Thursday, July 11, 2013

Connecting to Nature: Bird Language as One of Our "Universal Grammars"

The great linguist, Noam Chomsky, taught us that humans must possess a ‘universal grammar,’ because children are able to learn the complex nuances of language at such a surprisingly early age.  The only explanation, he argued, was an evolved predisposition to communicate this way, to navigate the spoken world before the age of two.  It seems our genetic encoding is especially evident when we consider aspects of our relationship to wild nature.  Long-time tracker and notable author, Jon Young, describes a set of intentional behaviors that, when done regularly, will foster ‘deep nature connection’ in humans.  One of these ‘core routines’ is the study of Bird Language, which he outlines in his lovely short book What the Robin Knows.  

Young claims that all humans possess an evolved and inherited capacity to understand and differentiate the five primary sounds of birds, to easily distinguish the local species that are making them, and to map the terrain from these sounds. Birds variously make sounds he describes as either: (1) juvenile begging, when young birds ask for food; (2) territorial aggression, to ward off unwanted ‘others,’; (3) songs; (4) companion or 'contact' calls, those regular 'all's well' messages during shared feeding; or (5) alarm calls.  This last category, alarms, is used by birds to warn other animals (not just other birds), of the location and behavior of a predator, such as a fox, raven, hawk, or bobcat.  Young once told me that he can step out of a dwelling in any suburban neighborhood, and within 10 seconds, know the exact location of the nearest Cooper’s Hawk.  This common bird of prey is an accipiter, hunting other birds by snatching them out of flight.  Once an alarm is sounded, an entire area becomes silent and devoid of movement, remaining this way until the predator has moved on.  Listening to bird language is not just about noting the tapestry of sounds, but also the location of silences.  For obvious reasons, bird language skills are well-developed among living tribal peoples. It was also a skill well-known to our ancestors, and it lies dormant in each of us.  As we re-awaken our innate capacity to comprehend the utterings of our feathered friends, we retrieve our rightful inheritance as people of a living planet, returning once again to our role as stewards of a bountiful and providing earth.   

Jon's wonderful book can be purchased here

Saturday, June 1, 2013


I have two occupations, the confluence of which continues to startle and thrill me.  I am an educator and a professional improvising pianist.  I have taught in public school classrooms, grades 1 through 6, for nearly 20 years.  This past year, I was a school principal, a job that fused many of the approaches and strategies that had proved so successful to me in helping children to find their deeper selves, both as learners and as members of a classroom community. 

As an improvising musician, I have, in the last few years, moved from jazz to free improvisation.  In jazz, I worked within a composed form, a key center, a set of chord changes, generating spontaneous melodic lines on piano that stayed within the harmonic and temporal framework of the given song.  In free improvisation on the other hand, I am not constrained by form, keys, chords, or familiar physical techniques for producing sound.  I surrender fully to intuition, that rare gift bestowed on us by this living planet.  The musical expressions that spring from this sort of intuition, while often unusual in sound, are nonetheless refined by years of practice and training.  So while this kind of music is not predictable or familiar, it is delivered through a deliberate aesthetic, and a honed technique which keeps it from sounding random.

It is my belief that music –and in particular the improvised forms- is a language of the Earth.  In the pulsing, breathing, sentient planet, there is an energy which expresses itself in myriad ways, from the blooming flowers, to the graceful movements of animals, to the flowing shapes of mountains against sky, to the whisperings of the stream as it cascades over rock-laden dips and turns.  Earth constantly expresses a profoundly healing message, and the great human art forms –poetry, painting, teaching, music, loving, dance, drama, etc. –these are all in the business of expressing this Language of the Earth, through the trained human animal.  The more authentic and uninhibited the artist, and the more deliberate and engendered the training, the more luxurious the expression.  Earth is speaking through us, and it is most potent in its message when the artist is not just trained, but also able to move past expectation, ego, competition, self-criticism and analysis, surrendering instead to intuition, honesty, trust, spontaneity and integrity.  It is an amazing thing to experience this kind of pure art, which communicates with our deepest knowingness.  This has less to do with artist and appreciator, and everything to do with an energy moving through the two, an energy always flowing from the earth through living forms, ideas, and experiences, though often invisible or unseen. 

