The Earth Skills Correspondence Course is a ten block course that leads students through the skills of wilderness survival, in your own bioregion. It emphasizes the mastery of shelter, water, fire, camp skills, plants and trees, cooking, safety & hazards, attitude & philosophy and instructor training. Ricardo Sierra mentors the course through e-mail, this blog and a private Facebook Group, and students are self-guided. The course provides a wealth of skills and a powerful foundation from which to build and grow in any personal or wilderness study direction.
Get more information about this learning tool here: The Earth Skills Correspondence Course

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Mentors: The Value of Access

When I first started taking classes with Tom Brown, Jr. and his instructors, I was a little starstruck, and new to many of the skills being taught and shared. I hadn't done enough of my own learning and struggling to know what to ask, so I mostly I just kept quiet, took a lot of notes and tried to work hard...

As I practiced, I began to find questions. I would hit little walls, get stuck, whatever, and I saved them to ask Tom or Frank Sherwood, or John Stokes when I next saw them at a class. (Yeah, this was way before e-mail- and yes, I am that old!)

It was then that having access to the experience, wisdom and help had intense value. It helped me grow much faster, and each conversation fostered relationships that exist to this day. In general, people who have taken a skill to a high level enjoy students who are heading in the same direciton. While it isn't exactly a peer relationship, there is a growing respect for the effort and time that each person has put in. It is something that happens in business, in science, in sports and in our field of wilderness education.

This is why the course costs more than the cost to write and print and mail the program. It is the mentoring you are actually supporting, and this mentoring is available to you for life. Well, for my life, basically! And it isn't a light gesture. It is a key ingredient in helping you grow, if you choose to use it.

The ten blocks of the Earth Skills Course are intense. They cover a tremendous amount of experience, reading, journaling and effort to complete, and the mentoring to help you through it is there for you. And you don't have to wait for months to get answers to your questions!

When you have your own students someday, know that they will value your time and effort and relationship as well, and the circle will be complete!

Overcoming Our Mental Blocks

There is a time in my skills practice where I get stuck. It's familiar by now, and I can feel it coming now, instead of realizing it three weeks late.

Some people call it hitting the wall. Writers call it 'writer's block'. Athletes call it 'the plateau', where no matter how much you try, you just can't get over your perceived limits in lifting weights, or running times, or whatever it is you are working on.

Well, it is true with wilderness skills too. For some people, it is about getting outside, sleeping in their shelter, making a fire, etc. Others have a fear of failure in learning something new and worrying that it will be too difficult to master. Or it can be just hard to fight the inevitable pull of computers, video games, hanging out with family and friends, or doing other chores and projects.

I know pretty much all of the above.

Can you tell when you are avoiding something? For me, it shows up when I start doing all kinds of projects that I usually don't like to do, which I use as an excuse for not doing whatever skill I am being blocked on! For example, I will suddenly start cleaning the laundry room, or the basement, or cleaning out my car, (something I usually avoid because I am 'too busy'!) instead of figuring out my skill or life problem.

I know my inner process. I know that I will avoid things that might have bad news associated, or might not look like I know what I am doing. One time I just didn't go back to my shelter because I knew it wasn't really built right. It leaked. It wasn't warm. It needed to be rebuilt and done over. It was a lot of work and I just didn't want to deal with it.

Another skill where I had a mental block was flint knapping. I was fine with making stone tools for survival uses, but I didn't know how to make good arrowheads, points, knives, etc. At least, nothing that looked like authentic native tools. So I just avoided it.

In the end, I got familiar with the mental fight, the process of avoidance and mental chatter that leads nowhere. That prevents me from growing and learning. I knew what it takes to break that argument down, for myself, and how to move through it.

So here are three suggestions that you might be able to use in getting through your own mental blocks:

One: Inspiration
If you find yourself bouncing off the walls of wilderness skills excuses, you probably just aren't quite inspired enough. Committed is another word that can be used in describing it. Think of it like a scale, where you have a balance of hard work and reward. Where do you get inspiration? Well, books and stories are one place. Talking with a mentor, someone you trust, can be another. Write down your goal and include how it helps you in your overall plan, completes you as a person, as an instructor, etc. Those are a good place to start.

