My heart was pounding. I was covered in quickly drying clay, charcoal, twigs, leaves and I was crouched in a dry stream bed listening closely to the woodland sounds. I was listening to the chickadees calling from the lowest branches of the maple trees. Their two-tone call meant everything was normal. Then they went silent. A figure came crashing through the trees, jumping over logs, diving under branches, closely pursued by three other figures clad in the same clay, charcoal and brush that I was wearing. A bandana dropped at my feet and the figure let out a piercing howl that cut through the forest and echoed from a dozen voices that all came together in a circle. My heart was beating, but my face was smiling.
As we shared stories of the stealth game everyone revealed how they found their own role. The former marine running up and over obstacles, concealed himself under logs and in forest pockets. The rock climber who posted herself up in the branches of a hemlock, communicated with her teammates through bird sounds. The artist craftily hid himself with intricate patterns of clay that made him invisible in the landscape.
All of us circled around that day had signed up for the Wilderness Skills Intensive course, a month-long experience with Primitive Pursuits in Ithaca NY. As I looked around the circle I saw stories in each face, stories people carried to the circle and stories we made together. By signing up for the course we had entered a container of learning and community, formed through shared effort and triumph. Each song we sang, each game we played, each friction fire we shared brought us closer together. It is a container that I’ve used as a model in my own public programs as an educator and continue to use in my summer camp as a director.
I currently work as a naturalist for Westchester County Parks at Muscoot Farm. In that role, I’ve started a summer camp for kids called “Muscoot Naturalist Summer Camp”. The programs combine earth-based skills, scientific inquiry and artistic expression to mimic the natural learning styles of children. Since its inception 3 years ago, campers have tanned deer hides, cleared turtle nesting habitats of invasive plants, gathered plant medicines in self-made baskets, made atlatls out of phragmites reed grass, hunted stumps with slings and documented over 250 species of wildlife on the farm. During the off season, I lead tracking classes and primitive skills workshops for adults.
In addition, I am the organizer for the group “Westchester Primitive Skills and Wildlife Trackers” on meetup.com. We currently have 215 local adults who meet together for ice fishing, foraging walks, basket making and celebrating wild harvests of every kind.