Ticks And Tea Leaves

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In the last week, I’ve run my first couple of youth-oriented outdoor education programs. The first was as an assistant with the Community School in Tamworth NH, and the second was School of the Forest’s first session of our “Family Nature Walk” series. In each of these, I got the opportunity to see kids interact with the outdoors, and that’s what this is all about, isn’t it?

The most fascinating aspect of this for me is seeing the incredible variation in what gets a young person excited about the experience. That little bit of information, or the sight of a particular plant or animal that makes the gears in the kid’s head start turning. It’s not always what you’d expect either. Just in these first two sessions, I got to see a beautiful contrast in personalities and what draws them to open the door and ” throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence.” as our old friend Muir said.

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In my time at the Community School, we focused on vernal ponds. Hiking through the woods to where the overflow of streams had created said pools the kids caught me up on what they’d been doing so far in their outdoor course. This group of middle schoolers had already started digging into topo maps, building three-dimensional models of local peaks. They’d even gone so far as to color coordinate them based on changes in terrain, and place markers for campsites, trails and other landmarks. When we reached the pools we talked a bit about the ecosystem that sprouts up in these short-lived bodies of water, and then the fun began. There is no joy like mucking about in mud and grime, and flipping stones looking for things that slide and crawl.

The longer you sit and look at anything in nature the more you see. As Margaret, the instructor from the school and I talked about the easy stuff to spot (Caddisfly larvae, frog and salamander eggs etc) the kid’s eyes were unfocused and bouncing around the pool as little motions and ripples hinted at things not yet seen. After the initial schpiel, the kids got turned loose with sifters and buckets, pulling up all manner of living things from the pools, and as we all sat on our haunches more and more of the tiny ecosystem in front of us started to become visible. Frogs that had been sitting still in the grasses were spotted, a salamander meandered its way across the pool’s floor.

One young man in particular simply sat quietly on a log, not really drawn to the pool as the rest of us were. However as the afternoon stretched on, he started to speak with fascination about ticks. It started an entire discussion among the kids, with opinions following the full range of “I thought I saw a Deer Tick on me, and it was terrifying” to a simple “EEEEW” (read at the highest vocal register possible). The previously mentioned log sitter passed through these two stages and came out on the other side with questions about a tick’s life cycle, and why they were currently in such abundance. As we talked about “the hatch” that was going on as the weather changed towards warmth those gears and cogs in his mind started to supply questions. Questions I could not answer but have been assured he’ll be able to very soon. Ticks. Arguably the most reviled of crawling things had ignited that first ember in this kid and sent him down a path of wondering.

 

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A Red Eft, the juvenile stage of the Eastern Newt.

 

So onto the next one. School Of The Forest’s nature walks are each centered around a specific subject. This week’s was tree identification and an introduction to the art and process of pressing samples from plants. I had sort of set in my mind certain “cool” little bits of trivia about each plant we talked about that I thought would artificially light that spark we keep talking about. The kids (and parents) found these interesting, but the whole “close but no cigar” trope was pretty applicable.

So I was incredibly surprised when the youngest kid in the bunch was drawn in by the idea of making pine needle tea. Something about this just burrowed into his happy little soul and I watched him drop each of his other clippings one by one as he filled his and “Pappi’s” pockets with pine needles to make take home for tea. It didn’t end there either, every five minutes as we walked from spot to spot, he’d walk up to me with a leaf or twig and ask about it’s chances of making his tea better.

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If I learned one thing from this kiddo, it’s that I need to up my knowledge of wild teas.

While building School Of The Forest, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do, but as I work more and more with young people I’m learning to ease up on the reins of each class a bit and let kids just flip rocks looking for Efts (pictured above), and pick potential tea leaves. It’s not about a strict outline, followed point by point. It’s about that spark, and how best to add air and fuel to turn it to an ember that will smolder into something more. Apparently, Ticks and Tealeaves make pretty good fuel.

 

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Boreal Expedition pt. 2

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We woke up the next day having learned something about our gear.

I’m of the mindset that too much focus on gear is the bane of the outdoor/bushcraft industry. You get a lot of “experts” who know a hell of a lot about knives for example, in an academic sense, and put a lot of weight on the details of a knife. (How it’s constructed, the materials used, etc). To me though, it’s about the ability with a piece of gear that matters. You should be able to do with a ten dollar morakniv, the exact same things you manage with a two hundred dollar custom knife. I’m cheap as anything, so I still stick with my battered “companion” model mora, and know that if and when it eventually breaks (as tools are apt to do with the work we put them through), I’m out fifteen bucks and it’s an easy thing to replace.

