Thoreau as Mythic Engineer

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                                                   “It is a great art to saunter”

                                                         (Journal; April 26th, 1841)

I will never know Henry David Thoreau. I need to settle for the “Thoreau” that Henry engineered throughout his life and writings; the Mythic Henry David Thoreau.

Part of his opening salvo to his readers in Walden, while responding to the queries he received concerning the course, and purpose, of his day to day stint at Walden Pond was that those who were somewhat acquainted with its actual history would be somewhat surprised by his written account of himself. And many still are to this day, not equating the historical Thoreau with the mythic, or manufactured, Thoreau. His response to Calvin H. Greene in 1856 testifying to the engineered nature of his writings, and the difference between the real and ideal Thoreau stating that “You may rely on it that you have the best of me in my books and that I am not worth seeing personally, the stuttering, blundering clod-hopper that I am.” He does ask our pardon for any confusion though, referencing “some obscurities, for there are more secrets in my trade than in most men’s, and yet not voluntarily kept, but inseparable from its very nature.” His trade was with the “Celestial Empire,” and he endeavored to keep “strict business habits” at Walden Pond, which was “a good place for business.” Mythology, says Jeff Cramer, was clearly what Thoreau was writing (aka engineering), and if read in any other way than intended the reader be predisposed to failure! If by engineering we read “the action of working artfully to bring something about” (English Oxford Dictionary) then Thoreau was working to leave us a road map for living without any resignation of life to quiet desperation. One of his main technologies employed for doing so was the daily walk or “saunter” to the “holy land” within himself, where he reminds and instructs us by saying we should, like the camel, ruminate while we walk! If we understand technology (from the Greek teckhnologia) to mean the “systematic treatment of an art, craft, or technique” then Thoreau’s chosen, and premier, technology was his daily ramble which he elevated to mythic dimensions in his most transcendental essay Walking.

Thoreau’s essay Walking was initially titled Walking and the Wild, and it offers one of the best insights into Thoreau’s inseparable relation between walking and thinking about “higher law” (Myth). For Thoreau the act of walking was the ‘Art of Walking,’ and an art that few in his time fully understood. Thoreau likewise equated walking with wildness and freedom; “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” and “Life consists with wildness,” emphasizing that which is wildest being likewise the most alive!

It will do us good service to place some of these ruminations by Thoreau into a broader context of his times, and specifically to the questions concerning modes of transport in regards to technology. We must remember that America was a continent discovered by foot. Early explorations certainly utilized rivers as vital arteries of travel; however, the foot reigned supreme for all true exploratory rambles into the adjoining wilds in early American settlement. Consider such intrepid figures as a Daniel Boone or Lewis and Clark as prime examples. It was not until much later in our collective story that we see the encroachment of the railway technologies, and our nation moving from being a pedestrian culture to a riding culture. Perhaps the very first intrusive inroad into the art of walking was from the horse, but by the 19th century the rails were running supreme, and technologies undoubtedly fill the rest of the story up to and including the present day of the automotive industry.

Just as the Spanish introduction of the horse drove the walking Native American from the open plains, modern forms of transport have driven the walker into the confines of domestic movement and subjugated open space into a homogenized landscape transcribed by commuters. The walker has become an inferior relation, and we have witnessed a cultural metamorphosis from walking, riding, driving, to a sitting society. So even the spaces we pass through today are now virtual hybrids of that once homogenized and pasteurized landscape that was once the wild. Walking alas has been reduced to a sport, and we exist predominantly as absentee spectators even there within that realm!

However, this is not a time to bemoan the loss of the wild, or walking, for it has always been there and it always will. High awareness and mobilization have been gathered on this front since the dawning of the environmental movement in the ’60s and I, like Thoreau, have faith in that ‘seed.’ However, in regards to thought, and thinking in general, I have a huge concern!

