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Issue 3: Education for Community Building

Photo courtesy of the Wilderness Awareness School

Awakening Our Senses to Learn:I nterview with Wilderness Educator Jon Young

Christina Bertea, Interviewer

(Article continued...)

Tracking and Culture

In hunter gatherer tribes who have evolved the art of tracking to the highest degree—a lot of people now are saying that may be the very earliest science—tracking as a practice of awareness has a lot of power in the human consciousness. A lot of people say "Why do you teach tracking, who cares about tracking?" Well to me tracking is the whole thing.

Researchers at Microsoft have been researching the roots of the written language. They have found that there are elements of the written language that were once styled off of bird tracks.... In at least three different cultures world wide, the original alphabets resembled footprints. They're beginning to see that the art of following animal trails is not a lot different from following the symbols which we call letters...what our mind does is transfer little symbols in the dirt—letters across the page—into actual images; three dimensional stories that move through our minds, which is exactly what tracking is. So which came first, tracking or reading? And reading only demands the smallest part of our vision, while tracking demands all of our vision, in fact you have to use all five senses. So tracking is a more powerful form of reading.

They believe that the original mathematical calculations actually come from the study of the rhythm of footprints in the sand, because the bushmen are found to do mathematical things with patterns of feet on the ground. Some of the earliest writings on the walls of caves—the oldest pictograph known is 130,000 years old—were exact representations of the gait patterns of an animal so that they could teach tracking, so the first art forms in caves may be related.

Tribal people like the bushmen are still practicing forms of music that are maybe 50,000 years old, based on the need for the trackers to imitate the animals so that they can get across the stories of the hunt or the gestures of the sacred ways of the animals and the birds. The original dance forms are imitations of animals. So dance, and the art of storytelling, which evolves into drama and all the arts...you can trace almost everything that we consider culture back to the art of tracking in a very direct way.

I don't have to start with really intelligent or cultured people to make trackers. In fact it happens the other way around. There was a young student from Washington who was having terrible reading comprehension scores and was doing really badly in public school. I took him under my wing and mentored him in the art of tracking. It turned on aspects of his personality, of his brain, and of his mind, so that when he finally went back for his reading comprehension and the SATs he scored very very well, and there was no tutoring in reading, there was no academic training, there was only tracking. It's the most interdisciplinary inter-sensory demanding task that a human brain can experience, and it's also the most beautiful. It turns on the human computer in a way that nothing else can.

I'm trying to tie this to human development. The core routines are: going to one place and knowing it well—the actual "I'm alone sitting in the forest" experience; the secret spot experience; training the five senses deliberately—pushing beyond our sensory limits; and then journaling about what we experience during the day. Then doing what we call animal forms, in modified dance form. There's no music, we just imitate animals to get the rhythm of them, to learn to see out through their eyes, to use more of our body.

That is what we do, period. And I'm not teaching anybody any of that. I'm sending them out on what amounts to treasure hunts. "Take these field guides and gather this information out of the field guides and translate it to your own journals. Go out to your sit area out in the woods, that place you always go to, sit for a while, watch for these things, come back and write about them." To the average student, what we call the Kamana program is very much a self-guided program. They have to move at their own pace.

If you think back to tribal settings—I've interviewed lots of native elders about this and they've all said it was vital—when the children came in from the day of playing around in the forest, they didn't just go watch TV. They sat there and were asked questions by their elders. They had to tell their story of the day. They had to recapitulate and re-envision the whole experience over and over. Because we don't have elders asking us questions anymore, we put a high priority on asking the questions through the journaling process. We try to get people over their fear of writing because a lot of them are terrified of doing that.

Also we do a lot of mapping. They used to do mapping verbally or draw lines in the sand and talk about the different places that they'd been. The uncle might say to the child when he came in, "Okay, where were you today?" "Well I was up on such and such a hill by the spring." "Well show me where, here's the ridge, here's this tree, here's that tree, where were you?" They're always referring to maps, so they develop mental maps. The brain needs mental maps in order to function right. I'm beginning to believe that the brain also needs exposure to bird sounds, to trees, to all the things we've talked about, to function at its optimum.

As all of these things begin to add up together, and pull together, we develop a vast problem solving ability. This has been shown to be true in studies with inner city kids that we've worked with for two years, developing a mentoring relationship with the kids. The National Drug Research Institute did pre-tests and post-tests on these kids, and we were told by the director of that program that they were found to have self-esteem and functional intelligence increases. That's because the problem solving demands of the natural environment are much greater than the problem solving demands of any artificial stimulus created by any teacher. The best teachers in the world can't compare to the earth as a teacher. Our brain did not evolve to have information pounded at us by teachers in front of a classroom. But the students who have evolved as trackers do better in that setting anyway.

