Meeting Remarkable Trees

Meeting Remarkable Trees

What our arboreal friends can teach us

“In Quiet Awe” by Victoria Elbroch

Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

John Muir

Iwould often engage my secondary school students in the childhood art of climbing trees to do a “tree sit” for an afternoon. Inspired in part by John Muir’s penchant for climbing, sitting, and “riding” trees (he knew keenly that such “play” was the seedling of real work), it became one of the most effective lesson plans within my arsenal of activities designed to create experiences for youth. In keeping with the Socratic injunction that my role was to create the “soil” within which the seeds of thinking could take root, and not to teach, I soon marveled at the results of this academic activity. The effects upon the youth in my care as well as those of doing such tree time myself were instructive. It is most likely a difficult stretch of the imagination for many to see the “academic” benefit of such a seemingly frivolous act once beyond childhood, but prior to any judgment one needs to hold the image of fifteen to twenty teenagers ascending into the treescape on any given Friday afternoon following a week-long battery of schooling. After the normal boisterous and exhilarating commotion stirred by their exciting ascent into the canopy, to sense and to witness the silence and calm pervading the deep woods for the following ninety minutes speaks loudly.

“The Heart of the Matter” by Victoria Elbroch

What you would have then witnessed on such an afternoon would be a group of youth in Tree Time. A slowing down to a point where one not only can sense and hear their own heartbeat but may even (hopefully) find themselves pondering the resonance between their own and the tree’s heartbeat. It is a time where one also finds oneself doing one’s own thinking. The insight gained from experiences of this nature would be critical, for example, in understanding Julia Butterfly Hill’s two-year act of civil disobedience sitting in the tree called Luna1 to save the 1500-year-old California redwood from the ravenous actions of the lumber industry. Tree Time can bring one to a point where vital questions get asked of us. The taste of this inner state was likewise very helpful when trying to wrap my own understanding around the publishing world’s bidding war over first-time author Jack Cooke’s The Tree Climbers Guide: Adventures in The Urban Jungle in 2016. A rather rare event within book publishing but not so perhaps if the world is unconsciously starved for such adventurous experiences.

Tree Time is something the world could use more of in these times.

Tree Time allows for a heightened perspective. In such “light,” trees are rightly called Elders, and revered teachers. Those steeped in the herbalist tradition have always held such reverence for the tree people. Given a tradition where the language of gesture is understood respectfully, a tree’s ascent into the heights, defying gravity, can be seen as an archetypal impulse to lift the very earth itself up into the celestial vaults of sidereal space and time. Such mindful considering (from the Latin considerare, “to look at closely, observe,” probably literally “to observe the stars”) can be attributed to the “towering cathedrals” witnessed and celebrated by Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir while likewise providing a snippet of understanding into how Jane Goodall’s childhood professed best friend could be a tree. There is something quite important for us to learn here, and worth paying utmost attention to.

“In Memoriam” by Victoria Elbroch

Trees communicate something vital. Something, should we have ears to hear and eyes to see, that these times call out for, and display many nuanced expressions toward. Science, via the insightful work of Suzanne Simard2, has brought us the Wood Wide Web and the Mother Tree concepts in forestry that parallel not only the new scientific insights emanating out of the mycorrhizal realm of life, but the deep wisdoms long buried (and too often ignored) within the traditions of women and Indigenous people worldwide. I am reminded of Thomas Berry’s view into the future where the building blocks of the world’s “Four Wisdoms,” much like the four archetypal elements3 themselves, are the requisite needs (wisdom) for navigating the future’s perilous path. I pair his wisdom of science to the wisdom of women, and the wisdom of Indigenous people to the wisdom of mythic tradition and have sensed deeply the gift of Tree Time when holding these pathways in relational perspective. Experience that elevates my own thinking and feeling toward a more heart-felt interdependent relationship with nature as well as a more inclusive, reciprocal exchange governing all outward action.

Stately trees do remind us of the resiliency of nature; being sessile creatures, they have learned to transcend time, to grow, and heal. They learned long ago that the key to life resides in cultivating good relations, standing deep within a kind of knowing that surpasses human knowledge. We often equate their attributes and virtues to ourselves through statements like “sturdy as an oak” and “as flexible as a willow” yet the balance between inner feeling and outward expression goes unrecognized. Richard Higgins4 reminds us that for Thoreau “trees were wordless poems…and the message he heard from them was one of life itself,” for trees were also guides and companions to Thoreau’s soul. Thoreau saw trees as upright and virtuous and the nobility of the vegetable kingdom because they point beyond themselves. They were his “mythic tablets,” reminding us, like Julia Butterfly, that humans “cannot converse with the spirit of the tree he fells,” and that we “cannot read the poetry and mythology which retire as he advances.”

Trees also exemplify renewal and persistence, and even take on moral agency. The character called Treebeard in J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings is one such example of taking on personhood and no longer being relegated to a mere peripheral position. But recent real-time examples mirror the same, such as the Whanganui River being recognized as a legal person by the New Zealand government (long understood by Indigenous Maori people), or Mark Zuckerberg’s attempted purchase of Hawaiian Indigenous lands. The land and all its physical and metaphysical elements are viewed as an indivisible, living whole, and thus possess all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person and are granted the same moral agency. For native Hawaiians, the land is an ancestor, grandparent, and elder. To them, they remind us of what we have forgotten—that you just don’t sell your ancestors, for that is what separates us from the land.

