On Intelligence

The Webster dictionary definition really hits the nail on the head when it defines “Intelligence” as successfully learning through experience and adaptation. The naturalist in me respects how this brings learning back to it’s animal roots: intelligence stems from an ecosystem which demands keen awareness and sensitivity to one’s environment to survive and thrive. Our environment isn’t what it used to be, but our instinct to adaptive learning is now more crucial than ever. Though the contemporary of cognitively acquisition of knowledge through books and words (compared to skills learned physically, in immediate circumstances) has tremendous value, a return is needed to the experiential, physical, responsive learning of our instincts. This will be necessary to ameliorating many of the ills of our modern educational system.

In the discipline of “book-learning” is the elitist attitude of ridiculing “street-smarts” as a somehow lesser form of “smarts”. This experience-based learning is assumed to only be relevant to the roughest city streets of disenfranchised youths. It is not respected as a way of learning so essential for survival as complete humans. Comfortable Americans maintain this misunderstanding because this instinctual way of acquiring knowledge arises naturally in people who must remain aware of their immediate physical environment to survive, such as in inner-city neighborhoods, unlike the privileged who are accustomed to living in their heads (or tuned-out in their head-phones) all the time.

I want to acknowledge, however, that the stresses of living in embattled environments should not be romanticized. A hostile environment can compel those on the edge of survival to use their energy for more immediate demands, such as escaping a physical threat, thereby leaving less room for softer sensory awareness. Yet this can also, paradoxically, be a direct link into greater environmental sensitivity.

To grow up with intelligence and awareness, of any useful kind, is to come to terms with the world. To face adulthood is to leave the teenage time of endless battles and accept which struggles are worth your morning coffee. If I ever get the great honor and privilege of mentoring teenagers, I will try to put this understanding into their minds without overpowering them, but encouraging them to discover these truths. A good teacher or mentor is to lead them in reverence for the path, with wisdom to alarm them of unseen snakes in tall grass, as was the way of all ancestors for their young initiates. But a good teacher accepts that these young ones must necessarily be wounded –the old primal wound of the psyche coming to terms with the harsh and beautiful way of the world– to “die” to their childhoods. Elders must protect and defend the young while yet getting out of their way. The young people are to be put in charge for a change, which too many adults live in fear of acknowledging, and so put their children in trouble on the road ahead. But if the young are taught well, and learn intelligence by experiencing and witnessing the living, active wisdom of the old, we who are older should have nothing to fear when it comes time to hand them the wheel (the driving wheel, or the wheel of life!).

The Swallows

 

When I was a child I told my spiritual father

that I had moments of insight,

fashes of understanding, like the wings of swallows

swooping into a city with a message to tell

that humankind must remember.

It was beyond explaining to grown-ups,

though I knew I had to help save them.

My spiritual father said,

“Remember these moments that come to you.

Remember, write them down,

Or they will slip away like birds.”

And I watch the way my thoughts fly

like they do not want to be captured,

cannot be told once and for all time

in the tradition of writing.

I follow the swallows out to the fields,

a pair of lovebirds chasing each other,

friends of the light.

How carefully close they come to the dark earth,

the tall grass brushing their scintillant feathers

like breath, one word of beauty before leaving,

a reminder to humankind

who is forgetful.

 

 

image source: public domain

A Healthy Restlessness

The following is adapted from a letter I was inspired to write to my director at the school I work at. It has helped me clarify my own thoughts on consciously developing joy in my work, while thinking more seriously about striving to be in a position where I am able to use my talents to my full potential.

What a beautiful summer this is. The rain is paying off!

After nearly a couple years of working here, I feel called to dig deeper and contribute much more of my abilities. It feels really good to come to this realization.

Recently, [my life partner] and I had been considering moving much further out to Duvall, where I lived a few years ago. That would’ve given me a very long commute and altered my hopes with [the school]; however we have made our final decision to stay here in Shoreline for at least several more years, maybe the long term. It is great to be this close to the school. I was also considering doing part-or-full time college again, but have put a pause on that while I discern what kind of graduate education, if any, I can use, and the expense of it as well.

