Friday, December 10, 2010

York Region Planning and Development and Survival!

Wilderness skills aren't just about the wilderness. Survival skills aren't just something you use when you wander too far into the woods. The York Region Planning and Development Department learned these things this week, as Sticks and Stones was invited to provide a day of out of the ordinary activities for their annual Christmas celebration.

It was not your usual corporate gathering. Lunch was served before the city staff received their real treat. It was a cold day, with some flurries... most were shocked to learn that they would be spending it outside, learning survival skills. Skeet's introductory talk definitely sparked excitement. The students would be rotated through four stations, learning fire by friction, archery, tracking, and the basics of outdoor clothing (shelter) and water purification. It was a team building exercise, and a competition to see who could learn the most. And all did learn!

The most important lesson of the day was that life in the wild isn't all that different from life in the city. The deer spend their days foraging, hanging out in social spots, mating, looking for good shelter for the winter and keeping track of the health of their community. We spend our days working in departments like that of York Region to pay the bills for food, clothing, and entertainment. We make city plans and developments so that our community may be strong for the future generations. As living creatures, we're not so different than the deer, engaged in our own circle of life that provides for ourselves and those who will follow and continue the cycle. Survival is really just life, and we're all in it together.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Year of Intern Life

It's the start of the winter, and many things have changed. A blizzard has piled the snow around the doors, and the air is chilly. Interns Dave, Drasko and Mike have packed up and shipped themselves home. The workshop, for once, is still and empty... but Kate's stomach is full, and she and Skeet are anxiously awaiting the birth of their first child.

The term started with Mike's arrival in May. From the get go, it was an experiential learning experience for the interns and Skeet. The Residential Program will be in full swing in 2011 -- the interns of 2010 all signed up early to act as guinea pigs for the program, and in return were provided with the opportunity ahead of time.

After taking the Empowering Ancient Ways course at the school in April, Mike was passionate enough about what he'd learned to make Skeet the offer of helping to establish a baseline for future interns, in return for his mentoring. And so arrived the first intern, full of excitement and ready for the challenges that would come.

Mike came to the school with a military background, and was eager to expand his worldview. He began his internship with a passion for all things primitive, and "Back-to-the-Earth" living, learning about wild edibles, sleeping outside in debris huts, making bow drill fires, and studying the animals that lived in the forest with him. He made his own bow and arrows, helped harvest a local steer, and pushed his outdoor living skills from the get go in May up until the end of November.

The depth of growth that would come from Mike's experience was past what he had expected. In living simply, in touch with all the realities of life, he developed a sense of everyday meaning and focus. He began to understand the complexities of the modern world that had so troubled him. He's since realized that you do not have to sleep in a debris hut to attune yourself to the natural world, as everything is, in essence, natural. He plans to apply his learned, wilderness work ethic to studies at the University of Toronto in Environmental Studies. He dreams of making sustainability in the city a serious reality by localizing everything he can and limiting our energy consumption.

Drasko arrived as an intern in August, after having already been to school, freshly graduated from the University of Western Ontario with an undergraduate degree in psychology. He has taken courses at the Tracker School in New Jersey, taught by Tom Brown Jr., who was also Skeet's mentor.

Drasko's internship began with more experience under his belt, and upon showing up with a tipi to camp out in, he was ready to test himself. His internship differed from Mike's by nature of having already had some of the experiences he had had, and Drasko made it his personal goal to cook during the classes and help out as much as he could with the school. He came to the school to connect with like-minds, and to receive mentoring he was longing for through Skeet.

He began by diving into the "core routines" of nature connection, focusing on journaling and going to a sit spot, with the Kamana Naturalist Training Program ( as a guide. He experienced outdoor life in his tipi right up until the colder months, but began to experience unexpected challenges with eczema, and joined the other interns to sleep by the wood stove in the barn. He's learned that there will always be obstacles to overcome in life, and that the only way to get to the other side is by jumping the hurdle, no matter how big. He plans to continue his routines at home in London, Ontario, studying with a tested zest and running workshops through his organization, Track My Back. Future plans include travel, and playing in a local band.