For me, intuition is something we inherit because we are human.  It springs from, and then validates our personal genius.  It comes through our bones, and is unambiguous.  Intuition is a living instruction, a direct impulse, an unflagging certainty to move, act, instruct, intend.  As a teacher, I have been witness to the power of intuition to heal, to solve, to unravel, to reveal, to propel.  In the teacher-to-student dynamic, intuition plays a pivotal role in what Michael Meade and Malidoma Some call “genius to genius mentoring.”  A mentor is first and foremost a fearless advocate for the genius of the mentee.  A mentor sees the gift, trusts its inevitable purpose, calls forth its revelation, and quietly celebrates the child or young person for the integrity and value of this embodied gift.  Unlike parents, mentors are especially believable because they have no agenda or bias. Mentors play a pivotal role in guiding the entire human living and growing project through its myriad transitions.  Parents are guardians, protectors, and nurturers.  Mentors recognize and expressly welcome the gift in the one mentored, and celebrate its emergence.  A society without viable mentoring can become wildly pathological.  Youth, who crave mentoring most conspicuously in the great moment of transition to adult, will apprentice themselves to whatever teachers they can find, and do this most unwittingly.  Whether the guide is a packaged media message, a coalition of online gamers, a dogmatic political or religious cause, or a slightly-older and visibly edgier peer, young people will not attempt the transition without some degree of surrender to a trusted authority.  Culture cannot evolve in the absence of authentic mentors, and no entity nor person can successfully replace a conscientious and aged person to fill that role.  For millennia, our species and our cultures have evolved in response to the mentoring tutelage of genuine elders as they engage youth, and breath the Language of the Earth into these young souls. 

As a teacher, I do not simply parlay state standardized academic content.  Hardly.  I mentor, and I do this with intuition. 

So where has intuition taken me as a teacher?  When I moved into 6th grade (after several years in early elementary classrooms), I began to hear an ancient calling emerging through the fabric of my growing connections with these early adolescents.  Before teaching, I had studied anthropology, culling a BA and an MA in prehistoric studies and applied medical anthropology respectively.  I had acquired in the process both a respect for and strong intuitive sense of the ways of indigenous peoples.  I had also traveled a good bit, even spending time among the Shipibo Indians of the Amazon.  The gift of these studies and travels was that I became fascinated with my life as a 21st century homo sapiens who had descended from nomadic tribespeople.  With my 6th graders, I began to perceive the need to become their tribal elder, and to teach them about our prehistoric past.  We would create elaborate outdoor timelines that stretched for thousands of feet, and which revealed visually our remarkable inheritance as indigenous people who spent 99% of our social history living in wild nature.  On one mile-long ‘timeline’ that meandered through the local hills, the beginning was marked by the first upright human ancestors.  As we walked the course of this timeline, we invented stone tools, made fire, and –in just the last three meters- discovered farming. 