Two: Moderate your Expectations
Every skill has steps that you need to take to grow and master. Break down your belief that you will get a fire with a hand drill every single time you try. Let go of the expectations and see if you can look at the skill fresh, without putting all of this extra pressure on yourself.

Give yourself small victories, accomplishments that you can celebrate as important blocks to build your foundation of your growing skill. Savor each 'win' and try to think long term. It takes years to master the skills of survival, and you can't expect to circumvent the hands of time!

Three: Get Support
Find someone who can support you as you struggle, as you triumph, as you work your butt off! That is the secret of the Earth Skills Correspondence Course, where you have a personal mentor who can listen, give feedback, help through the difficulties and understand when you are hitting a wall.

Sometimes, when you are working with things that are new, you have to protect yourself from negative opinions, surroundings, or environments. You might have to practice in private, so you can have some space to make mistakes and figure things out while you work. Be positive, and make sure those who are around you are positive as well. This is harder than it looks, but it is key to building up a positive environment where you will grow and meet your goals!

Good luck and let me know if this helps you out in any way.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Magic, Nature and Mastery

The first time I got a fire with a bow and drill, I just sat and stared at the fire. The tinder was burning in a patch of gravel in front of the main barn opening at the old farm in Asbury, where Tom Brown, Jr. was running his school at the time. It was the fall of 1984. I was twenty years old.

I had carved a bow and drill set months earlier, on my trail crew in the California Conservation Corps, high in the mountain pass of Kaweah Gap in Sequoia National Park. I was using Tom’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival, but I couldn’t get a fire. I used up three boot laces, and finally gave up in frustration.

But when I finally got that flaming tinder bundle, I just couldn’t take my eyes off of it. All of the practice and effort high in the mountains had given me the form, and with an improved notch, I was on my way.

If you haven’t experienced making fire with just wood and a knife, well, it is hard to explain. It is literally magic.

Then I had to do it again. And again. And again.

For me, it was an addiction. I just loved to make fire, and I needed to find wood in the forest, rather than using white cedar from a fence post. I needed to take it to new levels. In the dark. In the rain. With wood I gathered minutes before. With just rocks. With cordage made from plant fibers, from bark, from rootlets. With all kinds of woods and plants....

Yeah, even blindfolded.

Then, I would travel to Arizona, and do it all over again. Then to Massachussetts. Then over to California, New York, Kansas.... wherever I could go, practice, learn and grow.

Okay, I’ll be honest here: I was young, (20-25) during those years, and I wanted to learn it all. You could argue that I didn’t have anything better to do. I would say that’s true! (What could be better than learning to make fire?!)

I didn’t want to be one of those guys who had learned it and practiced it a couple of times before moving on to something else. I wanted to know I could count on the skill, when I needed it most, so it was really a part of me.

I can tell you about those times I practiced, gathered, worked and learned. It wasn’t just about the fire. It was also about getting to know the trees. It was about getting to know the woods themselves, the animals, the area around my campsite. All of it. Just being there made me feel good, alive, whole and complete. Like I was ingiting a fire inside of my soul, even.

I remember making a fire with my friend Craig Boynton, in the woods during a youth program, where we had fifteen sixth graders sitting around a bow drill fire we had made, with a large tipi fire (flames about three feet high!) watching a deer walk right up to our fire, our group, just curious about what we were out there in her woods! It was magic to us, to the kids, and we all felt blessed by that moment, touched by something bigger than us, our worlds changed and new and amazing.

Today I got to know our new Earth Skills Spring Semester students. We made a fire in our woodstove, starting it with a hand drill of horseweed and aspen, each taking a turn spinning the stalk, getting it warm and making a beautiful coal. The dry woodshavings caught, and the barn began to warm up. We talked about learning to live so close to the earth that we needed nothing from the modern world... living full survival, living on the gifts of our mother earth.

It still feels great, even now, twenty four years later.

Amazing. Magic.

