Sunday, September 27, 2020

I was 14 years old and reading Walden. About three-quarters of the way through the book, I said to my parents:

This high school thing isn’t working for me, I need to do something different. I’m going to explore the wilderness.

They offered no argument and zero debate. Instead, they went about helping me figure out how to make it happen. My mother and father saw that I was suffering during my Freshman year. I found prescriptive education stifling, evidenced by my (possibly pretentious) interest in 19th-century transcendentalism. The strict compartmentalization of conventional classrooms felt painful. Moreover, I was consistently bullied and struggled socially.

But in nature, there was no edict limiting what I could explore and who I could learn from. There were no fluorescent lights pushing my face into a desk. And no one to tease me when I didn’t know the latest band or wasn’t a star Sportsball player.

Eventually, I discovered Forest Craft. My goal: learn the skills that bring me closer to the Wild. My family couldn’t afford to send me to a class across the country or buy books on the subject. Yet what they lacked in financial resources they more than made up for in love and encouragement.

Because Forest Craft is both so deep and so broad, it can be a challenge to learn without teachers. There were no outdoor homeschool programs that I knew of. This was long before bushcraft videos on YouTube. All I had was my bike and a library card.

That process of self-education often proved more profound than answers from a ready-made curriculum. Eventually, I helped assemble a growing community of like-minded folks who shared an appreciation for the natural world. Some also left high school with the same vision. We made primitive shelters, surviving the elements with no modern gear. We foraged through seasons of wild foods. We tracked the local bears, getting to know them like they were part of our own village. Together we learned challenging and epic lessons from the wilderness.

Conventional education failed to provide me with healthy social connections, wilder freedom, and deeper roots. My journey may have started out inspired by Thoreau’s solitary rantings by Walden Pond, but with the support of my big Italian Family, we evolved into a village. And, at some point along the way, we started to call it Trackers. Twenty-eight years later, I feel privileged to be part of that community with our staff and the families we serve.

I know there is a better way for children to grow and learn than the prescriptive education forced upon us. My own children learn through their connection to nature and the freedom it brings. Their “home school days” are often spent wandering the forest, sometimes without an adult. They talk about plants and animals in those woods like they are old friends. And they’re surrounded by more than just teachers, they have mentors who I consider their extended family.

That’s the goal of all our year-round programs, from our Homeschool Outdoor Program to our Weekend Apprenticeships: Give every kid a connection that goes beyond school. Help them find a vision that empowers many generations beyond their own adventures in learning.
See you in the woods,

Trackers Earth, Founder

There are many words for purpose: dreams, goals, vision. Fundamentally, to find our way, we need to know where we are going. As an educator, I understand that fostering purpose empowers students to become autonomous learner. And more importantly, it helps kids grow into well-rounded adults.

Many confuse fostering a child’s sense of purpose with making that child feel special. Unfortunately, being labeled the “chosen one” can have a negative effect on developing functional goals. When free of such pernicious myths, kids don’t care if they’re special—instead they naturally seek out how they can be useful, how they can be truly helpful.

Babies need to see themselves as the center of attention in order to survive: feed me, shelter me, me, me, me. That’s healthy, because infants cannot take care of themselves. Yet, as they grow, kids are hardwired to progressively break out of parental dependency and do more for themselves. Unfortunately, the overzealous comforts our culture demands can stifle a child’s natural inclination toward independence.

Autonomy by itself does not provide purpose, however. Different forms of independence can still prove selfish. Self-reliance is just the doorway to being truly helpful to your family and community.

We’ve all met “driven” people who act completely self-centered. A selfish visionary is never healthy. On the other hand, purpose with the right balance of humility, thoughtfulness and self-assurance not only leads to individual genius, but also contributes to collective brilliance.

This takes us back to evolution. We evolved to find purpose with the survival of our tribe. Once we understand that, we can understand what truly motivates our kids—and ourselves.

This is one challenge with conventional schooling. There’s no innate sense of greater purpose in getting good grades. You could argue that good grades lead to college, which could eventually lead to a job that does help people. But such far-reaching goals are too abstract to be good motivation for the average seven-year-old.

