Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Elements of Forest Living

Take a look at the tools in the picture above. Do you know what each of them is for? Any guesses as to the ones you don't recognize? If you had to pick only a few to take with you into an extended stay in the forest, which would you choose?

Last Sunday, August 17, seventeen parents and children came out to Waterloo Park to take part in a workshop hosted by Transition Families called "Elements of Forest Living". I had the privilege of leading the workshop, and I'd been looking forward to the opportunity to pull these objects out of my bag of tricks and put them to work in their natural environment.

Waterloo Park is a gem in the midst of our fine city. It has a lake, a splash pad, playing fields, baseball backstops, and most importantly from my view, extensive wooded areas along the quiet banks of Laurel Creek- more than enough forest in which to set up my temporary shelter and spend an afternoon teaching the tools of the trade.

My work as a field leader at KW Forest School, an outdoor after school program for kids, is all about exploring the elements of forest living. During Sunday's workshop we worked with the elements most essential to life anywhere: shelter, water, fire, and food. But there are others. My interest in nature and in naturalist skills has always been rooted in the question: what does life consist of, in its most basic elements? How can learning about these elements teach us to live well?

There's an element of excitement in learning 'survival skills', but to be honest, bare survival doesn't interest me all that much. I've always loved reading stories by Gary Paulsen, Jean Craighead George, and John Tanner, stories about the struggles of individuals to live lives of meaning and purpose in places where natural elements threaten to destroy them. But the best part of those stories is always when the young protagonist returns to human society with a keener and deeper sense of themselves and of their relationships with others.

I believe that taking time to learn what our lives are made of can help us to see more joy in our lives together, even in the moments of discomfort nature might throw our way- a rainy day, a wrong turn on a long hike, or a storm that knocks out the power for days. As a teenager, learning the difference between need and want on a week-long canoe trip helped me to grow into a much happier and more easygoing adult later on.

Our program at KW Forest School doesn't involve week-long trips, or putting knives and saws into the hands of young children, either. But it does teach kids to be confident using tools they can find in their immediate environment, whether it's an interestingly shaped stick, a fibrous plant perfect for making good strong cordage, or a slope ideally suited for use as an impromptu slide. And who knows? They might learn a few useful tricks to pass on to the rest of us. Curious? I know I am.

Transition Families is a new sub-group of Transition KW, focused on bringing together families interested in low-carbon living.
We meet every month to experience Nature by:
- Hiking in local natural areas
- Learning to ID local plants and animals
- Tree Planting
- Cleaning up our environment
But most of all by Having Fun!!

This post has been cross-posted to the blogs of Transition KW and KW Forest School.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Why We Need a Forest School in KW

When I think back on the people and places that have been my guiding stars in life, few constellations shine brighter in my memory than summer camp. It's remarkable, the kind of influence that one week out of fifty-two can have on a young person, but what made camp indelible was that we, the campers, took it with us into the rest of the year. My sister and cousins and I would re-tell the counsellors' jokes and re-enact their skits to our endless amusement (and likely our parents' mystified bemusement). We would sing camp songs, again and again. And we began to have a sense that the skills we were being introduced to at camp- canoeing, backpacking, taking pleasure in living roughly and simply- could empower us to change ourselves and our reality outside of camp.

Fast forward a decade or so, and my dream of one day being one of those custodians of cool, a camp counsellor, had become reality, as had all the unmentioned, more properly 'custodial' aspects of the job. (These too had important lessons to teach). Prior to my fifth summer on staff as a nature educator, canoe trip leader, and in-cabin counsellor, a group of parents approached me and a co-worker about their idea for a camp-like outdoor skills program in our city, Kitchener-Waterloo. At our camp the fifth summer is generally a time when staff who have stuck around that long say 'adios' and paddle into the sunset to start other ventures. Perhaps because I was dreading saying goodbye to the life I'd so fervently idealized, perhaps because it sounded like an idea crazy enough to work, I said yes to a three-month pilot program.

That was two years ago. In the intervening time I've had the chance to reflect on the experience in the context of my farewell to camp and my escape from the halls of higher learning. I've had opportunities to seek out training and mentorship that gets me excited about passing on what's been given to me. I've had time to think about the world and my place in it, and I've discovered that being outdoors with kids is where my deepest passion meets the world's deepest need, as a mentor of mine put it. And so, in large part thanks to that initial group of parents, I'm going for it, and I’m extremely pleased to be partnering with Sarah Penner to make KW Forest School a reality this fall.

First off, the need as I see it: something like half of all kids in North America live in cities, where wild spaces are the exception rather than the default. I was lucky to be able to go up to camp once a year and to roam with my dog in the wooded ravine next to our subdivision during the school year. In a city environment, where almost everything a child touches has been designed, marketed, industrially produced, and purchased (yes, even the trees), it's a profound gift for a child to encounter wildness, and the raw, unmoulded materials that fuel creativity.

