Youth up my way are slashing & discarding tents, smashing brandy bottles & making unsuccessful attempts at fire. Sound familiar? What kind of cultural inheritance is this? Can we join in?
What your reading just now is a blog, not a developmental opportunity we might stumble upon in the outdoors; but nonetheless i thought to explore a potent metaphor when crossing a threshold: ‘What does it mean to carry fire?’
I’m gonna start with a story that took place in the closing hours of 2014 whilst i was walking at night in Newhaven, from Leith in Edinburgh; Scotland…
“as i walked to toward my van there were three eager teens walking ahead of me. I recognised their enthusiasm, their fervour, banter; boister. A part of me matched their gait; more of an empathic response than anything else.
As they rounded the corner left and disappeared out of sight my peripheral focus widened to take in the possibility of traffic; as i was to cross the road & continue straight on. As i reached the curb on the corner i saw one of the youth had donned a balaclava with his hood up, directly to my left the one with the hair gel made a swing for me with his right hand.
They couldn’t have been more than fourteen.
Instinctively, i blocked the punch with my left forearm as my body coiled and my weight transferred onto the rear foot & my centre of gravity lowered; instead of uncoiling i let out a comedy ‘K-PWSSSH’, the ‘chip-tune’ sound of a ninja blocking a move.
The universe stopped for a brief moment.
Then the one with the balaclava laughed, & all of then ran off; fair play… it was really funny.’
Light the Chalice…
Conversely, This weekend i’m learning the art of keeping fire from a fifteen year old lad and his mum. We’re tasked with lighting three big fires a day & keep some stones burning in them for about 8 hours per day. One of those rare support jobs that necessitates hanging out in the same spot for 72 hours; practically helping hold space.
This particular art the boy, who has participated in some of my programs, is teaching me & he’s very competent at it. As it turns out, he’s been fulfilling duties as a ceremonial fire-keeper since the age of 10 & has earned his feathers, which is a bit like having a certificate from your society to say ‘we trust you mate; we know that you’ve got it together’.
Anyway, after the first day i suggested keeping an ember from the fire in a fomes mushroom; the intention being to ‘carry the fire’ on through the night & to rekindle it in the morning. So there we were at first light, blowing air on an overnighted ember & now, as i write, i sit amongst a huge ceremonial blaze.
To Coyote Camp & back again…
This year Douglas Mackay & I are heading from Scotland to Vermont to help facilitate a three week Wilderness Rites of Passage for teenagers. Our intention: to give ourselves fully to the experience & bring back a bundle of teachings to integrate into our locales.
I’m only on fifty quid a week so, it’s an adventure we need your help in realising.
Mark Morey of the Institute for Natural learning is gonna receive us at the other end. He’s led Coyote Camp, amongst other wilderness programmes for teens for the past 25 years; & is about to retire. What he carries is a tradition…
Why are we bothering? I mentioned at the start of the article the incident of youth gathering in the woods to make merry & not even have the wherewithal to start a fire. What would it look like if some of their peers, or younger, were to learn arts such as shelter, fire, making knives, how to carry water in a traditional way? What if they then transferred these skills to their psychological edge on a solo experience, with the minimal of equipment for 24 hours & returned with knowing something unique about themselves?
What if these stories were received by a community of people; who could honour them for who they are & who they might be becoming?
Embracing the Elements … Feeling at Home.
It was Mark who taught me that primary encounters in the outdoors can be tended as a facilitator as elements of a ‘rites of passage’ experience; gateways to consciously walk to, cross over; embrace & return from. These are not challenges that are completed once experienced; more encounters to get to know & things to form relationships with.
For example; visceralise the act of getting:
Cold: To embrace the sensation of cold without judgement or preconception.
Wet: To be soaked to the skin.
Alone: Be by oneself, in & with the natural environment & one’s own thoughts, feelings & conceptions.
Muddy: To accept the soil as part of one’s clothing, skin & hair.
Dark: To be without an artificial source of light; with nothing but the stars & moon to see by.
Buggy: To allow the insect kingdom a place on & all around you.
Lost: To not know where one is or where one might go next; & be at peace with that.
Hungry: To experience no food in your belly and how your physical & emotional responses to the fact.