What has always bridged that separational gap within our human mindset, feeding and nourishing both heart and soul, has been the arts. Mythic stories and imagery, or what Tolkien calls our “secondary world,” help in re-introducing us to our primary world in a process he calls “recovery.”5 Such a recovery of a sustainable myth was paramount to Joseph Campbell and was seen as the task of the artists of one’s times to “wake” us from the “sleep” of familiarity. In keeping with such faith, my adherence to and practice of Tree Time enabled me to recognize the real essence art of my long-time tracker friend Mark Elbroch’s mother. In keeping to the truth that the “fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Victoria Elbroch6, along with technical support from her husband, Lawrence, has gifted these times with a study of trees that is both mythic in nature, and a living vibrant example of the process of recovery Tolkien so eloquently speaks to. As our trees and forests are likewise “on the move,” as in Treebeard and the Ents of Tolkien classic myth, such iconic imagery (so beautifully gracing this article) serves well in recovering that vital link mirrored inwardly when one learns to stop, slow down, and do a bit of Tree Time.

“Old Man of Calke” by Victoria Elbroch

One need not necessarily sit high in a tree to allow the wisdom of a tree to train our sight to something higher than mere “board feet,” a truth served well by such representatives. History has borne out the recognition that few stand tall, like the pines, rooted as we sit in the sterilized soil of our own making. Higgins reminds us that trees were Thoreau’s “shrines” and “burning bushes,” or a “sanctum sanctorum,” for forests were accorded a sacred place in the great mythologies. “What does it matter” Thoreau wrote, “if the outer [eye] is open, if the inner door is shut?” Beauty must be in our minds when we go forth for “we cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into our heads.”

Thoreau truly had faith in a seed. The loss of biodiversity, as in the current departure of trees via longhorned beetles, ash borers, and adelgid aphid-like insects, or the numerous pathogens increasingly on the rise that inadvertently endorse systemic imbalance, requires the seed of a new idea. Imagery has long directed our attention within various fields of thought. The evolutionary tree of science, the Tree of Life from Christian or Norse mythology, or the images we carry from childhood stories found in numerous fables and folk tales—all these images carry the seed of a higher, elevated thought. Much of our ancestral knowledge is synonymous with the knowledge of trees, and they have been good companions to us along the journey.

We are not only in dire need of a deeper experience of trees today, but we are also in need of the endurable gift of hope they provide. Jane Goodall tells us that hope is that virtue by which we take responsibility for the future. Hope, like the trees themselves, asks something of us. Let me leave with what artist Mary Oliver so eloquently invites us to do: “Pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it.” ◆

All art by Victoria Elbroch.

1 The Legacy of Luna: The Story of a Tree, a Woman and the Struggle to Save the Redwoods by Julia Butterfly Hill.

2 Finding The Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard.

3 Earth, Water, Air, and Fire.

4 Thoreau and The Language of Trees by Richard Higgins.

Tolkien: On Fairy Stories edited by Verlyn Flieger.

6 Ancient Trees by Victoria Elbroch.

On The Trail of Potter & Carson

Cart path in Near Sawrey, Cumbria England leading to Hill Top Farm, the home of Beatrix Potter.

I am happiest when out wandering about in the world of nature. It is a time where I am most easily filled with a sense of wonder, bridging my immediate physical moment to all that is magical. A point within my inner landscape, or being, that bears resonant images of wild nature’s brilliance. Where the radiance embodied in her raiment draws me closer to that deep point within where I behold myself silent, still, and open.  It is this emotional sense of wonder that’s first noticed when some animal track or sign (aka spoor) first appears within my observable landscape when out wandering, tracking all the daily happenings worthy of the NEWS. Much like in Edwin Abbot’s 1884 classic novella Flatland, this sense of wonder enters my field of awareness like a gift from another dimension: fleeting in duration yet pure and inviting. An echo of the author, scientist Rachel Carson’s deep-seated wish, when asked at the dawn of the environmental movement what gift she would bestow upon children if she had influence with the good fairy:

“I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

A gift indicating the truth that it is not half so important to know as to feel, and why, as an educator, I see wonder as the essence of human interaction with the natural world. The elemental crux of human experience and entry point around which real magic weaves a plethora of possibilities within my present moment.  This feeling of wonder is something instantly recognizable, and immediately familiar I believe for it is the same emotion that moved our ancestors to build stone circles, monuments, and soaring cathedrals. Times and places where great and elemental things prevailed – places of meaning that reflect the mythic journey’s intricate weaving together of nature and culture. A true metabolic moment as lawful as the exchange between living cells and their surroundings where the vital breathing in and out, and the flux of water and nutrients, constitute a commingling of the outer world and inner flesh.

Rachel Carson’s favorite picture of herself in the woods by her Southport home, Maine.

Sadly, this loss of our cultural abandonment of any deeper sense of our physical and emotional connectedness to the natural world is characterized by the imperiling loneliness and increased isolation that defines our times. Knowledge of natural law has unfortunately become second hand; hypnotically conjured and peddled by the purveyors of media madness, while our emotional world has been commandeered by the soothsayers of fear. Reminiscent of the ancient wisdom that traced the journey of an impression in our mind’s eye from its impact to ‘interest’, ‘desire’, and ‘mania’ – those proverbial “7 deadly sins” or concomitant dispositions toward pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, sloth.  I ponder daily Carson’s injunction concerning the fairy’s gift alternatively taking us from impact to ‘wonder’, to ‘joy’, ‘beauty’, ‘gratitude’, and ‘reciprocity.’ A clear juxtaposition of process contrasting our western market economy with an indigenous view of nature’s gift economy, where a sense of wonder is the keystone state upon which a very different mindset can be birthed.

This was Henry David Thoreau’s innermost conviction, that wonder was the seed of higher emotional inspiration and archetypically connected to qualities connoted with the Divine Feminine principle in myth lore.

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has
been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed
there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

Largely evocative via feminine centered words like intuitive, heart-centered, compassionate, wise, accepting, forgiving, collaborative, and reflective; any harkening back to this keystone state within us may well represent a rebirth transcending the alienated world inhabited by human inadvertence coupled to a cold indifference toward levels, or nuances, of emotional meaning.