It's also a bit of a paradox for us to be designing and marketing a service that will deliver those experiences, but for this I'll gladly beg your pardon, because as I see it the other piece of the puzzle is passion. I simply love being in the woods, and my experiences at camp taught me how humbling and awe-inspiring it can be to open a door for a child onto a world they'd never dreamed of before. All the better if that world happens to be their own backyard.

That's part of the point of founding a Forest School in KW. As magical as it can be to go away to camp or even a nearby nature reserve for a little while, our goal with KWFS is to unlock the magic in the places we already inhabit. Nature is everywhere, and she is always teaching. Thus there are no paid teachers at our school; our staff are known as Field Leaders because their main tasks are to keep everyone safe and to make the initial introductions: kid, forest, forest, kid- now go have fun. Oh, and we might have a few magic tricks up our sleeves as well.

Meeting in the park after school once a week with a group of eight kids might not seem like a way to change the world, but is there a larger, subversive purpose behind an inside-out school? Certainly. In a sense, the children in our program will all be visiting scholars, collaborating with us on research into the limits to industrially-produced satisfaction and the possibilities for convivial regeneration. This research will mostly involve playing with sticks, stones, leaves, and snowballs. It may lead to unexpected results; we will keep you, our stakeholders, informed through our monthly potluck 'seminars', when families of Forest School participants will be invited to picnic with us in the park and see what we've been up to. Can you picture it now? If so, you're halfway there- we'll see you in the woods.

This post has been cross-posted to KW Forest School's blog. Check it out!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014


Map had a cow that he loved very much for the good milk it gave him. The cow had a reputation in the valley where Map lived, a reputation that was well attested to by the fact that he never bragged about her. He just held his head high, in a quiet sort of way, and people would say as he passed, 'there goes Map, who owns a fine cow'.

One time a huge rainstorm climbed over Looktwice Mountain and made itself comfortable down in the valley for most of a day and a night. When Map went out the following morning at milking time, he found his beloved cow standing belly-deep in a puddle of mud. He tried to coax her out, then he tried to lead her out with a halter, then he tried to push her out, but the poor beast only lowed mournfully. Finally Map had to crouch down in the mud puddle and milk her right there, though of course he couldn't get any of that good milk.

Map went to see his friend Hap, who lived up the way and was an accomplished bragger. People would gather in the evenings sometimes just to hear him brag, and the little ones enjoyed his talk as much as the big ones. But when he was done people would go on their way, laughing and shaking their heads, because Hap had a fine big mouth but no cow to his name.

Well, Map went to see his friend, and said, "Hap, my cow is stuck in the mud. Come and help me get her out." So Hap got on his coat and boots and went over to Map's, where the poor beast was still standing belly-deep and contemplating her calamity.

"This looks like a big job," said Hap. "If I were you I'd get some help."

"That's why I got you," said Map.

"No, I mean big help, for a big job," said Hap. "I'm your friend, and I don't want to give you anything less. Let's go across the way and ask Selima."

So they went to see Selima, who lived in a cave halfway up Ware Mountain. Selima had eight hands and knew something about everything, and when they got to the cave opening and knocked, she was making string figures to pass the time.

"Selima," said Hap, "my friend Map has a big job to do and he needs some big help. What would you recommend?"

"The biggest helper I have is called Moro," Selima replied, waving away a fly. "He lives across the way, under that mountain you can see through the cave opening. He usually does what I ask. Just dig under the fireweed and tell him what you want done."

"Great," said Hap. "I knew there'd be an easy way to get the job done."

"Oh, and watch out for his feet," Selima said, and went back to her string figures.

Hap and Map left the cave and started back across the way. "Isn't this great?" said Hap, slapping his friend on the back. "We'll just call up this Moro guy and have your cow back in the barn before you know it."

"I don't know about this," said Map. "What did she mean by 'watch out for his feet'?"

"They probably smell bad," said Hap. "It's no concern of ours. Let's go get our shovels and pay old Moro a visit."

So they did that, and then they went together up the mountain Selima had pointed to, which was called Woebetide Mountain. They stopped partway up and dug where Selima had said to dig, under the fireweed. They hadn't gone very deep before they found an ear, a huge ear, dull pinkish dun like granite. Hap leaned over and said, very carefully, "Hey Moro, wake up!" Nothing happened, so Hap bent closer and shouted, "Hey Moro, wake up!" And Moro did.

