Tuesday, 7 October 2014

A Weekend With the Elders

This past weekend was intense, what with spending Thursday evening through Sunday with Jon Young, bird language expert, and Monday evening with David Suzuki and friends, taking part in his coast-to-coast Blue Dot Tour. There's a lot to say about these two men, and even more to be said about their differing approaches to a common goal. This week's reflection will be my unpolished thoughts on the experiences, with much more to be unfolded in due time, I'm sure.

First off, my business partner and I had the opportunity Thursday evening to set up a display table for KW Forest School and do some networking at an event hosted by the Guelph Outdoor School. Jon Young was the featured speaker, and he talked to a packed high school gym about his plan to build a continent-wide culture of nature connection by teaching and modelling the lessons of bird language. Sound crazily ambitious? It probably is. But Jon is such a down-to-earth speaker and casually magical storyteller that by the time the evening drew to a close, he had us hooked.

I was off in my assessment last week that Jon is an almagist, one who seeks to explain the world in a coherent and rational system. He studied anthropology, and has done some very interesting and massively influential work 'reverse engineering a culture of nature connection', as he puts it. He grew up being mentored by the famous American tracker Tom Brown, and later lived and studied with indigenous people on three different continents in an attempt to abstract the common features of their land-based cultures into a single model that he could teach to cultures who had lost touch with the land they lived on. Again, crazily ambitious, but kind of cool.

But rather than label him an almagist, I'd say Jon Young is much more an operative mage. By this I mean that he's someone versed in the practical arts of changing awareness through experience. The Thursday night event contained almost all the elements he's identified as those that build robust, connected communities: music, storytelling, food, theatre, inter-generational contact, and of course, lots of time for mixing and mingling. The one thing left out was real, raw contact with the natural world, and that's why I had decided beforehand to register for his weekend-long Bird Language Intensive workshop at Kimbercote Farm.

Kimbercote is a swathe of re-foresting farmland near Heathcote, Ontario, home to Sticks and Stones Wilderness School, where I've visited and taken other courses previously. The image above is a view of the beautiful Beaver Valley, with the Kimbercote barn nestled among the trees. The sloping meadow dotted with maple saplings in the foreground is where my fellow workshop participants and I crouched in the chilly rain before sunrise each morning of the workshop, pencils in hand, eyes and ears wide open. After forty-five minutes, we'd meet in small groups to debrief and map our observations, then pool those observations to form a master map and an overall story of what went on in the meadow during our sit.

Here's where the magic came in. Whether or not we knew the names of the birds producing the tweets and chirrups we noted, Jon was able, with his own observations and questions, to draw out from the assembled group a precise picture of where the hawks and other predators had been moving on the land. Even though the hawks themselves were silent and sometimes invisible. For example:

WORKSHOP PARTICIPANT: This afternoon we heard the robins alarm and saw them jump a few feet higher on their tree. Then the hawk appeared, flying down the hill, and there were short alarm calls all along the line of the cedars as it passed.

JON YOUNG: Why didn't the robins dive for cover?

PARTICIPANT: I guess they weren't as worried by this predator as they would have been about other dangers.

JON YOUNG: What did the robins do after jumping up to a higher branch?

PARTICIPANT: They kept very still, facing... up the hill, away from the hawk.

JON YOUNG: Ah, posting to sentinel. What do you think they were looking at?

PARTICIPANT: Another hawk?

JON YOUNG: You can bet anything you like on that.

The 'seen' hawk turned out to be a Norther Harrier, which hunts by soaring fast and low and dropping suddenly on whatever isn't wise enough to detect it coming. But the broad-winged Harrier isn't agile, so a robin can evade it by getting only a couple of feet above its flight path. Much more dangerous to a songbird is the Cooper's Hawk, which can dive and swoop and even play some nasty tricks on its much smaller prey, like hunting in the wake of a larger, more noticeable predator like the Harrier.