So, with the decisions turning out this way, and the energy I have feeling more abundant, I’d like to see about possibilities of doing more here.

My current position [after-school activity care provider] has already taught me so much. I see the great value of this program, the freedom of restorative rest and unbridled creativity it brings to the kids. I feel deeply honored when the children (and parents!) communicate to me, in their numerous ways, how much my role here means to them. What a gift I didn’t expect. Kids have so much wisdom of their own that all of us adults can learn a lot from!

With that being said, I have been feeling as though my talents are not able to be utilized fully in this position. This feels like a healthy sort of restlessness, a greater clarity about what does and doesn’t return to me a sense of fulfillment in my work.

A few weeks ago, when I was working those two full days substituting with [my colleague] in preschool, I had such a sense of fulfillment in that I was able to use my talents to design and co-lead the two whole days for the children. [My colleague] and I worked amiably as two equals in our gifts to make those days rewarding for the children and for us as a team. She knew the outline of the class day and so kindly filled me in on the basic expectations. She lead the snack and nap times and so much of the supportive logistics that I did not have knowledge of. For my part, I felt the freedom to take initiative in leading the children on a nature exploration in the wetlands, reading to them with my animated voice (so fun for me and the kids), talking about plants, maps, birds, social and physical awareness of other humans and animals, implanting curiosity and questions to carry, art and physical movement, and being my “tomboy mentor” self that I do well with kids of all ages.

I think of mentoring as an ancient way of imparting wisdom and understanding, modeling joyful wonder. It is a way of teaching through play, curiosity and love for the beautiful world. The centrality of the living world is of great importance here. This is what has drawn me to play-based work with younger kids, and a growing interest in engaging the intellects of older children. I believe that the spirit of teaching and learning, with mentoring at its root, is the act of remembering what we already know within us as a species. Small humans are not born as empty vessels, but with a vivified interior life of virtuous instincts that yearn to be honored and encouraged. This way of learning is deeply anthropological to our species, the forerunner to didactic teaching as inherited from the Renaissance and now commonly practiced in industrial and developing societies. Gladly, though, we are now experiencing a renewed interest in this timeless way of cultivating young humans into their whole selves.

I mention those two days substituting in preschool as a positive example of days well spent, in contrast to some of the frustrations I have been experiencing in my current position for a while. This is partly the come-and-go nature of the after-school drop-in setting (naturally) where I do not necessarily have the time, structure or situational confidence to practice uninterrupted mentoring with a given group of kids. When I start to really engage authentically in mentoring, even a simple project with one or several kids, no sooner is one of them called off to do something else, distracted by another interest, or gone home.

And this is okay– they need this freedom of unstructured time. In a traditional village setting, mentoring works well with the informality of relationships, as parents and mentors would share relaxed friendships and even living space. But we are in a very formal school setting of the modern world, with appropriate separations between here-and-there. I am at peace with that. Adaptability is prime. So I feel called to give my talents where I have more space to do real leadership, more of a conscious desire on the part of parents for their children to benefit from my own work with them; more jurisdiction….

…I am wondering what other opportunities may be open for me. Are there any Teacher’s Assistant positions open where I could practice co-leading, or fulfilling assistant leadership? Would it be very disruptive if I were offered something else than [the after-school program] and needed to do only a new position instead?… As much as I want to help [the after-school program], I really don’t want to miss a good career opportunity, either. What kind of further work experience and education would I need to someday advance to the role of lead teacher? Would creating an additional whole new program in mentoring Natural Awareness be an option? Might I teach this as an after-school class in addition to [the after-school program], as [other staff members] have done?

Thank you, truly, for the times that you have expressed appreciation and encouraging warmth to myself and others. It has boosted my confidence in working here and improving myself. I hope I can keep contributing!

 

Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.”

