by Ricardo Sierra
Originally appeared in Whole Terrain vol. 8: Legacy & Posterity

During the Spring of 1985, I spent some time in the woods of upstate New York practicing skills I had learned from Tom Brown, Jr., mildly famous for his writings among those who loved nature. Teacher and naturalist Nancy Dill offered me a job at the farm and nature camp she ran in the community of Harlemville, New York. Nancy has vast natural history and plant knowledge and became an elder to me in many ways. I had to graciously decline her offer; I was going to spend my life in the wilderness.

A few days later, I met someone who would change that plan. Sylvan was eleven and had the disarming big brown eyes of a deer. We walked together for a day, tracked animals through meadows and fields, watched hawks soaring on thermal updrafts, made a bow drill fire with his shoelaces, built a shelter… We enjoyed the same things and understood nature and the quest for discovery in a way we couldn’t relate to anyone else.

At the end of that day, as Sylvan moved reluctantly towards home, I casually tapped him on the back and said, “Well, good luck, little guy. I’m off for the west in a few weeks to live in the wilderness, so take care of yourself out there.” I saw him walk away and will never forget the look in his eyes.

Those eyes haunted me for the next two days. I thought about it, about him, and tried to make my plans for leaving, but it wasn’t in me to do it. I realized something that changed my life forever. I was the person I had always wanted to meet when I was eleven, someone to take me out into the woods and share what I knew, share the adventure and pass on the traditions and skills over the years of my youth. I also realized that if I left, he might never know this relationship and so would probably continue the current cycle our society is caught in, where the adults just aren’t there to build this kind of relationship and change these young lives one by one. I had to try and do something. I had never done this kind of work, but I called Nancy and took the camp job, not more than a quarter-mile from Sylvan’s home. And my work began at an entirely new level.

Teaching became my new focus while I continued to practice and learn survival and tracking. I began by simply adopting Tom Brown’s style of teaching, passing down skills and stories the same way I was taught. That was quickly modified as I found I needed a huge bag of tricks to reach the kids I was working with. I began to study people the way Tom Brown had taught me to study nature: I worked in a health food store, a restaurant, camps, environmental programs; anywhere I could work with, watch and study people. It was vital that I understand who I was teaching, what their needs were, and how to approach and educate them on the world of nature that I knew.

I have been teaching and mentoring students in wilderness awareness, tracking and survival now for the last twelve years, as a camp counselor and the director of Hawk Circle Camp, a wilderness skills and rites of passage camp I created nine years ago. Mentoring teaches all aspects of a skill or concept, a process that takes into account the personality, desires and understanding of the student. Unlike more traditional forms of teaching, mentoring occurs through a relationship built over time and focuses on bringing out the student’s natural desire to learn. In teaching a critical skill such as making a fire without matches, a typical instructor will demonstrate the basic carving and mechanical process of using a bow and drill. A mentor is concerned with much more: encompassing the skill, its integration in our lives, its history and possible future.

Mentoring is a lot like planting seeds. Some are planted shallow and sprout quickly and have immediate growth. Some are planted deep, and their fruit is harvested long after the teacher is far away. Teaching survival is a trickster task for me. My students think it is neat to be a kid and learn fun things about nature. The parents think the kids are playing native person for a while. No one, least of all me, has any dreams that they will go out and live in a teepee for the rest of their lives. That is not even close to the goal. Though the seeds I plant may never be recognized by either the parents or the child, the essence of what shelter and survival mean in a more profound way linger on in that student and influence every choice and decision down the road. It is a way of thinking and relating to the earth and the resources in an entirely different way, one that is connected, personal and practical. I cannot drive by a field of dry grass without thinking of thatching and warmth, especially in winter. I cannot smell a cottonwood without thinking about water. The two are linked forever in my mind, heart and soul. It is to both of those sacred beings that I owe my life many times over.

My goal in mentoring children is to give them whole experiences, rather than slogans or formulas. The brain patterns itself on what the senses feed it, and by opening the senses and giving our brains more than the usual sight and sound, we change a person’s world forever. One cannot look at the earth in the same way again after just one day of tracking. Tracking is about pattern recognition and trusting intuition. It is about the art of questioning, of asking, “What is this telling me?” to quote Grandfather Stalking Wolf, Tom Brown’s Apache mentor. It is about true scientific inquiry and patience and discovery. It is about pulling every tiny detail from the landscape to build a picture of what happened there last night.