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This is getting pointed out as a contrast to a necessary approach to winter gear. Specifically sleeping bags and sleep pads. The most important thing you can do in the field, besides keep hydrated, is make sure you’re getting a good nights rest. Sleep’s not often pointed out a neccesity in outdoor work, but think about that time you crammed every night for a week for upcoming tests. Remember how your mind worked at the end of it? Not exactly firing on all cylinders was it? Now add in days filled with the intense physical activity required by winter camping. The simple mechanisms of keeping warm are draining in a biochemical sense. Even if you’re not expending energy processing wood for your fire, or hiking around the site, your body is working harder than it’s probably used to in order to keep you warm. A few days of that will sap even the most energetic of people without the chance to recharge and reset when you sleep each night. So if you’re planning a winter camping trip, don’t hesitate to drop a little extra money on a good bag. There are ways around it, like layering a couple of subpar bags together or keeping

So if you’re planning a winter camping trip, don’t hesitate to drop a little extra money on a good bag. There are ways around it, like layering a couple of subpar bags together or keeping your stove/fire going all night. However extra sleeping bags mean extra weight, and keeping a fire of any kind going all night means sacrificing some of that much-needed rest. For the most part, we all slept alright. Save one of us, who’d rolled off his sleep pads and lost a lot of warmth as the cold ground sapped it out of him. He didn’t complain much, but it was a visible mental struggle as he warmed back up by the stove. Nobody likes getting out from under the covers on a cold winter morning, let alone when it’s ten degrees while camping out.

Our first day was spent rehashing the skills we’d gone over in a hurry the night before in order to get camp set up. We had two students with us who had virtually no outdoor experience, and this meant going over axe safety, firewood processing and a lot of other pretty basic stuff. For me, that was a good experience. It allowed me to test my own abilities by helping out when the new people struggled. (“See one, do one, teach one” is Tim Smith’s approach to the learning process, and it’s proved itself over and over)

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This was particularly true with one match fires. The process involves gathering a “twig bundle”, and while that seems pretty straight forward, it’s a subtle skill. Simple, and basic sure, but getting the density of the fuel right, as well as collecting the right sized twigs is important. You can explain it over and over, but until someone’s done it a few times the necessity doesn’t quite make sense.

Axe work was pretty similar. There’s a tendency to think of splitting wood as a formula of “harder work=faster processing”. I disagree. Splitting is a calm, almost lazy process if you’re doing it right, All you really need to do is lift the axe up and let it fall again. That’s an obvious simplification, but the idea’s right. Contact splitting makes it even easier, just hold the axe and the piece of wood together, then let them drop. It was interesting to watch new student’s figure these things out as they went. I had a whole semester of fiddling with these skills. They’d had a day or so with them, but a day fueled by necessity is apparently worth more than a day where it doesn’t matter.

In the next article in this series, I’ll span a few days of our trip. We covered a lot of winter skills in a very short time, but I don’t want this series to become a study in winter living minutiae.

Hope you’re all doing well, and thanks for coming back!

Slainte Maithe everyone.

Boreal Snowshoe Expedition Pt. I

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   I just finished attending the Boreal Snowshoe Expedition offered by Jack Mountain. As learning experiences go, this was a great one. Not only for technical skills used on trail, but also for all the teacher/guide skills that go on in the background of trips. I got to help Tim out with the preparation for the trip before and after we got on trail, and that’s as important a job as all the minutiae that happens once everyone is out in the woods.
A lot goes into these trips, and that requires careful planning and a sixth sense for possible issues that’s born of experience. Seeing all the back end work of planning meals and buying supplies for them, going over group kit to make sure everything is working etc. and getting to help with it added something to the trip that would never have happened otherwise. Seeing all the gear and preparation get employed as we went really hammered home the necessity of having a well thought out schedule, organization of gear, and a knowledge base to cope with problems as they arise.
  We left the folk school in New Hampshire the day before the course started, and took an evening of relative “luxury” in a small hotel in Presque Isle Maine. This was oddly another moment of insight into how experience teaches about how to best plan out these trips. In the past, the classes met at the entrance point to Squapan (The lake we’d be trekking across), and invariably people were late, or couldn’t find the spot etc. With this slight adjustment, we could convoy over to the lake and all arrive at the same time.
Arriving at the lake, we unloaded all our gear and the group kit and went over the methods of securing it on our toboggans, and Tim’s approach to snowshoe bindings. We used a simple binding of one rope, looped and knotted in a way that allows for quick, hands-free removal, rather than some of the modern bindings with clips and straps. As we loaded up the gear, each of us was given a piece or to of group gear to haul with our personal kit. This included our twelve-foot wall tent, all of our food for the trip, chisels for breaking holes in the ice for water, and all the other little things I’d seen Tim methodically check off the list while we were packing up.
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Toboggan, loaded and ready to be hauled.
Once the gear was loaded, and the harness explained (they go over one shoulder like a bandolier, NOT around your waist like a belt. My first mistake of the course) we started the trek out onto the lake. The day was beautiful, and the walking easy when aided by snowshoes. In retrospect, the warmth should have been an indication of future issues, but we were all too excited to be out on trail to pay attention.
We found a location for our camp site, our first steps were unloading gear and setting up the tent. Again, this proved to be a finely tuned process that required a certain amount of foresight and attention to detail. Winter camping is much less forgiving than other seasons. The cold, combined with the deep snow creates an environment that demands a procedural approach to site selection and development. You need access to the lake in order to chip a hole to pull water out of, a location for the canvas tent with plenty of tie off points (our tent was eight sided and included a fly with its own eight separate tie offs), as well as an investment of time to stamp around the snow sintering down the ground to create a level spot for the tent and cooking area.
 Once camp was set up, we settled in for dinner and talked about the skills and experiences that the course would cover. Meals on trail are always a high point, they go in for calorie content and replenishing lost nutrients of the day. That’s not to say they aren’t delicious, just that I remember wolfing them down too fast to recall anything in regards to “flavor”. As darkness snuck in around us and we piled into the tent, nothing but joy at being back on trail, and revelry at the feel of once again aching muscles and a calm, tired feeling filled my head.