Always understood as the true nature of the educator’s task, it was with this wish toward cultivating wonder, through which I perceive my role as a sower of such seed. To help inspire, in the truest and deepest sense of that word, is very different from what schooling often requires. But seeing and understanding this in myself is always the first step before attempting to navigate help for others. So, catching glimpses of this ‘sense’ while witnessing all that is in play in these moments is fundamental for this will-of-the-wisp awareness invoking the mystery of something ‘other’ within my present moment. Something, as a Tracker, I have come to follow within the track of my own thinking that mirrors the outward ‘Box Stop’ track pattern an animal leaves when pausing to take stock of its immediate environment.

It is a state worth pondering if wishing to bring more formative thought and understanding within one’s purview, and clearly a survival strategy for me as much as it is for the animal. Learning to come “full stop” within my mental landscape helps me see the distinct difference between these two mindsets. Two very different tracks holding two very different possible outcomes or destinations. Where joy and beauty as opposed to desire, and gratitude and reciprocity opposed to mania and madness all too easily come into play. Truly a matter of human choice and gravitas for these thoughtless times!

Thus, when crafting educational offerings, whether taking students off for a week to Coastal Maine for a Zoology & Evolution block of study or further afield utilizing foreign travel, time and timing are key components for cultivating fertile soil. When standing knee-deep in the lilliputian world of a rocky tide pool, where fluctuating elemental forces define the nature of such a transitional zone between two different worlds, it is very easy to forget the hustle and bustle of our day-to-day affairs and to be magically transported into the ebb and flow of a miniature marine world and ecosystem. Much like it was for Rachel Carson, whose loving patience crafted her Sea Trilogy (The Sea Around Us, Under the Sea Wind, and The Edge of The Sea), bringing the nature, significance, and wonder of the living sea alive to the world at large.

Box Stop Track Pattern

A ‘box stop’ track pattern occurs when an alternating track pattern (hind feet directly registering atop of the front feet) becomes ‘broken’ by an animal stopping to assess a change within its immediate environment, where all four feet register separately thus breaking the straight-line pattern of an alternating direct register gait. This stopping to assess incoming impressions is a survival strategy important to the animal and one that could surely benefit the human as well.

It is a state worth pondering if wishing to bring more formative thought and understanding within one’s purview, and clearly a survival strategy for me as much as it is for the animal. Learning to come “full stop” within my mental landscape helps me see the distinct difference between these two mindsets. Two very different tracks holding two very different possible outcomes or destinations. Where joy and beauty as opposed to desire, and gratitude and reciprocity opposed to mania and madness all too easily come into play. Truly a matter of human choice and gravitas for these thoughtless times!

Thus, when crafting educational offerings, whether taking students off for a week to Coastal Maine for a Zoology & Evolution block of study or further afield utilizing foreign travel, time and timing are key components for cultivating fertile soil. When standing knee-deep in the lilliputian world of a rocky tide pool, where fluctuating elemental forces define the nature of such a transitional zone between two different worlds, it is very easy to forget the hustle and bustle of our day-to-day affairs and to be magically transported into the ebb and flow of a miniature marine world and ecosystem. Much like it was for Rachel Carson, whose loving patience crafted her Sea Trilogy (The Sea Around Us, Under the Sea Wind, and The Edge of The Sea), bringing the nature, significance, and wonder of the living sea alive to the world at large.

Rachel Carson’s favorite Tidepool was at New Harbor, Maine where much of her scientific research for the ‘Edge of the Sea’ was conducted.

It was this glorious sense of wonder that inspired Rachel Carson and lent purpose and direction to her life, and while adhering to this higher call, she ultimately gave to the world its clarion call toward environmental awareness and responsible behavior in her environmental classic Silent Spring.

 “What inspires you?” and “what can you give back?” were thus the two questions that my wife and I posed to a group of high school seniors and juniors before setting out one spring to walk and explore the Lake District of England as part of an immersive off-campus elective at our school. Our goal for this 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 allow wonder to give direction to 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, 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 time, 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.

The theme for our study 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 (as opposed to puttering – “keeping busy in a rather useless way”) 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, 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 is based upon a more relaxed rhythm where one is allowed the luxury of time 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 (brought to a STOP), 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”.

Hawkshead Church & Village in the heart of Beatrix Potter Country, and boyhood home to William Wordsworth.

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; reminding 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 was a way of walking and journeying, which changed the way we think. 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 (a stop) 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, wander, and wonder this often led to new insights for themselves and a feeling that they were now overseeing 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 track in life.

Allowing for a more relaxed rhythm to experience the landscape, and not having a 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 world’s 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 even more what she accomplished during her life in nature. Beatrix not only created some of the most popular children’s books of all time 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 theory’s time. She was rejected due to the singular fact of being female, and never having been formally schooled. 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”. Thankfully, she did in 1997, receive posthumously an official apology from the Linnaean Society for her treatment

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 the 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 give back” 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, to wonder, 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 not only in dire need of new thinking but renewed emotional depth. New pathways enabling us to not only think new thoughts but to sense emotional depths where we 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.

 Students on Tarn Hows; one of the numerous beauty spots protected by Beatrix Potter.

In the past, and to some extent today, the inspiration for life emanated from and out of our cultural mythology, the language of the spirit, and 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. 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 where a sense of wonder can bring them a different sense of themselves, and of their times, which is all too quickly becoming “senseless” within these virtual times.

To that end, educational journeys to places of natural wonder, whether close at hand or to faraway places, provide a destination as well as a purpose, becoming holidays for the Soul. The need of having both knowledge and experiences in order that learning can take place can be acknowledged by the seemingly mystical abilities of Carson & Potter which rested on the keen edge of intimate knowledge born out of wonder. Sadly, there is a corresponding decrease in this intimate knowledge as technology becomes more sophisticated and complex, while the childlike gift of wonder gets edged out by societal agendas. If the greatest promise of western science is its ability to reveal wisdom to us, I am increasingly coming to see that this leading passive force of wonder, so resonant within the Wise Woman female archetype, becomes the crucial precursor toward any fusion involving greater depth of meaning amid our increasing meaningless activity in nature. A life-sustaining convergence of thought with heartfelt sympathies that ushers in a more open and acceptive tradition of conservation, land stewardship, and environmental ethics. A rebirth born out of a sense of wonder!