Dave came to the school from Algonquin park, and isn't a musician -- yet. Learning to play the guitar was one of the many pastimes he picked up during his internship. Dave showed up in August, and was already used to the outdoors, having worked as an Interior Ranger for several seasons. Like Drasko, Dave's passion for primitive skills comes with experience, and perhaps the best kind. As a youngster, he struggled to teach himself how to make a bow drill fire in his basement for months. Now, he "pops coals" in 20 seconds or less. He's taken courses with Outward Bound, and at Sticks and Stones before his internship, and knows Skeet as a friend. He couldn't say no to the opportunity to practice his naturalist skills and help out around the school.

Having been tempered by the wilderness already, Dave's challenges were different from the other interns. He has learned about mentoring and community, and was pushed from the beginning of his time at the school when he signed up for the Art of Mentoring class run through the P.I.N.E. Project of Toronto. Expressing himself openly and participating in a culture of growth is something that he's come to appreciate, as he gets older and thinks about settling down.

As well as being mentored by Skeet, Dave had the chance to practice his own mentoring skills with Mike and Drasko, constantly quizzing them both on their knowledge of birds, something he is continually passionate about. He has honed those skills even further, having had the chance to be surrounded by a group interested in learning from him. He has done much the same thing by teaching Mike how to handle tools and split wood, and they are both the better for it.

Individual growth is a stepping stone to community growth, but it's definitely a two-way street. As the interns have poured themselves into their own goals, they have also poured themselves into the school. After six months of focus, the program is it a point where there is little difference between the growth of the interns and the the growth of the school, for they are truly two roots of the same tree. All interns contribute community hours throughout the week and have more than enough free time to pursue their own goals. A healthy trunk has given way to young branches, and there is little doubt that more will grow, thanks to the thriving network of life that is working hard to make it so.

The "official" Residential Program is in the works for next season. Babies are soon to be born in this one. What has been accomplished is testament to the miracle of life itself, and there is deep gratitude all around. Who knows what growth will continue, but it is for certain that the seeds of life and energy have been planted deeply and firmly in the foundations of the school (and in Kate's belly). Thank you to all the students who have joined us on our journey so far, and we look forward to making new tracks with old and new friends in the future.

The White-tailed Deer of Southern Ontario

For the past week at the school, white-tailed deer have been quite the neighbours. Very quiet, elusive, and reserved neighbours... and all interactions with them have produced a sense of majestic awe in their viewers.

The entire week was dedicated to their pursuit, either with bow or camera. The world of stalking and still hunting empowered students in awareness of the moment, and all were blessed by the beauty of the animals they saw, heard, and tracked.

Students began the course practicing the ancient skill of the sit spot. Finding a spot to sit in the woods, to watch, listen and observe the life around you, is a core routine for not only hunting, but for practicing awareness as well.

The start of the week was focused on sitting in its purest form. Students were taught to slow down with no other motive, and to pay attention to the details of their surroundings, and when they came back in, to relive their experiences in the form of stories and journals.

The quest for deer would take the class to several properties in the Orangeville area. Many of the landowners are members of the Managed Forest Tax Incentive Plan, and provide the school with the opportunity to explore their healthy forests.

Students learned that the areas most populated by deer always have cover (evergreens, valleys, corn fields), food (apples, acorns, beech nuts, shrubs), good hiding spots for socializing, and water. Upon arriving at a new property, it was the job of the students to discover, map and examine how these four ingredients fit together, and to choose a sit spot based on their own predictions.

Most hunters go out before sunrise so the birds and squirrels aren't put on edge, return midday for lunch and siesta time, and head out again late afternoon. For traditional bow hunters, siesta time is a bit of a misnomer. There are always arrows to make and targets to shoot.

Doug Getgood, a student this year, used his siesta time to train his arm to shoot without his compound bow. He decided to switch to his traditional recurve halfway through the week. Intern Mike used his time to finish his self-made hickory longbow, and to learn how to shoot it. There is something about traditional archery that honours the hunt, perhaps simply because of the hard work that goes into it.

But the biggest lesson of the week was in learning how to be invisible. It is one thing to be a successful deer hunter or photographer. It is quite another to do so without the deer knowing, using stealth, camouflage, and awareness.

It is a great pleasure to observe wild deer. Being invisible in the woods returns that honour by disturbing them as little as possible -- much as we take our shoes off and leave our noisy voices outside our own homes, we can do the same in the forest by slowing down and being grateful for all the gifts the deer give us, and by respecting their space.

Thank you to the white-tailed deer for the wonder and lessons that you have given us.