Winter Living With The Cree pt. 3

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So, I woke up the day after running trap lines and setting nets feeling a bit off. I attributed it to all the rich food we’d been eating. Moose meat is wicked heavy, and I ate enough of it to sate a bear for hibernation. As the morning progressed it became clear I’d picked up a stomach bug that was going around Ouje. Not a great experience on a trip like this, but after a day of rest and lots of water was feeling leaps and bounds better. The bug caught a few of the other guys as well and forced a sort of “sick v. well” rota for all the tasks around camp. I missed out on a day of setting marten traps and getting started on making Cree snow shovels.

 

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Catfish Ben with our first hare

 

The next day, however, was a full one. We started the day walking our trap line with Laurence and checking the snares we’d set. We caught one snowshoe hare and carried it back to camp after resetting the snare. Walking a trap line first thing in the morning has an almost meditative feeling to it. You don’t speak because you don’t want the animals to associate the place with loud noises and human interaction. The trudging of each step creates a rhythm as we fall into line behind one another, matching the stride of the trail breaker and packing down the snow with each step.

 

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Doug watching intently as Anna works the otter’s pelt.  

 

When we got back, Anna led us over to one of the other shelters in camp and explained that she’d be skinning out an Otter and we’d be helping Laurence skin out a Fisher Cat he’d trapped a few days prior. I’m not particularly versed in hunting and my only experience gutting out an animal is with fish (The scales are the best part if you fry them right! Why would you take ’em off?) So I wasn’t sure what to expect. I really shouldn’t have worried. Anna and Laurence made the process look like art. They chattered back and forth with us the whole time, explaining each step as they went. Anna working with the otter was something akin to seeing a master carpenter shape out the pieces he needed for a cabinet. It was slow, and the attention to detail was absolutely impressive. Doug, a member of our group, had been trapping otters on his property in Maryland (Oh, did I mention three of our group of five hailed from the land of pleasant living?) and had found preparing the pelts difficult. Otters, like any other mammal that lives in the water, have a thick layer of fat to insulate them against the cold water. Doug had found removing this layer frustrating and time-consuming. As we watched Anna work, it became apparent that the layer of fat wasn’t even something she worried about. There are tools marketed to trappers that are “specialized” for use on Beaver, Otter and other animals with fatty hides. Anna used a simple, cheap and small knife set for her work. I watched realization spread across Doug’s face as the mental arithmetic added up. Talking with him later he explained that the knives he’d been using were too big, and didn’t allow for the slow methodical method that Anna used.

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While Anna was working with the Otter, I helped Laurence with the fisher. Fisher Cats, for those who don’t know, are a large member of the weasel family. They’re sleek and move through snow and water like a bit of black grease slides through moisture. They’re also known up here in the north for their scream. If you’ve never heard it before I highly recommend taking a minute to go listen here.

Done? Like a banshee right? Imagine hearing that at night time while you’re camped out far away from any infastructure.

Aaaaaaany way, sorry for the little side trip down “What the hell was that?” lane.

As I worked the hide away from the fishers body I was struck by how lithe the musculature of these animals is, and how narrow certain parts of their bodies are, before exploding into a wide ribcage. While we worked away at it, David told us about using dried fisher testicles as slingshot ammo for hunting small game. It’s hard to tell when David’s joking. A lot of the older Cree we met have a very specific laugh that they use almost as punctuation, a short sharp chuckle that ends a sentence. David used it almost constantly, and it was very telling of how happy they are living this lifestyle. Always laughing or smiling, even while doing hard physical work, or talking about hard times in the Cree’s history.

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While we skinned out the fresh hides, David went and got a lynx pelt that he needed to stretch. Seeing a lynx hide up close is something else. It’s large and the paws are like dinner plates, almost shaped like the smaller variety of snowshoes that allow for quick turns between trees in the woods. Watching David stretch the hide out was an education in simplicity (Seems like a trend is forming here), he simply pulled it over two planks that formed a pincer shape. Then using a third wedge-shaped plank forced the pincer apart, pulling the lynx taught. After the otter and fisher had been skinned out, he did the same with them. Once they’d been stretched long enough anna would pull them across a frame to finish treating them.

 

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Otter hide being stretched

 

Once the hides had been processed, we spent a bit of time working on making snow shovels, but I’ll save the details of that for the next piece. Laurence had roasted two geese all day by hanging them next to the stove in his tent, and after a long day of work, we couldn’t ask for a better meal to end the day.

 

I really hope you guys have been enjoying these articles as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them up. It’s hard to encompass all the subtlety of the world we only got a glimpse of, but I’m having a blast trying.

 

Stay tuned,

Slainte Maithe everyone.