The heart, soul, and voices of Beatrix Potter and Rachel Carson reverberate loudly for me, as do the contemporary voices of Wise Women like Jane Goodall, Terry Tempest Williams, and Robin Wall Kimmerer. Voices that call us to stop, listen and wonder in a most profound and timely way.

The author’s wife at Salt Pond Preserve & Tide Pool, New Harbor, Maine where Rachel Carson did much of her scientific study when writing ‘The Edge of The Sea’.

The Lost World of Adolescence

The LongWalker

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

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


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…

View original post 1,981 more words

The Scout

A Scout, in the etymological sense, denotes one who listens to something and gives heed to it. This paying of attention was usually done in service to others, with celebrated scouts of historical acclaim always toting themselves as the “one on the watch for the rest.” A critical community ideal where the earliest use of the word, dated to the 15th century, clearly depicted a person with a unique skillset and held in very high esteem by their group. Culturally, the Scout is embodied widely within myth, folklore, and legend, where deeper nuances of meaning regarding its characterization can be discovered by young & old alike. Some of the oldest occidental images emerge out of Norse Mythology, as in the pair of ravens Huginn (“thought”) and Muninn (“memory”) who fly out each morning across the wide world to serve Odin with all the latest NEWS (views to the North, East, West, South). Without the help of such “scouts” in heeding this news, it would become impossible for Odin to administer justly that which his worldly kingdom required. As we gaze out on the world in these perilous times, many feel deeply the sense of being lost and out of touch. A cultural lament exists if we listen carefully, acknowledging the loss of such guides who provide the key observations which keep us awake and aware of the moral compass emblazoned upon our souls. So, it is in this mythic sense and meaning that I wish to ponder a more youthful, soulful take on the Scout and Scouting. Where we may rediscover what lies at the roots of and at the very heart and soul of the Scout’s journey. The capacity to have a conversation with Nature, and when gifted the time to listen, ponder and heed such NEWS deeply, to re-member ourselves and declare order in our own kingdoms.

Modern understandings of the Scout, however, are most often about the Scouting movement founded by Robert Baden-Powell, Ernest Thompson Seton, and Daniel Carter Beard in the early days of the 20th century. Other vital players helped inspire and evolve this worldwide movement over time, such as Charles Eastman, but these three

stand out as the principal organizers regarding its creation. Boy Scouts officially got its start in 1908 in the UK, while America followed soon after in 1910; Girl Guides and Girl Scouts followed in 1910 for the UK and 1912 for the USA. A coming together of morphic resonance where the archetypal idea of the Scout once more took root. As a worldwide phenomenon, the Scouting movement became the largest youth organization in history. When Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys was published in 1908, it became the most influential manual for youth ever published, second in the English-speaking world only to the Bible. It was indeed a stroke of genius. Its meteoric rise in popularity worldwide was due to it being the exact answer to need at the right moment in time. And despite the failings, scandals, and misunderstandings that have plagued that rise over the past half a century, the resurrection of the Scout, as a mythic archetype,remains even more crucial today.

To see and understand such needs, some perspective will be critical. Required will be our capacity to place these players upon the historical stage of values where they played out their part of the scouting story. A stage transitioning in Britain from the pastoral to the Imperial, and the Victorian/Edwardian dying days of Empire, to a competing American paradigm moving from the wilderness/frontier rugged individualist into the industrial juggernaut of our present time – the industrial model that has shaped the rising factories, schools, and governing systems overlooking our civic lives. This new spirit of Scouting was readily taken up by these “children of destiny” (Baden-Powell, Seton, and Beard), which they coupled to their insight and realization of youth’s need for adventure. The “boy Issue” of hooliganism was rampant during these transitional times, and all three looked to examples within indigenous cultures where a fuller promise for youth was more prominently displayed and carried out. This aim, now resting in their care, pointed to adventures resonating with the time-honored rites-of-passage of the past, where the perennial wisdom contained in such preparatory rites would assist in carrying youth across the threshold of adulthood. Their journey of coming together was a perfect storm. While their individual biographies are worth broader attention for those with a penchant for tracking such things down, all three were highly competent artists and not only capable of creating something new but bringing it forward as well. Baden-Powell, with his vision of Arthurian Knights, coupled to a Sherlock Holmes’s observational-deductive methodology, along with Seton’s Birch Bark Roll of Indians and Beard’s Sons of Daniel Boone, together, ushered in their idea of the new Scout. Their educational approach moved boys beyond the reach of repressive pedantic schoolmasters, moralizing parsons, coddling parents, and a world rushing pell-mell into a factory-like future. For such a hazardous time, Scouting was heaven-sent for boys, answering precisely the perennial, archetypal call of the wild!

Insignia of the World Scouting Organization

Here was the promise of real adventure at a time when some of the world’s most extraordinary feats of land exploration took place when these men were boys. Nostalgia for such experiences took the place of what was narrowly becoming a lost reality to most youth. Real adventures were designed to take up the task of “character” formation, with all the concomitant rites & rituals that lift one to higher levels of being. The Scout’s character, understood as a “symbol or imprint on the soul,” was attained, earned, and represented by the universal scout symbol. A stylized fleur-de-lis where the three leaves represented the Scout Oath of duty to God, self, and the commitment to obeying the Scout Law, while the two small five-pointed stars stand for truth and knowledge. Together their ten points represent the ten original Scout Laws – to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, positive, thrifty, and the trifecta promise to be physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight. The reef knot or square knot represents World Scouting’s strength, and the rope is for the unity of Scouts throughout the world. The ring holding the petals together represents the bond of brotherhood.