–Kahlil Gibran, ‘The Prophet’

Mammal Fur is More Fun Than Differences

 

Lately I’ve been working with kids at a school this summer switching off between restorative outdoor playtime (our much-loved extended care program) and more structured day camps. All kinds of magic can happen in these places. Today I had the honor of talking with a little five-year old boy out on the playground about mammals, and how they are different from reptiles, birds and other families of life. I used a big word, characteristics, and he stumbled over the pronunciation rather adorably. But through more discussion he got that big word in his hands and started playing with it (this is how we humans learn!), saying “a characteristic of a sheep is fluff,” and, “a zebra has a characteristic like a horse. Is a hippo a mammal? What about a lion? Hey, do any mammals lay eggs? I think a hippo and a lion have a fur characteristic.”

Whenever I get to share knowledge about the animal kingdom, I am brought back to my similar love of anthropology; how our human family tree echoes the branches of greater groups of life reaching out to species and kingdoms. It was during a lull in our conversation when the boy, staring into the big sky and thinking really hard about all this stuff, asked about human characteristics. Sometimes we educators feel awkward when talking about how human groups are different in some ways, but actually more deeply the same in others. And so I turn to anthropology, a way to track our shared human story’s characteristics so that the science of who we are need not be intimidating nor divisive to us.

Anthropology is the study of human cultures, a telling of our ancestral developments which influence us even today. I first became excited about the study of anthropology when I began exploring some of the technologies used by indigenous hunter-gatherer groups: making fire by friction, edible wild plant medicines, and the tracking of animals. Later, I took an introductory anthropology course during college which further illuminated the academic modes of study for this topic. Let me introduce you to a few of those pathways. See if you can imagine how these modes of study can help you better understand our human family, the one you see all around you.

There are four fields of anthropology as recognized by formal scientific study: the cultural, biological, linguistic and archaeological foci. Cultural anthropology studies the cultural aspects of people in groups, such as their social, religious, and moral practices. Biological anthropology studies the physical and evolutionary parts of our human physiology as distinct from our cultural practices. This includes studying near-humans, our fellow primates and our shared fossil records. Linguistic anthropology tracks the patterns of languages across cultures, giving clues as to our ancient movement over time and geography (as well as how the earth’s environments have influenced the development of our many languages). Archaeological anthropology studies cultures of the ancient past, in particular the preliterate cultures making up the mammoth mass of our unwritten history. Techniques used in this field are similar to the research methods used in paleontology, and extends to include paleo-zoology and other interrelated fields.

A smile lit up his face, the child who wanted to know more. “And we humans have characteristics that make us mammals?” It’s good for the heart to encounter this, a child’s preoccupation with needing to know that humanity is related to mammals -that we are mammals- more than any need to worry about the differences among us. When held up to the light of our nonhuman relatives, we all look very much the same. Studying anthropology is a delight for the mind. It serves to inspire in us a deeper joy in our fellow human beings.

 

 

Image © Gentle J. Pine. All rights reserved.

The Kid With the Headphones

 

It’s become a usual complaint that too many young people walk around with headphones in their ears, unaware of others, of their environment, cut off from the world. I understand it’s problematic, even unhealthy to be so out of touch with our surroundings. But I’m hesitant to criticize people about this, especially the youth. There’s a reason they do this.

The world, the present urban environment, feels spiritually cold, numb, violent and alienating to many people, especially kids coming of age. Of course you’d try to escape, and music is a noble place to start. There are worse diversions. My hope is that people will not finally stop at an escape from their environment, but instead, use their love of music and experience of alienation from the world to re-enter the world powerfully and empathically, to attempt to heal it not through force, but through romance. Empathically, because the shared experience of any pain should turn to solidarity, and ultimately, the finding of new life for people who suffer, knowing they aren’t alone. To suffer alienation from one’s surroundings is awful, and youth especially feel this but don’t have the words or confidence to communicate it. The rest of us can do more than self-righteously chastise kids for their methods of coping.

