This weekend we welcome Boy Scouts of America to Turtle Island for continued enrichment and training on wilderness skills and related craft. Something I like to do when working with BSA is to give the young men a sense of pride in the name and meaning of what it is to be a scout. The official motto that many people are familiar with, “Be Prepared”, gets at the heart of scouting and the idea of resilience and self-sufficiency during a time of need or unusual circumstance. Boy Scouts in particular build a foundation of outdoor knowledge so they can continue the tradition of what it means to be a “scout”, someone who is able to deliver messages, observe, travel, and move without detection if needed and help those around them who are worse off than they.
While the modern BSA manuals have reduced this vision compared to those we had when I was in scouting a mere quarter century ago, weekend retreats with inspired and experienced teachers help keep alive the spirit of scouting; getting the boys dirty, wet, up late, exposed to the elements, and learning to have fun in nature in a way that builds strength of body, mind, and spirit. This is the best way to describe the vision of LOTSWild and the creation of a program built on our summer “Scout Camps” – which have nothing to do with Boy Scouts of America. It’s also the essence of Turtle Island training, a preserve run by Eustace Conway near Boone, NC.
What is the common thread? What is a scout and what does the name mean? Well the answer could be as brief as a single word, it could also take more than a book could convey, years to understand, even a lifetime. All I have managed to learn is that I am still learning, and if that doesn’t stop anytime soon then I have a long ways to go.
And while group outdoor skills rely heavily on the softer skills of communication, teamwork, resolution, problem solving and personal growth, it is imperative that we not overlook the hard skill sets. These are things such as first aid, navigation, knots and rope work, packing, fire and shelters. How do we measure the standards to which a student must apply this knowledge? Does it make sense to have a measuring stick of some sort to decide who gets to feel a PASS on the information, an acknowledgement of achievement, and who does not? In my opinion; of course it does. But the best and most reliable method, one which most easily integrates the soft skills that are themselves important living skills, lies in the experience of the teachers.
Experience and vision of the mentors is what makes the difference in those brief moments; the golden and priceless times when a group is on the verge of chaos, amidst injury or exhaustion, and could rise to have a life altering empowerment and bonding experience or failure. Dangerous failure. It’s also the moment when a student steps through a door of awareness and sees the forest through a new set of lenses, and the spark of the magic of nature begins to burn in them and make them a student and brother of the forest for the rest of their life. This is not the experience that comes from reading a thousand books on survival, or preparedness, or balancing ones chakras. Nor does it come from a college degree, or some papers that have “education” attached to the end of some title. The best school to learn in is a life, or at least many moments in life, where we step outside of our comfort zones and try to immerse ourselves in a changing environment. It takes time, and mistakes. It takes mentoring from older wiser people, and for wilderness skills, it takes time in the wilderness.
There is a difference in perspective between a teacher who knows what it’s like to have dirty underwear from a week of backpacking, and one who knows the onset of a tooth infection, how to keep down or deal with the pain until some way out of the woods will get them to a position where they can pay for a trip to a dentist. Or at least take the painful free options available at local clinics. Long after the nylon gear has shredded, and old canvas and leather proves their worth against the expensive array of modern camping supplies, when the knife is losing metal to the test of time and use, then the would-be teacher gets a degree in something altogether different from the person with a few classes in knots under their belt. What is it? How can it be measured? Well, as someone who often feels like a beginner in the presence of mastery from time to time, I can say a few things that it’s not. It’s not some magical perfection of skills, be they some knots or cooking or perfection at the craft – although that happens as a by product most times. I can only say that it might be a gentle comfort, a soft appreciation of the moment one is in, recollection of a time when it wasn’t so agreeable, and an excitement for being alive on planet Earth.
I might as well mention that’s why people find traces of the Jamaican Rasta around our school from actual visits to a tune playing in the background of a martial arts class in Black Mountain. The Rastas have that spark! Hillbillies have that spark! They are prepared, but not by trying to stay prepared. They live in a way, forged by experience, that gives them preparedness by allowing them to be adaptable and resourceful.
