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Issue 3: Education for Community Building

Photo courtesy of the Wilderness Awareness School

Awakening Our Senses to Learn: Interview with Wilderness Educator Jon Young

Christina Bertea, Interviewer

How will our society learn to care for the natural environment, when it seems we are increasingly immersed in a fabricated world? Is there really hope for a sustainable future if the consciousness of our youth is absorbed by Gameboys, Nintendo, television, computers, and the gaudy dazzle of animated media? Are there effective methods to reconnect young people in any profound way to the earth? These were the questions that troubled my soul and led me to visit Jon Young to find out what he teaches at the Wilderness Awareness School in Washington State.

Jon Young was mentored from age 10 to 18 by Tom Brown, the famous tracker and teacher of wilderness skills, who has authored many well-loved books about his education in the woods under the tutelage of Stalking Wolf, an Apache scout. Jon Young started his own non-profit school in 1983. His big vision is to make mentoring available to youth in every city in the country.

Here are excerpts from my interview with him on November 11, 2000, in Big Basin, California. Except for the subtitles, it is entirely Jon's words.

What we're doing isn't really teaching, it's facilitating people to follow core routines. And the core routines are related to sensory awareness and the knowledge of place, both of which I'm convinced are highly linked to brain use. Studies show there's a strong connection between the development of the senses and the development of the brain, especially in animals as they evolve. If we look at the 12 million year history of human beings, we see we have relied on sensory awareness to keep ourselves alive, thriving, and healthy in the environment.

We evolved the core routines to reflect what I feel would have been the important sensory development points for hunter-gatherers, say, for the last 3 million years. What does it mean to know ones' place really well? First, it means knowing all of the things that are hazardous to you, because from the earliest age you have to learn about the things that can kill you. You have to learn to plan ahead—you can't just blunder into the bush. You have to stop, look, listen. I call that respectful awareness. It's the first and most important brain pattern someone has to develop when they enter into the environment. Just like a country kid needs to know the hazards of the city and the city kid needs to know the hazards of the country.

Looking Deeply

I actually have the students that I work with research 50 different hazards from their local environment. Fifty! I have them research everything from the spider to the wasp, to the poisons in the water like giardia, to lightning striking, to the potential of the tops of trees blowing off in the wind, or of flash flooding, or of forest fire. Not because I want them to be paranoid but to think back to what it would be like if they were living in the wild with wild people. To what depth would they be expected to know and understand? So I dig them in deeper. Being totally aware of all the things that can harm them causes them to learn to still their minds and be in the present—to stand and listen and look and really pay attention.

The next aspect that the people would get to know would be the hidden animals of their area, mainly because of the potential hazard that a wild mammal could represent, especially a million years ago when there were giant cats that were so big...we would have been like an appetizer. We didn't have guns back then, no way to protect ourselves from these huge cats.

The mammals not only represent potential hazards, they also represent potential food, and they are indicators of so much in the landscape. They're like the invisible ones that call you to a much higher level of awareness. You learn to recognize where they've been by what they do to the landscape.

You begin to see the invisible forest creatures. Not at first by sight, but by tracking them, by seeing the signs and trails that they leave behind, that weave across the landscape in so intricate a manner, like lace. You begin to actually see flow lines, like feng shui, of the animals themselves, of how they affect the landscape. It's a beautiful journey, to explore the land through the eyes of the various mammals that live there.

In order to understand the mammals and the choices that they are making one has to go to the next category of learning, which is the plants themselves. Especially the low growing plants. The grasses are the staple for all of the living things around. They feed the insects and the small mammals, which feed the larger mammals. In studying the vegetation patterns you begin to see how the animals trails emerge in the negative space in the vegetation. Besides that, the vegetation needs to be studied because for every question that is made in nature there is always an answer. The scorpion sting, the yellow jacket, the poison oak or ivy rash—there're antidotes in the plant kingdom and the native people know these things.

There's a certain level of knowing about ourselves, understanding our bodies, how they work with respect to the plants. When we study the plants we begin to understand how our organs function and we realize our taste buds did not evolve to taste salt and sugar, or to say, "Wow, this donut is delicious." Our taste buds evolved to interact with the complexities of plant enzymes, to tell us when we've had enough of this one, or when we crave that one which will benefit our liver, or benefit our kidney. We crave, just like the wildlife does. No one has to tell your dog or cat which plant to go to when they're ailing; their instincts tell them. Humans can experience such a greater richness of understanding of their own beings through the wild plants.

Indicator Species

Anywhere the western front encountered native elders they spoke of the indicator species of their land. "We see the disappearance of these fish, and we don't understand why you don't see the importance of these things." And the reason people don't see the importance of these things is that, as eco-psychology has already pointed out, if they're not part of their brain patterning experience they don't exist for people. So it's of paramount importance to pattern people's brains on the indicator species of their landscape—the reptiles, the amphibians, the fish, the rare insects and organisms that indicate the health of the ecosystem around them.

