily lives.  We are hardwired from birth to learn and interact in a certain way.  Contrary to popular practices, that “way” is not to sit in a classroom for six hours a day.  Rote memorization of facts and thinking in a controlled and contrived environment opposes thousands of years of evolution.  The human brain evolved to learn in a dynamic, natural environment.  The mere act of bringing students outdoors increases their awareness.  Also, by being outside, students tend to shift from high stress levels (which reduce learning and increase frustration and boredom) toward lower stress levels. Having them interact with the landscape stimulates their Medial Temporal Lobe, which binds the separate elements of their experience into an integrated memory. The interactions we yearn for, as children are best satisfied within the architecture of the invisible school.  This means creating people with a joy for life and innate curiosity by bringing them into contact with their surroundings and awakening their senses.

Respect and Medicine,

Mike Douglas