Category Archives: Education Reform

Sweden versus America

What can we learn from each other?

Sweden vs. America: What can we learn from each other?

Sweden vs. America: What can we learn from each other?

Every country, every culture has something to teach. Dating a Swede for the past two years has led to numerous conversations contrasting our two countries. What is better about Sweden? What is better about America? In the ideal world, people would cherry-pick the best customs and laws from every culture to create a more optimal human society. Unfortunately, people are stubborn and change is slow. Yet conversations and sharing can plant seeds of change that take root over time. This essay compares and contrasts six broad areas of personal interest, revealing opportunities to improve quality of life in both our countries.

Sweden, along with many European countries, recognize allemansrätten, “everyman’s right” to roam the open countryside.

Sweden, along with many European countries, recognize allemansrätten, “everyman’s right” to roam the open countryside.

  1. Land of the Free, or Not?

America is often championed as a land of freedom, yet Americans are among the least-free peoples in the developed world. We are everywhere confronted with “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” signs that effectively lock us out of our own country. In comparison, Sweden, along with many European countries, recognize allemansrätten, “everyman’s right” to roam the open countryside. The public is allowed to hike, camp, and forage on private land in Sweden, provided that individuals are respectful, don’t trample crops or harass livestock, and don’t intrude on the landowner privacy, such as by pitching a tent near a home.

Similarly, although one cannot legally drive on a private road in Sweden, it is perfectly okay to walk, bicycle, or ride your horse down that same road. Swedes naturally respect private property and maintain positive relationships with landowners. (Click here for details and exceptions.) America would be a much nicer place if we emulated allemansrätten here, as detailed in my more extensive essay, Posted: Please Trespass.

Counter-intuitively, the Swedish right to roam doesn’t include the right to hunt or fish. Hunting and fishing rights largely belong to private landowners, who typically participate in regional cooperatives to manage leases. For example, we did a week-long, 116 km (72 mile) canoe trip on Sweden’s largest river, the Klarälven, which crossed through three different cooperatives. Each cooperative issues a separate fishing license, which must be purchased in person at different towns along the way, from stores that may or may not be open. (Click here for details.) In the U.S., hunting and fishing is managed by individual states. A fishing license in Montana, for example, is good throughout the state. If you can legally access the water then you can legally fish there.

Overall, Swedes enjoy more freedom than Americans. However, Americans recognize other basic rights that Swedes do not. For example, the need for a toilet is dictated by bodily functions, making it a basic human necessity and a fundamental right according to American customs. Free public toilets are often abundant in the states. Americans also expect free access to toilets in most private businesses, including grocery stories, office supply stores, and banks. Free toilets are comparatively rare across most of Europe. Public institutions, such as museums, are often vastly underserved for the number of visitors, and many public places, such as train stations, offer only coin-operated toilets. In Sweden, the typical cost to access a public toilet is 10 krona ($1.30). Swedes can ask to use toilets in private businesses, but it is culturally uncommon to do so.

Swedish houses.

New houses in Sweden averaged 893 square feet in 2009, compared to 2,164 square feet in America, trending towards 2,700 square feet today.

  1. Everything is Bigger in America

It is well known that portion sizes are smaller in European countries than in America. A “large” cup at a fast food restaurant is equivalent to a small cup in the states. For better or worse, Americans typically have bigger houses, bigger trucks, bigger stores, bigger containers, bigger portion sizes, and bigger bellies.

Family size has shrunk over recent decades, yet house sizes have significantly increased, at least in the states. Current statistics are hard to find, but new houses in Sweden averaged 893 square feet in 2009, compared to 2,164 square feet in America, trending towards 2,700 square feet today. Americans possess more indoor space, often chock full of toys ranging from treadmills to pool tables.

Ditto for recreational vehicles. Few Swedes own campers, preferring to rent camper vans as needed, offering about 80 square feet of living space. In comparison, many Americans park oversized RVs and motorhomes in the driveway, with larger models exceeding 400 square feet and some new models exceeding $200,000.

Cars and trucks are also larger on average in the states than in Sweden. I had one neighbor who drove an oversize, 12 mpg pickup with a one-ton haul capacity, which she used to haul her 50-pound child 15 miles to school and back (four trips x 15 miles daily). Not surprisingly, Americans consume 50% more oil per capita than Swedes.

America has vastly bigger stores than Sweden, including numerous “big box” stores such as Walmart, Costco, or Target. Aside from Ikea, Sweden’s own big box chain, most Swedes shop at smaller, specialized stores.

Container sizes and portion sizes are also larger in the states. Coming from Sweden, my girlfriend is astounded by our 60-ounce peanut butter jars and 3-pound bags of M&Ms, all at affordable prices. Before going home, she stops at the grocery store, filling empty space in her suitcase with peanut butter, oversize cans of beans, pancake mix, brownie mix, and anything else she can squeeze in the load.