He was huge. When he sat up he made half the mountainside fall away, and it cascaded down into the valley, burying three fields and an apple orchard. Even sitting down he towered over them like a grandfather spruce. His skin was dull pinkish dun all over. He had no neck to speak of, just a slab-shaped head that was too big for his ears. He had two little eyes that glowed like cinders, and enormous feet.

"Hey Moro!" called Hap. Moro turned his head slowly and looked down at them. "There's a cow stuck in Map's field down the way a bit- can you get it out for us?"

Moro got up and went down into the valley, and Map and Hap ran along behind him. When he got to Map's pasture he picked up the cow between two fingers (he had four on each hand) and set her down on dryer ground. The poor beast lowed in terror and ran off to the far side of the pasture.

"Great," said Hap, "that was even easier than I'd thought. I wonder what else this guy can do?"

"We should probably thank him and send him home," said Map, who was worried for his cow.

But Hap took Moro to his place and let him sleep in the hayfield. The next day he put Moro to work picking stones, and the day after that he had him heap up the highest drystone wall that valley had ever seen, all the way around Hap's land. Everyone came up the way to see what Hap was up to, and they shook their heads but they didn't laugh.

After that everyone wanted Moro to work for them. Hap bragged and bragged, and they could see that what he said was true. Moro could till fields by running his fingers through the soil. He could split wood with his fingernails. He could mill grain on a windless day. In short, he could do the work of a hundred men, and Hap charged his neighbours accordingly when they asked for Moro's help. In no time at all Hap was the richest man in the valley.

But Moro didn't always do a good job. Sometimes he spun the vanes of a windmill too fast and broke the cogs. Sometimes he turned firewood into wood shavings, or left it as a jumble of half-snapped logs. At other times he simply stopped tilling halfway through a field and wandered off to do something else.

And that wasn't all. Moro's feet really did smell bad, and they were so enormous that he stepped on things by mistake. In his first week working for Hap, Moro flattened two outhouses and a summer kitchen, and by the second week he had demolished someone's house. Hap payed for the buildings to be replaced, but it didn't stop there. Moro knocked down trees that stood in his way, and he trampled fields and gardens into the dirt. He didn't seem to eat, but he drank whole rivers dry.

Soon the neighbours agreed that Moro needed to be reined in. Hap assured them that he would get his helper to repair the damages, but it didn't work. Instead of planting trees or mending fences, Moro started knocking things down for fun. People were frightened, and that made them angry, and they started quarelling amongst themselves about how best to deal with Moro. "It's a big job, but that's why I have a big helper!" Hap kept saying, but nobody listened to his talk any more, because they could see that what he said was foolishness. Moro was ripping up whole forests on the slopes above them and throwing the rubble down into the valley.

After a while Moro got bored and left. He walked over the ruined face of Woebetide Mountain and vanished. Then Map came out of his cellar and went up the way to see his friend Hap.

"Hello Map," said Hap when his friend arrived. "Say, it's been a while since I've been able to find anything to eat around here. Would you give me a bite to eat, or even a cup of your cow's good milk?"

"You know I would," said Map, "but Moro stepped on my cow last week."

That evening a huge rainstorm climbed over Looktwice Mountain and made itself comfortable down in the valley for most of a night and a day. The rain beat down on the wounded earth and washed the soil of the mountain slopes into the bed of the River Way, which rose silted and swollen from its banks and flooded the entire valley. Houses and fences and windmills all were swept away.

When the sky finally cleared, the evening star found Map and Hap halfway up the mountainside, huddled in one of Moro's enormous footprints. As they looked out over the desolate valley, Hap said softly, "That looks like a big job."

And Map said, "It looks like a job for little people."

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Message Decoded, Part 4: The Landscape of the Future

This week's reflection is part of an extended commentary on a short story I posted a few weeks back. Read on or catch up, if you're curious- it's your choice. 

This topographical survey of time past, present, and future would not be complete without considering the day-to-day reality of living in the age of peak oil. It can be easy to forget, when we debate the existential implications of petroleum geology in wordy online forums, that there are profound human dimensions to the crisis of this age, though they go by other names. Each time I walk to work down Queen Street, in the opposite direction from the centuries-old Joseph Schneider Haus, I pass small knots of people standing and chatting on the sidewalk outside the downtown job search resource centre. These people are my neighbours, and though I doubt they'd express their circumstances in this way, they are on the leading edge of peak oil.

I've mentioned before that I spent some time in the American South, and that it made a big impact on me. The place I where lived for five months in northwest Georgia is a refugee welcome centre situated on two hundred and fifty acres of field and forest, formerly a cotton plantation. The long-term residents there are a small community of Christians committed to a life of service together, and their ministry focuses on offering newly-arrived refugees a two-month respite on their land, teaching them daily English lessons, and connecting them with energetic young volunteers like myself. (They also grow pecans and sweet potatoes, among other delicious crops. Twenty-first century Georgian agriculture is the inspiration for my optimistic depiction of twenty-third century climate-changed Ontarian agriculture in "The Messengers").