Emerson philosophized that “civilized man has built a coach, but he has lost the use of his feet,” and wondered what effect the emerging sedentary society would have upon our collective thought process. Thoreau put that thought into action by actively exploring and perambulating the world through the backyards of Concord and rediscovering the transcendent connection between walking and thinking. For Thoreau, the whistle of the train became synonymous with the sounds of commerce and speed and signaled our capacity to think being sacrificed at the altar of modern mass efficiency. Walking opened Thoreau to the ‘west,’ which was his hope for an American response to the decay associated with the urban industrial reduction of life and living to the machinery of profit in the pursuit of happiness. Walking to the west was the opening to the wild, which was likewise a transcendent journey into the far distant world of values than those reflected by the thinking of his day.

For Thoreau, the most alive and free was the wildest, and the surest means for preserving ourselves, and the world in which we live. Life at 3 miles per hour may seem like a simple panacea for our times, but I would suggest that a walk might well be the surest way into an emerging new technological paradigm for our times. The longest journey begins with the first step, and we have never been in such need of new direction. Moreover, it will provide the time and space for listening to our very own thoughts!

In the biblical sense of the word, to sin was ‘to miss the mark,’ and repentance meant to ‘have a change of mind.’ It is time for a walk – and a long one at that! The times require new thoughts, more wildness, and true freedom too not only hear but to walk to the beat of a different drummer!

Metaphor plays an integral part in education, communication, and day-to-day life. It plays a vital role in how we think. Also, it plays an essential part throughout all of Thoreau’s writing.

The metaphor is often used to help make a connection in our ability to conceptualize an idea; to help forge the relationship between our inner and outer world experiences – a technological bridge of sorts. Though prevalent in communication, we may often not use them in our language, yet they can shape how we perceive and act by following them. We often see the “journey” used as a metaphor for life (Dante’s, the Odyssey for example), yet the walking metaphor is so common that it is easy to stop noticing it and so pervasive that it is easy to forget, especially since we have moved from a pedestrian society to a highly mobile one. Yet stock phrases such as: One step at a time; walking in circles; walk the talk; uphill battle; moving forward; looking ahead; falling behind, walking the walk; navigating the peaks and valleys; stuck in a rut; finding balance, keeping the pace; it’s all downhill from here. These common words are all part of everyday speech and do contain walking as a metaphor. If a metaphor is a way of communicating meaning through analogy, comparison, symbol – or better yet, a “word-painting/picture” – Thoreau’s essay Walking sees and recognizes the act of walking as a real transformative experience. Also, because it is hard for us to capture that transformative nature of the walking experience, Thoreau resorts to the use of metaphor to help us. However, one must always recognize that when reading Thoreau he usually buries the “bone” deep and that his transcendental writings need to be taken in at a transcendental level if they are to serve the purpose of transforming us!

Thoreau is always going to take one on a journey, and he is going to make us “walk” that journey upon your own two feet (head & heart). Thoreau was not one to water down any truths, so he works to buoy up the reader in his writings instead, and Walking becomes testimony to why it is an engineered technology of the highest order. A genuinely appropriate technology engineered for our time, and a gentle reminder, or way mark upon the familiar path, that this seemingly simple human act of walking contains a wealth of possibility in these rather dangerously sedentary, virtual times. An opening into a new (old) paradigm that may change the very way we think and act.

Consider how Thoreau posits walking as an Art. His opening words on the subject being “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understand the Art of Walking, that is, of taking walks,” and that this “Art” is a reflection of genius. There’s the metaphor, Walking as Art, and requiring a true genius to comprehend the beauty of the practice. The transcendental element, or human inner state achievable, is made clear by Thoreau’s emphasis on the status of being a true walker as coming as a “direct dispensation from heaven,” and that “no wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence that are the capital in this profession.” One must be “born” – or recreated – into the family of Walkers. Second, if Thoreau’s essay on Walking is indeed a “waymark” or “signpost,” where or what is the sign pointing us toward? What is the metaphor serving as a bridge to?

Well, “West” is Thoreau’s clear, resounding metaphorical answer. Thoreau says he usually goes to the woods and fields in his walks, as there is a subtle magnetism within nature that will “guide” him, and us, right. Nature is not indifferent to the way we walk through, as there is a “right way,” and “we are very liable from heedlessness and stupidity to take the wrong one.” (Perhaps the “electronic disconnect” path we have followed cited by Richard Louv with his coining of the term NDD, Nature Deficit Disorder).