Cap this all off with a motto to “be prepared,” followed by the injunction to do a good deed daily – turning the ideal of the Golden Rule into manifestation – and you have a powerful medicine bundle the likes of which the world had never seen before, and which the world of youth was starved for. Rightly so, Scouts and Scouting was aptly seen by progressive Educator Maria Montessori as freeing children from the narrow limits to which they had become culturally confined while offering once again the timeless promise of the Hero’s journey.

If a vital responsibility of a community, society, or culture is the development of character for youth transitioning into their adult roles, then suffice it to be said here that along with the vanishing ways of life at the turning of the century, a vast gulf for youth to cross was simultaneously being created. The Scouting movement created by Baden-Powel, Seton, and Beard was an epic event that stormed the world. Scouts and Scouting, as representative of youth, were held, culturally valued, and esteemed at the exact time needed. The hazards, though, set in motion with this transitional time of competing paradigms, exposed the risk of what was real regarding youth’s developmental needs becoming more artificial. In time, as all new initiatives progressed, natural hazards did follow within its shadows, and as vigilance waned, something of the heart & soul of Scouting was lost to its institutionalized pursuit of mission.

So, what exactly was forgotten or lost sight of in those shadows?

It was in the nature of “time” itself.

Nothing is simple, of course, but the adolescent was in time forgotten while adolescence was targeted. Seen as a market, as opposed to responsibility, the Scouting movement became institutionalized, needing greater and greater management, which came at a direct cost to the Scout, and the gift of time they experientially required. The adult task of its obligatory role and responsibility to initiate youth at the individual, family, and community level was relinquished to a corporate regimentation unable to remember and recreate the rites-of-passage experience necessary for youth. The “mission creep” that set in over time was antithetical to the lifecraft mission of Scouting and the deep time immersion required. Life, now being lived in the hustle and bustle of a paradigm dominated by the destination instead of the journey, where the time-rich nature of experience in direct contact with Nature waned. What we call Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) entered the life of youth then and is witnessed today by the transposed attention and intention of work directed at youth regarding video games, smartphones, apps, and text messaging. Experience now devolved to and defined by selfies and Instagram moments that replace the real with the artificial. Lost within both these cultural paradigms was the ancient, time-honored initiatory rite for youth which we have come to know as the right-of-passage.

In no small measure, though, in the early 20th century, youth were falling into the ranks of hooliganism. Today, they are falling into the ranks of what I call a 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. The hazards have increased exponentially.

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. Such a day doesn’t leave much time for anything bordering on the experience of reality – or experiences that include an element of relationship to life and the living. Life, for the adolescent, is, unfortunately, becoming all too virtual.

The “interiors” I speak of here are the repetitions of a daily routine moving from house to car, school, car and gymnasiums, music lessons, and meeting places that we seldom walk to anymore. When rewinding back to our homes at days end, we discover we have little connection to the 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 day’s stream of activities. Too much of life is conducted in the fast lane of 65mph, and I would advocate for a severe shift to a mode of engagement that gets us back to natural life at 3mph. How else does one relish, enjoy, and value any experience if not savored?

Societal expectations, or the “maps of life guidance” we pass on as nurture, don’t often offer real help or assistance either. Instructions, orders, dictates, rules & regulations, fears, and apprehensions – yes, but of no use in navigating these times’ emotional disconnect. Youth enter adolescence hard-wired for relationships and discover the modern brave new world of existence, 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 with diminishing human interaction. We inhabit a very narrow world shaped by bandwidths that are fearfully nuclear concerning the real-time relationship with the world of great Nature, which we are part & parcel of. This is referred to as a biophobic condition within certain realms of thought and in stark contrast to a more natural human state seen as biophilia.

What we offer regarding “philosophical maps” for guidance reminds me of what E.F. Schumacher spoke to almost 50 years ago in his book A Guide for The Perplexed when on a visit to Leningrad, Russia. While attempting to follow a map while exploring the city, he could not orient his position on the ground to the map in hand; he could see several enormous churches, but there was no reference to them on his map. When asking the trip interpreter to explain the discrepancy, he was told that the state didn’t show churches on their maps, only what they referred to as museums and not live or living churches. It occurred to Schumacher then that this was not the first time he was given a map that 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 his perceptions’ sanity and began, instead, doubting the soundness of the maps. Schumacher’s relatively 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.” Such is the case today, and certainly at the turning of the century, where Nature has become something we nostalgically frame or relegate to time-off and not perceived as a vital life-sustaining relationship requiring a language in need of learning. Scouting addressed this need straight on!

For us, this becomes a 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 societal or philosophical maps. Maps that are placing more and more of Nature into museums of make-believe and failing to even introduce us to Nature’s language that the Scout was trained to listen to and heed. 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 – reflecting a dis-ease rampant at the individual and cultural, emotional level of our being.

It is here that it will serve us well if we harken back to Charles Eastman’s influence upon the early scouting movement. Charles Eastman (1858-1939), the Santee Sioux known as Ohiyesa, was a primary influence upon Seton, but he is key to understanding and reconciling the scout conjunction of Baden-Powell, Seton, and Beard. While all three men were influenced by indigenous people and practices, wishing to live that life, Eastman was the only one who had actually lived it. Having survived the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890, where Native American’s intimacy

with Nature died alongside their last formal resistance to the manifest destiny in play about them, Eastman went on to become a prominent spokesperson of Native American Culture and its rights. More importantly for Scouting, he was a welcome record of the deep nature experiences once in play for youth and a reminder of the obligatory responsibility of both young and old in keeping and preserving that commitment toward time spent alone in Nature as a prerequisite of health and wholeness. No schedules, tasks, assignments, or imperatives to accomplish; just time, where one was free to discover a way to converse and commune with Nature; and do one’s own thinking. Most maps we hold today tell us exactly what to think instead of how, and very little place exists for the art & craft connecting us to the living and vibrant world of Nature.