With my 6th graders, I felt called to get deeply seriously about nature immersion and ritual connections.  My school at that time was located adjacent to several thousand acres of State Park.  Drawing on something I remembered from books by Carlos Casteneda about ‘sit spots,’ I told my students to walk about carefully by carefreely, waiting for the earth to call them to a spot.  Once this happened, they were to commit to returning to that same spot each time we hiked, sitting in that place and becoming open to the winds, the shadows, the living sounds, the feelings.  In addition to sit spots, I encouraged my students to walk in silence, focusing first on what they saw, delivering all attention with all their will, onto the images cascading about their eyes.  Watching not just the flicker of shadows, the movement of leaves, but also to notice that expanse of vision, the periphery as well as the things in the focus range of the eyes.  I later asked them to attend fully to the sounds they were hearing, the winds, the footsteps of classmates, the birds of the sky.  We would move from one sense to another, and then we would try to bring two senses together.  We often walked in a large circle in a clearing to practice this.  First eyes, then ears, then skin and feet, then nose and mouth.  I talked to them about the linear mind, that cognitive tool honed in our 21st century world, this fabulous machine which when in full swing, trumps the senses entirely.  I cautioned them to notice when their thinking brain was spreading words across the imagination.  I told them how our tribal ancestors had learned to live in the mythical right hemisphere, the sensory apparatuses fully engaged, how their survival was predicated on such illuminatory awareness, and how this capacity had eroded over centuries of post-agricultural living in alienation from wild nature, and yet how this gift of being full alert in nature was something waiting dormant in our bones, fully ready to spring to life again with even modest attention and will. 

My 6th graders responded deeply to these ideas and practices, which served as the cornerstone of community building in my classroom over nearly 7 years.  On the last day of school, many times, our closing council was full of tears and sadness, as students wondered where they would find community like this again. I told them that they were warriors of a new way of being, that they would carry community everywhere they went, creating it anew because they had felt it deeply, and understood intuitively how that kind of connectedness mattered most. 

I have been transported by the curious muse we call intuition, this uncanny and delightful power that propels my creativity, speaking a language much older than any of us.  The word itself, ‘intuition,’ is treated a bit awkwardly in Present World, seen as the odd stepchild of linear cognition, or perhaps even as a wanderer from some far-away clan who may come to visit for the solstice.  We don’t give intuition serious attention, because it seems to have no source, no roots nor grounding.  It’s either there or it isn’t.  Ideas, on the other hand, are considered the result of careful thinking, in turn the product of schooling.  Intuition is a sort of ‘unseen’ entity, and what we can’t see, we don’t take too seriously, at least not in general public discourse. 

I am delighted by intuition.  I am mesmerized by the force that wells up in a quieted mind, in an impassioned yet attentive moment.  Intuition can become a seed of tremendous action and ideation.  We rarely notice that ideas are born of intuition, not thought.  

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Lessons from Connecticut: Schools Must Teach and Test Emotional Intelligence

I'm the principal in a school district that publicly says it is committed to teaching 21st Century Skills. Broadly defined, this include the five C’s of Collaboration, Cooperation, Communication, Creativity, and Critical Thinking. At a minimum, the first three of these require Social Emotional Learning (SEL) to fly. I’ve spent a lot of time recently at principals’ meetings 

that focus on raising district test scores in math and reading. Mind you, my district is among the highest scoring districts in the state of California. The conversation can seem wildly myopic, without anyone appearing to notice. We spend hours talking about academic goals, how to define them and meet them. This focus on numeracy and literacy happens continuously, yet we NEVER talk about teaching and measuring compassion, empathy and other social-emotional skills. Why? Because these are not skills that are used to measure a school's effectiveness. These skills are not tested. Nobody says, "Raise those empathy scores or else!" They do say however, "Raise the math scores or else!" and then if you don't do this well enough, the state will label you a ‘program improvement’ (PI) school district meaning “Improve your [academic] program now or else…!”

Alas, Adam Lanza was called a genius by several of his classmates, but he was not a genius as far as Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is concerned. I am struck by the fact that he was an 'honors student.' How can a school have an honors program, but not teach this boy about honor?

The blame for this tragedy rests on many factors, including a mom who collected guns, an older brother who says he hadn't seen Adam in over two years. Still, I can't escape the conclusion that he spent 6.5 hours per day, 183 days per year, for 13 years, around adults who were not necessarily evaluated on how emotionally well-adjusted he became in their presence, or in response to their teaching, but instead on how high his math and reading scores were. He did well by this narrow measure; after all, he was an honors student!

