page title icon Positive Deviants

At the edge you can see at once where the life and the death is. Choose.  

Not all reaping is Grim.

Wordsworth was right when he said ‘the child is father of the man’ and; for better or worse, my feral childhood in the lanes and woodland edges of Kenfig Hill have left an indelible sense of nature in my neurobiology.

Visiting a friend, by way of the back lane, sometimes involved deviations from the direct route. More than once, I remember I used to relish a diversion which involved lowering between a tree and a wall, then holding myself horizontally to enter legs-first through a pane-less window frame; followed by a shaky and scrapy lower into a garage. It smelled industrious and full of the enterprise of an old man I never did meet; save for his ghost in the form of the space left animate. Other times, I’d scale a wall and relish the jump and Dempsey roll in a garden just to knock on a mate’s back door.

Now I’m not saying all mischief is good mischief. But it I’m definitely making a case for mischief. It’s only a matter of time before I google the word ‘positive deviance’; a new one on me-gleaned from a siblings Twitter feed and profession far more esteemed than my own. But for now. I’m gonna wax the lexicon on the lyrical surfboard and catch this current spring wave with it…

Through microadventures like this, we grew to explore our territory. In time the territory grew wider. What links it all is a creative, mischievous edge betwixt and between the post-industrial landscape and the green. Even in middle age, I still relish in hiding in one to view the other, just coming that close to the human fringe to see but be unseen. It’s a comedic place; there’s room for surprise to happen there.

Afoot in Fife

I want to tell you a story of an impulsive idea, with practical purpose mind;it highlights my compulsion to inject mischief when it is not present. I will return to the possible implications of such a habit before this blog is done.

One Summer’s afternoon eleven teenagers were triumphantly returning to base camp following a three day expedition where much had taken place. Feral and camoflauged, we were skirting a rural household in Fife by way of a woodland edge along a country lane.

For some reason the presence of the house, known well to me as my water pick up point ( and friends place who for sure was currently at work), presented an opportunity to me for 3 reasons.

  1. We needed water.
  2. The group were about to return to family and integrate a week of nature connection and evasion games in a wilderness setting.
  3. The presence of human habitation held a tension for them.

So, using hand signals, they gathered up in the woods, ditched their rucsacs and discussed their strategy for passing this obstacle unseen. I intervened…

‘We need water and I’m pretty sure there’ll be an outside tap. Do you the think we could be silent enough too…?’

Sucked in, they failed to see my colleagues eyes roll back, instead they looked at me sideways. Some smiled, already completely there in their minds eye. Here was an adult giving permission for mischief.

What followed was an elaborate 25 minute diversionary activity. The kids got a drink, a successful ‘evasion’ and a real world adventure out of it. I must confess I was having a ball too; lingering on the threshold of releasing my duty of care after a very intensive immersing course.

Fertile Grounds

Of course all this hide & seek nonsense is a natural impulse; but so often quashed when kids get to teen-age & the urge to skirt the periphery and test the edges is viewed as delinquency.

On a recent visit to the USA i saw this fertile impulse planted with the seed of an idea:

‘Be truly helpful to your community whilst remaining unseen on the edges’.

This seed was exemplified by some strong lineage stories of the Apache Scout tradition and later expressed & handed down via Mark Morey & Jon Young through the oral teachings of Tom Brown. This book, ‘The Way of the Scout’ by the way, has some extraordinarily HIGH BAR missions for storytelling purposes!!!

This idea, although subterraneally drip-irrigated throughout the week through coyote mentoring is perhaps best expressed through a brief example of a group ‘mission’.

Having spent a full 30-odd hours ‘out’ from standing camp, with very minimal group equipment; two groups met at a confluence of a river at dusk, in a forest for a food drop. Silently, to avoid detection, they lit a fire by friction with materials foraged in the lit hours and swam while the food cooked.

After supper, the fire revealed the state of the area. It had been trashed by locals getting-off-their-face. The kids cleaned up the area entirely and re- made the fire pit, snuck bin-bags to the trail head; and reslung their blanket packs. Storing an ember from the fire in a bundle of kindling, they retreated into the now pitch black forest; literally holding each other shoulder to shoulder to avoid being alone with the bears. But, that’s another story.

The fire pit kind of symbolised a healthy pursuit that had somehow gone awry in the territory. Emphasis, throughout that whole fortnight was placed on tending the fire right & leaving no trace of having been there. Historically of course, & perhaps coming yet; this was an inordinately important skill for preservation of the family.

Tidy Beyond.

Back to the present moment, today I think of this experience from the perspective of a village builder. What is the net effect going to be if we set up cultural norms where this sort of mischief is encouraged? Even if it’s not you doling out the japes? Would I want a culture that is bereft of this element? What presents the most health?

Put another way, I understand that the rush of walking invisibly on the edge of society can invoke some extraordinary enlivening attributes for some: I will name them:

Aliveness and agility.
An intensely focused yet ‘Quiet’ mind.

I know because that is what it did for me as a boy. I know because from time to time; it feeds me still.

At the end of the day, amidst a myriad of memes, there has to be a proportion of the culture who’s duty is to test the boundaries. God knows there’s a massive percentage who take it upon themselves to ensure adherence to rules. It makes sense to me that a proportion of the youth in any given community, so full of exuberance, curiosity and daring should be encouraged to inhabit the liminal role of scout. They do it anyway; but the ‘delinquent’ framing socially excludes them imo.

See through you

Therefore as the grown adult, this makes me question the leadership roles I inhabit. Occasionally, I have need to strand in the archetype of judge or arbitrator- in-charge of the fate of young deviants keen to invoke mischief and stray from the ‘normal’ path. What then will be my yardstick for what is right and wrong?

After all, it is the adult’s congruence, or lack of it, that the youth(wo)man can intuit; which most forms their impression in that vital quick-witted state of being we call adolescence . Exercising my own child like ‘natural-deviant’ muscles from time to time not only enlivens me, but it affords me compassion for what my charges are aiming to express. This guides me as a mentor.

If we are to sow seeds of kindly mischief in our communities, proffer suggestions of being a dancer on the edge of perception; then what will be our net return? Hopefully not everything you reap will be grim.

Nu skool caterans…

There’s plenty of forces at work that erode your community, you only have to look at the trends in regulatory capture to see what we are up against to protect & cherish what little commons we have left. I challenge you to try and pay a kindness to your territory or any of it’s human or non human inhabitants without anyone noticing you did it. Better still, try it as a wee ‘craicsquad’. I’m convinced, the world needs more #PositiveDeviancy.


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