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These are not the tales from a brothers grimm book; these are formative experiences that steep young adults in good stead for the challenges they face in the world. Together, they & the stories they conjure are the part of the roots of cultural resilience; the stuff of adventure.
Of course Fire is primary to all these things: To know how & when to make fire or warm oneself from materials around you is a practical skill; but to know you can do it, make home amongst any environment offers an enormous amount of psychological fortitude know matter what life throws at you. Socially too, having this skill means that one can share the simple things: food, warmth, a focal point in the dark night; company, story & song.
Beating the bounds…. dwelling on the edge.
As a youth, all these challenges were hit & miss for me. Sure, i encountered them; but the presence of mentors to acknowledge their importance & help make sense of becoming a young man was not as clear cut & boundaries merged.
Where i’m from ‘wild nature’ was & is to be found not on the grazed mountains far from home but on the back doorstep ‘between housing estates, along old railway lies & above old quarries’. Here’s a snapshot… Only a stones throw from the railway line i mention here.
I remember as a young Boy Scout playing a game called ‘jailbreak’ where we, as the ‘older’ boys, were dropped off alone five miles from town at night; & had to get into the walls of the scout hut before dawn without being captured by the patrolling leaders with the younger boys.
That was the first time I’ve ever looked into the vacant eyes of a sleeping sheep at 2am under the glare of a neon streetlamp. It was not the first or last time by any means I’ve been wet, muddy, cold & crawled through bushes; but staying up through the night evading capture was for sure exhilarating.
Please Donate some Money or ask others to do so….
This is the time of my life where i give to my community. Lets face it, an unbroken tradition of offering Nature Connection opportunities for young adults is not something that most communities have. I’m celebrating both the the lineage of Coyote Camp and Dougie & I’s commitment to bringing it home to Inverness. We hope you’ll celebrate it too & would consider donating to our crowdfunding pitch. here’s the link & here’s the video we made to promote it:
Please pass it on in your networks, to friends, family, colleagues and anyone else you’ll think it’ll help light up.
Bring em all in’
I can’t tell you how many times when i’ve got into a conversation on a train, or a taxi or somesuch and someone’s asked what i do. So very often; they’ll respond with an exuberant tale of the one outdoor experience they had on a school trip. The stories, no matter how boring have one thing in common; there’s a light that comes on in their brains for a moment, like a part of their original instructions are unlocked. That light in the eyes is the passion & exuberance I’m interested in seeing in all generations in my community. We have to kindle this fire; or die trying.
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Here in the Highlands we still have remnants of tradition that offer this opportunity to rekindle, One Uist it was only in 1950 for example; that the youth stopped going to the Shielings in the hills after the Beltane fires and spending the summer months at work, play & learning the primary things of life away from the gossip and drudgery of the town. Here’s a project attempting to doing just that for schoolchildren.
These traditions are all there for the (re)claiming; OUR inheritance, OUR heritage; OUR ancestral instructions for how to be a resilient adult. I’m not advocating a return to poverty, (though voluntarily i’d maintain it’s not such a bad choice); but i am stating as fact the need for all of us to seek relationships with Nature regular & often for our psychological and spiritual fortitude. The alternative is far from resilient and i acknowledge this reality for the many million of people that comprise all the nations occupying our Atlantic Isles.
That is my intention, we embark on the journey. To be clear, if we had all the answers we wouldn’t need to go on the adventure! As a leader, holding all the pieces of this, with peace; and with the central fire in mind i.e. the soulful development of the many youths participating requires both vision & a team to implement it.
As part of a team this year we will deliver some good work at Coyote Camp in North America. I’m sure, developmentally, Dougie & I too will bring back some of our own skills & aptitudes sharpened and in focus. On our return, we want to build an inter-generational team to deliver this work here in Scotland… we might even ask the local taxi driver.
I hope too, there are the wider elements; that of getting it all together, with youth, with parents, with eager facilitators & volunteers with the central fire in mind; is something that we feel sanctioned by our community to deliver on our return.
Thanks; again & again…
As i said at the beginning, this blog is not a developmental opportunity. Let’s leave that to the magic that comes to us in the animate outdoors. I hope you will help us spread the word. Thanks;
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