New village Journal, Issue 3: Education for Community Building
Awakening Our Senses to Learn: Interview with Wilderness Educator
Christina Bertea, Interviewer
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
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
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
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.