My southern sojourn took place when I was twenty-one and halfway through a degree in Medieval Studies. I was becoming increasingly convinced that academic skill was not the most effective contribution I could make to the future I saw gathering on my horizon, and that higher education was an expensive and depressing sham in any case. Combine this frame of mind with my obsession with what, at that point, I was still calling 'the end of the world', and maybe you can imagine the kinds of things I liked to talk about with whoever would listen.

The conversation that changed my whole outlook came about two thirds of the way through my stay in Georgia. It was a warm spring afternoon, and I was digging a trench to lay a new water line from the well to the garden and goat pasture. Working with me that day was a young man visiting the community from his home on the outskirts of Chicago. He and his wife, both of whom could pass as white and middle-class, had decided a couple of years earlier to move into the poorest part of their city, an all-black neighbourhood with no access to paying jobs or even a grocery store. They had planted a garden and set about meeting their neighbours, with no higher purpose than to live in solidarity with those whom society had abandoned, to 'find the Holy Spirit moving on the margins', as they put it.

As the two of us laboured in the red Georgia mud I began talking about how important I thought it was to get back to the land, since that was what we'd be able to rely on when civilization collapsed. To my surprise, my companion got angry. He talked about his neighbours, about their struggles to survive and how little they had to hope for. He pointed out in no uncertain terms that my fear of the end of the world was itself a form of white middle class privilege, because for the kids in his neighbourhood, for the refugee kids I worked with every day, and for millions of others around the world, civilization had already collapsed. It had already ceased to be of any relevance for its most vulnerable members.

The full weight of that epiphany didn't sink in right away, but as months and years went by I reflected more and more on his reproach. Up until then I'd been prophesying some kind of tipping point, when the price of oil or the global climate or some kind of crisis would make everyone in the world look up and realize what they were living through. But since then I've come to think that although there might be many such moments in the years ahead of us, it's just too easy for those of us with money and social security nets to let the facts slide off us, and to confuse the urgency of 'issues' with the urgent needs of people. It's just too easy not to look up and notice the person standing before us on the street, hat in hand, even as more and more people slip through civilization's cracks into the uncertain world of modern poverty.

Unemployment is growing. How could it be otherwise in a society investing a greater and greater slice of its wealth into extracting an ever thinner wedge of energy to power its basic functions? The price of oil has increased fourfold since 2002 and fivefold from its twentieth century average. In the big picture, this means that fueling a complex civilization is becoming more and more expensive; in the little picture, it means that finding three dollars to catch the bus to the food bank is becoming more and more difficult. Peak oil isn't waiting to swoop in and get us- it's already here, just not evenly distributed. Peak oil, in the final analysis, is a social justice issue.

Another of the communities I visited in the South had a simple slogan to guide its daily practices: reduce the distance. To the degree that we can reduce the distance between ourselves and the poor, physically, socially, economically, spiritually, we will be that much less uncomfortable when we interact with our neighbours on the streets, and that much more prepared for the day when the safety nets fail us too, and we join their number. The moral of the peak oil story, after all, is that we're all going to have to learn to get by with less whether we like it or not. The sooner we prepare ourselves for that descent, the gentler it will be, and the greater our ability to invest in lifestyles and community infrastructure that enable living well with less.

What does that infrastructure look like? Consider the difference between modern poverty, which involves difficult choices between dependence on state welfare or on various black markets, or both, and the twenty-third century poverty I imagined in "The Messengers", which involves producing one's own livelihood with the hard labour of one's own hands. While it's by no means an easy solution, what I want to see is more community support for community-based entrepreneurship. That entrepreneurship doesn't have to involve subsistence farming, but it shouldn't involve high-tech gadgetry, as is the current craze in my city. Complex supply chains and manufacturing processes make the high-tech sector neither truly local nor truly sustainable in a low-energy future.

Local investments in local economies can be as simple as buying handmade jewelry from a fledgling artisan, or paying a couple dollars more for vegetables that came from down the road instead of from around the world. It can be as empowering as funding a young person to live and work in their hometown rather than migrating to the big city or to the oil patch in search of work. I know some fine people currently working in oil or other extractive industries, some of whom are related to me, and it would be wonderful to be able to bring them home to a bustling local economy that valued their time and talents.

Thus my wizardly ambitions have led me further and further into thoughts of economics and business, and I'm quite honestly astounded to have arrived where I am today. But before catching up to my own present, I want to conclude this reflection with another trip into the land of story. That'll be next week.