Saturday, October 24, 2015

Wild Art: Exploring Local History

I had the great fortune of exploring some of our local natural and historical sites with some 8-13-year-olds this week. Our home was previously logged and explored for mining, so there are artifacts from this time scattered all over the second-growth forests, here. We had six hours to explore, some useful and rugged gear, and enough food and warm drinks to keep us nourished.

The first stop was the lower Mt. Gardner mine adit. There are four such adits on the western side of Mt. Gardner, and this one is the most accessible, so it's where we began our day. Apparently the Bonanza adit was after gold, but obviously they gave up before getting very far. The entrance to the adit is full of a very deep and long puddle, which makes a great home for frogs and salamanders, both of which we managed to catch a glimpse of, as we entered the dark. Just a little further in we found a harvester (photo), and two pairs of giant mating crickets!

Eventually the rock floor emerged from the puddle, and we explored both forks of the adit with our flashlights. We found some interesting numbers spray-painted on the walls, and wondered about their meaning, and we found both ends of the tunnel had old broken chairs and wet fabric dumped in them. There were also used tea-light candles stashed all over the place, the remains of a cardboard beer box, and some other bits of garbage. The kids decided that people like to hang out in the mines, or possibly store their belongings there so nobody takes them.

Then we turned off our lights. This was a big achievement for those kids who had required two attempts to enter the mine in the first place, but they chose to stay and challenge themselves to brave the dark - and they did it! With the lights out at the end of the mine, it's so dark that we can't see our own hands in front of our faces. We can't tell the difference between eyes closed and eyes open. And when we're quiet we hear every movement of our bodies inside the rock mountain.

But when we sing? Well that's amazing. We began just testing out single sounds and single notes and ended by singing the Hard Rock Miner, together, before returning to the light. Being enrobed in the reverberating sound is an experience you'd have to try out yourself to imagine.

Then we headed into the forest!

This part of the forest is richly carpeted with moss, making it feel not just welcoming but also very peaceful and enchanting. Somebody who obviously feels the same way has built a stone circle in this area, and we found it a perfect spot for an earth meditation.

Earth meditation is something I like to do with people as a way of connecting with the environment we're exploring. We begin by stretching and relaxing into the ground, then closing our eyes and calmly observing what we feel and hear. Of interest is not just what we observe, but what about it. Where does the sound appear to come from? Is it near or far? Is it moving - where? What are the different feelings in and around our bodies? How are those feelings different from each other?

Then we open our eyes, and this is what we see. Well... of course it's a lot richer than this photo can illustrate. We look at the texture of the bark closer to us, and the difference between the needles up close and those that are farther away.

We compare the colour of the sky directly above with the colour of the sky all around the edges of our view. We look at small details and we look at the big picture. This photo can't do it justice, because really it looks circular, like a dome. Sometimes we see raindrops or bits of debris falling towards us and can observe perspective in real time. When we're finished observing and talking about what we discover, we simply get up and move on.

Near the stone circle is a fort that a previous group of kids began building a few months ago, so this group continued it. They also built secret caches for treasures they were finding, and began a large game of invasion and reconstruction between what turned out to be two distinct fort areas. Weapons such as this spear and hammer (right) were built and traded, and various forms of defense were invented as well. One that was new to me was a system of defensive lasers that could only be turned off by singing a very precise series of notes. If the "password" was sung correctly, the lasers would turn off; if not, the singer would encounter booby traps.

As the game evolved, it necessitated a couple of brief conversations about comfort levels for attacks, and the time needed to develop and repair, between attacks. Eventually this game petered out, and we went down the mountain in search of the old steam donkey.

During lunch time I was informed that all of these kids have learned the song Donkey Riding in school, but that all of them thought it was about a donkey (animal). Of course it's not, and we of the pacific rainforests are accustomed to finding the remains of steam donkeys in our wilderness, so we had a great opportunity to talk about that song! When you're "stowing timber on the deck" you're certainly not riding on a small equine, but rather a great honking steam-powered engine!!

Riding on a donkey!

