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.

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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.

img_20170117_115724358.jpgLaurence’s‘ Rabbit Snare; simple and as we learned, incredibly effective

 

 

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.

 

Trapping And Winter Living With The Cree.

For the last nine days Tim, a few other Jack Mountain Alums and I were lucky enough to spend time with David and Anna Bosum in northern Quebec. David and Anna run Nuuhchimi Wiinuu , a guiding service that allows them to share their way of life as Cree trappers. It was, in all aspects, a perspective-shifting experience. David and Anna were born and raised in the bush, (David told me the that the first time he lived in a town he was in his forties). They both radiate a love for the land they live on, as well as a breadth of knowledge about the flora and fauna that inhabit it. This trip is going to get split into two or three articles, because even in just a week the Bosums, and the Cree we met in Ouje-Bougomou taught our group more than I could possibly do justice in one.

So, let’s jump right in here.

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We arrived in Ouje-Bougomou on a Saturday evening. It’s a long ride from New Hampshire to northern quebec, but after two days of being on the road, our spirits rose as soon as we crossed out of Quebec and into Ouje. A little background here is probably necessary. Ouje-Bougomou is the most recent Cree community to gain the rights to their own land. The members were relocated over and over for decades until gaining recognition of their territorial land rights in the early nineties. Ouje is a part of a larger territory called “Eeyou Istchee”, which is made up of multiple Cree Nation townships around the James Bay region of Quebec.

On arrival, we found out that David was feeling under the weather, and we’d be staying in a traditional domicile in town, instead of heading right out to the Bosum’s camp in the bush. The shelter was simple. A large one-room home, with fir boughs neatly woven together to make up a cushioned, heat retaining floor, and a large camp stove in the middle for cooking and heating, with wood piled neatly behind it in seperate stacks of dried wood and fresh green logs.

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Around the walls were tools used in the traditional lifestyle of the Cree. A hide scraper made from birch and moose bone, a knife held together by leather cord and duct tape, but with an edge on it that showed it was a tool, not a decorative piece. To my eye, the home looked beautiful, and became more so as it dawned on me that nearly everything in it had a purpose The parts that were simply decorative? They were simple. A few designs stitched into the canvas door flaps, a ring of grouse feathers hung on a nail.

The next morning, David still wasn’t quite recovered. So he sent his son Thomas to take us “up the mountain”. We didn’t get much more information than that, until Thomas and a few friends showed up on Snowmobiles.

I should mention that I guess? There was four feet of snow AT MINIMUM everywhere we looked. If you’re walking on anything but paved, plowed roads, you’ll likely need snowshoes. I have never used snowshoes in my life until this point, but we’ll come to that later.

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The snowmobiles brought us into the trail that led up the side of the mountain, then left us to hike the mountain while they headed up to set up lunch at the summit. The hike wasn’t long, but it was steep in certain stretches and was a good first introduction to snowshoeing. Our guide up the trails was Katalina, a local teacher who gave us some insight into the changing culture of Oje. We chatted as we walked the trail, and asked questions about the youth in the area, and her observations about the interest in the traditional Cree ways of life. It was fascinating to see the merger of those ways of life and the modern influence of technology and the internet.

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Once we reached the summit, Thomas and his friends Antonio and Ron had a fire built, and were cooking moose meat over it. The view combined with a hearty meal of moose and heavy bannock was an experience I can’t imagine getting anywhere else. The wind and clear sunny skies sapped any heat we’d built up while hiking from our bodies as we stood and chatted about life in Ouje. They talked about growing up hunting and trapping on their territories, and how they’d watched a lot of their community shift away from that lifestyle in the nineties once Ouje started to build itself up as a modern town.

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We didn’t stay at the summit for long, as the sun was already starting to set as we headed back down. When we reached the bottom, we were greeted by some of the camp dogs. How in the world have I not mentioned them yet? The community constantly has dogs that roam around. They all belong to someone, but they aren’t indoor pets. They each have a look to them I haven’t seen in dogs anywhere else. London’s descriptions of dogs in his northern adventure stories come to mind. All muscle and grit. They ran alongside us as we rode back to town on the snowmobiles, keeping pace every step of the way. I’ve never seen happier dogs than these. Sheer joy at the energy expended to bound along beside sled and machine.

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Once back at our camp, we loped around with the dogs, continued getting to know some of the Cree, and stoking the fire in preparation for nightfall. As I chased (and was chased) by a large dopey black and tan mutt with paws like backhoes and mismatched eyes, dinner arrived in the form of fried walleye. In the midst of eating, one of the other dogs managed to sneak into our tent and deposit himself on Ben’s (one of the other alumni) sleep pad. We threw him out a few times. Eventually though, he wormed his way into Ben and the rest of our hearts. We couldn’t find it in ourselves to kick him out. We talked and joked late into the night. Well, it felt like it anyway. The sun going down around four thirty in the afternoon really makes judging time hard.