Thoreau usually heads “west” in his walks, which for him means the future, and any attachment to the past, or influences that might bias his ability to perceive the moment at hand. At the start of any walk he admonishes each of us to “go forth with a sense of undying adventure, never to return,” and that if we are thus truly “free” than we are ready for a walk. “In any weather, at any hour of the day or night,” Thoreau was anxious to “improve the nick of time,” and “to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment.” That was the line he wished to toe. So to do that was to indeed affect the order of the day – the highest of all arts!

To affect the order of our day, or to affect the order of someone’s day, is what the metaphor points us toward; serves as a bridge to. Walking, in my most humble opinion, both as a human activity and conceptual metaphor deserve our most significant attention and our most active imaginations. Thoreau’s essay upon the Art of Walking is perhaps even more pertinent to our times than it was to his. Thoreau likewise equates the “west,” that inner/outer state of awareness, and being present to the moment, as the “wild” – “the West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild.” It was his walks in nature where “the tonics and barks which brace mankind” came from. Thus, what then follows ultimately are Thoreau’s timeless, and most quoted, words of “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

So that also means the preservation of us too. Walking, and re-learning the Art of Walking as appropriate technology or craft, may very well be the tonic that braces us in these somewhat troublesome times. Thoreau’s use of walking as a conceptual metaphor lends greater insight, for me, into why Hazlitt, In On Going A Journey states that walking alone enables the capacity to experience the soul of the walking journey as “liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do, just as one pleases.” A bridge over to where the experience was of “that undisturbed silence of the heart which alone is perfect eloquence.”

To take a walk is to elevate the human condition. Whether Thoreau’s sense of the Wild within every one of us, or the heightened state Wordsworth often referred to as a “Spot of Time“; to obtain moments of undisturbed silence of the heart is a worthy goal of all our rambling adventures, and well worth our time and attention as the preeminent human activity. The times call for it more so than any other time, thus making Thoreau, as a mythic engineer, more pertinent than ever.

 

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The Lost World of Adolescence

“What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free meandering brook.”

                                                     H.D. Thoreau (October 31, 1850, journal)

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Let’s begin with taking a look at the world of todays adolescent and see if we can put this unique and somewhat explosive period into a healthy perspective.

Everyone, of course, will have their personal take upon the task. Any adolescent reading these words will view it from the immediateness of the present moment, while adults involved with or charged for the care of our youth, will have a perspective from over their shoulder, which must lawfully be colored by personal experience. As educators, we have always felt privileged for we have not just our memories, but we likewise have the opportunity to see it through young eyes today – a real gift! A gift because, at that moment, if we are awake and present to the gift, they allow us inside their world.

Suffice it to be mentioned here at the outset that my perspective upon the current state of the world in respect to the adolescent is that it is best summarized and characterized as being a lost world. Lost to them, and lost to us; lost because it is forgotten. And, more sadly within the range of possibility, non-existent.

Why so?

Nothing is simple of course, especially once one starts to look at it with a pondering eye. First, I will venture that adolescents haven’t been forgotten as much as they have been “targeted” and viewed as a market. Our adult task is what’s being forgotten! Currently, plenty of attention and intention is at work in the world regarding video games, smartphones, apps, and text messaging that do indeed make them forget, while Colleges, universities, GAP programs, and sports leagues round it out further. A true smorgish-board of possible interaction for our youth to fill their days.

In no small measure though our youth are falling into the ranks of what we call the spectator society. They sit. Locked into screens watching life go by. Passive and content; inhabiting a series of interiors where real connections are seldom seen.

On average we are told that our youth are spending 9 hours a day looking at a screen, and it is predicted to move to 10 -11 hrs/day. Considering that they also like, and need, to sleep a lot, that fills a rather a large part of anyone’s day. Which doesn’t leave much time for anything bordering on the experience of reality – or experiences that includes an element of relationship to life and the living. Life, for the adolescent, is, unfortunately, becoming all too virtual.