At the same time, so as not to be depressing, I want them to envision, to see, to know the landscape of the past. In Woodside, California there's a little restaurant and in the parking lot there's a big wooden salmon, carved by a Haida carver. It says, "This is to commemorate that this stream was once host to millions of salmon in their annual migrations." That's how many of the streams in California were. But nobody living today can remember that. So in a way nobody experiences the loss of it. And without the experience of the loss, there's no sense of need to do anything about it.

Whereas, when I really tune people in to what was in the streams in their local environment, what was in the air, how many birds used to come to roost there, how the skies used to darken with passenger pigeons in the east...there's a craving that comes up. The inner caretaker is born. The human has an inner instinct that is turned on by the remembrance of how rich an ecosystem can be. They no longer say, "This is a ruined suburban setting, we don't care." Instead they look around and say, "I wonder if...we could restore this creek?" Isn't that the birth of an activist who really wants to care for their backyard? Whether it's an urban setting or a suburban setting or a wilderness setting, it's all the same, it's going to need caretaking, it's going to need restoration.

But I understand if the people themselves do not experience life and the life force in a rich and deep way. It's not like environmental education; we can't load them all on a bus and drive them out for an afternoon walk in the woods, completely uninterpretable to them—their experience of life...twelve years in the city, fourteen years in suburbia—and expect them to get it in a day. It's not possible.

What is needed is really deep and rich mentoring in the way that I'm describing. In all those categories: 50 hazards, 50 mammals, 50 plants, 50 indicator species that I want them to know intimately. Then developing a deep relationship with 50 species of trees. Because trees are the secret to understanding survival. How to build fire, how to build shelter, how trees interact with the landscape to pull the rain from the sky and put it into the earth. Our water depends on the trees.

Then 50 species of birds. We have the invisible mammals in the brush and the bushes. We see the trails that they leave. But we still don't believe they're there, until we connect with the birds. We start to relate to the sparrow as if it's our neighbor. We start to talk to the sparrow and the sparrow talks to us. It's the sparrow that shows us the animals for the first time and one by one the mysterious forest residents become not so mysterious to us and it's the birds who interpret the world for us. They begin to teach us to pay attention in all four directions, above and right down to the earth itself. Not only line of sight but beyond line of sight. We start to hear further and further and further into the silence around us.

Deepening Our Senses

We become quieter and quieter and quieter as we listen harder and harder. We become tapped in to the spirit of life itself in a way that nothing else can do. Nothing. I take people from every kind of religion and train them in this fashion and they all say the same thing: "This is what I was seeking when I went to my religion, this is what I was seeking when I went to meditation. And it was the birds that gave it to me."

Something about a human being needs that nourishment of the senses. It's far beyond what environmental education calls for. It's about a deep and rich connection to one place, a deep understanding of the various communities around you. Not from an abstract point of view but from a direct experiential point of view where your brain patterns on those things as much as it does on your house. If you have no brain patterning experience in nature, you will snap into a reality that is essentially artificial.

When people pattern on television, computers, cars, houses, sidewalks, streets...they develop what amounts to a condition I call "alienitis". They're an alien to their own planet. They don't even know that they're a member of a living ecosystem called earth...and a lot of them will actually deny it. It's very odd for me to sit as an ecologist, a tracker, and a naturalist who can see plainly that these people are on the same planet as I am, deriving life from the same sources that I am, yet they can't see that they are part of it. How that happens has been utterly fascinating to me and frightening at the same time because now that over 50% of the population in America is urban, that means 50% of the people are getting brain patterned on artificial stimuli. That is why I feel we have to work even harder to get those kids out of that environment, into the wilderness, where they can train on the mother itself.

Once we discover ourselves through the mother, earth, then we can go back to the city and we can live fully in two worlds. But we can't only be developed on the artificial stimuli of the man made world because it causes us to become insensitive, dark, depressed. Our eyes are not patterned in a real way so they don't fully function. We don't even know what our eyesight is capable of because it's only been trained on artificial stimuli. Our ears have only been trained on the loud sounds of the city which cause us to want to screen out most of the input that assaults our ears as opposed to living in the wilderness where our ears are reaching ever further and further for the subtlety around us. The richness of the sense of hearing is lost to us, which has a reflective inner landscape in our brain that is also lost to us. When our eyesight is trained only to see sidewalks and street signs, we lose a great deal of our brain patterning. When we have to train ourselves to use right angle vision to recognize the mood of a junco at 100 yards by the way its tail is pumping, or to catch the flick of a deer's ear off in the thicket, then an inner landscape develops that is equally as rich.

All those species become all of our relations. Our brain patterns on the richness of each of their individual problem solving skills. The problem solving skill of the policeman versus the fireman versus the doctor versus the nurse is what we urbanites pattern our kids on, the models that they look up to. Instead the problem solvers that we study include all of those as well as the bear, who has his own unique way of problem solving, a whole unique way of viewing the world; the mouse, a different one; the dragonfly, a different one; the robin, a different one; we have to see through their eyes to understand their world.

Page 2: Tracking and Culture

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