One of the many gifts of Native American culture, with the most notable being that of democracy itself, was the fullest understanding of the relationship between knowledge of “place” (aka Nature) being intimately tied to knowledge of “self,” and were the two ever to be separated, then so too would be our understanding of our personal and collective story.

In these earlier cultures, the universe was experienced primarily as a presence to be communed with and instructed by, not a collection of natural resources for utilitarian purposes. This manner of relating human affairs to the larger universe was dominant, and indigenous people attained inner strength through ritual communion with powers present throughout the natural world. There is a magnetic and nervous force that comes from much solitude in the outdoors; time spent learning to have a conversation with Nature, where one listened to and heeded that which was communicated as wisdom, was learned via woodlore and woodcraft – an educational undertaking synonymous with the lifecraft of Scouting. This coming to know one’s place, or home/nature, required time, the time where one learned to listen and heed what was being communicated. The Scout, to be of service to others, became conversant with a natural intelligence reflecting the wisdom of a higher order. To this end, a common Native American practice was what some today call the Secret Spot. Everyone had a secret spot, or place in Nature, where one went alone to do this communing, to do their own thinking. After all, it is truly at the very core of Nature, from the Latin natus, meaning “to be born,” where we can be drawn out or educated. Core to this practice was the recognition that we have two minds in need of daily attending: The Spirit Mind and the Day Mind. Worship of the “great mystery” was silent, solitary, and free from self-seeking. Communion with the unseen described by the word “Hambeday“- literally “mysterious feeling” or consciousness of the Divine. The revelatory meaning of this divine Nature has always been represented by the myths, archetypes, symbols, and folklore within the Spirit Mind of a culture and is thus more collective, universal, and shared. This Nature requires transformational digestion into the Day Mind’s workings, which is a more personal and uniquely individualized understanding. The Soul work where we make the ideals of the Spirit Mind our own, working inwardly to stamp the badge of character upon the very fabric of our innermost being. Two very different kingdoms, where, like Cinderella or Iron Hans, we leave one to have the new experiences where we consciously labor and suffer intentionally the trials & tribulations of the journey representing the living relationship between the two. The requisite time needed for re-establishing this connection to Nature is now being referred to as Nature Rx.

Such daily, devoted time in nature prepared youth for the main ritual that marked their full transition into a fully responsible adult. One now ready, prepared, and dedicated to that understanding of service; a real Scout. Rites-Of-Passage are crucibles where youth devour themselves; where, with the fire of attention, guided by law, they become new men and women. Youth cry for and require a vision that becomes their North Star for navigating life and discovering meaning. Youth MUST make this crossing, or else they run the risk of remaining within a “sibling society,” where like Peter Pan, they refuse to grow up.

The Scout could become a new mythic Hero for us. Once again, the journey is initiated by such calls to adventure that Scouting once offered. Time spent in Nature,mirrored by an entry into the “wild” or “wilderness” of Nature and ourselves, where we stand upon that will point where one heeds and responds to life’s call to service.

If youth lose that sense of soul, we trivialize their existence and the hero’s mythic journey. Culturally, we have forgotten the language of both minds and worlds. Science has given us a new revelatory experience of the Earth as an organism, and we have created a waste world as opposed to a wonderworld. Soul embraces and calls us toward what is most unique in us. At the same time, Spirit encompasses and draws us toward what is most universal and shared. Rilke tells us, “if we surrendered to earth’s intelligence, we would rise up rooted like trees,” and this is why ROP’s that serve this connection are so needed – where we hear that call. Without Scouts, the Industrial Age’s revelatory experience and its media open Pandora’s box of institutional dependency and a vision separating our Soul & Spirit. We have become intoxicated with the view.

This is the way of the Scout; and why the Scout, as a mythic figure of promise, needs to live in all of us, young & old, once again.

When a myth is enacted in a ritual performance or, in a more general, simpler and more profound fashion, when a fairy-tale is told, the healing factor within it acts on whoever has taken an interest in it and allowed himself to be moved by it in such a way that through participation will be brought into a connection with an archetypal form of the situation and by this means enabled to put himself “into order.”

                                                           ~ Marie-Louise Von Franz ~

In Search Of Bombadil

    “The only rational way to educate is by example.”  Albert Einstein

Yes, that would be Mr. Tom Bombadil, whom we have come to know through JRR Tolkien’s colorful character in The Lord of the Rings (LOTR). That is whom I wished to search for; to track down and bring into the light of day a wee bit more, or his meaning and value to be most precise. I took up the search because I believe we are in desperate need of his example and wisdom today, as there is much that we could learn and wildcraft from him. So to that end, my wife and I took to the footpaths of the Cotswolds, UK this past October, walking the Cotswolds Way, to see if we could pick up his trail.

Most people today are familiar with Tolkien’s epic story via the Hollywood production of Peter Jackson. Still, for those who have yet to treat themselves to the fuller revelations contained within the printed version, I must say only that Bombadil appears as a seemingly minor character early on in the trilogy in the chapter titled The Old Forest, when Frodo and company first set out with the Ring on their journey to undo its influence. I say seemingly because Tolkien himself preferred to leave Bombadil a mystery, saying “as a story, I think it is good that there should be a lot of things unexplained…in a mythical Age there must always be some enigmas, as there always are.” In Jackson’s Hollywood version, this enigmatic character never enters the story even as a minor player, thus diminishing the mythic potential of his retelling of the story!