And the interiors I speak of here is the petition of a daily routine moving from house to car, to school, to car and gymnasiums, music lessons, and meeting places which we seldom walk to anymore. When rewinding back to our homes at days end, we discover we have little connection to space between any of these places or areas where we have spent our day, thus lacking critical connections within our brain which are tasked with making some kind of coherent sense out of a days stream of activities. Too much of life is conducted in the fast lane of 65mph, and we would advocate for a serious shift to a mode of engagement that gets us back to life at 3mph (aka walking). How else does one relish, enjoy, and value any experience if not savored?

Next, the maps of life guidance we pass on and often force feed to them (aka “school”) don’t offer real help or assistance. Instructions, orders, dictates, rules & regulations, fears, and apprehensions – yes, but not help in really navigating the times they live through though. They enter adolescence hard-wired into the relationship and discover the modern brave new world of existence which is often devoid of meaning, value, and loving relationships. A world of things; material possessions, jobs, goals & objectives, and bricks & mortar physical spaces where we work through our day, yet with less and less, or diminishing human interaction for perspective. We inhabit a very narrow world shaped by bandwidths that are fearfully nuclear concerning the real-time relationship with the world of great nature. Within certain realms of thought this is referred to as a biophobic condition and in stark contrast to a more natural human state seen as biphobia.

What we offer societally, in regards to philosophical maps, reminds me of what E.F. Schumacher spoke to over 50 years ago in his book A Guide For The Perplexed when on a visit to Leningrad, Russia when attempting to follow maps while exploring the city. While trying to orient his position on the ground to the map, he could see several enormous churches, but there was no reference to them on his map. When asking the trips interpreter to explain the discrepancy, he was told that the state didn’t show churches on their maps, only what they referred to like museums, and not live or living churches. It occurred to Schumacher then and there that this was not the first time he been given a map which failed to show many things that he could see and experience with his own eyes. It took years of perplexity to eventually get to the point where he stopped suspecting the sanity of his perceptions and began, instead, doubting the soundness of the maps. Any maps of real knowledge, designed for real life, showed nothing except things which allegedly could be proved to exist; “if in doubt, leave it out,” or put it in a museum was what he was left with in regards to philosophical map makers. Schumacher’s rather sober musings led him to recognize that “the more thoroughly acquainted we became with the details of the map, the more we absorbed what it showed and got used to the absence of the things it did not show, the more perplexed, unhappy, and cynical we became.”

For us, this becomes a more pressing realization and the question today as our virtual world view appears to keep us locked collectively in a stupor of complacency and absolute belief in the integrity of our maps. That we are more perplexed, unhappy, and cynical needs only reflection upon the daily news to make one ponder how significant the dangers are today – 50 years later.

Why are we not paying attention to this?

It’s something we hear, and are told, often. Right from the start, and right out of the gaits, we’re told to pay attention. From day one at school, until we walk out the doors of our academic institutions, we are held by this question, command, or directive. Pay attention!

It could be the secret key that opens many “doors” in life; if that is, we are looking for such openings.

It’s just isn’t with school though where we confront these wise and straightforward words, it’s within all phases, activities, and engagements throughout life. I almost think these words determine our world at times. Or at least to the point where just about everyone is vying for that attention. I mean, think of advertising as one small example; you might not be hearing those exact words, but it is the main point to all advertising. Yes?

Maybe we don’t think about it really? Or perhaps we only think about it when folks talk about its absence, like with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder (ADHD), but many don’t understand what these things mean anyway. The words themselves are something of a mystery to us, and our connection or relationship to them is mere word recognition. Or worse, as when that relationship becomes a matter of pharmaceutical remediation, which is at best just a more enticing form of seduction, and far from being a “cure” for the lack of, or diminishment of, human attentiveness.

If we were to go into a “tracking” mode of mind, we’d maybe first find that the most common definition of the word attention (at least in the field of psychology) is “the enhancement of selected sensory information.” But, as Laura Sewall (in her book Sight and Sensibility) reminds us so nicely, paying attention is not something we usually do, but something that happens to us when we will it. It is inherent human power, usually seduced, and very much in need of cultivation. William James (American psychologist and philosopher; January 1842 – August 1910) described attention as the mind “taking possession,” yet I believe, unfortunately, that we’re living in a day when it’s our minds that are being possessed, and not necessarily by our will, or volition.