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Be honest. Could you have kicked this guy out?

That’s just our first day, keep an eye on this space. There’s a lot more to come. Our time in town was fascinating, but the real learning experience started once we got out to the Bosum’s camp.

Just a warning to the squeamish, the Cree trap and hunt extensively. So a lot of what we learned and took part in involves skinning and cleaning animals, as well as methods of harvesting them. I’ll be writing about the process, and will have photographs to accompany them.

Slainte Maith everyone.

The Art Of Gear Checks.

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Whelp,  it’s almost time to head north folks.

I’m mostly packed up and to my mind that’s the most important part of any trip. Not the packing, but the preparation that comes along with it. Making a checklist of gear and supplies, and going through it a few times saves a lot of headaches once you’re on trail.

I’ve become fascinated with trip prep over the years. It’s not something we see a lot of in books, movies and stories about expeditions, but it’s probably the only reason those expeditions could happen. Folks planning long periods of time away from the conveniences of life have to think of every factor possible. That’s hard enough to do for yourself, let alone a large group of people. In the stories of glory and adventure we tend to see in fiction of any kind about the outdoors, it gets left out. No body wants to see fourty five minutes of a movie in which the two main characters argue about whether or not to bring the extra tarp. (An actual experience I’ve had. I still stand by the fact that we needed the extra tarp.)

Almost all of the books I’ve read on guiding stress the importance of checklists, gear checks etc. That goes without saying. What hammers it home is hearing anecdotes from others about some vital piece of gear, or seemingly obvious part of the list that was left sitting on the kitchen table, or countertop when everyone piles into the truck. People are excited to get out on their trek. Of course, as a guide you are too. That doesn’t excuse your responsibility to the group to make sure every knot is tied correctly, and every ingredient of the meals has been measured and packed.

One of my favorite exercises at Jack Mountain was writing up meal plans for our expeditions. It was a mundane, necessary, and albeit somewhat tedious task. You keep track of your food intake over the week, then use that data to plan for the trip appropriately. This method of planning takes a bit of forethought, and an understanding of what you really need. Not to “survive”, but to be comfortable enough that being on trail is what it should be. Relaxing, and an experience that you’ll remember fondly instead of looking back on it as “that time I didn’t bring enough flour and was miserable the last two days of hiking.

It doesn’t just apply to food. I’m a natural “but what if I really NEED these twelve extra axes?” sort of packer. It can be a problem if you don’t really step back and look at your habits on trail and make sure that what you pack is what you need. Sure, bring along an extra item or two, if you think it’ll bring something to the experience.

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                             (You know, like a shield. That you need. For obvious reasons)

In some downtime during courses, I read a book called “New York to Nome” by Rick Steber. It’s an account of the experiences of Shell Taylor and Geoffrey Pope paddling from the Hudson bay, across North America, all the way to nome, Alaska. In it they see all sorts of incredible things, but they also go into details about how they set up food and gear drops, rationed out food when necessary etc. That makes it all seem pretty well plotted out. I’ll let you read the book yourself and see why it was decidedly not that.

 

It’s tempting to fly by the seat of your pants when you go on a vacation, or even just an over night trip somewhere. In most modern getaways, you can do that and be just fine. It’s important for either solo outdoors folks, guides, or even parents taking their family out for a weekend to keep in mind the limitations of being out and away from the conveniences of life, and plan for them accordingly. Hell, even if you’re just going with a group of friends, it can’t hurt to plan for the inevitable “Oh geez, I didn’t even THINK about bringing a sleeping bag” friend (We’ve all got one) and toss an extra blanket in the trunk.

This article is sort of short, as I’m putting the final touches on little details for the next coming months of school and snowshoeing with the Cree in northern Quebec. As well as hammering out little nagging thoughts about the project that’s coming afterward.

Oh, and it’s the holidays? Whoops. Knew I was missing something.

 

Watch this space. Big stuff coming.

Slainte Maithe everyone.

 

 

Stoicism and Empathy

Stoicism is the closest thing I have to a set “world view”. It’s a big part of my personal identity, and that’s part of why I’ve had so much trouble writing this piece.

Stoicism, in the basic sense revolves around not allowing anything outside of yourself to affect your thoughts or actions, unless it’s an influence that helps the practitioner become a more rational person. It’s been compared to Buddhism by some, in that the practitioner is trying to achieve some sort of enlightenment via detachment and the performing of actions that benefit society as a whole.