A few meters away from this main boiler, we found the rusty old top of the donkey, as well as some old cable, and other metal parts. Eventually, over the rest of the day, we found many stumps with spring-board notches cut into them, and also one with spikes in it. We wondered whether perhaps that was close to the spar tree, as we also found a huge pulley, there. If you're interested to see all this gear in action, here is some old silent footage of Vancouver Island logging. Watch for the man cutting and preparing the spar tree, then installing the giant pulley, then you will see a clip of the loggers "riding the donkey" (this is what they're talking about in the song!), and finally you see them start to use it:

Of course all this excitement wouldn't be nearly enough. There is a great creek running through the area we were in, and it had to be explored! This creek offers a mini canyon, as well as a great tumbling section of rounded rocks and precarious logs for climbing on. We had many near-soakings and a couple of near boot-fillings.

The day wrapped up with a great game of witch's potions, cache-building, dam-building and water play.

We came out of the woods completely exhausted, but all having made discoveries that were unexpected, inspiring and engaging. I have no idea what parts of this day will stick in the hearts and minds of the kids I shared it with, but for me, it will be yet another day where I opened myself to experience and came home rich. What a perfect day!


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Earth Day Every Day: 4

Earth Day Every Day is a bi-monthly series of essays I write for the Bowen Bulletin, re-published here for fun!

Here we are, waking up to a new red dawn. Apparently our prime minister designate is a rockstar. Now let me tell you about crawling through the mud in the woods. Priorities.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the kids I work with climbed up onto a leaning tree. It was a soft green moss- and licorice fern-covered maple, reaching out between great black crystal-like crags of old burnt cedars. He climbed up and back down three times, and when he satisfied his skill-building needs, he just sat up there for a while. That seat in itself was pretty amazing, but from where he sat, there was something far better. “Hey guys! I see a swamp!” He shouted. Some of the other kids looked up from their boat racing and bridge building, and one declared “no more swamps”. She was the one wearing running shoes. But I followed his gaze, and within a minute or so, he was down from the tree, and everyone had joined the quest for the swamp.

Just around a cedar shell we found what looked like the beginnings of a house – raw posts sunk deep into a grassy clearing just beside the creek, a shovel, some roofing, and a creeping carpet of moss. Our leader ducked under some salmonberry bushes, crossed the creek, and crawled through the mud to a group of trees and logs, beyond. “Holy!” He shouted! “It's a cave! I found a cave with a river in it, and a waterfall, too!” I struggled through under the salmonberries while some of the older teens picked their way around to the other side, where we found the small creek streaming into a loamy under-tree cavern, and winding its way between small sand bars, about two meters below our feet.

I checked the time, and felt pressured to hurry them back to the school for lunch. But I squatted down and checked out the soft sand under the tree, instead. As time marched on, I became worried about their parents' reactions if we arrived late, and encouraged them to leave. But they were busy. Some kids climbed into the cave; some harvested licorice fern, and one sang a song before accidentally slipping between some roots and nearly into the deepest part of the 'cavern'. As his friends helped him out of the tight space, I worried about the kids injuring themselves. But I waited quietly. These kids helped me to discover new delights in an area I've visited far more often than they have, and I was grateful for their perspective.

It's so easy to become wrapped up in our adult lives, and to feel the urgent present moment more important than the building of our future. It's so easy to find ourselves more important than the discoveries of children crawling through the mud. Obviously we understand so much more than they do. But then again, somehow we don't.

Here we are, waking up to a new red dawn, and on Monday I watched a few of my teenaged friends posting “voting in the only way I can” updates to social media, and witnessed the infectious joy as the mock school polls managed to overthrow the conservatives. The IPS outcome was apparently (in this order) Liberal, Green, Marijuana, Conservative, NDP, and Marxist-Leninist. What would happen if we placed more value in the thoughts and intentions of our youth? What would happen if we listened to their hopes and fears with the same sincerity they afford to ours, as they're listening to our grave adult conversations from neighbouring rooms, and wondering if their world will fall apart?

The stream that flows so perfectly into the waterfall of an amazing under-tree cavern does not care which party won the election. The great community of plants and fungi and animals that depend upon the stream do not know that over at the community school we put X's on bits of converted tree pulp to determine their future. But our children know. They know that we are their voices and that our every move will determine their future. The freedom to explore and to build a deep connection with and understanding of our environment is part of the way we keep our future viable. Our children know this.

Our children are not just our future, but the future of humanity, and when we value their contributions we give them the agency to form brave opinions. We give them the wherewithal to act on those opinions, instead of being swallowed up in the present moment fears that occupy us in our busy adult lives. Here we are, waking up to a new red dawn, and our work has just begun. Let's climb through the mud and swamps to find hidden treasures. I challenge all of us to reach into the unknown and to hold our new government to task for the things that matter to our children.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Eleven years ago this very moment.