Building and sleeping in a survival shelter is a three dimensional teaching and experience, and without these kinds of events, our brains ignore the stimulus of the natural world. This means that you actually cannot hear the sparrow singing in the bush outside your window while you watch TV. A walk in the woods with an instructor at my camp is a full sensory experience. There is no set formula, only letting our senses guide us as we wander through a fallow field, stop for a while to track, eat berries or lie in the warm sun. We might sit and share our lives with each other, or do a blindfold walk for a length of time. Often we will stop and slow down (what is the rush?) and really allow the senses of touch and smell and even intuition to be felt. We rarely take trails, and know that we need wild places beyond the campgrounds and maintained trails, places were we can roll in the mud, cross a rocky stream, smell a field of wildflowers or a decaying log. It has to be unkempt, wild, messy and alive. The bugs have to be real. The dangers have to be real. (Well prepared for obviously, but real nonetheless.)

Back in 1993, when I was working as a camp instructor for the summer, a co-worker friend of mine who had recently graduated with a degree in environmental education came to me late in one session, and asked my advice on the selection of a suitable learning game for her group. She was deciding between one that illustrated the difference between eating tofu and meat, or one that taught how energy from the sun was stored in plants. What would I do with these kids, if it was my last activity session? Which would I choose?

I told her I would take my kids into the woods, into a swamp, into the shallow stream. They would get dirty, smell the earth in their nostrils, see the undersides of ferns and the intricacies of tiny tracks and the way a cedar waxwing feeds on black mulberries. They would feel the coolness of the water on the soles of their feet, the mud between their toes, the taste of blackberries warmed by the sun. “Give them an experience they can take with them forever, something they can’t get from school or a book, something non-intellectual, something that will make them feel alive and present, something that will illustrate what being alive is all about, when they sit with their friends at the mall food court. Show them why you chose to study the earth all those years, what inspired you. Give them something to dream about in school, an experience that reveals nature is worth learning about, worth saving and worth caring about.” She went with the tofu game and a tub of ice-cream.

At first I was disappointed. What did I do wrong? Why wouldn’t she give those kids that experience? I realized that she had never had an experience like the one I was describing, had no idea how to lead it or how critical it is to the motivation, inspiration and imagination of the young minds of children. I realized that growing up in rural New York state and roaming freely across fallow farmlands is practically extinct in terms of a percentage of children in America, and that we teachers often make the mistake of thinking our childhood is the same as our students. We forget how different our landscape is, both culturally, socially and environmentally. My many days of fishing and wandering from sunup to dusk in my “backyard”, (the NY, MA and CT region) are rarely duplicated by kids today.

My inspiration for wilderness survival first began in early childhood, in the pages of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, in the accounts of the American mountain men and explorers to whom survival was real instead of a hobby or a choice. All of the stories I voraciously read as a child and teen have paid off for me as an educator. I saw this quickly in teaching at my camp. When I tried to teach using only the mechanical skills, the students were rarely motivated beyond the particular instructional class period. When I took the time to tell origin stories and my own personal experience, the number of students practicing skills in their free time tripled. I saw this demonstrated time and time again. While I only discovered Joseph Campbell about six years ago, I knew him well through the Star Wars films, where he heavily influenced George Lucas’ screenplays and storylines.

My reading of fairy tales, myths and legends, and the personal accounts of many adventurers continually come into play when I mentor students and staff. I know, for example, that when I facilitate a Talking Stick Ceremony, I am accessing the archetype of Tribal Leader, of the Council Chief, and as such am holding a space that is the essence of fairness, of safety and trust. I know that many people have never experienced this in their lives, yet can feel the truth of the ceremony, perhaps due to something in our genetic history that is inherent to our human experience. When I lead a Rite of Passage, I am invoking the role of Initiator, and when I tell stories in the evening around the campfire I may become Coyote, the Trickster. This is not done in a flashy way, nor is this ever mentioned to the students or campers, but it is there in the back of my mind as I speak and teach.

It was during my teaching times and many subsequent classes with Tom Brown that I began to realize what many of the deeper lessons of survival were, and how the study of these affected my students; how they had affected me. Survival taught me about hazards, about safety, about being prepared. It taught me to take in the most subtle details of a landscape while on the move; to identify resources that I might need someday; to learn about the trees and animals, birds and life forms that depend upon their micro-climates for their survival. I learned about weather, tracking, and mammals, about the concentric rings that rippled outwards with my every step, about what other animals’ rings felt like. I learned to multi-task, to do five or more things at the same time, to prioritize and accomplish objectives according to real needs. I learned how to teach myself, and how to utilize wolverine productivity by role-playing the energy and traits of animals.