Winter Living With The Cree Pt. 2

Welcome back to uncle cranky bones’ story corner.

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Last time we were together the group from Jack Mountain had spent the day hiking and getting to know some of the Cree from Ouje-Bougomou. The next day held more of the same. We were invited to visit their cultural center, which filled us in our Ouje’s history as a community. The Cree in the James Bay area were relocated seven times, starting in 1920. As the land they’d lived on for generations was converted into lumber mills and hydro dams in the late 80’s, the Cree decided to fight for their homeland. In 1992 they won that fight. Not only did they can sovereignty in the land set aside for them, the Canadian government allocated funds for use in building up a community center. Thus, Ouje-Bougomou was born. The community was built with the Cree’s values in mind,  even winning an award from the United Nations in 1995 for their efforts in building a sustainable and environmentally friendly town.

After our tour was over we headed out to the bush. We arrived at Scott lake as the sun was setting, got settled in our tent which as similar to our lodgings in Ouje, but smaller. It was filled with tools and a pair of lynx paws that hung off one of the rafters. We had dinner with David and Anna, as well as David’s partner in trapping, Laurence. They shared a little about their lives growing up in the bush. Anna shared her experience working for the cultural center and explained that most of the time doing it she longed to be back out in the bush with David. She used the phrase “He was free out there” and that sentiment really struck me, and influenced the rest of the trip.

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David and Anna have been doing this a long time. They’re in their seventies and have raised twelve children. All while navigating a world that was changing before their eyes. They’ve built a successful guide business, not because they’re industry savvy, but because they live this life every day. It becomes apparent as they talk about traditions, and methods of living in the bush that they have an affinity for the land they inhabit that is far beyond any scribbling I can put in this article. They have thirty-eight grandchildren and are intimately connected with the entire community through their family. Every time they speak about someone they know they introduce them in terms of how they are connected to their family. Our favorite part of every day with them as after dinner. We’d sit around doing the dishes and listening to David and Anna tell stories. Some about their lives, some about the Cree lifestyle, and (my personal favorite) legends their people had about life in the bush.

As we headed to our tent they told us that, come morning, we’d be going out on the trap line ith Laurence. We fell asleep with visions on snowshoes and rabbit snares dancing in our heads. A little less poetic than sugarplum fairies, but still managing to have the same effect on our little band of miscreants as said visions have on children at Christmas.

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Snowshoe tracks and Rabbit prints

The next day held exactly what those visions had proffered. Laurence was quiet. No, that isn’t quite accurate. Laurence IS quiet embodied. . He rarely spoke, and hen he did he muttered to himself in Cree or made little statements that would slip by if you didn’t pay attention. As we snowshoed through his trap line, crossing beaver ponds, hills and eventually moving out onto the lake, he set rabbit snares. The Cree’s approach to teaching is far different from what we in western culture would think of as educating. They don’t lecture or explain things. They simply do, and expect you to pay attention and emulate what you see. The methods we saw employed weren’t fancy. Simple wire snares, and branches placed in the path to guide the snowshoe hares we were after into them. Simplicity is a watchword in the Cree’s traditional way of life. No frills, just enough to get the job done effectively. David, Anna and Laurence all grew up living a subsistence lifestyle. Trapping and fishing to meet their daily dietary needs, and that fact is apparent in the approach taken to running a trap line. The goal isn’t recreation, it’s bringing in the calories they need, in the most efficient way possible.

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Our next task was the culmination of this approach. After setting the snares, we headed back to camp to help David go fishing. Fishing with David is not a “drink a beer, sit on the dock and maybe catch a fish worth posting to Instagram” affair. There aren’t rods or lures, or the pot of hot cocoa I always mentally associate with ice fishing. David chisels two large holes in the ice, with multiple smaller holes in between them. Then he threads a large net between the initial holes with a forked birch branch and a spruce pole. The spruce is used like a needle, guiding the net from one hole to the next, until it’s stretched under the ice. This isn’t a hobby, this is a means of gathering food to feed a community.

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After setting the net, we headed back for dinner and more stories from David and Anna. We laughed and joked with them for a while, then headed back to our tent for the evening. We talked about books we were reading, and plans for when we got back to the US (Even joking about how we’d inadvertently “run away to Canada” for the presidential inauguration). We weren’t sure what the next day held, as the lifestyle in the bush is less schedule focused, and revolves instead around what needs to be done as needs arise.

I’m going to leave you folks in the same spot. There’s lots more to come in regards to this trip, and I’m chomping at the bit to share it with you. Come check in on ol’ uncle cranky bones later. I’ll have more stories to spin for you as soon as I can.

Slainte Maithe everyone.

 

“The Most Penetrating Of Preachers”

 

If you know me, you know I’m a big fan of Hermann Hesse’s work. I recently found a piece by him that I hadn’t been exposed to yet. “Bäume: Betrachtungen und Gedichte” is a collection of poetry about trees, and Hesse has a piece in it. Stumbling upon that was like finding out a Christmas stocking had a secret compartment in the toe, with a sampler of scotch stored away in it. Talk about a good day.