On the surface, bigger seems better. But is it really? Americans are plagued by more square footage to heat and cool, vacuum, paint, and organize. Americans are vastly wealthy in possessions, yet often unfathomably indebted. We pay less for fuel, but buy more of it. We “super size” our meals for a bargain price, yet we pay for it with bigger bellies, reduced mobility, and arguably a lower quality of life. Not surprisingly, Swedes live an average of three years longer than Americans.

Swedish Coins

The loose change pictured here, leftover from my travels, adds up to 47 krona or approximately US$5.77. Similar denominations would add up to 47¢.

  1. Money Matters

Although Sweden is a member of the European Union, the country has thus far retained its own currency, the krona, rather than adopting the Euro. As with the Euro, the krona has substantial value for loose change. For example, 1 krona, the Swedish equivalent of a penny, is worth approximately US12¢, while the 10 krona coin is worth about $1.25. The loose change pictured here, leftover from my travels, adds up to 47 krona or approximately US$5.77. In other words, loose change has real value, unlike the U.S., where similar denominations would add up to 47¢.

Traveling in both Sweden and Italy, I noticed that coins were convenient for cash transactions. Larger denomination coins are common in either country, such as the 20 krona coin ($2.46) in Sweden or a 2 Euro coin in Italy ($2.35), so a handful of pocket change might add up to US$10 or $20, making coins at least as convenient as paper currency.

In comparison, American coins lack sufficient value to make ordinary purchases, consuming an enormous amount of time for customers or vendors to count out worthless change. Coin currency could be greatly improved in the U.S. if we discontinued the penny and nickel and potentially the dime. The U.S. Mint would greatly prefer that Americans use $1 coins, which cost less than shredding and reprinting worn out $1 bills. Adding a $2 coin and possibly a $5 coin would simplify coin transactions and likely make $1 coins much more popular.

On the other hand, while coin transactions are easier in Sweden, the nation is actually leading the world transition towards a cashless economy. Overall, cash transactions are rapidly declining. Checks are virtually unknown and unimaginable in Sweden. I received incredulous stares when I described using checks in the states. People prefer to pay via online payments and credit cards. Even credit card use is beginning to fade as commerce transitions to all-digital payment systems.

Visby Medieval Festival

At the Medieval Festival in Visby, Gottland, the juxtaposition of customers wearing centuries-old clothing while buying lunch with smart phones created a strangely incongruous scene.

This trend towards digital commerce was especially evident at the Medieval Festival in Gotland. As might be logically expected, cash still circulated at this old-time market. Yet most vendors also boldly displayed SWIFT code numbers for digital payments. Standing in line at a Medieval food vendor, the juxtaposition of customers wearing centuries-old clothing while buying lunch with smart phones created a strangely incongruous scene. In comparison, few vendors at the festival accepted credit cards.

The downside towards adopting a cashless economy is that older generations are slowest to change, creating inconvenience for many, especially now that the country has begun dismantling ATMs due to declining use.

Cut finger.

Like most countries with socialized medicine, Swedes like their healthcare system.

  1. The Great Healthcare Debate

The most common comparison between Sweden and America regards our vastly different healthcare systems, for which Americans have strong opinions, typically with little actual experience or knowledge to back it up. In Sweden, going to the doctor costs 200 SEK or about $25 per visit for a maximum limit of 1,100 SEK ($137) per year. All subsequent appointments are free. As if that isn’t free enough, healthcare is entirely free for minors in Sweden. Like most countries with socialized medicine, Swedes like their healthcare system.

Knee X-Ray

Medicine in America is a more terrifying prospect. Americans typically avoid doctors and hospitals when possible, and many people suffer debilitating ailments for years or decades because they cannot afford treatment.

Medicine in America is a more terrifying prospect. Americans typically avoid doctors and hospitals when possible, and many people suffer debilitating ailments for years or decades because they cannot afford treatment. Visits to the emergency room are avoided except in dire situations. Instead of seeking immediate help, patients must debate the severity of an issue, and when possible, delay treatment long enough to schedule an appointment with a doctor days or weeks later to avoid emergency room or hospital rates.

My girlfriend, for example, had an allergic reaction to a bee sting in my front yard, which is 30 miles from the nearest medical clinic. To a Swede, it is a no-brainer to go directly to the hospital or even call an ambulance to ensure expedient care. Being in America, however, the same issue requires more extensive monitoring and evaluation. How bad is the allergic reaction Can we control it with Benadryl? How fast is it spreading? Can she still breathe? Will she still be breathing if I drive to the emergency room instead of calling an ambulance?

These are serious questions that must be cautiously addressed. Responding too conservatively can be dangerous. Over-reacting can be fiscally crippling. In our case, I brought her to the emergency room myself, sans the ambulance, yet still paid $580 for emergency services for a mere bee sting. American healthcare lacks any safety net to compensate for the loss. Coincidentally, this incident happened just as Mylan jacked the price of the Epipen up to $800 each, which industry analysts estimated cost the company only $30 to produce. Janeth went back to Sweden and purchased an Epipen for approximately US$40.