Friday, July 20, 2012

How 'Core Routines' Can Re-Establish our Deep Connection to Nature

Much has been written about our disconnect from nature.  The topic has been approached from many fields.  Ecopsychologists are examining human thinking and behavior to explain our consistent disregard for environmental collapse.  Evolutionary Psychologists are considering what in our long evolution as hunter-gatherers might shed light on our relationship to earth.  David Abram, the ecophilosopher, in his brilliant book The Spell of the Senuous, reveals how the human mind is intimately linked to terrain and weather, and how the earth itself is a great mind of which we are all an active part. The biologist E.O. Wilson spoke of humankind’s innate love of living things and life-like systems in his landmark book Biophilia.  Paul Shepard, the revolutionary human ecologist who wrote many books, including Nature and Madness, described how the advent of agriculture 12,000 years ago has led to a kind of cultural madness that now expresses itself in outright hostility towards nature. Bill Plotkin is one a number of pioneers in the field of deep nature immersion, using the vision quest to help people discover their inborn gifts, their mythic soul destiny, their true purpose in this life.  Most recently, Richard Louv has written Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder and The Nature Principle, books that have galvanized public awareness of the role of exposure to nature in healthy human development.  In response to Louv’s book, the findings from a large body of scientific literature on the relationship between nature connections and mental health -studies conducted over the past 25 years- have begun to enter mainstream public discourse. 

With this growing scientific evidence for the importance of nature in human development, it is important to consider what kind of nature exposure, or nature engagement can begin the process of healing ourselves and our planet. Many people believe that simply getting into nature is enough, but there is more to the process of nature connection than simple exposure.  Jon Young, co-author of a brilliant book entitled Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, outlines a number of practices that can awaken our innate, empathetic connection to nature. 

Nearly everyone has had the experience of staring into a fire.  The dance of flames is captivating and mesmerizing. Fire gazing is an ancient human practice, something we have done for close to a million years.  Fire was central to the lives of the early nomadic ancestors who traveled in their small bands into the ice-age north, through Europe and into Asia over 800,000 years ago.  Evenings were spent gathered around the flames, as stories of the day’s activities filled the air.  Lighting the faces of the storytellers, cooking the foods from the hunt, fire also brought safety and warmth to the tribe.  This enduring legacy from antiquity makes fire something we feel in our bones.  Though we left this nomadic lifestyle with the advent of farming some 12,000 years ago, we are still all captivated by the compelling presence of a wood fire.  We spent 99% of our ancestry around this fire. 

I bring up this story of fire and its magnetic pull on our ancestral fibre, because our experience of fire in the 21st century reveals something of our long social evolution as tribespeople who lived with fire in an intimate and dependent way. 

Some of the practices outlined in Jon Young’s book, what he calls “Core Routines” for developing a connection to nature, are effective precisely because they tap into ancestral ways of knowing, touching those nerves of intuitive sense-making that are buried deep in our tribal bones. Many primitive skills, such as tracking, fire-making, flint knapping, hide tanning, trapping, hunting, plant gathering, herb preparing, basket making, and the like, are profoundly resonant with the deepest aspects of our psyche.  As we learn these skills, something in us already knows how to knap the stone and scrape the hide.  We are sympathetic to these skills innately and intuitively.  “Survival Living” –which involves the development of primitive skills- is one of Young’s dozen or so Core Routines.  Developing nature connection is not done accidentally during the weekend hike, nor through some mysterious osmosis beside the State Park stream, but actively through the practice of behaviors and routines that for hundreds of thousands of years have been the mainstay of daily human behavioral life during the Pleistocene.  Sit Spots, Story Telling, Bird Language, Sensory Expansion, Reverential Awe and Gratitude, Mental Mapping, Animal Mimicry, Intuitive Wandering, Joyful Questioning –these behaviors and others tap into something we already know, something buried deep in our tribal fiber as descendents of traditional nature-based ancestors, awakening a tremendous sense within us that we are imbedded in, and that we belong to, the natural world, this living breathing Mother Gaia. 

You can learn more about Core Routines in Jon Young’s book Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature.  