Eleven years ago this very moment, at 10:55 in the morning, my powerful child came swooshing out into the world and I caught her with my own hands. I lifted her up and shouted "It's mine! She's mine! She's my girl!!!"

We have a tradition in our family of telling the kids about their births during the days that surround their birthdays. The little stories all begin with something like this: "Eleven years ago this very moment..." and end with the details: "...Tali and Nana were making applesauce in the kitchen", or "...we decided to go get on the ferry and head for the hospital," or "...I was sitting in the bath at the hospital, leaning on Pappa," or "...I told the nurse I felt you moving down", etc. The story goes on for days, and we all delight in remembering.

Hurried rice porridge and Tali's flowers and card on her birthday school morning.
But this year my beautiful daughter isn't home! For the first time ever, she's attending a part-time school program, and has gleefully brought cupcakes to share with her class. She loves her independence there, and didn't even want me to drop her off at school. So at this moment, I can't tell her "...and I lifted your little purple body up onto my chest, while Nana and Pappa came running in the door". I can't describe to her how it was to snuggle her little sticky self all up in my arms as all the doctors and nurses came hurrying into the room in a panic and we were just fine. I can't tell her how they wiped her face and how dark reddish brown it became - and stayed - and how I smooshed my lips against her beautiful soft head and cried for the joy of holding her, or how Pappa and Nana kissed us so lovingly, and Pappa declared that her name would be Rhiannon. Rhiannon Raven. And that was that, and I smiled and said "Annie" and it was all perfect.

Parenting isn't always perfect. How could we ever grow and develop if there weren't a hundred thousand hurdles to keep us leaping all the way? My daughter is a force to be reckoned with, and also sometimes like the softness of a warm wind that keeps me steady and sure as she wraps her arms around me and reminds me that there is always love.

I can't tell her these things right now, but I will. Today as I bake her birthday quince pie, I will re-live the memories myself, and tonight when I tuck her in I will sing her the song her Nana wrote for her, and tell her about my day: The day she was born and the present day that I spent thinking about the wonderful gift of her presence in my life.

Thank you, Annie, for being mine.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Eyes on the Prize

This weekend I've been holding a video camera for my son, to help him with a video tutorial contest he wants to enter. I've tried to give him video advice, but he won't take it. The biggest advice he'll take from me is to turn so that he's not hidden by his own shadow. I've tried to explain that I'm not usurping his creativity; that this is only something I can see from behind the camera. But I see that he's unhappy about my input. He's always been this way: fiercely independent, to the extent that if he accepts any advice or help with what he does, he usually disowns the project. It's extremely frustrating to me.

I want him to do well in this contest! I want him to win the two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar scholarship!! And I know he's competing against kids with both years of experience and teams of expert help and advisers. I want him to succeed. And I'm afraid he'll be demoralized if he doesn't even make the first cut, as judged by the other contestants.

He's just happy he gets to judge some of his peers.

This is where I have to step back and remind myself how we got here, and what the true prize really is. I wrought this situation myself.

Since my son was born I've been encouraging him to trust his own devices; to find his own answers. I've rejected any program or arrangement where outcomes were predetermined, or where the method or journey was prescribed. When a child learns that the correct drawing is the one that looks like something we already recognize, or (worse) that looks like an example they've been asked to copy, he learns that his worth is dependent upon somebody else's expectations. That's a child who now sees no value in his own ideas. When he learns that the parent's or teacher's word is the final word, he learns that his own judgement is not valued. He learns not to trust himself. When he learns that his own video isn't good enough without input from somebody more experienced, he learns that innovation is never as important as measuring up. He learns that his own agency is worthless.

Ironically, the video my son is making is an explanation of his own personal take on some physics theories. And I wanted to give him advice. Oops.

My son is very interested in photography. Until this past weekend (when his camera died!) he had the freedom to photograph completely without interference from anybody else, and I have always appreciated the perspective he presents in his photos. He is slowly evolving his own style and techniques because of the lack of interference from well-meaning tutors like me. It's a joy to watch. You can check out his photography blog here:

He may not win this contest - he may not even score highly enough with his peers that the contest judges will even look at his video. But he gets to make a video and share it with other teens who care about physics. If I can just manage to stop my own competitive and fear-driven interference, he will retain the feeling that his creative product is his own. He will retain the feeling that his ideas matter. He will know that he is worth something, and that is the true prize.