And it’s here where I would happily remind and point out that a walk is something that we humans do, and doesn’t just happen to us (usually), and that the mind honestly must take possession of its workings, or else we wind up being terribly lost. The intent to walk somewhere brings about a certain level of mindful attention even at the most rudimentary level, and if one is following a way-marked path, then the keen awareness of “sign” that so readily aids and abets successful walking is a result of selected attention and the power of will in choosing to “pay” attention. How many of you have experienced the exhaustion of navigating along a sparsely marked or unmarked way, even when the demand upon physical exertion was rather slight? It becomes such a vibrant reminder of what a high level of energies are genuinely involved and being drawn out of us when we will such attentiveness. And what a diminishment of life it is in contrast when so many of us find contentment in the plethora of navigational aid devices that guide us to where we wish to go these days. A real, and full, relinquishment of human potential I fear.

A walk can become an adventure that stirs our imaginations and ignites the fires of creativity to enliven us, often resulting in many an evening around the hearth fire with stories rife with spellbinding power. All mind you, a direct result of an alignment of ours looking with thinking – a connection of matter with mind, where inner and outer landscapes are harmonized and attuned to the experience of the moment; a real human participatory involvement, or relationship, with the world powered by the seemingly simple act of paying attention. Even with the simplest of walking engagements, we find that the practice of taking walks, as a daily humanizing opportunity, unfetters the mind from the rather mindless habits introduced (unleashed) upon us from the musical distractions emanating out of our modern world. Why then are we not doing more of this then?

Richard Louv coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) in his groundbreaking book Last Child in the Woods, and it may yet be born out that a daily dose of nature is a far better remedy to realigning our capacity to pay attention. A walk then may become an attuning and harmonizing of our inner and outer worlds of experience, thus bringing us back to the foundation stone realization of what it means to be in a relationship. Going for a walk is a choice of action that propels us into engagement with the world as opposed to one where we are mere spectators of it. Noted Tracker and Author Paul Rezendes said “attention is care,” where consciously placing one foot before the other may well be our full first step toward bringing us back into a relationship with the natural world, and with ourselves. The power of attention, derived from the Latin word meaning to stretch, could reclaim its birthright as the enabler of pure vision, where we may yet remember the simplicity of those prophetic words heard since childhood – pay attention. What a great stretch and stride forward that would be!

And, what then is the gift we are given to begin such an enriching journey?

Walking.

Pay attention to that call of taking daily walks; it’s life’s invitation to a healthier engagement and participation in the human journey. It is, from the day we evolved into a bipedal gait, what we were indeed born to do.

So let us cultivate our power of attention to grow a greater vision, and a greater sense for what it truly means to be participating in, and engaged with, the human journey by taking a walk. It is a straightforward choice, and we need to pay attention to it. Just do it, and make that first step which is always the beginning of every adventurous journey.

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Pottering About

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Adolescence should be considered a time for adventures.  Whether that is true, or not, it is clearly a time packed with its own fair share of explosive energy. It doesn’t appear to be viewed culturally as much more than a tumultuous period between the adorableness of childhood and the respectfulness of adulthood. This period of life is time often observed as needing to be navigated as quickly and safely as possible, usually within the confines of academia, where questions of personal identity are explored within known routines of study, and where youth are posited solidly on a safe road toward college and future career paths.

Our take after working closely with adolescents for 30 years now, is that youth need much more than just another four years of the educational trance, where life goes by mostly unexamined and unexplored. College in many ways becomes the institutional replacement for family, and, although rewarding and highly valuable within its own right, the independence, freedom, and encounters to be had there don’t offer the kind of unstructured opportunities where youth encounter the more full world and hear their own voice within it. Youth today need a spot of time where they can celebrate walking the edge and awaken a step further along the path to where they discover the personal genius that lies within each and every one of them. In the past, there was an instead culturally sanctioned and mythologically imbued time, that called us to redirect this restless energy that has so characterized youth throughout the ages and funnels those energies toward seeing with new eyes what the birth-rite quest of the adolescent journey should indeed be about.