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Imperative to Guide Youth at Transition

I am very moved by this quote, so share it here: “Like land birds instinctively setting out on transoceanic migration, given assurance, so to speak, from the experience of the species that there is land on the other side, the human adolescent organism reenters the dangerous ground of immature perception on the premise that society is prepared to meet his psychic demands for a new landing –that is, that society is organized to take these refractory youths through a powerful, tightly structured gestation; to test, teach, reveal; to offer as Erikson says, things worthy of their skill; to tutor their suffering and dreaming; and to guide their feelings of fidelity. If the infancy to which they look for an exemplary protocol of growth has been blighted, or if the adult group is not prepared to administer the new and final birth, then the youths create autistic solutions to their own needs and, prolonging the quest of their adolescence, sink finally, cynically, back into their own incompetent immaturity, like exhausted birds going down at sea.” -Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness (p. 65-66).

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Descending Into Our Fuller Selves: How Bill Plotkin's "Soulcraft" Defines Soul, Gifts, Initiation and Wild Nature

“The most effective paths to soul are nature-based…Nature – the outer nature we call ‘the wild’ – has always been the essential element and the primary setting of the journey to soul. The soul, after all, is our inner wilderness, the intrapsychic terrain we know the least and that holds our individual mysteries. When we truly enter the outer wild – fully opened to its enigmatic and feral powers – the soul responds with its own cries and cravings”

Since 1980, psychologist Bill Plotkin has helped people discover their deeper gifts through the programs of his Animas Valley Institute, located in Colorado, which leads individuals and small groups on ‘nature-based soul-initiation’ journeys into the wilderness. “As a psychologist, I’ve found that my clients’ discontents are often rooted in an unmet longing for wildness, mystery, and a meaningful engagement with the world.” Plotkin uses the term ‘soul’ to describe that aspect of each individual which is unique, endowed with gifts, often hidden, and directly connected to our own innate ‘wildness’ as sentient animals of this earth. The cultural historian Thomas Berry, in his eloquent foreword to Plotkin’s book, points out that, “soul is fundamentally a biological concept, defined as the primary organizing, sustaining, and guiding principle of a living being…soul gives to the multitude of living forms wondrous powers of movement and reproduction, but even more wondrous powers of sensation and emotion…Such was the understanding of soul in our western world until the sixteenth century when RenĂ© Descartes (1596-1650) taught that the natural world was simply a mechanistic process to be known simply by scientific measurement” (p. xiii). Plotkin writes, “The individual soul is the core of our human nature, the reason for which we were born, the essence of our specific life purpose, and ours alone…Each of us can bring a unique gift to the world, a world desperately in need of the socially transforming contributions of initiated, actively engaged adults.” Plotkin’s program of initiation, which he calls “Soulcraft,” is premised on the understanding that the living earth, and in particular wild nature, is the most practical and time-tested teacher for awakening our deepest sense of purpose and destiny. “Our society is forever erecting barriers between its citizens and the inner/outer wilderness…But when we escape beyond these artificial barriers, we discover something astonishing: nature and soul not only depend on each other but long for each other and are, in the end, of the same substance.” Plotkin offers a number of critical ideas about ‘soul initiation,’ and how the journey is inward and downward, as opposed to upward and away like the renunciatory paths espoused in many religious traditions, and also some contemporary New Age practices. Plotkin writes, “Although the journey is a spiritual one, it is not a transcendental movement upward toward the light of an ecstatic union with all of creation. It is a journey downward into the dark mysteries of the individual soul…In the mythologies of the world, we find innumerable stories of the hero’s and heroine’s descent into the underworld…Such myths and stories are found in countless cultures. They imply we each must undertake the journey of descent if we are to heal ourselves at the deepest levels and reach a full and authentic adulthood…In contemporary Western cultures, we live as if the spiritual descent is no longer necessary; we live without realizing that the journey is meant for each one of us, not just for the heroes and heroines of mythology.” While our unique ‘gift’ is necessary for the healing of the world, our only responsibility is to seek out and discover our deeper gifts. Once we have done this, and we begin to more actively live within our truer intents and purposes, the healing capacity inherent therein will emerge on its own. “The gift you carry for others is not an attempt to save the world but to fully belong to it. It’s not possible to save the world by trying to save it. You need to find what is genuinely yours to offer the world before you can make it a better place. Discovering your unique gift to bring to your community is your greatest opportunity and challenge. The offering of that gift – your true self – is the most you can do to love and serve the world. And it is all the world needs.” Plotkin argues that many ‘adults’ have not truly experienced maturity, and that our world suffers from uninitiated adults. To rectify this, we must all embrace the challenging journey of descent into the soul. “Contemporary society has lost touch with soul and the path to psychological and spiritual maturity, or true adulthood…Successful navigation of this most perilous time in human history requires psychologically and spiritually mature men and women who can engender a mature human species…For thousands of years, we have been living in a culture that ‘protects’ us from the hardships and dangers of the descent…It is a world from which the true elders have largely disappeared, the elders who once possessed intimate knowledge of soul…Knowledge of the mystical journey remains available… always and everywhere found within the souls of each of us and in the remaining wild places of the world.” (all excerpts are from Plotkin’s Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, California: New World Library, 2003, pp. 1-15).