Grades do not build a chain of wisdom one link at time, nor do they appeal to the natural instincts of a child. But when you tell a kid, “Go catch a fish and bring it home to the family for dinner,” they instantly understand. When that fish is frying in the skillet, while everyone’s waiting to eat, the kid who caught it beams with pride. It’s like our bodies and minds function optimally with a life attuned to natural environments. Go figure!

As kids grow older, their purpose naturally abstracts to encompass more than the everyday. Ideally, it extends beyond their lifetime and for many generations into the future. A vision where they care for more than just people, they also tend to nature and the more-than-human world. In order to reach so far, we must allow our kids to cultivate the foundations that come from finding purpose in simple moments. Let them know: the family needs a fish for dinner.

-By Tony Deis

MISSION – Purpose Debrief
The Trackers Earth community lives by three purposes. If your child has been to our camps (or if they are a kindred adventurer), it might be useful to discuss these and see how they fit into their understanding of the world.

Purpose beyond self-centeredness. For family and village.
Purpose beyond human-centeredness. For diversity and the more-than-human world.
Purpose beyond our lifetime. For many generations into the future.

Whenever May arrives in Oregon I get antsy. Each time I visit a farmer’s market that restlessness gets worse as I scan the booths. Why? It’s finally strawberry season!

strawberries-2At the beginning of the month the berries start trickling in and soon little pint boxes line tables and counters. I know I can easily go to the store and buy some giant strawberries shipped here from other, warmer places. But the briefness of the Oregon strawberry season is part of its allure.

I love everything about strawberries: picking them, smelling them, eating them until I feel slightly ill, then lounging in the sun covered in their sticky juice. These are memories I want to pass on to children: my own, as well as the children I teach here at Trackers.

Now that the Oregon strawberry season is in full force, we have been celebrating the harvest in many ways. Last week our After School students baked strawberry shortcake, then crushed berries, sugar and lemon juice to top their dessert. Today my daughter is traveling out to Sauvies Island with our Homeschool Program to pick strawberries (though I highly doubt many will make it into her basket). And next week there are rumors of a trip to the neighborhood farmer’s market and strawberry sorbet.

While all of these activities are delicious, they also viscerally connect kids to the seasonal rhythms of the year. In our year-long programs, we take kids outside through all the seasons. We watch how our small part of the world changes with the waning and waxing of sunlight and how that affects plants, animals and our own activities. Fall harvest, cider pressing, gathering acorns and making them into bread, winter fires, raising chicks, eating dandelions, and collecting the first bounty of summer are all parts of the Wilder year. Getting children elbows-deep in the cycle of the natural world is their first step to being connected to the Wilds around them.

And though I love sharing each and every season with my students, not much beats a sun-ripened strawberry picked by happy, dirty kids.

Make: Strawberry Shortcake

These cakes are made in muffin tins, which is easier for little hands and means industrious kids can even bake them in a toaster oven.

For the Berries: Rinse and take the tops off of about 1 lb strawberries (about 4 cups). Mash together with ¼ cup sugar and 1 Tbsp lemon juice. Let sit while you make the shortcake.

For the Shortcake:

1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup butter either softened or cut into pieces
1 large egg
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 F. Mix the flour sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Use a fork or your hands to work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mix is grainy.

In a second bowl, beat the egg, heavy cream and milk with a fork until they are mixed.  Add vanilla.  Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the cream mixture. Mix with the fork until the dough is evenly moistened. If the dough seems dry, add more cream or milk, 1 tsp. at a time.

Fill greased muffin tins halfway and sprinkle tops with the remaining 1 Tbs. sugar.  Bake until the muffin tops are lightly browned and a toothpick comes out clean, 10 to 15 minutes.

Whip 1-2 cups heavy whipping cream. This can be done with a mixer, or for more fun you can put it in a large lidded jar and shake it until it is whipped.

Slice cooled shortcake and top with berries and cream. Best eaten while sitting in the sun.