The application of these skills in a modern setting are very powerful. Finding a job, working intensely to meet a deadline, hearing the truth in people’s words and deeds, being aware of oncoming storms, both weather and societal, making the most with simple raw materials and creativity, staying calm in the midst of chaos… the funny thing is, the art of wilderness survival is about living fully, about making the most out of our opportunities, our resources, our lives, and yet most people think it is about living in a cold cave, near starvation and trying to get a fire lit. Even my students think I am teaching them survival skills, and yet my goal is so much broader and more inclusive! I don’t usually tell them, as it is unnecessary to the process and just gets in the way.

As a person learns to become familiar with the skills of awareness, he or she often encounters what naturalist and tracker Jon Young calls the “Wall of Grief.” This is a place that is familiar to many, where students feel the weight of loss at being disconnected from nature for so long, where they identify with the suffering of the creatures of the earth and where they can dwell in a deep depression or rage for a long time. Getting through the wall is difficult, almost a shaman’s task that can allow for tremendous healing and inner awareness to be released.

I saw this in my work with children when we would take them so deep into a connection with nature that when they returned to society they had a difficult time dealing with modern life and culture. One parent called me a few nights after camp had ended, saying that her daughter had climbed a tree in her backyard and was refusing to come down and could I help with this problem? Another example is when the entire girls camp became so bonded that they would not leave with their parents in the morning at the end of camp, and I found them around a picnic table in the dark late that night, while their parents struggled with what to do next. Adults who are usually talkative and full of life are quiet during a weekend workshop, reflecting on things they haven’t thought of in years, knowing as they leave that they might quit their job or make whatever changes their hearts indicate.

These stories can illustrate the depth of the connection and also the need for integration philosophy that we have long since included in our current programs. They also indicate the amount of grief we carry about in our lives. Our lives often seem pale or two dimensional after a full-color, fully present experience in nature. Helping to pull someone through the wall of grief and supporting them in their own healing process is a key component of mentoring and in many ways the most challenging.

I have found that the strength of community helps heal this phenomenon. We need to learn good communication skills and allow the time to feel all the feelings we have rather than stuffing them inside. I also know that many young people who are given the right mentoring early on have little grief if they are able to make a good connection to the earth and self from the very beginning, and if they are allowed to be kids for the usual time rather than having to grow up at 13 or 14. Time seems to be a key component in this approach as well. When I work with older teens, they often see us as either very active or very laid back, and it sometimes appears as if we are doing nothing. What occurs in those down periods is so critical and validating for teens that it is sometimes more important in terms of mentoring than the actual skills we are teaching.

The goal of educators should be to spend 50% of our time and effort to motivate and inspire our students, and to let them know they are important, cared about and supported. I believe the rest will come out of the person’s own desire to learn and grow and discover. The goal of an environmentalist might be to inspire and educate teachers and future teachers about the personal earth that we know and love, so that we will protect and cherish what we have, not out of guilt but because of real love and understanding. Unless we make nature personal, we will continue to destroy through ignorance. Of course, the big question is how to motivate and inspire.

As powerful as the stories and archetypes are for motivating, I believe role-modeling is the highest form of mentoring. People learn through observation of even the tiniest details, and while much of this mentoring is unconscious, it is still highly powerful and influential. I have seen this often, where a student makes a connection to a teacher or mentor and both believe the focus is on the teaching. After a few years or even months (depending on the depth or intensity of the teaching), I can see the similarities in habits and language between the two. The student will adopt a similar sarcasm towards society, or be messy or neat, or have a similar warmth towards others that simply was not present prior to the experience. To this end, we undertake a deep look at our unconscious or semi-conscious habits as mentors, and begin the process of keeping what we like, changing what is undesirable and most importantly, understanding where these tendencies come from. This helps us as mentors to pass on the best of what we have to offer to our students, and avoid passing on our grief, loneliness or whatever particular suffering or coping system we use.

What is interesting to me is that my best teachers in life and school were all, without question, people who were fully present with me and truly in the moment. They had nowhere else to be except there, teaching me, and it inspired me to be fully present as well. Generally speaking, when I or my staff are fully present, the children, who are unused to having adults give them their full attention, also become present in a way that provides an incredible depth to the experience.

Working with teens and children in a fully three dimensional way is the key to developing a generation of people who have the connection, awareness, passion and understanding to really make a difference in the long run to bring about balance and healing. Training those teachers, mentors and child care workers about whole brain learning, about the process of mentoring and creating real relationships is one of the key concerns we are undertaking at The Earth Mentoring Institute, the non-profit organization created by the community at Hawk Circle to further this work. It is only a matter of time before the educational organizations validate what native people have known for centuries about educating youth, and I believe these skills and concepts hold much promise for the future of our communities.