The piece is phenomenal, and if you have the time there’s a wonderful reading of it here.

It got me thinking though, about this last year.

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I had some rough patches. I’m not going to bore you with the details of that, because those rough patches were eclipsed by finally finding something I can throw myself into completely. I found that thing that calms that indefinable lust for something larger than myself that I’ve ached for as long as I can remember. I had a lot of false starts ( considered the priesthood, political work, botched attempts at romantic relationships, etc) but the answer came during a moment of frustration in the north Maine woods.

I do not cope well with blowhards and people that take themselves too seriously. I worked with enough of them in my time with Governor Holden. In the world I’m getting into, there’s a lot of that it seems. During some of our downtime on a canoe trip, I eventually got fed up with a conversation that was essentially a pissing contest and wandered off for a little quiet time. (If I keep up this “disappear as a coping mechanism schtick, I’m going to be that old man who people have to ‘keep an eye on’)

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I took a book, and just found a spot a few hundred yards away from camp, sat cross-legged under a pine and started to leaf through the book and the scribblings in my notebook. That lasted for about a minute before the landscape in front of me stole my attention. I was sitting at the edge of clearcut, where tire tracks were still visible. It was sort of a sad sight, but the more I watched the more I saw bits of life creaking their way through. In the middle of this clear cut, was a pine sapling, green as the woods on either side of the cut and probably only able to grow because the larger trees around it had been removed. It had free reign of the sun, water, and nutrients from the ground. I’ve got the campsite’s location written down, and I plan on going back to see that sapling every few years or so once I’m up north for good.

Now, at this point, Tim and I hadn’t even talked about School of the forest, but I already planned on doing outdoors work with youth. My vague plan was to get involved with Outward Bound, or something similar. The sight of that sapling sort of drove it home, in exactly the sort of sappy sentimental metaphor I’m susceptible to. I saw something new, and promising growing from the remains of something old. What could possibly be more important in life, than helping that metaphor happen in young people’s lives? If the work I do in the future, helps bring this passion and peace found in the outdoors to others then I’ll be proud to have done it.

That moment didn’t come from “adventure” or “challenging myself”, the way a lot of the outdoor industry seems to be geared towards. It came from just existing in that ecosystem and seeing a “restart” button having been pressed, instead of just destruction of the land. Call it hope, call it optimism. I’m a big fan of both of those. It isn’t either of these things though. It came from an inkling of understanding of the life cycle of a forest, and observation.  I didn’t have a good handle on the term at the time, but it came from a sense of “frilustliv”.

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So going forward with school of the forest, that idea will be baked into the bones of every course I run. This idea of simply being in nature, and being at peace with your place in it. As I’ve said before, if I’d stuck with the path towards the priesthood, I’ve no doubt I’d be as evangelical about it as anyone. I’m hoping to bring a bit of that fire to this project. Not because I think it’s right and everyone should think the same, but because the peace I found through experiencing “free air life”, and then studying it and seeing the correlations between what I’d experienced and the benefits others had reported were so compelling that I have a need to pass this on. To anyone, but especially to youth with too much energy, and minds that move too quick for them to harness and ride. I’ve been there. Hell, I’m still there some days, but this lifestyle has helped immensely. I’d be selfish not to hope that I can show others this peace, and earlier in life than I found it.

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This has been your monthly “Christopher lets the preacher out of his cage” broadcast.

I’ll leave you with the bit from Hesse’s piece that struck me. it’s the final few lines.

But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

Now get of your phone/computer/ machine with the magic buttons, and go outside.

 

Slainte Maithe everyone.

 

 

Eating The Red Berries


Spicy food is an odd thing. It’s an evolutionary attempt by plants to keep us and other animals from eating them. It makes sense, if you eat a pepper once and it hurts your mouth, you’re not likely to try it again right? 

Not our species though. We’re notoriously bad at learning from our mistakes, and the mistakes of those around us. There’s a theory out there about”eating the red berries”. An older, more experienced ancestor would know from experience what berries were toxic, and avoid them. So a younger member of the tribe/group would learn by watching them and the knowledge of what’s safe to eat gets passed down this way. 

We’ve sort of lost this ability, or at least some of us have. We revel in attempting things that we know are impossible, or at least uncomfortable. To keep going with the food topic, think of the various”challenges” that show up every couple of months. Cinnamon was the challenge of choice when I was in highschool, and then I got to witness one of the most objectively intelligent people I know attempt the”Gatorade” challenge during a course in Maine, knowing factually that it would make him feel sick. 

Even after seeing plenty of examples of others failing these challenges, some of us still have this innate need to try them anyway. Food with kick to it has even become a cultural staple in some cases. We love the tingling burn it leaves on our lips, even if it’ll make us feel awful in a few hours. We all want to be the person to sample the red berries and come back to the group saying “look, this is ok”, and if we can ALL eat them as a group it becomes a bonding experience, and the natural end point of passing of knowledge. 

That skill has a purpose, but we live in a time where it isn’t necessarily required. The knowledge we’re hoping to acquire first hand already exists, and is easily accessible. So what is it in some of us that aches to attempt it anyway? Arrogance and ignorance, if you’re asking me. 