The Idea of School

Nature is a kinder and gentler teacher. The whole idea of school evolved just a couple hundred years ago: it's a very recent idea and it's proving to be not all that functional in the long run, and I'm not the only one saying it.

Jane Healy in her book Endangered Minds, talks about the high stress lifestyle of modern children being forced into reading, writing, arithmetic, and computers at really early ages and then suffering from what amounts to similar symptoms to the Vietnam Vets who come back with post traumatic stress disorder. They call it information sickness. It's the ultimate extension of this bizarre obsession of forcing people to use their brains in ways that they were never intended for.

I've been at many schools where I've been warned by the teachers, "Watch so-and-so, bad Johnny has ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder], he's going to give you trouble." To my delight, and this has proven true again and again, the kids with so-called ADD are the ones who do the best in the woods. What I'm beginning to realize is that school is too narrow, too small to hold their spirit. To me it's not a disorder at all, it's a gift. It's really a teaching disorder. It's a brain patterning system disorder, it is not a human brain disorder. That's my absolute belief now, because I have not yet met an ADD kid that hasn't been phenomenal in the woods.

It's the classroom that's dysfunctional, not the kid. But we live in a fast-paced world and we decide that we have to take our kids and put them in cages essentially—it's like putting your pet in a kennel so you can go away on vacation. That's how most people view school nowadays. "Well I gotta put my kid somewhere, I gotta go to work."

School actually evolved so that kids could be trained to become good factory workers, and to this day we all take it for granted that it is the thing to do. The adults go right into the working world without hesitation because they've been effectively programmed to become cogs in the machine. So they put their children through the same torture. It's a terrible situation and there is no answer if everyone is looking at how to make school better. Let's look outside the box, literally. Let's go to nature and train children in the natural world.

Learning Ethics from Nature

As all of history has shown, the greatest visionaries, the greatest changers have been people who returned to their communities after time in the wilderness. Many of the prophets of the great religions have come from nature. Look at Buddha, Jesus. That's because nature challenges the brain to become its greatest.

I think that we are natural human beings with natural apparatus for absorbing natural information from a natural landscape that creates a natural brain and a natural set of ethics that results in natural love. But they all have to be linked up in order to work because we are creatures of habit. Brain patterning. If we grow up isolated only in artificial worlds we will develop isolated artificial minds. Our own science proves it. Therefore if you live in the city you also have to give yourself a natural education. If you live in the country, that's not enough. There're plenty of farm boys who don't have what I'm talking about. There is the need to develop the core routines.

Then they'll eventually see: "Oh my god, look at the impact that mankind is having on this world." They start to say, "My beloved earth, my beloved nature is being destroyed right before my eyes, I'm going to have to find a way to go back into that world and help people." That's, in the long run, to me a leadership path.

We can look at the value systems that emerge out of these natural mindsets from native traditional societies around the world—their values and ethics and understanding of peace. Gilbert Walkingbull, one of the few Lakota people who survived "ethnic cleansing," talks about the seven sacred attributes that, when you live right, emerge from the center of who you are.

  • To develop the quiet mind, where you can hear the voice of spirit or instinct as it stirs in your internal world.
  • To develop the purity, the innocence, the happiness of a child. To maintain that aspect of who you are, and to honor and value that in the children.
  • To develop what is called "the quickness of a coyote." That's the ultimate vitality or health, to be in the moment so purely that you respond to things before you even know what they are, just like a wild animal.
  • To have compassion and unconditional love for all things, such a closeness to all living things around you, that you begin to see the Creator in everything.
  • To become truly helpful. To evolve a sense of your sacred purpose on this earth, to evolve your most important gift, your vision, and give it to your people.
  • To give yourself fully to all that you do and be fully alive.
  • To develop a sense of care-taking. We are not isolated events, but are living in a care-taking network. The act of purifying ourselves to become like children also purifies those that we love and will benefit the earth itself, and cause the fish to regenerate and the birds to come back...

When these values come out of the center of your being, you become a naturally compassionate person who seeks to live in service. I've been doing this for 17 years, and I now have the pleasure to sit back and watch my students get master's degrees and go for their PhD's, and there isn't one of them who isn't heavily influential in the realms that they are in. They are like visionaries.

Jon Young has pioneered blending native mentoring techniques from around the world with the tools of modern field ecology. He is the principal author of both The Kamana Naturalist Training Program and The North American Master Shikari Sequence for CyberTracker. Jon currently serves as a Master Teacher for Wilderness Awareness School programs at the national level.

For links to wilderness education programs around the country, visit the Wilderness Schools Home Page: www.geosmith.com/wilderness/schools.html

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