Sunday, July 24, 2011

I Trust the Earth

When I remember what is really going on here, when I feel trees pushing forth new leaves, wind spelling secrets across my face, ground pulling and pushing at me simply because I stand in awe upon this Mother, when I remember my ancestors and know they have reckoned with a sentient earth too, built fires and told stories, when I laugh at the absurdity of a chaotic post-industrialism and the supreme irony of a ‘schooling’ that has made a mockery of the human spirit’s innate love of learning, when I gather these seeds of who I am and what we are, then I can enter the classroom awake, alive, and ready.

My students, those kids who assemble outside my door jostling for a spot of truth in this mirage of make-believe, who insist that tees breath and talk, who know they are ready to break the rules because the artifice of culture is already fractured from tip to tip, who gaze steadily when I mention ancestors, who get real quiet when I utter something about magic, who gallop across the fields when we remember our deepest glories, who will make fire with sticks and tools of stone because it is cooler than video games, these kids are both awaiting a more authentic future, and are willing to ruthlessly and with little grace dismantle all semblances of the artifice. They are untamed but also know that taming is a kind of blinding sometimes. They want to stay awake, alive, breathlessly in awe. They don’t want our path but they want us to point them towards their path. They will ‘behave’ if it is noble to do so, but a fresh nobility must be modeled to them daily, and sometimes the noble path has to be irreverent. They are so tired of hypocrisy and they can’t even spell that word yet. They are ready for the self-discipline of great challenges, but will not settle for the arbitrary or mundane tasks, and they can see the charade a mile away. They are strange little warriors and they will light the future. They will not be spoon fed nor force fed, and they will not listen to nonsense for long. They will learn respect only if the disrespect of the adult world is consistently called out. They will not apologize unless they feel remorse, and sometimes they are afraid to feel at all because reality has gotten so big and wild and exposed.

I am a teacher. I don’t know what that means entirely. I am not the docent of someone else’s standards, I am not laying out a red carpet for the college-bound, I am not molding the obedient citizen, I am not minimizing the deep confusion of growing up in 21st century complexity. I am responsible to my own growth as a mentor, to the endless yearnings of this earth for proper guides and role models, to the emergence of a New Story that will guide humanity out of systemic violence, and for the embracing and welcoming of each unique spirit that comes right through the eyes of every one of my students. I am mandated to ask questions of everything, to preserve innocence while I also reckon with truth, to insist that content take a back seat to character knowing that meaningful content is waiting for the strong and gentle hands of a mature caretaker. I am listening every day for the guidance that our earth consistently offers each of us. I trust this process. I trust my students and the ancient dance we are in. I trust the earth.