Think about it for a moment. What questions did you have about life when you were 18? Can you remember any urge to get up and walk away from the routine? A time when you went for a real walk – a true Quest – out into the beckoning world, and actually took time and not your phone. Did you encounter this time, a time when your eyes and mind were open, as a magical time; a time graced by the realm of Faire, where wonder and magic met you along the road to life’s high adventure?

What is it that inspires you?

What do you want to do with this one glorious life?

These were the two questions that we posed to our group of high school seniors and juniors before setting out to walk and explore the Lake District of England as part of an annual immersive off-campus elective at our high school. Our goal for this elective was to liberate our students (and ourselves) from the classroom, daily schedules, and non-stop activity of the school year, offering them a chance to slow down, hear their own voice and, in doing so, possibly find direction for their own lives. The location we chose to explore was England’s famed Lake District and the connection to the children’s book author, Beatrix Potter.

Inspired at an early age with the spirit of the natural world, time in nature, observing, drawing, and imagining the realm of Fairie, the young Beatrix forged a lasting connection to life and a deeper understanding and appreciation of it. Having found herself then quite by chance, or luck, placed within a childhood upbringing where solitude, nature, walking, and being socially barred from educational institutions by virtue of being female, served the unlocking of her unique creative genius; creating a world of imagination that gave life to some of the world’s most unforgettable characters. Part of her gift was in being able to pursue her interests as well as the time to develop them. She was destined to become a woman very much ahead of her times, personifying what has come to be considered in our times, the environmentally conscious and responsible citizen. She later used her “Peter Rabbit” fortune to safeguard and preserve the land that became almost an extension of her, setting aside over 26 working farms, and donating upon her death over 4,500 acres of land to the National Trust – what would become the emerging nucleus of the Lakes District National Park.

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The theme for our study thus became “Pottering About: From Inspiration to Action” and what we found in the Lake District, both in the life of Beatrix Potter and in our adventures through the countryside, was the new inspiration for ourselves as teachers and for the youth in our care. And a little magic as well! As most of our group was six weeks away from high school graduation, these questions were particularly timely and relevant to what was on their minds.

Pottering About evolved into a specific style of travel for us, characterized by getting to know at an intimate level the places people call home, or those places that we travel to make those appreciations of home felt more deeply. It is very much in line with and akin to the “Slow” movement, slow food, slow schools, slow travel, and just plain slow living. The guiding principles, or hallmarks, to proper Pottering, may thus be stated as 1) immersions into nature, 2) time richness, 3) being “unschooled,” and 4) life at 3 mph. All of it based upon a more relaxed rhythm where one is allowed the luxury of time – time without borders – to delve deeply into the phenomena of nature with eyes of wonder. It is a way of journeying, of going on adventures, being time rich and breaking away from all that has placed boundaries of thought around and within us. Constraints of time, deadlines, quotas, and “results” are held at bay, and a more relaxed space envelops the journey’s participant where an actively engaged mind meets the delightful wonders of any given day, time, or place. Beatrix Potter – the woman who delighted the world with her magical, and near mythical, stories of nature’s enchantment – defined and deepened this term for us when she relocated from suburban London to the Lake District and found herself gifted with this opportunity to discover in this way, not only a “sense of place”, but a “sense of self”.