Now that’s power!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

My Trip to Minnesota

Last week I traveled to Minnesota to meet with the Minnesota Waldorf School’s Eighth Grade, whose students are coming to Hawk Circle this spring. I met with the students and parents, and stayed for a few days at the home of one of my best friends from my childhood, Richard Elmquist and his family. They have started a community in eastern Wisconsin, with organic gardens, wonderful crafts, an orchard, bakery and dairy farm. It was a great visit and I really enjoyed seeing them all for my short stay.

In addition, I also got a chance to see the Mississippi River as it winds through Minneapolis/St. Paul, and much of the landscape around the city and surrounding countryside. I paid attention very closely, searching for familiar trees, wild resources, animal tracks and the lay of the land.

The ground was covered with a layer of crusty snow, dusted with light frosting of powder and great for tracking. I saw cottontail tracks, weasel, mice, squirrels, a variety of birds, deer, red fox, coyote, skunk and raccoon. There were elms, box elder, (lots!) cottonwoods, burr oaks, red juniper, white cedar, poplar, paper birch, locust, and many viburnums and elderberries too, in various places along the prairie and in the riverbottoms. The plant stalks that I could see above the snow looked to be mullein, velvetleaf, milkweed and dock. There was a nice abundance of dried grasses in places, too, as well as cattails in the wetland areas.

Why was I studying the land so closely?

The short answer is that I always do it, as I was trained by Tom Brown, Jr. in the early part of my intensive studies with him at his school. I was taught to pay attention no matter where I went, just in case.

The other short answer is that I was curious, because I haven’t spent much time there before, and I wanted to be familiar with the terrain in case someone from the mid-west were to want to do the Correspondence Course!

Just in case you are wondering, I think anyone from this area would have an excellent and easy time making shelters, finding food, water, great survival resources for skills and fire-making as well. The land is beautiful, gentle and open, with a big sky and trees that are communities in themselves.

It was a great trip and I learned a lot. On the way out to the airport, I passed a grey owl on the side of the highway, about twenty feet from my car at eye level. He looked like he was hunting, waiting for something to move, and his deep dished face was gorgeous and stunning. I felt it was an incredible gift.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also note the profuse number of red tailed hawks that perched in the treetops, fence posts, lamp posts and power lines. I understand that there are many eagles and osprey in some areas as well, fishing in the lakes and rivers that make up this amazing landscape.

My only regret is that I didn’t get to go ice-fishing. Well, maybe next time!

By the way, a friend of mine has just started a new wilderness skills school in the Minneapolis area, so check it out if you are out there for more local tips, regional expertise, cool places to go and more...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Wilderness Survival Fundamentals: Building a Framework for Mastery

When a person asks for more info about the course, one of the first things I will tell them is that they can do all of these skills on their own, without the course. I try to emphasize this point, because there are many people who are organized, self-motivated and just tend to go for it and make it happen on their own.

On the other hand, it is important to understand a basic framework for learning, growing and developing mastery. Mastery is what I am shooting for. Not casual. Not ‘somewhat’ proficient. Mastery. That is a different animal altogether. And it is something that takes time, it takes pacing, it takes an intrinsic understanding of human nature, the process in which these skills develop and a big dose of motivation and inspiration to push someone through to get there.

When you think of a winning team, any team, and you look at their coach, you know that that person is more than just an X’s and O’s playmaker. They understand passion. They understand how to ignite a burning desire to win, to find a way to win, even when you are dead tired and the last thing you want to do is work on your jump shot, or your bunting, or whatever sport it is....

There are many awesome players who have just needed the right coach and environment to develop and take their game to a whole new level.

You can’t build a winning team without players who understand the fundamentals of the game. How to move, the footwork, the conditioning, the shooting, passing and so forth. All of the wilderness skills have the same need for a systematic approach to make them reliable. Let’s face it. If you can’t get a fire when you really need it, what the hell good is all of your practicing and work? You don’t want to be the guy who missed the last second field goal, or the jump shot, after all that practicing! (Okay, enough of the basketball/sports metaphor!)

This is where the Correspondence Course provides the difference between casual practice and learning, and real training that adds up to something that will work, time after time. Not every student is looking for this.

When Jeff Eckhouse, Simon Mayer, Chris Marx, Matt Burr and I were piloting this course, we talked about why a wilderness skills instructor has to be literally that good.