We can apply the same line of thinking to outdoor activities fairly easily. We go to “inhospitable” places, and for some reason bask in the glory we perceive we’re garnering by doing so, and that glory isn’t just from the outside. Society lifts up explorers and people who summit Everest etc, and it makes sense. They’ve eaten the berries. They’ve come back saying”look, we can do this. YOU can do this”. 

Look at Everest. We know the names of those that attempted the first summits, but now it’s something plenty of people do every year. That’s not to diminish the personal accomplishments of those who came after, but to point out that once something’s been shown to be doable, folks will do it without reservations. 

This has translated into a slew of modern day “adventures”. People who make their living by going out and having experiences in the natural world. They lead rough lives, lives that physically tax them to the extremes, and for no reason beside the experience. The map’s pretty much been drawn. They aren’t discovering new places, or climbing previously unsummited cliffs. 

If you ask me, thats pretty amazing. Breathtaking experiences aren’t only for the red berry eaters anymore. Or rather, we all get to be red berry eaters now. We all have the opportunity to be the tardiest of explorers, increasing the knowledge of a place for the group, but still having personal experiences that allow us to grow exponentially. 

There’s obviously problems that come along with this. Unprepared folks that end up injured, less than ecologically minded people who leave the places worse then they found it. Those are valid issues, that can only be remedied by education and understanding, and to an optimist like myself, the fact that these people are going to these remote places to begin with means they’re open to expansion of their understanding. (This optimism thing is likely to plant both feet firmly in my esophagus.) 

But, as far as I can tell those are the real issues of a societal shift towards personal exploration. There are plenty of complaints and think pieces naysaying those of us who crave this lifestyle. It’s understandable, and a lot of it comes from people who are caretakers of the wild places that are being explored. It’s a fair point, and paired with an appropriate educational plan for visitors will hopefully help. 

(Sharing what I know. Trying at least)

And that brings us back around to that”shared knowledge base” we talked about. Information is as easily accessible as the places we want to explore. While it’s tempting to go into them blind, assuming we can handle whatever it throws our way. That’s the wrong approach, or at the very least the arrogant one. 

All this knowledge has been gleaned by this that came before us. They are the red berries for us, and came back telling us we could too. They also came back telling us about which ones we shouldn’t. We’d be idiots not to listen. 

So by all means, eat the red berries, but when those who’ve come before us have given us  warning of what NOT to eat, we’re obligated to listen to that part as well. Enjoy your time in these beautiful places, but don’t assume you know better then others, and listen to them when they advise you. Not only are you helping preserve the places for others, you’re hopefully adding to the communal knowledge and helping those who come after you. You’re eating the red berries for the generation that comes after you. 

Little sisters and Feathersticking.

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I’m back in St. Louis for an old friends wedding and a quick visit. Stu and Morgan’s wedding was wonderful, and filled with Halloween decor. I’m lucky to have such interesting friends, that’s the truth. It’s been great seeing family and friends as well as explaining my new world to them.

One of the nights here I went to a housewarming party with some friends. While there I watched someone struggle to light a fire for smores and to ward off the increasingly crisp October air. It was a mirror into how much I’ve learned over the last year, and an opportunity to practice. Not only the act of lighting a fire, but explaining the process to as I went. A golden chance to prove to myself that I had a good grasp of the concepts, and could explain them in a way that made sense. That’s the mark of knowing something isn’t it?

And you know what I did? I let it slip past. I simply sat and mentally disparaged this man while he soaked a log in lighter fluid, and became more and more frustrated trying to get a flame going steadily in the fire pit. I sat drinking my beer and chatting with friends instead of stepping up and offering to help.

Not a lot of things make me ashamed, but that did. So how do you deal with a missed opportunity like that?Approach A. Beat

Approach A. Beat yourself up in the hopes that it’ll somehow fix it.

Approach B. Penitent actions. 

I’ll take option B, thanks.

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So, I assigned myself a penance of practicing feather sticking and one match fires. I woke up early, walked out to my parents woodpile and grabbed a few logs and got to work. After ten of them, my sisters walked out to see what I was up to. Eventually they decided to try their hand at it. I’ve got to say, it felt really good to sit and watch them go through the learning process. Feather sticks are a fairly simple concept, but the execution is tough, and only gets easier through practice and trial and error. It helps immensly to understand not only how to make a featherstick, but what you need it to do once a flame is set to it. They don’t have that connection, so it was slow going at first.

That’s something I hadn’t thought about. In college and traditional school classes you bounce from subject to subject each hour, and the information in each of them doesn’t ever need to cross over in most cases. Sure, the things you learn in an algebra class, will be important for the next math class and some sciences, but you’ll never need to apply it to language arts, or history. In the outdoor education world, everything is connected, and in some cases the understanding of a specific craft, or task is dependent on a broad understanding of other ones. Sure, you can make a featherstick without using it as tinder, but if you don’t understand how the curls hold a flame and allow the flame to breathe, there’s a good chance it will just be a pretty piece of wood. It’ll burn at first, but likely won’t catch enough to start a serviceable fire.