Knee Surgery

ACL Knee Surgery: With my “bronze” insurance plan, I paid “only” for the insurance, plus the $5,600 deductible, while the insurance company covered the balance of $20,300.

The Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare,” was intended to help fix the American system. However, instead of addressing root causes of outrageous healthcare costs, Congress merely passed legislation requiring citizens to purchase costly health insurance or pay a tax penalty. Obamacare led to my first-ever health insurance, which I needed for surgery and physical therapy to replace a torn ACL, the tendon in the middle of the knee. With my “bronze” insurance plan, I paid “only” for the insurance, plus the $5,600 deductible, while the insurance company covered the balance of $20,300. I was fortunate that the operation and physical therapy fit in the same calendar year, so I didn’t have to pay the deductible twice. In Sweden, the clock starts after the first appointment, so the total cost would not exceed $137, even if it the appointments were split over January 1st.

Americans worry that adopting socialized medicine would result in vastly higher taxes like Sweden. Although Swedes pay as little as 29 percent of their wages towards income taxes, other taxes and employer payments push the effective tax rate up to 40 – 60 percent, depending on income levels. In comparison, the American cost for federal, state, and local taxes, plus Social Security and Medicare withholdings, adds up to an estimated 30 percent average tax rate.

Swedish taxes are higher, but not necessarily due to socialized medicine. Ironically, Americans pay more taxes ($5,960/person in 2013) to subsidize healthcare in our privatized system than any other nation, including countries like Sweden that offer universal healthcare.  Free enterprise should theoretically lower prices and improve healthcare, yet we have among the most expensive healthcare and poorest life-expectancy of any developed nation. We could probably learn something from the Swedes, whether or not we precisely copy their healthcare system.

Stockholm Central Station

Within Stockholm, a single magnetic stripe card can be used to jump from bus to subway to commuter train or even boat to travel quickly to any part of the city.

  1. Beam Me Up

Public transportation in Sweden is truly one of the wonders of the modern world. Sweden is slightly larger than Montana with a population equivalent to Georgia, yet with comprehensive and thoroughly integrated public transportation that includes busses, subways, trains, boats, and “bicycle highways.”

Within Stockholm, for example, a single magnetic stripe card can be used to jump from bus to subway to commuter train or even boat to travel quickly to any part of the city. Stockholm is sometimes described as the “Venice of the North,” being spread out over many islands, hence the necessity of including boat travel for shortcuts in the city transportation system.

Stockholm Subway

Although not cheap, at approximately $14 for 72 hours or $106 monthly, the Swedish system is efficient and the subways, trains, and busses are mostly new or in like-new condition.

Stockholm Central accesses layers upon layers of subways, with the newest platforms located three, three-story escalators below the surface. Although not cheap, at approximately $14 for 72 hours or $106 monthly, the system is efficient and the subways, trains, and busses are mostly new or in like-new condition.

Train and bus service is available to towns big and small throughout the country, and local busses are pervasive. In the small town of Höllviken (population 10,000) for example, sparkling new busses continuously crawled the streets for passengers to transport across town or to local hubs to connect with larger cities.

Highways in Sweden seemed thoroughly adequate, yet Swedes also found the resources to develop a parallel system of bicycle trails and “bicycle highways” along most highways and main roads throughout towns big and small. Rather than sandwiching bicycle lanes between traffic lanes and parked cars, as is common in the states, the Swedes largely built a separate system, providing safe and separate tracks and underpasses for cyclists and pedestrians. Consequently, bicycling is so popular in Sweden that bike racks for 500+ bikes are common. The town square in Uppsala, a college town, included a bike rack complex filled with several thousand bicycles.

Bicycle Rack in Uppsala, Sweden.

Bicycling is so popular in Sweden that bike racks for 500+ bikes are common. The town square in Uppsala, a college town, included a bike rack complex filled with several thousand bicycles.

Many sidewalks are texturized into separate lanes for pedestrians versus cyclists, and standing in the wrong lane can be hazardous to unaware foreigners when cyclists expect pedestrians to be in the other lane. Swedes extend their coding system to the blind, providing specially-textured lines down many sidewalks, even through many public buildings, that can be navigated by feel underfoot.

In comparison, the entire state of Montana has fewer bicycle trails than any moderate-sized town in Sweden. Only the largest cities in Montana offer city busses, mostly underutilized and too few and far between to be of much use anyway. Bus service to small towns is largely nonexistent. The nearest train station is a six-hour drive away, and since it is more expensive than flying, I’ve never yet been on a train in America. Being a rural state, we have no subways or commuter trains whatsoever. If you don’t have a car in Montana, “public transportation” largely requires hitchhiking.