We knew that if a person hasn’t done their homework, their fieldwork, their ‘dirt time’ as Tom Brown, Jr. likes to say, then that person’s tendency is to begin to mentor with ego, using bravado, stories, comments and other ways to verbally and non-verbally keep their students off balance and at arm’s length. This usually is because a serious student, or other instructor, can become someone who can see through their lack of experience, and that is terrifying.

Having seen this in different situations, we wanted to find the root cause of this kind of poor mentoring. We saw that often, it was because the student was pushed to become a teacher or instructor before they had fully mastered the skills they needed to teach at a high level, and that when they started teaching they were left on their own, without support or backup, and the cycle continued.....

Anyway, we knew that if we trained people in this kind of mastery/depth approach, that good things would come of it. So far, we have been very pleased, even with students that haven’t completed the full course. Nothing could make me happier.....

What do you think about this? Have you seen instances where this is true? Do you have an opposing opinion? Please share and let us know what you think!

Strategies for Success: Finding your Earth Skills Study Area

Finding a good study area for practicing your earth skills in the course can be challenging for those of you who live in a suburban or urban area. However, it makes it easier to do if you let go of your preconceived ideas of what your area should look like.

After all, most people think that it should be an idyllic, tranquill, forest cathedral, where deer eat out of your hand, and berries ripen as you need a snack. You would have miles of land to wander freely, undisturbed, as you gather the things you need to learn to survive.

Well, in case you don’t have the above situation, (and if you do, lucky you!) then you have to look for not just the perfect place to do your course, but one that will work for you, for your schedule, for your ability to travel and so forth.

Just for perspective: In the last ten years, people have camped in woods surrounding a public golf course, in their urban backyard, in an open lot near a working dairy farm and in the woods behind a busy shopping mall. With permission, of course!

Sometimes, it is good to plan your coursework where you can really get away, far from people and traffic and distractions, and then take your time building your shelter and camping and work through the material. And that idea sounds great at the time. Then suddenly, six months go by and you have only camped out once, and you are starting to worry that you might not get through the program. The distance, the time spent traveling, and juggling a busy family or work schedule can all take a toll on your course time, so adjustments have to be made to work it out.

If you don’t have a good area to do your skills right close to your home, look for someplace that is as close as possible. Sometimes you have to bring in materials for your shelter, or leaves/debris, whatever it takes, but the idea is to get out there often, and build up your experience by practicing the skills and sleeping in your shelter and just sitting by a fire you made yourself with your own skills. For that, you just need a place where you can get to it quickly, and where you can make it work.

Some people also consider coming out to Hawk Circle to do their coursework, if they are near us, and that can work also, but if it is far away, I tend to discourage it. However, any combination of these areas can work, and any nights spent in a shelter can count towards your course work if you journal it and keep working on your skills!

Places to consider: Churches, which often have land away from the actual place of worship. Boy or girl scout groups, who might be willing to trade land use for some good stories or skills shared with the troop. City or village regional parks, or local colleges. Fish and Game clubs (you might have to become a member of the club!) Remember that when you ask, even if they can’t give you permission, they may know someone else who might.

Don’t forget to take pictures, for your portfolio and include yourself, too. It really is awesome, years from now, to be able to look back and see how far you have come, and for your future students to see, too. I personally wish I had more pictures of my early practice and study time, as most of the time I was too cheap to take them, and the ones I did take got destroyed in the various moving I did in my early twenties. Ahhh, youth.....!

If you have a good idea for a study area, let us know!

Welcome, and Good News for 2008!

Welcome to the Earth Skills Correspondence Course Official Blog!

This is the place where students of the ESCC can post questions, comments, connect and share about the material, process and understanding of wilderness earth skills that the course is all about. It should make things easier to stay connected, motivated and inspired, even. You can see I have high hopes!

One thing I wanted to add about 2008 is the price of the Course. This year, I am offering the course at a low cost of $500, with a discount of $50 if you are paying in full for the whole thing. For those who prefer to pay in installments, the cost is $500 and you can break the payments up into two, or three or even four payments over the first year. So this should make it easier for people to take part in the course.

Check out the Earth Skills Correspondence Course Page for more info.

Thanks all, and have a great end of winter/early spring!