Into The Woods Mentoring Youth in the “Invisible Classroom”

By Jeff Davis

Twelve-year-old Melody Kauff’s outdoor education comes in three ways: from the mice whose tracks she follows, from the girl who in a game called “Follow the Scout” led her inadvertently to discover an owl pellet with a skull and teeth mixed in, and from the man in his forties she calls her mentor.

Like numerous youth in the Mid-Hudson Valley, Melody receives an education most of us adults would envy—an education in how to live confidently among deer and bear, owls and hawks.  Programs, informal groups, and home schooling opportunities in the area are helping to raise a generation that doesn’t simply believe in its integral connection to the earth’s myriad inhabitants. They live it.

Mentoring programs intimately connect youth to larger communities — human, animal, and plant—through teaching them how to live in nature. At my first workshop on building a mentoring community recently, my hands joined with some forty people, ranging from a spry six year-old to a grizzly sixty-five year- old, who held hands and closed the circle.

While we stood in the meadow, workshop leader Mark Morey told the youth that for the next two hours they must go out into the woods and return with certain “goods”: evidence of specific types of owl, evidence of fox, dogbane for cordage, and more. “You’re going to need each other,” Morey told them. “So, first plan how you’re going to stay together, and how you’re going to find what you need.”

Morey’s purpose, as I would discover, was not simply to send the kids off on a natural treasure hunt. These tasks were part of a larger vision to help youth become more oriented to nature and more empathetic with wildlife.

The youth later returned not just with the required “items” and evidence. After going through an extensive questioning session with Morey, cofounder of the Vermont Wilderness School, they also possessed a deeper appreciation for their natural community. One boy told me he never really understood an owl’s diet and hunger until he felt with his own hands one of its pellets. A young woman said this experience had deepened her appreciation for preserving wildlife’s habitats. Consequently, she’s become involved with a local animal rescue organization.

These mentoring communities emphasize our responsibility to one another and to wildlife. And it begins, according to Morey, with authentic human commu- Into the Woods: Mentoring Youth in the “Invisible School” nities connected intimately to natural communities. Adult mentors, Morey said during a telephone interview, “raise the bar of expectation for youth in terms of character.” Children consequently grow up more aware of their responsibility both to the human community and the natural community. Morey recently sent an older student, for example, to the Canadian border to assist in a project to track and possibly help preserve lynx, now endangered.

Empathy with Wildlife

Morey’s zeal for building mentoring communities inspired Charles Purvis of Accord, New York, four years ago. After participating in programs similar to Morey’s, Purvis said he instantly saw in his two sons an “amazing awakening marked by wonder, enthusiasm, passion.” Last autumn, Purvis, David Brownstein of New Paltz, New York, Chris Victor, and others formed Red Fox Friends, a group that offers youth workshops and summer camps to further this community-building.

Imagine the world as an animal. How does he see? How does he smell? How does he hear? These are typical activities that Purvis and others at Red Fox Friends engage youth in.

In an activity called “Owl Eyes,” boys and girls learn to view the birch and cedar in front of them with a soft focus. Then, they learn to heed their peripheral vision and “un-focus.” Doing so, Purvis notes, gets youth out of their rational, thinking mind and into a more wondrous state of mind that helps them empathize with animals. With the “Deer Ears” activity, youth try to hear everything they possibly can—what’s above, behind them, beneath them. They try to heed the tiniest ant crawling on a dead leaf. Doing so helps them recognize, too, that someone furry probably is listening to their every move.

And when the kids practice “Fox Walking,” they learn how to walk as silently and “invisibly” as possible like a fox. In some instances, Purvis says, some kids have been able literally to walk right up to a deer. Other wilderness programs in the area offer young people similar opportunities. Riccardo Sierra, Director of Hawk Circle Wilderness Programs—an hour southwest of Albany—says that building bonds between adults and youth is more important than imparting skills. These workshops and summer camps are not about just “cramming” information, says Sierra who has taught in New York since 1989. “The real learning happens between the skills” of animal tracking, fire building, and edible plant harvesting. The nearby Mohonk Preserve’s array of dynamic summer camp programs also heightens youths’ awareness of the outdoors in the context of building human relationships.

To introduce youth to the wilderness, naturalist and environmental educator Jay Leavitt founded the non-profit organization The Red Tail Rising School for Natural History. Leavitt and his groups of home-schooled youth, among other activities, take regular outings to the Adirondacks to track pine marten or cougar. These youth, Leavitt says, amaze him not just from their knowledge of animal behavior but also from their conviction to make the world better for their winged and furry friends.

The heart of these experiences is not about findings as if on a wild treasure hunt. For Bosch Purvis, who turns thirteen in March, it’s about becoming comfortable in nature. “I don’t mean just taking a walk in nature,” Bosch says. “I mean, you know, being comfortable in nature for three weeks without staying in a building.” An avid skier, sledder, and soccer player, Bosch is learning to love the outdoors for more than recreation. He and Melody and thousands of other lucky youth are discovering core parts of themselves as well in what some people like to call “the invisible school” — wilderness.

Jeff Davis is author of The Journey from the Center to the Page (Penguin 2004), His articles appear in publications such as Conscious Choice and Enlightened Practice. He is managing editor of Wildlife Watch Binocular.

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