The task of imparting a new relationship with the world falls especially into the hands of nature connection mentors, and any who teach, who guide, who counsel, and whose work is at all in those fearfully embattled places of contemporary childhood and youth. There are many right ways of rehabilitating young humanity’s impaired relationship with the living world.

Adults who work with kids are emphatically called to respecting the interior life of the soul, a practice severely lacking in the immaturity of cities. The private and sensual place of the imagination, like the good dark night after insanity’s day, are vital to the wellbeing of the spiritually intact person, and to the youth who watch us. If the interior life is not nurtured then addictions, obsessions, and disassociation will fill the void.

I’ve heard one of the root meanings of “entertain” is “to divert the heart”. This is eerily fitting. Entertainment has, obviously, become so often a form of checking-out of reality, buying an hour of soothing fantasies to escape the world. This can be done in a way of better awareness: “entertainment” may also be used, in it’s most noblest form, to “divert the heart” back into the eternal heart of the beauty and grace of the real world. Right here is the power and joy we all crave in every large and small inclination of the heart, and here is the map of the world from which all other make-believe worlds are dreamt. Life on earth is the finest inspiration to how life on earth should actually be. Everywhere the soul of the world itself comes to our aid. The world at large, shared between people, is not empty. Even so, I can’t complain if a kid girds himself with headphones instead of guns.

 

Images © Gentle J. Pine. All rights reserved.

A Viking Funeral for a Vole

Favorite summer camp moment: the kids in my group at St. Ed’s Art of Nature find a tiny dead vole (a meadow mouse), and after examining it’s feet for tracking curiosities, we decide it needs a proper funeral. I plant the idea of a Viking funeral at sea and tell them to fetch a piece of bark for a boat. They then spend an hour cooperatively decorating this elaborate little boat of curled bark the size of my forearm. They gingerly cover the vole with Hemlock needles and a yellow leaf, and surround the corpse with blue pebbles, cones and “blackberries to feed it’s spirit in the next life” (!) with a great golden Big Leaf Maple leaf as a rudder and sail. The “pyre” is set. We ship it out to sea on Lake Washington: it floats a stone’s throw from us, and slowly sinks. I say, “Oh, look, he’s going to the Underworld!” and we all sing the Canoe Song in unison. Which was so cute I could hardly bear it. Made my week.

 

 

image source: Creative Commons CC0

To Love as a Mentor Loves

With leaves in my hair and dirt between my toes I concluded, last Friday, a successful week of Wilderness Awareness School summer camps with the adorable wide-eyed 4-and-5-year-olds. By 4:30 the last kid had been picked up from after-care, and I expected to also promptly jet. But something in the forest called me, and I went back to the green, wooded place where we gathered and wondered. Everything was quiet now, but I could still hear the kids’ laughter. I laid down under the “fort” they built –a cute, haphazard mishmash of big sticks they propped against a Western Red Cedar tree to pretend they were building a real secret hideout. Little nature trinkets they had been enthralled with lay about: a piece of wood that looked like a giant’s tooth, a rock, a pile of fir cones to awe the imagination. I wrapped up in my cloak and realized I already sorely miss those kids, after only one-and-the-final week of being their mentor. I thought about how their lives might be, what they will be like when they’re all grown up, what the world will be like if and when they have their own kids and generations on generations have come to pass down the shadowed ages of history… and will I ever see them again? Will they remember our one magical week in the woods together, all those years ago in 2013 when they were only 4 and 5 years old? Did I make any real difference? And some tears leaked out of me because I don’t know, and I may never know. Under the eaves of that tree I thought about my own mentors and teachers from my earliest childhood memories up through my adulthood initiation at Anake, and how much they all meant to me. Maybe I care too much, but I can’t help it. I imagine that this mentor’s love must be only a small fraction of the immense love that parents feel for their children. And I think that this unfabricated familial love, when also freely felt for one’s peers and elders, is the love that bonds a community. So this is what it is like, to love as a mentor loves. It’s damn bittersweet to let them go.