In real-time, Tom Bombadil was the name of one of Tolkien’s young son’s Dutch dolls, which Tolkien often used as a frequent hero of the bedtime stories told to his children. Tolkien published the poem Adventures of Tom Bombadil in the Oxford Magazine in 1934 and used his character again later in 1962 when he released an update of those adventures. On the heels of the stunning success of The Hobbit, when pressed by his publisher Stanley Unwin for more stories concerning Hobbits in 1937, Tolkien considered a new hero along similar Hobbit lines in the character of Tom Bombadil, who for him represented “the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside.” Eventually, Tolkien settles in upon LOTR as a sequel to the Hobbit, where Bombadil nonetheless becomes incorporated as a critical mythological figure, set into a mythic age.

Many have pondered Bombadil’s meaning and purpose within the LOTR legendarium. Hailing not from any race (either hobbit, dwarf, elf, nor human) many have speculated that his place is within the hierarchy of the gods, and see him as being of the Maia (third highest spiritual/angelic being after Eru or God and the Valar). This places him at a very high level of symbolic meaning from that mythic order and requires a high level of our sustained attention to understand what he truly represents. Perhaps, we could place him in some enzymatic role toward unlocking buried treasure from within Tolkien’s mythological tale? Consider and ponder deeply that Bombadil is the sole person who the ring has no power over; being able to play with it, even putting the ring upon his finger, without effect. He does not disappear! He remains faithful to his aim in being the ‘Keeper of the Forest,’ benevolently attending to meadow, watersides, buttercups, badger folk, and bees. Deemed by the elves as ‘oldest and fatherless,’ and in the First Age known to the Eldar who considered him a benevolent spirit of the forest and a veritable incarnation of the ancient life-force present there. Bombadil is master unto himself, and under no law but his own!

Given that all Myth speaks to our inner world, the characters we find in these tales are the possible expressions of the many nuanced faces or personas we take on in our day-to-day lives. At the same time, the “places” where these stories unfold are but reflections of the inner states we occupy. How these dramas unfold within these mythic landscapes, transcribed and defined by various cultures so meticulously throughout the ages, speak to the multitude of possibilities to be played out within us if we but have the intent, and attention, to follow them. If this mythic character called Bombadil resonates with and represents the spirit of the countryside for us in any way (as it did for Tolkien), then this ancient life force demands our most profound attention during our current era of environmental devastation; what some refer to as Anthropocene Epoch. If Tolkien’s fear of this “spirit” and “life force” vanishing was so profound in his day, it must surely be a far more significant and looming darkness that threatens to engulf us today. What within our inner psychological world, relative to our relationship to the land, is under threat of vanishing today? Or, what values and vital life connections hidden within us are in danger of vanishing, that keep us connected to this deep-rooted wisdom of the land? Some attentive, highly attuned “Bombadil” part of our working minds perhaps, toward which we too may aspire and be considered ‘master of;’ benevolently attending too, and ultimately under our own laws, and no others? Bombadil may be the reminding factor that awakens us in any given moment of experience where we retain immunity to the sin of inadvertence, and the ever-looming darkness of inattention where our will is bent toward the “ring” of false power; to a ‘Sauron’ within us, and thus leading to the devastation that unconscious levels of thinking, being, and action reeks onto the world of Nature. Bombadil represents a world of values that may very well be our salvation…. if we pay attention!

So these were some of my ruminations as my wife and I paced off the miles during these glorious autumnal days in the Cotswolds. There was undoubtedly something tantalizingly, and attractively wild, about Bombadil as well that resonated both etymologically and mythically around the concepts of ‘wildness’, and ‘will’. Wild, wildness, and will are all derived from Old High German wildi, pre-Teutonic ghweltijos, and Old Norse willr, and have implications toward a meaning of the land, proceeding according to its laws and principles, and free to its own devising and execution! Wildland is thus self-willed land. Precisely the ‘spirit of the Forest’ that Bombadil is so clearly the keeper of and must embody within himself to be personally, and attentively, attendant to the forest’s need. Such mythic imagery resonates interestingly enough with new scientific understanding of forest dynamics, which point to an ‘intelligence’ within the natural order that dictates a dynamic of interactive relationships moving toward equilibrium and wholeness. Just as impressive, yet much more alarming, is that scientific research likewise notes a lack, and diminishment, of any such intelligence within humans. Nature-Deficit Disorder (NDD), a term introduced in 2005 by Richard Louv, although not recognized as a medical condition, is being backed up by research such as that being pioneered by University of Michigan psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan with their Attention Restoration Theory. The long and short of their argument is that time spent in nature does indeed have a direct effect on human attention and intelligence. So Mr. Tom Bombadil stands out as a shining example of not only a good fellow, but also worth a good follow! The trail was just getting better and better.

Having read much of the precious treasure shared by Robert Macfarlane (Mountains of the Mind, The Wild PlacesThe Old Ways, and Landmarks) before embarking upon this most recent journey to magical Britain, I couldn’t help but ponder some of this richness concerning Bombadil, and the juxtaposition of his character with what Macfarlane speaks to concerning human perception and the land, and how the land ultimately informs and shapes attention & intelligence. For Macfarlane, the loss of place names (Toponyms) diminishes the land’s literacy, or its capacity to inform us, and places a language deficit upon us that is consonant with Louv’s attention deficit disorder. Macfarlane cites ‘place naming’ as an essential means of ‘wayfinding’, and creating travel stories. These stories become navigational aids that lend us what is known in psychology as affordance, the quality of the environment, and objects within it, that informs our actions. Myth (as does the wild) holds the same navigational aid for wayfinding within our inner world, and when resonant with the natural world via place naming (inclusive of all life contained therein) ensures levels of harmony that guide us toward a land ethic long overdue in the making. This is the loss of meaning that author, and historical ecologist, Oliver Rackham likewise addresses regarding the four ways in which landscape is being lost. He lists loss of beauty, loss of freedom, and loss of diversity as the first three, but the fourth, the loss of meaning, maybe the most insidious. A loss blinding us to the far-reaching consequences for life in general and human beings specifically, for deficits in attention tend ultimately to a forgetting of ‘self,’ the ‘place’ we call home, and thus initiating routines of inertia where day-to-day activity becomes meaningless, and thoughtless.