We see this as the very heart or essence of journeying. Being on an adventure, wherever one travels to, for it fosters an attentive mind within the moment, where one is in that moment as opposed to being of it, or caught in the swirling constraints often imposed by our social times where life is lived in the fast lane. We travel much more humanely when moving at 3 mph as Rebecca Solnit tells us in her seminal book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. In this, she addresses the reality of our culture living in a series of interiors. The picture, or structure, of the day that she vividly paints is that of going from our homes, to our cars, to our offices or schools, to our cars again, and to a myriad of other places where we pass our days engaged in an activity. We transport ourselves to these activities, or events, via multiple means of conveyances to maximize time, and efficiently orchestrate our journeys through space to where we participate in those events and activities that give our days meaning. Yet, it is to the point where we find ourselves mostly inside or within structured areas (or interiors) and seldom connected to these places where the events occur; or what we often refer to as “home” territory, because we never really pass through those spaces such as one would if walking. It reminds us of those dot diagrams you’d do as a kid where once you connect all the dots on a page, a picture then emerges to the delight of our senses. We have all these “dots” or events within the days of our lives, but the picture, or story, connecting them into any meaningful whole never materializes. It is difficult to generate a sense of a place when the context within which that sense must sit in null and void. Kind of like a quantum world experience where we just appear and disappear into events never having to transcribe a line of time through space.

Pottering About is a way of walking and journeying, which changes the way you think, literally. Neuroscientists now know from research that idleness frees the brain and provides for more creativity and inspiration. In an article in Scientific American, Ferris Jabr reports on the study of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California and her co-authors on the Default Mode Network (DMN). Jabr says that the researchers “argue that when we are resting the brain is anything but idle and that, far from being purposeless or unproductive, downtime is, in fact, essential to mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of human behavior and instill an internal code of ethics – processes that depend on the DMN.” As teachers, we didn’t set out to necessarily put this type of research to the test with our students. Rather in our overall years of teaching and leading youth on walking adventures, we recognized what visionaries like Henry David Thoreau already knew, that when our students were allowed time to slow down and “wander aimlessly”, this often led to new insights for themselves and a feeling that they were in charge of their own lives. For juniors and seniors about to step out of the safety net of family and high school, this seems particularly necessary to finding one’s private road in life.

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Allowing for a more relaxed rhythm to experience the landscape, and not having an end product in mind, is not the typical experience for most high school students. Walking, travel and time in Nature lend themselves well, but Pottering About doesn’t necessarily mean the journeyer needs to go far. We walked a short loop around the village of Grasmere and Rydal Water where William Wordsworth, the Lake District poet, walked daily, yet that simple route lent itself most adequately to producing some of the worlds greatest poetry. He didn’t refer to his daily wanderings as Pottering About, yet he did reveal that his “aimless as a cloud” walks through the Lakes District created the experience or inspirational creative opening within which he called a “spot of time” moment, where the ways being described were crucial to unlocking his creative genius. As we walked through areas of the Lake District that were favorites of Beatrix Potter we couldn’t help but appreciate all the more what she accomplished during her life in nature. Beatrix not only created some of the most popular children’s books of all time (with timeless characters), she also became a keen scientific observer whose artwork included not only Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny but more than 400 fungi water colored paintings that to this day are considered some of the best mycological illustrations to be done ever. Although Beatrix, along with, and above and beyond such an impressive body of scientific illustration, put forth to the British Botanical Society a scientific theory concerning the symbiotic nature of Lichens (50 years ahead of the theories time), she was rejected due to the singular fact of being female, and never having been formally schooled. Thankfully, she did in 1997, receive posthumously an official apology from the Linnaean Society for her treatment yet she remarked upon her lack of formal schooling with gratitude for, as she was often want to say, ”I was never sent to school, thank goodness, as it would have rubbed off some of the originality”.

As we wandered the country footpaths where Beatrix and her husband William Heelis once rambled and explored the natural beauty spots preserved by her efforts to save a countryside and its traditional ways of life, our students recognized a life well lived and were inspired by it to the point where they began to imagine their own futures. The guiding questions of “what inspires me, and what do I want to do with the life I have been given” began to take on a living process within them. We watched as our students relaxed into the questions and began to be touched by the landscape and each other. For many it was a very moving experience, feeling touched deeply in ways they couldn’t yet explain. “I don’t know how,” one young woman told us, “but I know I am a different person.” Upon our return to school, another student found herself crying and she told us she wasn’t sad, only changed and somehow reborn and renewed. For adolescents taking charge of their own futures, this time to wander in nature and to imagine their life seems vital to themselves and the world. Albert Einstein is often quoted saying, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them,” and our thought, as educators, is that we are in dire need of new thinking, and new solutions enabling us to recognize the necessity of being true citizens of the Earth. Slowing down and becoming part of nature offers up one way to open us to these new possibilities. During that time while she was following her early passion for artistic and scientific work, Beatrix Potter also kept a diary written in secret code, which insured her of a place within herself that remained safe, private, and untainted by the exterior world, family traditions, or cultural taboos. When discovered upon her death, it took a leading code breaker 7 years to decipher. Time, imagination, and originality helped her to connect to nature as well as herself. Youth, through all the ages, have needed, and continue to need, the same gifts to help decipher their own journey and to ultimately tell their personal stories.