BART Subway System

Coming home from Sweden through Oakland, California seemed like going to a third-world country. The BART commuter system was old, ugly, slow, and too loud to carry on a conversation.

Coming home from Sweden through Oakland, California seemed like going to a third-world country. The BART commuter system was old, ugly, slow, and too loud to carry on a conversation. Some passengers plugged their ears to endure the journey. A one-way trip across the Bay cost almost as much as a 72-hour citywide pass in Stockholm, yet didn’t include bus fare beyond BART. Outside the windows, the Bay Area was heavily covered in graffiti, litter, and old, decrepit cars. I felt like I just landed in Mexico, except that I was in Mexico City earlier this year, and their subway system was vastly superior.

Many American cities have better public transportation systems than the Bay Area, but no city or state compares to Sweden’s comprehensive, futuristic network covering all facets of transportation. How does a tiny country fund a public transportation system that is more elaborate than anything Americans could conceive of funding? Higher taxes are unquestionably a factor. In addition to funding free healthcare for all, the Swedes heavily subsidize public infrastructure, and as we shall see, many other public perks as well.

City Library in Stockholm

The City Library in Stockholm. How can a small country on top of the world afford to provide free education and free healthcare for all, plus family subsidies, a first-rate public transportation system, and scores of other perks? Even with higher taxes, the math doesn’t seem to add up.

  1. Magical Math

In Sweden, the numbers don’t seem to add up, even with higher taxes. It isn’t just free healthcare or the expansive public transportation. Its also free higher education, and at times, seemingly free everything.

In the states, college students often graduate $100,000 or more debt (the national average is $37,000), even while working through school, with no guarantee that they will get a job with their degree. In Sweden, college is free. Students must pay for textbooks (or borrow them from the library), and they need to cover living expenses, but tuition is 100 percent free. Swedes can enroll in school full-time, part-time, finish in a few years, or take classes continuously for life.

Nevertheless, student loan debt is surprisingly high in Sweden due to the high cost of urban living and a Swedish tradition for children to become self-supporting a couple years after high school. Students can obtain school loans for up to 12 semesters worth of study before age 54. The debt incurs low interest, presently about 0.6 percent. Students are expected to begin repaying the loan six months after receiving the last payment, according to each person’s ability to pay. Any remaining student loans are forgiven when a Swede reaches 65 – 68 years old.

The government also heavily subsidizes tuition for Swedes at other universities throughout the word. Until recently, Swedes even offered free education to international students schooling within Sweden.

In addition, the government subsidizes families of all income levels with a modest 1,050 SEK (+/- $130) monthly stipend to help offset childcare expenses. Families with six children are paid the standard 1,050 per child (6,300/month), plus an additional 4,114 SEK family supplement to help defray expenses (Source).

Parents are granted 480 days paid leave from work to split between them when they have a baby or adopt a child. Employees can claim an additional 120 days paid leave per child per year up to twelve years old to care for sick children. In addition, Swedish employees enjoy approximately 25 days of paid vacation, plus 16 paid holidays every year, varying by profession and age.

Brownie with Swedish Flag

America once offered a beacon of hope to the world. Yet, in 2016, Sweden topped the U.S., with 163,000 refugees seeking asylum there, compared to 101,000 refugees and asylum seekers admitted in America.

To top it all off, Sweden accepts more refugees in proportion to its population than any other developed nation. In the 1990s Sweden accepted 100,000 refugees from the Balkan Wars, mostly Bosnians, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Since then, Sweden has accepted refugees from throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, recently including vast numbers of Afghans, Iraqis, and Syrians fleeing Middle East conflict. In 2016, Sweden topped the U.S., with 163,000 refugees seeking asylum there, compared to 101,000 refugees and asylum seekers admitted in America.

Fifteen percent of Sweden’s population is now foreign-born. Immigrants often lack the higher education, language, and job skills necessary to find employment in Sweden, leading to years of welfare dependency. Yet, the Swedes have somehow provided transitional funding for food and housing expenses, plus ongoing child subsidies and the similar education and healthcare perks enjoyed by all Swedes.

How can a small country on top of the world afford to provide free education and free healthcare for all, plus family subsidies, a first-rate public transportation system, and scores of other perks? Even with higher taxes, the math doesn’t seem to add up. To a certain extent, it doesn’t, which is why Sweden is necessarily trimming services to citizens and re-evaluating its immigration programs.

Nor does the math add up in the states, where Americans spend as much on national defense as the next eight countries combined, including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany. Including direct and indirect costs, sixteen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, have cost the U.S. an estimated $5 trillion, with little tangible improvement on the ground. (Indirect costs include interest on the debt and long-term healthcare costs for veterans.) Sadly, the national debt stands at $20 trillion, meaning that we could have significantly reduced the debt if had not gone to war. Americans may not pay as much in taxes today, but we are billing war expenses to future generations while settling for second-rate services and crumbling infrastructure.