So what other thoughts, secrets, and stories did we find within the Cotswolds that yielded an increased understanding of this more profound connection to the land and ourselves?

First off, from Macfarlane’s most eloquent musings, I found myself resonating to a reference he made in Landmarks about Scottish author Nan Shepard’s conviction that the human body is a fabulous sensorium, quoting this most touching, hard-earned, deep-rooted wisdom from her classic The Living Mountain, and rivaling the wisdom of Bombadil himself:

 “In the mountains, a life of the senses is lived so purely that the body may be said to think.”

After 40 years of long-distance walking and countless hours in the wilds of nature, this is a truth that I too have experienced, know, and understand deeply ~ our bodies think! As Shepard so eloquently states in her classic on the Cairngorm Mountains, “walking is inextricable from learning.” Macfarlane follows Shepard with his deep-rooted conviction born out of his own experience by stating:

“We have come to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world – its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits – as well as by genetic traits we inherit and ideologies we absorb. We are literally ‘losing touch,’ becoming disembodied, more than in any historical period before ours”

The exact fear I believe that Tolkien so presciently sensed a hundred years ago and mythically posited, and represented, within his character Tom Bombadil. When we fail to connect to and develop a sensory awareness of the land, called a ‘Sense of Place’, we become disembodied to not only the land but to our very own selves as well (no “Sense of Self”). We thus never learn, for we have no grounding experiences, and more tragically, we fall into a grand forgetting of our role within nature because we don’t remember this story we call life and living.

This sentiment, we discovered, was also played out in time past throughout the Cotswolds via the story of the Arts & Craft Movement, whose advocates and practitioners also felt that humans were out of tune with their surroundings. They held that early 20th-century industrialization was not only destroying human creativity but that the division of labor ushered in with the factory systems took away human responsibility as well. Best celebrated, and made known to the world, by designer, poet, and novelist William Morris, who rejected the soulless industrial age (and its forced industrial education), believing that people had the right to work at a noble craft, and create objects of beauty as well as of utilitarian value. The virtues of careful craftsmanship, and fitness of materials, were leading virtues of the Arts & Crafts Movement that were felt to connect humans to their rural surroundings, and a sense of harmony resulting in having a cultivated sense of place.

Acknowledging that the work of most adults is too often hidden from children and that the results of useful work (craft), as a learning tool, were becoming ignored mainly by industrial education systems, Charles Robert Ashbee, founder of the Guild Of Handicrafts in 1888, discovered his “Camelot” in Chipping Camden, and in 1904 opened the Camden School of Arts & Crafts where classes were free. The focus was upon the 3 H’s (Hand, Heart, Head), and was in direct opposition to the 3 R’s (wRiting, Reading, and aRithmetic) of the industrial factory system of compulsory (forced) schooling. Ashbee believed that unless such a forced approach was supported by a request or invitation by the learner, that all teaching was violent. It also deceived both learner & teacher into thinking that force (compulsory learning) is an acceptable form of communication, and where regimentation and dulling of the mind fails to be seen as criminal, thus undermining the very basis of a wish to learn. Believing that Democracy thrives on creativity, while armies, prisons, and schools thrive on conformity, Ashbee echoed what Thomas Carlyle had claimed as early as 1829, in that city life destroys man’s spirit and dispersed his energies.

Sadly, soon after this rather remarkable period of human connectivity to nature, which we still palpably felt as we moved through the countryside, the motorcar entered rural England, and with it, the arrival of modernism during the 1930s. With mass production (factory system) of goods, there was the diminishment of craft, as well as the human bond to a landscape that forged the heartstrings of a very different life. Tolkien’s greatest fear, that of the loss of spirit and life force within not only the landscape but within us as well, was real to him then, and very real to us now in these darkening days of the Anthropocene Epoch. As we continued our walking journey, the part of the story embodied within the character of Tom Bombadil touched us deeply. J.R.R Tolkien left us a great story for certain.

Bombadil is a long walker of high meaning and value that we would do well to accompany more often these days, as his track is a delightful one to follow! This spirit or life force he represents is the real treasure trove contained within the magic and mystery of the landscape; it is thus a very real experience and well worth our time pondering deeply in our mind’s eye, and to rightly consider ~ which carries or beckons the meaning “to study or see with the stars.”

Unless we take steps to actively build adventure and excitement into the adolescent years (and for every one of us as well throughout all our years), drugs, crime, and vicarious adventure through TV fill the resulting vacuum via physical and mentally dangerous circumstances where we will forget. What we then read about in the newspapers concerning our neighbor’s “lack,” must be, and will be, more about our own impoverishment due to forgetting ourselves as well as our story. High levels of human attention are thus needed while wayfinding and navigating this inner and outer world of nature, which includes ourselves ~ whereby our hearts desire, and by our minds direct, we may wish and act with a single purpose. The disenchantment so prevalent in our modern world today was what we were ultimately looking to face when following the track of Bombadil into the Cotswolds countryside. We re-minded ourselves that walking is truly inextricable from learning, and that our minds are shaped not only by the bodily experience of being in the world, and connected to the magic & mysteries of the land, but by the very stories that we take in for wayfinding our collective times back to normalcy, beauty, value, and human responsibility.

Pioneers are needed today more than at any time in the past. Not for exploring the ocean depths, the tops of mountains, or the vast unknowns of outer space, but for finding new ways to build/craft a better world. Tom Bombadil may represent a wealth of wisdom that we may thus find yet if we but place our foot outside the door, taking the first step upon a journey toward a new adventure!

 “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

                                                                                                                         Bilbo Baggins

The Badger