Now with some mass-contagion of survival mentality and ‘preparedness’ fads comes an interest from many corners of the cultural landscape in “being prepared”. Each thread has it unique flavor from focusing on evolved consciousness as a strategy to making their own ammunition, but they share some idea of preparing for some perceived future need that is not exactly clear. One question I’d like to throw out for the reader is; can we find some universally useful information and practice that should be continued even without the perceived immediate need of some massive approaching system collapse by a thousand other names? Or, is the embedded fear the motivating factor that keeps us from becoming too entwined in the day to day functions of modern life? Some people have even developed a remarkable aversion to the word ‘fear’, and see it as a negative input regardless of the context or situation. That is their survival strategy, or part of it at least.
Well, I hope to at least crack the door open this weekend with the Boy Scouts. I hope that a piece of this vision, what it is to be that person, the scout, and the many variations of the term, will find itself planted in the hearts of a few boys. I hope we find a new comfort zone and that someone passes a limit they had mentally set. I hope we take time to be still and simply watch, not concerned with a skill or a standard, but simply share a moment of appreciating being alive.
“Some of the famous frontiersmen were born scouts, those men whose names have become legendary in the frontier history of every country. Others were made. These latter were not born to the game but found themselves in it through force of circumstance. They then worked hard, concentrated on the game, studied it night and day, with only their wits and the experiences of others as their teachers. They rounded off their education (a scout’s education is never complete) by that best of all teachers-personal experience. In the wars of many countries men like those became famous. So, although you are not a born bushman nor yet an experienced one, that does not mean you can never become a good scout.
In all wars in which our forces have been engaged bushmen make the best scouts. Let us see why, and so learn something of a few things that are needed in a scout’s make-up, things you must straightaway begin to think about.
The real bushman is naturally observant, because his life work makes him so. He is alone in the wide bush; he is looking for horses, sheep or cattle, or for timber or minerals, invariably near and far he is looking for something. (This scout will always be doing.) Even when the bushman is not actually seeking something his training makes him subconsciously still seek. Hence, he notices the tracks of man or animal, and thus reads a story, for those tracks can tell him a surprising number of things. The scout must learn the lessons which tracks upon the earth can tell him. The bushman memorizes a water hole; perhaps twelve months later he is in need of just such a water hole, and so is able to return and make use of it. (The scout one day may be suddenly called upon for the vital job of guiding an exhausted regiment to water, or advising the O.C. of a tank brigade as to where his tanks can get water in the thirsty bush ahead.)
The bushman notes the foliage of a cedar tree on a distant mountain side. Some day when he comes to build a house he will know exactly where to go for the timber. He notes an area of good, drought-resisting grass in the valley for from his camp and knows that when dry times come he will find his horses there. . .The bushman may be riding along through the bush when his roaming eyes note a dingo’s pad. He glances at it a moment to see if the dingo regularly uses the pad. If so, he knows where in the future to lay a bait and collect the royalty on the scalp. He sees a flight of birds and notes the direction- and thus knows they are flying to roost, to water, or to grass-seed, or to certain wild fruit trees. He notices the types and varieties of grass and timber and of everything wherever he may roam. And these things tell him much of the movements of stock and game, and of passing man.
To put all that in a nutshell: he uses his eyes and memorizes the things he sees. He uses those eyes far more than town and city folk do only because he lives under different conditions. Necessity has compelled him to train himself to use his eyes, and to remember.
This is what the scout must learn to do. Use his eyes. Become observant. For observation will be his particular job. . .
The bushman is self-reliant. He has had to be since a very young boy, and it becomes quite natural. He can saddle his horses and ride away alone and be absent from the station a month, two months, three months if necessary, without any trouble. Everything he needs he has in his packs; he knows just what to take away from the station. There is no fuss; he simply packs up and rides away to the job . . . Whatever his job, he is distant from civilization and, until he returns, is thrown entirely on his own resources. Unforeseen circumstance or accidents may occur. He must battle his way alone through everything. And he invariably does so because of his foresight, common sense, and self-reliance.” - Ion L. Idriess, The Scout. Paladin Press, 1982