Old Visby City Wall

Throughout history, civilizations have funded civil works projects to consume surplus wealth. Projects such as the City Wall around Old Visby, Gottland, served as an early form of defense spending, arguably to fend off outside attacks, but also useful for taming civilian unrest.

  1. Surplus Wealth

All industrial nations struggle with the misunderstood problem of surplus wealth. Due to industrialization, only a fraction of the population does real work to provide houses, roads, cars, schools, hospitals, food and medicine to the masses. All other people must be employed in pseudo jobs that serve the dual function of spreading wealth throughout the populace while keeping everyone too busy chasing their own tail to complain about or revolt over the status quo. Call it an unconscious conspiracy. We worry about the unemployment rate and strive to create new work whether it produces anything useful or not.

The American economy nurtures many inefficiencies that consume resources without producing anything, but effectively redistributes wealth and keeps unemployment rates down. For example, American households and businesses collectively spend 8.9 billion hours per year on accounting and paperwork associated with filing federal income taxes. That’s the equivalent of 4.3 million people employed full-time to do nothing but tax paperwork. In dollar terms, that works out to about $409 billion/year for no tangible return.  In comparison, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) survives on only $19 billion/year.


NASA’s budget of $19 billion/year is miniscule compared to the $409 billion/year in time Americans spend complying with federal tax paperwork.

Instead of paying engineers and astronauts, we dedicate resources towards paying accountants and tax consultants. Millions more people are employed to provide their computers, tax software, office buildings, janitorial services, and espresso. Even logging and pulping interests benefit as trees are cut and converted to paper to print copious copies of paperwork. Switching to an automatic, fixed tax, such as a carbon tax, would virtually eliminate the labor cost associated with paying taxes and eliminate millions of jobs, or arguably free those resources to work on something else, such as public transportation or the space program.

Comparatively, Sweden’s tax system is largely automated, Skatteverket, the Swedish Tax Agency, sends annual tax forms to citizens already completed, requiring only a cursory check for accuracy. The more efficient system allows resources to be directed towards public works projects.

Nevertheless, the Swedish economy nurtures other inefficiencies that consume resources without producing anything. As any Swede will testify, authorities regulate nearly everything. As one Swedish friend discovered when applying for a building permit, the government mandates that a new house must have baby-proof drawers for knives, trash, and medicine before you can move into your home—even if you have no children.

Flock of Sheep

Just owning a flock of a dozen sheep requires government oversight, and authorities can show up any time for an inspection to insure that the animals are being properly cared for.

Just owning a flock of a dozen sheep requires government oversight, and authorities can show up any time for an inspection to insure that the animals are being properly cared for.

The difference between the Swedish and the American systems for consuming surplus wealth is that the Swedes consume resources and provide free education, healthcare, and subsidized public transportation, while Americans consume resources and produce copious paperwork and lots of bombs. Overall, the Swedes arguably get a better return for their investment.

Socialism vs. Capitalism

Tom and Janeth Canoeing

Americans are deathly afraid of socialism, yet we are in many aspects a socialist country.

The difference between America and Sweden is often viewed as the difference between capitalism and socialism. Strikingly, while Americans are deathly afraid of socialism, we are in many aspects a socialist country. Visiting most national parks, we can be grateful to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the Great Depression for building the infrastructure we enjoy today. In America, we enjoy toll-free roads, toll-free bathrooms, and millions of acres of toll-free public land for recreation.

Comparatively, at the central station in Malmö, Sweden, as is true across most of Europe, there are no free public bathrooms. Leaving the espresso shop in search of a toilet, there isn’t one in the food court as it would logically be placed in the U.S. Five minutes of wandering around the station tracking signs finally revealed the centralized bathroom, with the desk clerk waiting with an outstretched palm to take 10 krona ($1.25) to enter the restroom. That is the capitalist model we idealize in the states, yet it is not the reality we earnestly desire.

In conclusion, there is much that Americans can learn from the Swedes, and much the Swedes could learn from Americans. No country on earth is perfect, yet we can emulate the best that each nation has to offer to improve quality of life, prosperity, and sustainability for all. logo.Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of seven books, including Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams.



Filed under Economics, Education Reform, Politics, Public Access, Sustainability

Ancient Skills Immersion

      “When I walk through wilderness, I become really poetic. I do not say these poems out loud, I only rehearse them in the privacy of my mind. I was never really poetic before, but I found my poetic side listening to the soothing sounds of the tweety birds, the wind, and the distant mooing of the black angus. Before the campout, I really never bothered to listen to my surroundings. I never was in touch with my really soft side, and I never thought that I was poetical. You can learn a lot about yourself when you venture through nature.” -Makenna L.

