from the archives

by Melissa Blake

This article first appeared in the Primitive Pursuits introductory guide “Not Your Typical Classroom.” Booklet was prepared by Melissa Mueller in November 2009. Contributors included Heidi Bardy, Beth Bannister, Tim Drake, Dave Hall, and Jed Jordan.

I remember the summer I learned that shooting stars aren’t really stars. I was away at summer camp in the mountains of North Carolina. We used to see tons of shooting stars- one right after another – as we lay in our sleeping bags in Deep Gap or on Deer Mountain. After the long climb up to the ridge, our group would eat a hearty meal and then lie out together if the night was clear. We would hear stories about how the mountains got their names and watch the sky.

One summer I had a counselor who showed us the difference between shooting stars and satellites and later I asked him,

“Have any famous stars ever fallen?” I knew that stars had names, especially the ones in well-known constellations like Orion.

He explained patiently that what we were actually seeing were meteors, and the reason we saw so many was because it was the time of year for the Perseid meteor shower. “But really meteors are falling all the time, even during the day-you just can’t see them then.” For a long time after that I took every opportunity I could find to sleep outside, and I would lie on my back looking up at the stars until my eyes closed without my even noticing. I had realized that if I watched and waited long enough, I would see a shooting star. And when I did it felt like that meteor had fallen just for me, just because I had been patiently waiting and watching.

The relationship I had with nature at that time was also a relationship I had with myself. It was about feeling that I would be taken care of as long as I used common sense and also took care of myself the way I learned to do on those summer backpacking trips.

I felt more comfortable sleeping on the ground, feeling the wind and dew and hearing the howls than I did in my bed. Yes, there were still things to be scared of – or at least to have a healthy respect for. At night I was a little afraid of skunks and porcupines. But overall, I felt at home in nature and content to wander for hours alone in the woods and meadows surrounding my house.

Perhaps it is easier for children to build this kind of relationship with nature – one that is intuitive, instinctual, and not based on a lot of rational knowledge but that nonetheless opens us up to learning about the world around us. How many of us, as adults, long to feel that connected once more? Some of us manage to maintain or regain that relationship with nature and with ourselves, and wish to share it with others. We would be happy to be the mentor that summer camp counselor was for me. Almost 30 years later I don’t remember his name and i can’t quite recall his face. But he gave me a gift that has affected me for the rest of my life.

Ben Franklin said, “What signifies knowing the names, if you know not the nature of things?” A skilled mentor can not only teach someone the names of plants and animals, but help him build meaningful relationship with the world and people around him.

Wilderness mentoring emphasizes each individual’s learning process. Mentoring takes teaching a step further by emphasizing the learner as an individual and facilitating not only learning about the subject at hand but learning about oneself as a learner. Practicing metacognition this way strengthens “connection to self.” By the same token, the mentor is continuously learning about herself as a teacher and student.

Primitive Pursuits mentors ask:

“How can we each cultivate these connections in ourselves? How can we as adults or young adults maintain and strengthen our own relationship with nature, self, and others?”

A mentor is a lifelong student, keeping his own curiosity engaged. Curiosity is as contagious as enthusiasm. When mentors collaborate in the learning process with participants, a learning community is created where everyone is being curious together.

“We shall never cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

– T.S. Eliot