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

Friday, May 23, 2008

Things that are Hard; Things that Open the Heart

Some things are hard in this world.

It is hard to see your kids struggle, learning to deal with friends, or the pressures of school or to find their way.

It is hard to keep up with the changes that are occurring in our rapidly changing technological world.

It is hard to pay $4.15 for a gallon of gas, not knowing where the money will come from to make up the difference in the family budget.

It is hard to see someone you love suffering from poor health, like cancer or a relentless degenerative disease.

When I look at the faces of native people photographed by Edward Curtis, I can see the eyes of people who have seen things that are hard to bear. They leave lines etched like bird tracks in the sand, tracks that tell of pain, of love and things lost that are dear to them. I feel connected to them, and I wish I could sit with some of those people, long gone from this world now, to share a morsel of food, even if it was in silence. The weight of the world's sorrows might hang around us, settling like thick dust, choking us in grief.

However, I see, no, I feel, more hope rise up within me, protesting and shaking off the ashes of fires long gone.

"Look at the sunset! Or that tree covered in blossoms! There is so much promise in this life, and this world is beautiful beyond reckoning...."

I don't mean to belittle the pain and hardships of life. I don't think it is right, nor do I wish to gloss over it, rushing, to get to some new place in a hurry. I didn't do that in Death Valley, either. In fact, I spent time savoring the heat, the dry air and the almost purifying absence of succulent life. I wanted to know what it felt like, what it did to my skin, my perception, my mind and soul.

What I found was, even in that desolate place, covered in rocks and dead plants and spiny scorpions and scaly snakes, there was joy and beauty and hope and promise. There was a cleansing power that scrubbed my soul with hot sand. And it was good. Really good.

Nature can cleanse our hearts and our minds, and restore us in ways that books, t.v., talk therapy and other substitutes can't touch. It just works. And why wouldn't it work? It is us. Time spent in nature, submersed in her sounds, our senses flooded with birdsong, wind, stars and the scent of pines all combine to renew us.

Watching my son tell a new joke or make something he couldn't do before melts my heart and makes me so grateful to be alive, despite the hardships.

Waking to the sound of birdsong can bring tears to my eyes.

Sharing a meal of color, spices and friendships is also healing and appreciated.

Talking about current events with peers brightens my day, despite the fact that it is mostly words whisked away in the breeze, to disperse and vanish with nothing to show for it. Maybe it is just practice, in thinking, of all things!

Making a fire without matches and sharing it with friends. Warmth. Light. Crackling wood and hissing of steam.

Music. It opens my heart in ways I can't express.

Working with a team of people towards a common goal. Getting things done, together. Yeah!

Hugging someone you love.

So, what is my point? Where am I going with all of this?

I don't know, really, but I am grateful to be alive. To be here, feeling both ends of the spectrum.

I am thankful, and to everyone, everything in this Universe, I say, simply: Thank you.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mental Toughness: The essential ingredient

Earth skills don't come easy. I won't pretend that they do. Making fire takes having a fire inside of you that won't go out because your hands are sore, or you have trouble finding wood or the drill keeps popping out of the fireboard socket or handhold.

Gaining a real skill is more than making fire once or twice with dry wood cut from a fence post. You have to do it over and over, honing your skill, fixing your mistakes, learning and discovering and experimenting as you think of new ways to get good.

I haven't even gotten to the blindfolded part yet.

So, what is the difference between people who are casually interested in learning earth skills, and those who are serious? For one thing, serious students are passionate. They have a fierce desire that laughs at obstacles that get in the way of all of us from time to time. People who are passionate keep sight of their goals and don't get distracted by the little things that steal our time and our focus. Honestly, you have to learn to nurture this passion and feed that desire. It isn't easy. One way to do this is to write down your goals. Then keep track of each time you work towards that goal, in the form of notes, in your journals. (The Correspondence Course uses this technique to help you see your own progress towards your goals!)