Ancient Skills Immersion
What Students Learn – In their own Words

Group Shot       Today’s young people are shuffled from one event to the next, without time for introspection, exploration, or self-discovery. When a moment of inactivity comes, they are taught to turn on the television, fiddle with their cell phone, or check Facebook. But take away the clock, electricity, and society’s expectations – even for only a few days – and they open up with astonishing depth and passion for nature, learning, and life.
      Recorded here are some of the reflections of students who attended our 2013 Harrison Junior High Ancient Skills Immersion camping trip. The words of the students speak volumes about the potential within every one of us and the power of reconnecting with the natural world. Take a moment to see what we have repressed in ourselves in the name of progress, and remember what we once were:

Handdrill Fire-Starting       “A plant that I found useful is the mullein plant. The thick soft leaves, when boiled, make a good tasting tea. The second year that the plant grows, it has a stalk that is very useful in many ways. The stalk can be used to make arrows, atlatl darts, bundle bows, and handdrill pieces. The seedhead on the stalk can be used as a torch if dipped in beef tallow.” -Doug C.

      “Mullein was used often on the campout. We used it for making arrows that we could shoot at nature targets. The arrows had to have a root tip on the end so it could fly straight and far. I learned that the mullein arrow flew farther if the stem was thin and light. Mullein was also used to produce tea that we cooked on the fire. It also makes really good kindling.” -Derik D.

Bow and Arrow Game       “It is amazing how you can just use a piece of firewood and a few coals, then it creates a bowl. You get the chunk of wood and chop it in half, then get some very hot coals going and when they get done, put a few of them in the center of the bowl and get a blow stick. You can use a weed with a hollow center, so then you can blow through that on the wood beside the coal where you want the bowls to be on the wood. This whole process takes about one hour.” -Jakob N.

      “Making the burn bowls was meaningful to me because it is so easy to do, and they will last a long time. They are made for many great uses. It was also meaningful to me because they are made in such a clever way, and I would have never even thought of it. I loved the easy process of making the burn bowls, and I also loved the finished product.” -Alexys B.

Cattail Salad       “The cattail plant is a very interesting specimen. On our second day we had freshly picked cattail roots, wild ranch, and wild croutons. It was really yummy! The cattail has deep roots that go far into the muck of the swamp. You have to really pull sometimes! I found out something very interesting about the cattail plant. The roots seem to be connected in one big circuit. Maybe not with every plant, but I pulled up one and ended up getting three plants that were connected. I also found out that when you cut the cattail near the bottom, a really cool design is made. The outer layers of the flat leaves are hard to cut. The are very sturdy. I chose this plant because you can eat it, and you can also use the leaves to cook in a steam pit.” -Makenna L.

      “Before the campout, I saw a cattail and said, “There’s a cattail.” After the campout, I saw a cattail and said, “Food!” I take notice of plants instead of just passing by them. Trees and other plants can make good shelter and keep you dry. I also stop and listen to the bird songs. I stop and close my eyes to listen. Their songs are different from day to night. At first I was scared to sleep in the wikiup. On the second and third nights, I liked sleeping in the wickiup.” -Josie H.

Mullien Bundle Bow       “We made bows and arrows out of bamboo and twine. Mine broke, so we had to make adjustments. I think that our ancestors had to make changes to make a reasonable bow to hunt with. We did not hunt with our bows. We had enough food, but we did stalk trees with them and practiced our aim. If we had run out of food, I believe that we could indeed stalk and shoot something with our modified bows. Our ancestors gave us skills that humanity still uses. They probably modified those skills and techniques, and we have thrived by using those skills and techniques. Thank you, ancestors.” -Makenna L.

      “Using knots to lash multiple pieces of wood or bamboo together was difficult, but with the help of a partner, I managed to make a bow. A lot of experimenting went into trying to shoot string, and make arrows. Practicing shooting the bow and arrow will help me later in life by allowing me to make good shots with a bow to provide food for my family and me. The foam-tipped arrows and the bow wars helped develop the skill of shooting moving targets and being able to shoot on a moment’s notice. Making arrows out of willows was interesting because the wood is stronger than mullein, and it can be used for hunting big game. I learned many new skills that will be with me for the rest of my life.” -Doug C.

Bow and arrow wars       “I used to think that birds were annoying, trees were a waste of space, and nature was just ridiculous. After our four day campout, I have a new perspective. I have realized that all those plants have a purpose, and that nature does too. You can use the plants to make a bow string and a bow! You can also use plants to make tea and to make kindling for a newly-made fire that started from the hands of friends and the branch from a willow. You see, plants have many uses, and I have a new perspective on nature and plants.” -Makenna L.

      “I have a different perception on nature and wildlife and have better knowledge of them. I have learned to watch around me and pay attention to the minor details. There are a lot of different skills I learned, like learning how to make a bow and arrows out of natural materials and different techniques of hunting. I learned how the Native Americans hunted and what they gathered and now have a different look on the way they were.” -Kali C.

      “I learned that you don’t have to be some sort of expert in order to know and identify the different types of plants and animals. This camping trip has changed me by teaching me how to use many different aspects in nature. It also taught me that everything in nature has a purpose and a use – no matter how big or small that thing may be. This camping trip has definitely inspired me to teach others about nature and its value.” -Alexys B.