Lately,  I’ve hit a stumbling block with it though. The thing that keeps tripping me up is how little room it seems to leave for empathy on an interpersonal level if you focus on the dogma of detachment instead of the philosophy as a whole. A friend of mine, who’s one of the most empathetic people I know, and I had a bit of an argument about something I’d done that upset her. It spiraled into an overall assessment of our friendship in general. The discussion eventually reached an impasse of sorts. With one of us needing more understanding and communication, and the other (myself) being pig headed and stubborn in the way only someone trying to detach themselves can accomplish. All she was asking what that I voice concerns and complaints so that they could be discussed. All I wanted was to let the anger I felt about the situation go, and get on with it. (If my mother’s side of the family had a motto, it’d be “Just shut up and do something”. Not a talkative bunch when it comes to complaining about personal things)

Here’s the thing. When I finally “let things go”, for the most part, they really go. Some of the bigger things take a while (Still haven’t forgiven my brother Joe for pushing me off our bunkbeds years ago). Otherwise I’ve gotten pretty good at detaching myself from the outcome of things, especially over the last couple of years. That’s not necessarily a good thing. It shows that I’ve been too focused on the detachment side of the stoic philosophy, and not enough on the “grow into a more rational human being” side of it.

“If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one’s own self-deception and ignorance.”

~Marcus Aurelius

It’s easy to fall into that “Self-deception” aspect, especially with personal beliefs that we hold dear. I’m particularly guilty of it in interpersonal interactions. The politician and debater in me wants to come out on “top”, rather than accept criticism of my stance on a subject. It’s part of the reason I left that field of study. I saw the traits and habits I used in my work start to bleed over into my personal life, and the relationships I had suffered for it.

Sometimes in killing one aspect of ourselves we find superfluous, we allow room for something else to grow. In this case, it was apathy. Apathy is actually one of the goals of stoicism, but only towards suffering and discomfort the person practicing it experiences. I’ve gotten a good handle on that, but I let it encompass a lot of other aspects of life it shouldn’t.

It’s taken me weeks to work out a solution to this. Not because it’s a hard answer, but because I’m stubborn and proud. Nobody likes to admit they’ve been wrong, but I take that distaste to a level that’s probably analogous to a “Scorched earth policy”. So I’ve come to realize the answer is to only use ONE can of gasoline on friendships that are difficult.

 

Kidding.

 

A big part of the solution for me personally is just to listen, and listen well, to what someone else is telling me. It’s not an easy thing to do. My mind automatically looks for openings and weaknesses in their “Argument” instead of just boiling down what their saying to the root of their personal grievance and figuring out, “Is this something I can fix and by doing so improve myself as a person? If not, what is the most appropriate way of explaining why I won’t or can’t change my behavior? ”

Easier said than done. That big ol’ bit of pride in my belly is going to rear it’s head over and over. Maybe I’ll hold onto that can of gasoline. I’m not how you burn a character flaw (probably involves some sort of unholy ritual, I’d guess) but I’m certainly going to try. I’m not big on mantras, but if there’s one that’ll be bobbling around my head while I work on this it will be this.

“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”

Fix yourself, not the people around you. If they bring you a valid concern over your actions, take it to heart instead of trying to rationalize it. If it is valid, and they’ve brought it to your attention, they’ve done you a favor. Be grateful for it, and do your best to improve on the problem. That’s not to say that you should accept any criticism as gospel, down that path lies a personality akin to a damp towel. If you can see that what you did produced more harm than good, start to work on cutting that habit out of your daily life. It’ll take time. Rome wasn’t burned in a day.

Oh wait. Yes it was. Maybe there’s more to the scorched earth policy than I thought.

Kidding. Again.

 

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

 

 

“I’ve learned”

 

 

There was a man.

He couldn’t tell you much about himself.

Not for lack of trying mind,

He just always seemed to replace the pieces he’d shown you as soon as you’d seen them.

He’d say “I’m not really a sports sort of guy”

Next thing you’d know he’d be next to you at a ball game cheering as loudly as the rest.

I recall a conversation I’d had with him, common interests was the topic.

We’d been on the subject of things that brought us grief. Family we’d lost, friends we couldn’t trust.

And just like that, in the middle of this conversation,

he sluffed off his skin

Not like a snake, or a crustacean shedding it’s skin to get bigger.

He just shrugged, and sort of burrowed into himself,

turned inside out and responded to my latest complaint with a completely sincere

“I’ve learned to let these things slide off me”

I thought he meant the little things, that brought him grief, but I was wrong.

He meant himself, his entire being, the things that made him, him.

And it was in that phrase that I saw his secret,

I understood how I could envy and pity this man all at once.

I pitied him, for his lost friends

Not lost by error, but by giving them up, in a hope for newer cleaner ones.

I pitied his family

For having to deal with this shifting spectre of a son and brother.

And yet I envied him, for he stood in the center of all this mistrust

orbited by abandoned loved ones and betrayed, confused friends.

And he was happy, and when the happiness stopped?

 

He simply turned himself inside out and said

 

“I’ve learned to let these things slide off me”