Think of it like this: In addition to building your physical strengths, (to make a fire, to build a shelter, or dig out a spring, etc), you also have to build your mental strengths.

This is hard to do in our world today. Everyone wants results now, easy, on demand, take out, eat in, whatever, which is stuff that doesn't build mental toughness. I am not saying it is easy to live in this crazy world at times, but much of the cultural clutter doesn't help build mental strength.

Meditation is one way to clear the mind and build focusing skills. Lots of people know about meditation, but how many of you really take the time to sit or stand still, quietly, and let go of everything but the goal? Yeah, that's what I thought! Not many. However, all it takes is a few moments, deep breathing and a clear goal! Try it before you practice your skills next time you practice.... Let me know if you feel or see a difference.

Another way to build mental strength is what I call "the inner buffalo". The natives have a saying that goes "You can pretty much lead a buffalo anywhere he wants to go." Which means that buffalo can be immovable if they so choose. Stubborn. Unwavering. A dust storm, or snow, or intense heat barely registers or breaks their concentration. They are solid. They are strong. They will go through obstacles, if need be. And they are beautiful and powerful animals.

I remember when I was learning to build shelters, in the early days. I was living in San Luis Obispo, and working for the California Conservation Corps, and it was 1984. I was twenty years old, fresh out of Tom Brown Jr.'s Standard Course in wilderness survival skills. One weekend, I had planned to go out and build a shelter and sleep in it for a night or two, for the practice and to see if it would work out. But I woke to heavy coastal rain showers, and I was discouraged. I looked out at the rain from my cabin, and tried to think of what I could do inside. More fire, or make cordage or read some plant books.... good but those weren't my goals. I could do them anytime, during the week. I was about to give up and start working on fire skills, when my inner buffalo got going. No, it said. I can still practice, even in the rain, if I make a shelter fast, with an awning or porch roof. Then I can do all of those other skills at my shelter, in the rain, where it is real. I just have to do it fast. I packed my gear, first aid kit, flashlight, etc along with some food, put on my rain gear and headed out. My friends thought I was nuts and begged me to come to the movies instead. I vanished into the woods, and a half hour later, I was building my shelter. Eucalyptus trees, poles, cottonwood and alder leaves, and lots of willow. Sandy soil around the banks of a small stream. It took me longer than I thought to get my shelter to stop dripping and shed water, but I learned a lot about building in the rain. Yes, it is hard to see when your glasses are covered in drips and water is coursing down your back. And it is hard to recognize poison oak when you take your glasses off! (No, I didn't get poison oak. This time.) Anyway, I got my shelter done, and then I ran back to my cabin for a hot shower and new clothes. (Hypothermia prevention!) Then I headed back out, gathering tules and cattails for bedding and lots of firewood. It turned out to be a great campout, even with a smoky fire and damp shelter, but I learned a lot. Not just about shelters, but about myself, and how I almost talked myself out of going out. My inner stubborness beat out my inner couch potato, who loves creature comforts.
Now, don't get me wrong! It is okay to take it easy sometimes. To rest, rejuvenate and relax is very important, and sometimes we all need to sit on our eggs, so to speak, like the wild turkeys are doing on the hill here at Hawk Circle! You can get a lot of good thinking done, integrating your experiences and reconnecting with friends and family, which is important.

Anyway, the last thing I will add in terms of getting stronger mentally is being positive. It's all about choosing to think positively about your situation, and being thankful for what you have, what you have been given, and believing in yourself, in your skills and life. There is a great power to doing this, and it takes time, but with perseverance, you can see tremendous results. I will tell some good stories about some of the ways I learned this in another post, but trust me, it is key to building that inner strength.

I'll also add discipline, because it is one way to organize your learning and growing to reach your goals, but that is probably my weakest link in the whole process personally. Let's just say that having kids, family, lawns to mow, projects and a crazy schedule all could use a little more discipline! (My mom sent me to a Waldorf School, not West Point. Just the way it goes....)

Hope you are all having a great spring!