Matt with bow       “The campout changed me personally. I’ve become much more of a nature person. Before we started getting ready for the campout, I did not know much about plants. I did not have many skills for being outdoors in the wilderness. I have learned how to identify different kinds of plants. I’ve become more comfortable being in the wilderness. I’ve become more aware about different kinds of animals. I learned how to be more quiet to listen for dangerous animals. I also learned the different alerts from the birds.” -Matthew S.

Walking the balance beam       “Stalking was something that I really like to do and seem to be not too bad at. I like to sneak up on somebody, shadow walk them, and keep them from knowing that I am behind them. I also learned that I could trust myself out in the woods and be able to stay alive for a couple days. I learned that I sleep well in the outdoors , which would help me stay alive.” -Lane B.

      “The stalking games we played were meaningful to me. I learned how to use more of my peripheral vision and use my ears to hear what is in the trees and the area around me. I can be very quiet and try not to disturb the birds so they do not make an alarming sound. The birds warn the other birds and animals of danger. Fox-walking can prevent this alarm from happening, so it does not scare the critters we are stalking.” -Derik D.

Making Bundle Bows       “My most memorable experience had to be the marshmallow war. It was amazing getting to talk to Kenna and eating all the marshmallows. From the beginning, Kenna and I took our flag and went in a tree and just talked for awhile. Kris came, and then we ran out of there as fast as possible. We made it out. We ran and ran, but Kris caught up and got the flag from Kenna. The next game I took the flag and had Derik as a bodyguard, but then he got attacked. I ran for like a mile thinking I was being chased, but Sam was the other team’s flag person. Everyone went after her so I was running for like a mile with no one behind me. Awkward!” -Shelbi L.

      “We all had positive attitudes about everything, even when it rained. Nobody wanted to go back to the wickiups. We all wanted to work on the arrows for the bow and arrow war the next day.” -Zach J.

Wickiup: The girls' shelter.       “It rained a lot, and we all had to go into our wickiup. The girls first were cold. We changed into our PJs, crawled into our warm sleeping bags, and we snuggled really close. We talked some after we warmed up enough to speak. We talked about who we liked, what clothes we would and would not wear, our favorite moments at the campout, and heck, we messed around some, too. We were pretending that we were zombies eating the brains of a captive. Then I was a sunflower being planted into my sleeping bag, and then I bloomed!” -Makenna L.

      “I was sort of a shy person when I started seventh grade, but after the campout, I opened up, and it made me stronger mentally and physically. This year’s campout made me stronger, quieter, louder, and faster. Also, after not eating or drinking unhealthy foods and liquids for four days, I feel great. I am keeping up on not eating unhealthy foods.” -Zach

      “Staying there for a couple of nights has shown me that instead of being what people make of you, you can just be you. That is why when you go and hear birds singing, or you see deer feeding, you noticed that they did not have peers to change them. They grew up as themselves, and that makes me think about our society. So, if you happen to want a day out of this life, or a day of peace, go to the camp out and find the inner you.” -Samantha T.

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Break Free from the Machine

      “The final dream of civilization is that everything will be controlled, organized, categorized; all wildness and spontaneity will be eradicated. Fish will live in fish farms. Trees will grow in tree farms. Animals for our food will live in feedlots. Humans will live in cities completely isolated from any other creatures (except cute pets), isolated from anything that might remind them of true wild nature. “Inferior races” will wither in poverty until they vanish. The Earth will be remodeled in the name of production. Any spontaneous, uncontrolled expression of life will be crushed.”

–Miles Olson, Author Unlearn, Rewild

Listen up first graders. My name is Mrs. Smith.

      Good morning Mrs. Smith!

Welcome to the Machine. In this classroom you will learn to sit quietly and pay attention to me.

      Yes, Mrs. Smith.

Forget your personal interests in life. I will decide what is important to learn. You will be obedient and follow orders.

      Yes, Mrs. Smith.

You will obey your teachers to start with, and when you are an adult you will obey your employers, doing whatever meaningless task they tell you to do.

      Yes, Mrs. Smith.

You will become good consumers and purchase whatever the commercials tell you to buy. You will go to college and pay for a piece of paper that says you are qualifed to serve the Machine.

      Yes, Mrs. Smith.

Above all, you will live out the rest of your days enslaved to the Machine, working to make monthly payments on college loans, a mortgage, a car, utility bills, phone bills, and more. Your life is not your own. It belongs to the Machine.

      Yes, Mrs. Smith.

      Individual: No, Mrs. Smith. I will not be assimilated!

Thirty years later…

      The Machine is everywhere and infinitely large. You cannot stop it by yelling at it. You cannot stop it by marching in protests. You cannot stop it by throwing rocks at it. You cannot stop it by burning down buildings or blowing up dams.

