Thursday, March 21, 2019

Humans can be a healthy part of the natural world in ways that increase biodiversity for wildlife. While the proper practices of Bushcraft often caretake for the land, Leave No Trace is meant to lessen our impact, it is not meant to steward it.

Of course, varying levels of leaving no trace prove vital for certain areas that see dramatic human impact and recreation—such as many of our national and public parks. Yet, depending on the area, living with the land through seasonal rounds and thoughtful harvest can be beneficial for local flora and fauna.

A true Bushcraft practitioner does not act solely for their own survival. Every act of harvesting and crafting must also tend to the wild and more-than-human-world. For example, burning small diameter, wild harvested firewood (for camp and cooking fires) can decrease fuel loads and fuel ladders in specific areas. This in turn significantly decreases wildfire danger. Properly harvesting/coppicing willow shoots for basketry increases density for bird habitat. And harvesting invasive species for food, such as purple varnish clams, carp, and Japanese knotweed, reopens territory for native species.

When visiting areas where varying degrees of leave no trace is essential, such as heavily used recreation and public areas, awareness-based Bushcraft skills from tracking and bird language (the art of identifying animal movements based on the mapped sequence of multiple bird calls and alarms), are also beneficial in truly getting to know such places. Also, Bushcraft of Stewardship teaches us to travel through the land as softly as possible. You learn to walk in a way where you leave barely any tracks. Silence and deliberate movement is a strategy of survival and Bushcraft, especially minimizing the disturbance of songbirds to not interrupt their feeding and baseline routines. As you become less of a disruption to the immediate avian environment, you are seen as less of a foreign invader by all wildlife (they often adjust their movements based on bird alarms). As a result, you see more animals wherever you go.

Finally, there is even greater outdoor educational value with truly hands-on wilderness skills. When we are profoundly dependent on what is often viewed as “wild” for our shelter, water, fire, and food, this fosters communal, social, and even familial relationships with the more-than-human world. Such humbling connections can prove difficult to replicate when we only perceive nature as a recreational luxury and privilege. Putting nature ONLY in parks is what possibly leads to the blithe social indifference towards the wilderness, an attitude so pervasive in the modern world where every convenience can be ordered online.

Through our everyday teaching at Trackers Earth, while educating thousands of children and adults each year, we observe the stewardship and educational value of Bushcraft. Bringing what is wild back into our everyday lives helps us remember the following: we must preserve the wilderness we have left, but we also must make what has once been domesticated, wild once again.

Recently I observed a group of outdoor educators discussing “play-based” and “child-centered” learning. I noticed an almost dogmatic and singular interpretation of how these concepts relate to forest schools—even how we parents should raise our kids.

For those not familiar with these terms, they can mean many things. Frequently, play-based learning refers to free play and exploration, especially in the outdoors. Child-centered learning is more vague, ranging from curriculum-based on each student’s individual needs and interests to children wholly choosing the subject and scope of their learning.

I’ll begin by affirming that play is absolutely essential to learning (and life) and working with students beyond a standardized educational model should be the baseline. Yet both concepts of play-based and child-centered learning are not often well integrated into the whole picture of how children learn to value nature or become adults who contribute to their community and the Earth.

The option to always (and only) play through life, even as a child, is a contemporary luxury and a toxic privilege that leads to self-centered adults. Unfortunately, parents or educators can often feel driven to make everything entertaining through “play”. This fearful obsession is fueled by modern culture’s inability to provide work infused with joy or play aligned with responsibility.

In order to grow into competent, healthy humans, children need to see adults “adulting” well. Relative to other great apes such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans, we humans possess an incredible capacity for intersubjectivity—the ability to quickly theorize what others are thinking based on information such as body language, expression, and more. Intersubjectivity is how humans evolved into master trackers: able to predict the whereabouts of their quarry with a mix of simple clues, knowing their landscape, and “thinking” like the animal they are hunting. It is also why children are so adept at learning by imitation, especially from their elders.

In the ancestral past we all share, children had time to explore the land where they lived. Certainly, they played, but they also engaged in vital responsibilities during such explorations: harvesting and cracking nuts, foraging tidal pools, gathering wood for the fire. When they wandered further from the family hearth or village proper, they might be relied upon to bring back berries, fish, or small game. Their caregivers would provide them with the physical tools and materials needed to carry out these expected tasks: baskets, knives, or hunting weapons. Or these elders would show them how to craft their own, sometimes through direct instruction and storytelling, sometimes through unguided imitation and trial and error. As children grew, their responsibilities became more complex (and more interesting), and ever more essential to their family or village.

They were not doted on by adults pandering to every precocious question. Rather, practicality, mindfulness, and resourcefulness were expectations as they walked with their parents, tending to the day-to-day needs of their family and the land they were a part of. With familial and communal survival directly at stake, there was no hard and fast rule for learning the “how-to” of a task. It was whatever mixture of methods reliably guided the child to be truly helpful.

This “work” of survival did not lessen how much a child intrinsically valued nature (the more-than-human-world). Instead, this “work” of livelihood provided a daily reminder of their dependency on and connection to the Earth—going far beyond what distilled recreation and play can ever hope to reach.

Explorations of our ancestral past and evolutionary assets can offer profound implications for the in vogue concepts of play-based and child-centered learning as applied to outdoor education and forest schools. A healthier and more balanced approach to child development should encompass the well-being of the community (village) and the more-than-human-world, even shifting the notion of child-centered to a multi-generational scope. Meanwhile, our play can involve meaningful work that reinforces and provides for these greater ecological and communal connections.

When we venture into the out-of-doors, give our children duties and responsibilities with meaning. Expand upon those opportunities with sage advice and, even more important, sage role-modeling. Then, with access to these cultural tools, physical tools, and the wilder world, let them play and explore. Responsibility to community informs their play. In turn, play informs their responsibility to community. Treat this as a never-ending cycle and you will discover the true school of the forest.


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