 

Those connections are hard to explain, and not neccesary to the actual act of making a feather stick, no matter how important they are. So we just sat and made them. It was a nice, quiet exercise, interrupted by the occasional question. Eventually Julia exclaimed and held up her stick to show me a small, but beautiful curl she’d managed to produce. It wasn’t much, but it was clear she’d gotten the general concept. That little start made up for the missed opportunity of the previous night. Sure, her featherstick wouldn’t start a raging inferno, but it was the closest I’d felt to them this whole trip. Just little quiet moments, doing a menial task, was better than the previous few days of filling each other in on the changes in our lives.

It was also a moment of realizing that I have a really good handle on a skill that eluded me at first. Not only feathersticking, (Most of my first ones ended up looking like Christmas trees, with not a curl to be seen) but also understanding of how to ignite them efficiantly. Fire, believe it or not was the hardest part of my Jack Mountain semester. I’d grown used to gas powered camp stoves, and lighter fluid. So what I thought of as simply practicing, ended up being really self-gratifying. I knew the answers to all their questions, I turned tight curls that made my old christmas trees look even worse, and I knew exactly how I’d lay each of the feather sticks to build a fire.

Christopher make fire. Christopher lord of flame.

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Those little moments like the man trying to light a fire are chances to teach, and they slip by pretty quickly. I’m glad I got a second one with my little sisters, but I’ll be keeping a better eye out for them from here on out. They sneak up on us, but if we’re obserbvent, we can snag them and not only help the person, but improve on our own abilities as well.

So in the future I’ll be paying more attention to how all these skills slot together when being used, and be keeping an eye out for opportunites to pass them on, or employ them to the benifit of those around me. Sure, it’s not an action I’ll take out of anything but self interest, but it’s got some great by products. I’ll be learning to be a better teacher as I teach, and at the very least won’t sit for twenty minutes smelling lighter fluid in the air because somebody thinks that’s the easiest way to get a fire going.

 

 

Plus, now my sisters can show up my dad when he’s starting a fire. That thought will give me a nice little chuckle whenever I have it.

 

 

A Follow Up On Angie

Six months ago I was on my way north for what I now know was the most important course I’ve ever taken. I was wrapped up in my excitement and joy to be leaving St. Louis. At a small rest stop in Indiana I met Angie, and I was so struck by our conversation that I wrote about her on my site. It had nothing to do with the content of my usual work, but I was so profoundly heartbroken by this woman’s story that I couldn’t help it. It was something I simply had to do, because I couldn’t do much else. It’s since become the fourth most read article on primitiveaddictions.com

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And the truth is, it should be. If anything it should be the most read. Because the things touched on it will always be a part of our lives as human beings. People like Angie will always need our help, and we should be as forthright with that help as we can be.

 

But that’s another article. Today’s is in a much happier tone. A few weeks ago I got an email from an address I didn’t recognize. The subject line simply read “Thank you”. Now, as the bleeding heart hippie I am, I’m subscribed to a lot of political/environmental awareness newsletters and almost didn’t open it, assuming it was another ad about some political victory that I had nothing to do with, but some organization thought I “needed” to know about. On this basis I didn’t open it.

 

Boy am I glad I did so later. It was from Angie.

It wasn’t long, and it wasn’t detailed, but in it she let me know that she had found work, and a place to stay, and was writing me from the library, where she had just read my article. She asked if she could pay me back for the cliff bars.

I’ll admit, I choked up when I read that particular line.

She explained that she’d kept my website’s name, and forgotten about it until she found it in the console of her car. Through the website she found my contact information and wanted to get in touch.

She ended the email with “thank you for the words.” That phrase will be the new bench mark for my writing, because it sums up why a lot of us write. Sure, sometimes it’s a simple exercise in expunging a thought, or a way to organize a stampede of them that we can’t wrangle otherwise. A lot of the time though, it’s an attempt to reach out. Not to anyone in particular, but to some unknown person or group. We put it down on paper or megabyte and say “look, this is what I’m thinking and I know it’s got to resonate with somebody out there.”

I can’t really put into words the feelings I have about her statement though. On the one hand I know cerebrally that I didn’t DO much of anything. I scribbled my thoughts down, put them up on the internet and then forgot about it. I did the least amount of work I could without actually affecting my life in anyway.

On the other, something I wrote touched someone’s life in a positive way. I don’t know how to explain what that feels like as a writer. I don’t even KNOW how to describe exactly what it feels like, but I wish more people could feel it.

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The truth is they can, and in bigger amounts than I did. By giving, by helping. As I said, I did next to nothing. I wrote. I didn’t help her get a place to stay for the night, or anything that really cost me a damn thing. I will do my best to make up for that in the future, and if you take anything away from this, or the previous article, I hope it’s a drive to pay attention to unimportant people. By that I mean people that you could walk by, look at and move on without the interaction having any effect on your life. My generation CRAVES meaning in our lives, and I think at the very least this is a good place to start. If you have excess of any kind (time, money, things) and are comfortable with having a bit less, look for people who need that little bit you’ll take off the top. I know a lot of young people read this, and I know that it’s hard just to get by right now for some of them. I’m not advocating giving away so much that you can’t take care of yourself.