 

Journal entry from August 6th 2013

 

photo by Pezibear. Public Domain. Pixabay.com

Fierce to Resist

We were learning to fight. We were becoming fierce to resist, and I was up against my opponent. Watch me, my good teacher, and guide me. I could not see her face, my worthy opponent. She was like me, like a mirror. Battling, she came too close, too quickly with anger. I thought we were just practicing, but she had a knife now. I could not see her face; I could not see her at all now. In our motion entangled she held up the knife with her right hand, pointed at me, leveled at the crook of her underarm and aimed at my heart, now moving too fast at me. Swiftly I deflected the knife back toward her, and I pierced her deeply, and bright red came her streaming blood. How frightening the satisfaction of blood in defensive battle, and too quickly it happens. Is this the origin of evil? “Tell me!” I cried to my teacher, “Is this the way of nature? Is there no other way?” His chest sighed heavily, looking into a far distance. He turned to me. “It is the way of nature. There was no other way.” Sorrow came to me, and I feared being found out by the Patrollers, the ones who strive to wrongly monitor peoples’ minds without care, extracting violence from where it was meant to sleep peacefully, while propagating such worse violence themselves. I fear they are coming, and they will see that I am an animal, that I have spilled blood without calculation or scheming. I have killed my own image. But as we battled we had also entangled in dance, and what now shall I do with her body? Where shall it be laid? Now she is a hatchling of a new life, and it is I who have sent her there.

 

 

 

image: Creative Commons CC0

What Wild Is

 

Starting out on a wander across a bridge

that sways under feet, between gravity and air

you meet Northern Flicker. You stop,

body posed in mid-step like an animal;

you and the bird look into each other’s eyes.

He stands on the ground, flees from your burning gaze.

You straighten your beautiful back and walk on.

Like the river you now part the meadow,

rose-hips and brambles surround us.

I take note of the names given the flora

by Man in the garden– Thimbleberry and Alder.

Again your hand sweeps the grass to one side,

serpent of rushes, apple light falling over your face.

Is this what wild is? Coming onto

the riverbank, sandy pebbles,

a spiral made with blue stones.

Some come to be warriors.

Some come to love.

You leap up on a log.

 

 

 

 

image source: Creative Commons CC0

On the Porch at Cedar Lodge

Written for the closing week of Anake Outdoor School, 2013.

 

On Linne Doran land,          the Otter-Pond,
beside Cottonwoods           with heart-shaped leaves,
water-wood,                        and Cedars somber with
their overhanging eaves.    “Look at the light
on the Cottonwoods,”          the dancing-fire trees,
you speak from where         we sit at sunset
smoking on the porch.         Night breeze.
This is plenty seeing you     like a human,
talking quiet, no pretense,   no display.
“Did you see                        the Lagomorph
who went that way?”           The same hand gesturing
toward the ferocious green  of vernal mire
that instructs, that holds      my bee-stung arm
in tender reassurance.         “I have the gift
of tears,” I say.                     “My heart is tired.”

Someday,                             I’ll be sitting in full sun
and remembering                 that blanket of dusk:
the unnamable places,         initiation,
re-welcoming, the whole      in-between world
we could not                         have expected.
Animal voices                       from beyond the woodshed
and ravine, laughter             down the path to where
we gather in Malalo              for magic, wrapping the bundle,
burning,                                being seen.

I know you love                    this time of night,
the silhouettes of trees,        the ones that tip their tops,
that spread their branches   out like praise,
their differences of ways      discernible from a distance,
one more lesson                  in vision, but there is
black sleep                           creeping in now,
flowers are closing,              ferns keep unfurling
as they should,                     as is right in time,
in Nature’s time.                   But this is natural.
This cannot be planned.      Active hearts are tired hearts,
dirt-time for elderhood.        The way of the Scout
is to take no credit               even where credit is due.
Respect, Honor and Love.  The veil lifts.
Something more                  than what we signed up for
comes through.

 

 

 

 

Image © Gentle J. Pine. All rights reserved.