Pottering About has become for us, as educators, about a particular approach to education as well. And one that could be of excellent service to those within its care who are looking for a far different rhythm than what the current industrial model of education has to offer with its fast-tracked pace along corridors devoid of any contact with nature. The modern factory, or industrial, model is patterned after bells and whistles going off at set times with discrete tasks of subject matter and learning ascribed to those time periods. An endless series of content based, test-driven fast food for the soul that, as an educational approach, is all too quickly becoming, and creating, a malnourished generation of youth in respect to their body, soul, and spirit. The creative spirit and the awakening of that spirit within youth are seldom sensed and is rarely realized, to the great disservice of youth as well as to the futures that beckon and call them forward.

In the past, and to some extent today, the inspiration for life emanated from and out of our cultural mythology. Myths are the language of the spirit, being clues to our most profound human possibilities. As such they are likewise intimations of what awaits the sojourner who hears the call to life’s adventure. The Hero or Heroine’s journey requires us that we harken to that call. For Beatrix Potter, that call was from the land she came to love and through which she created not only a unique sense of place but also a unique sense of herself. Our youth today deserve no less, and a fair share of that magical time we call Pottering About can bring them a sense of themselves, and of their times, which is all too quickly becoming “senseless” within these virtual times.

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The Restorative Power of Trees, by Natalie Slivinski

More than half of the world’s population lives in an urban setting. People in cities run a 20 and 40 percent higher risk of both anxiety and mood disorders than people in rural areas. And we’re spending more and more time away from nature. Researchers estimate that if every city dweller spent just 30 minutes per week in nature, depression cases could be reduced by 7 percent. Globally, that’s a whopping 21 million people. The answer lies in incorporating green space into urban planning, weaving nature into the fabric of everyday city life.
— Read on www.dailygood.org/

Journey Through Britain

walkingtheoldways.wordpress.com/2018/09/14/journey-through-britain-2/

A classic read, and a classic experience that all youth should ponder doing at some point in their education! Imagine going on an adventure like this when turning 14 or 15 years of age? It would put the quest back into the questions that should be part of education, yet fall so short of providing within the hallowed halls of school. 🐾

An Appalachian Experience

Native Roots

IMG_2952 Failure is not an option!

“It’s a dangerous business,” said Bilbo about going out one’s door! “You step into the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

And so it was with six intrepid young men who set their feet upon the historic Appalachian Trail this summer, walking 75 New Hampshire miles from Dartmouth College, Hanover to Franconia Notch. While only a rough 3.4% of the entire trail which traverses 14 states, their route did encompass 46% of the New Hampshire portion and carried them over some pretty formidable peaks. But I would fall short of ever calling it a dangerous business in any modern understanding, and move my thinking a bit closer to what Tolkien himself resonated to, which was the hero’s mythic adventure, as perceived throughout time, in being a true rite-of-passage experience for youth. Hazardous…

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The Practice of Walking, by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee & Hilary Hart

When was the last time you connected with nature, paused to take note of your surroundings, or admired a simple sunrise? The hurried way by which we often live our lives can distract us from the beauty of the natural world that surrounds us. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee and Hilary Hart suggest that the simple practice of walking can help reconnect us to the web of life, and the soul-awakening moments it offers. “Nature is cyclic and rhythmic, and walking – when we are not focused on where we are going – attunes us to this non-linear reality.” Read on to learn more about a daily walking practice the authors suggest, and its calming effects on the body and mind
— Read on www.dailygood.org/

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