 

What I am advocating is “a little off the top”. That weekend you planned on sleeping in till noon? Skip it. Find an opportunity to give that little off the top. There are volunteer organizations in every town, and they need help. I guarantee it. It doesn’t have to be a homeless shelter. (But I hope it is) Sure, you’ll miss those extra hours of sleep, but if at the end of the day you feel anything close to what I felt reading her response, and just knowing she was ok? It’ll be worth it. You’ve got ol’ cranky bones’ word on that.

Here’s a couple of links that I posted with the last one. You know, just to get you started.

http://www.homelessshelterdirectory.org

http://www.salvationarmyusa.org

http://www.chicagohomeless.org

 

 

The Big Shift 

I have been a student all my life. I plan on continuing to be one for the remainder of it. However, starting next year, I’ll be making”the big shift” from student to instructor. I’ll be moving (again) to New Hampshire and helping the owner and head instructor of my school in Maine start a youth program

Now, in retrospect I’ve been helping with courses like this for a long time. Different subject matter, but similar formats. In highschool I worked for my fencing coach on occasion, going with him to fencing demos at schools, and teaching/performing at Renaissance Fair’s. Eventually, doing a few demo’s on my own when my coach couldn’t find the time. I helped facilitate groups attending Heifer international’s poverty courses in Arkansas, and organized youth programs for the Midwest-US China association. 

Its a big change in mindset though, to go from student to teacher. It takes a basic comfort in the subject, paired with an understanding that the people you teach may be completely oblivious to the little details of it that you take for granted. 

On top of that, it’s likely the most responsibility I’ve ever shouldered. The purpose of the courses I’ll be running is not just to inform, but to help young people find something that is missing from modern life. A closeness, and deeper understanding of nature and our place in it. I am of the mind that this is at the root of a lot of modern issues, and I’m not alone. In his book “Last child in the woods” author Richard Louv lays out a description of modern children and the way they are educated that lacks any real immersion in the outdoors. He refers to a “nature deficient” generation, that I was born into, but due to the choice of my parents to homeschool my siblings and I, observed from the outside. As Louv talks about all the things previous generations were able to partake in (Unstructured outdoor time, gardening, nature walks etc) that young people today simply don’t do, some mental and emotional puzzle pieces that have been irking me for a long time started to fall into place.  

I was lucky in my young life to have a school structure that encouraged me to be outdoors (this is all your fault Ma), it allowed curiosity to grow that was stifled in the one year I attended a regular grade school. Once I completed the scheduled curriculum content, that was it. Information and understanding was a step in a ladder that teachers would only allow me, and the rest of the class to climb so high on, because if we went to far ahead, what would they teach tomorrow? It created boredom, and a tendency to create problems for teachers. Which really meant I took time away from other students during some classes. To them I apologize wholeheartedly. 

So, the antithesis of this is the guiding factor as I create lesson plans in preparation for this new project. I want to have to say “I don’t know” in answer to questions on occasion, and follow it up with”why don’t we figure it out?” Not only does this mean that I’ll be learning as I teach, but hopefully it will help students to light that spark of curiosity and gently give it air, and fuel until it’s a roaring fire they can cook their ideas on.

Between that as my guide, and the fact that I’m also responsible for these kids safety. (Outdoor activities involve a few potentially dangerous tools, if not used properly, as well as the simple fact that kids fall a lot) the task can seem pretty daunting. However, when I remember all the time I’ve spent outdoors, and the training I received at Jack Mountain, and in all those other projects mentioned earlier, I know I’ve got a good set of skills to start with but plenty to learn as I go. 

So, that big shift? I pretty well stoked for it. Now I just have to ask my siblings about all the stupid things they remember us getting into when Ma took us hiking so that I can keep an eye out for students attempting them. 

And that’s another reason I’m excited for this. Some of my favorite memories involve my youngest siblings and being outside with them. When there’s six of you, there’s a pretty big age gap between the oldest and the youngest. Which meant that I could help them as problems arose, or answer questions if I knew them. 

In particular I remember going to Rockwood state park with my youngest brother, Pj. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight at the time. Inside the visitor center was a row of terrariums, filled with local reptiles and amphibians. One of them contained a large, fat tiger salamander that Pj instantly became fascinated with. I don’t recall being particularly drawn to it, but I remember helping him read the placard below its tank. With every new bit of information his eyes hungered for another bit. At the time I remember mostly being annoyed that he couldn’t just read it himself, but in hindsight I see the beginnings of something that’s still a bit part of his life. PJ has had a whole menagerie of lizards, snakes, frogs, fish and anything else you can think of. With that comes a knowledge base that is entirely built on his own curiosity about them. 

Moments like that are what make being an instructor of young people so simultaneously daunting and exciting. If I had let my annoyance at his inability to read stop me from helping, maybe that curiosity would have had one less match lit under it. On the other hand, I have the opportunity to help light more matches along the way, and I likely won’t even know I’ve lit them most of the time, but I can tell you all this, I hope I help regardless. 

I’ll be sure to let you all know as things progress with the program, and as always if you have questions don’t hesitate to ask. 

Slainte Maithe everyone