Jon's detective skills and years of experience listening to birds hammered home the message again and again throughout the weekend: nothing in nature is random. Everything birds and animals do means something, and if you can learn to quieten yourself and pay attention to their signals, not only will you be able to see more wildlife, you'll be able to read powerful meaning where before you perceived only random noise. Can you see why learning bird language can be such an inspiring, even spiritual experience? Jon understands this, and he also understands that spiritual matters can't be communicated by words- they have to be experienced, and the experience has to be guided by someone who understands the language of emotions.

I arrived home from the weekend tired, cold, and looking forward to seeing David Suzuki, the other nature guru, speak Monday evening to a packed concert hall. This was a very different kind of event, and the lineup included presentations by aerial photographer Edward Burtynsky, rock band Whitehorse, and slam poet Shane Koyczan, among others. The evening both dispelled some of the prejudices I'd expressed here and confirmed certain other feelings, mainly that the mainstream environmental movement has yet to understand the language of emotions.

I have more admiration than ever for David Suzuki, the man. At seventy-eight years old he's still touring the country, speaking from a heart unclouded by cynicism, and expressing a willingness to change his mind and refine his thinking. When he speaks, he leans into his words, gripping the podium and swaying with the intensity of what he's saying. He said very little about saving the Planet, and quite a lot about how amazing it is that we are air, water, and earth, members of an extended family that includes every living thing on earth. These insights were lifted almost directly from his book The Sacred Balance, which I discussed in last week's post, and I was cheered to hear them from his own mouth, worked into the context of this moment, in this country, building this movement.

As Alex pointed out in a recent comment, the Blue Dot tour is about building a movement with a very specific goal: legislating the fundamental right to a healthy environment at all levels of Canadian government. The tour coincides with municipal election time because the plan is to convince local governments to adopt statements to that effect first, then using that precedent to leverage provincial governments into endorsing environmental rights, and finally pressuring the federal government to acknowledge healthy air, water, and food as fundamental rights, for all Canadians, for all time.

It's a beautiful idea, and it's completely practical to use law as a tool to curb destructive behaviours like those we see going on in Sarnia, Grassy Narrows, and northern Alberta. It's also crazily ambitious, since recognizing Canadians' rights to a healthy environment would necessitate re-working every aspect of how we do things in this country, including such craziness as putting human rights before financial profit. And let's remember that Canada was created in the first place so that Sir John A. Macdonald and his friends could profit from the newly constructed Canadian Pacific Railway by violating the human rights of the people in the railway's path.

My problem with David Suzuki, the movement, is that I left the event Monday night feeling angrier than when I'd come. I'd fidgeted all through the evening, as projected images of global injustice alternated with feel-good empowerment speeches and indie rock ballads that had nothing (really, nothing) to do with either. The critical point in the evening came about two thirds of the way through, when a polished young man waved a postcard at us and urged us to commit to standing up for a healthy environment. We did so, literally standing up and clapping to signal our assent to the Blue Dot plan and our commitment to action, of some kind, soon.

I walked home grateful to have seen David Suzuki in person and to have contributed financially to his movement, but restless and dissatisfied with the experience I'd just been through. The anger I felt was a reflexive response to the deep grief that had been exposed in me by Burtynsky's images of devastated landscapes and Suzuki's lament for a nation being ruined by greed. It's a grief I carry with me always, everywhere, and what I seek in the woods and in my words is a way to assuage that grief and transform mourning into active hope.

The difference between David Suzuki's and Jon Young's events, as well as I can articulate it at this point, was the difference between being told something important and being taught it. A true teacher is committed not only to speaking the truth, but to guiding the emotional development of their students toward that truth. It's easy to tell people that we need to create change, and harder to teach them how. Of course, real, raw contact with the natural world is a step in the right direction, and I wish I could have heard David Suzuki speak in a woodland meadow, or even a drafty barn. But until we meet again, it'll be back to the woods for me, with my ears open.

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