      We will lose half of all life on earth to the Machine this century. Below the sea, the coral reefs are dying and the fisheries are dwindling. Restaurants are substituting one fish for another on the menus as earlier species disappear from the oceans. The seas will be fished out by the middle of this century.

      Above the seas, our world is turning into deserts. For every bushel of corn produced, we still lose more than a bushel of soil. We have lost at least half the earth’s topsoil already. The soil carbon has been oxidized back into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming. We have destabilized the global climate and we are losing more species to extinction every day.

      What is the Machine?

      The Machine is everything you have ever known and everything you have ever been told. The Machine is the unconscious collective sum of humanity. It assimilates everything in its path, turning meadows and wildlands into subdivisions and shopping malls. The Machine sucks the life out of children, making them into automatons that work without meaning and consume without purpose.

      Is the Machine alive?

      No. The Machine just assimilates and grows, assimilates and grows, consuming everything in its path. The Machine is only interested in its own culture of pizza, beer, and celebrity dramas. The real world is irrelevant to the Machine. The automatons live like zombies, oblivious to the loss of soil, habitat, and species around them.

      If we cannot defeat the Machine, then we should escape and be free!

      There is no escape. You can hide, but the Machine just keeps coming, devouring everything in its path. Your hiding places will be consumed and assimilated one by one until they are all gone.

      Then what can we do?

      The Machine has one weakness – it is utterly unconscious of its own existence. We can walk and play among the automatons unnoticed. And for those who are interested, we can study the Machine, figure out how it works, and redirect it from inside. I am looking for a few good warriors to help me. Are you up to the challenge?

      How does one become a warrior?

      Every human being is born with an inner light. It is a guiding light that can lead you through life, following a path that is uniquely yours. Learn to listen to your heart and not your head. Allow your inner light to guide you.

      The path of the warrior is not an easy one. The greatest challenge is to stay focused on that inner vision against the pomp and glare of Machine culture. Social conditioning starts at an early age, shaping the child to conform to the expectations of society. Rather than pursuing their own interests and passions, kids are molded to fit the Machine, to sit in desks and follow a routine prescribed by others. And they are bombarded by media glamorizing the Machine. Day by day, year by year, kids become increasingly confused until they lose track of that inner light.

      They may still emerge as teens or young adults with idealism or optimism, but they lose the ability to steer themselves and crumble under the weight of should’s and should-not’s. They learn to follow the rules and jump through hoops towards imaginary achievements.

      Between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, most kids lose the light forever and become automatons enslaved by the Machine. Some are assimilated into the Machine without regret. Others rebel and try to prove that they control their own destiny. They refuse to be assimilated.

      They throw parties, get drunk, and smoke cigarettes and pot, thinking they are being wild and free. And yet, they play right into a trap of the Machine. They mimic what they see in Machine culture, pretending to have fun until it feels real to them. Ultimately, they are reduced to consumers, dependent upon and addicted to the corporations, money, and jobs that supply the goods.

      Those who knew how to play and have fun in nature as children may find themselves lost as adults. They sit around the campfire, drinking and talking about sports and dumb movies, because they have forgotten how to play. The only way to “connect with nature” is to pass a joint around and get high. But getting high and thinking one is connected with nature is very different from immersing oneself in nature and truly connecting.

      In the end, they are broken by the Machine, plugged into a life without vision. They work meaningless jobs by day, numb themselves in front of the television by night, and get wasted on the weekends to pretend they are free by forgetting that they are not.

      Unfortunately, those who lose respect for themselves also lose respect for the earth. They are automatons, blind to the beauty of nature. A few may profess to love nature, but they bring the party with them, leaving behind a trail of cigarette butts and beer cans.

      Once assimilated by the Machine, there are few that ever wake up again to remember their inner light. All that was human is lost. They may one day become productive members of society, but merely as instruments of the Machine.

      But we can make a difference. Here at Green University® LLC we are looking for a few good warriors to change the world. Through multiple levels of training, we can help you break free from the Machine and empower you to make a positive difference in the world.

Breaking Free
      Start by reclaiming lost freedoms as a hunter-gatherer. Learn to butcher deer, tan hides, and make your own clothing and equipment. Learn awareness skills, ecology, and survival skills. Learn how to walk free in a world full of artificial boundaries. The physical, mental, and emotional training is rigorous. At times you may hike long distances through rough terrain in daylight and darkness, learning to survive and thrive even with inadequate supplies for shelter, clothing, or food. You will learn how to be self-sufficient and survive independently in a world full of automatons.

      As apprentice warriors you gain hands-on experience in alternative construction, sustainable living, and green business development. You learn to think for yourself and to create opportunities you never imagined possible. You learn how to avoid paying a mortgage, how to eliminate utility bills, and how to greatly reduce your food expenses. You learn to live free of the Machine, even while you live within it.

      How far you go in the program is entirely up to you. For some, the inner light will guide you away from the battle, but set you free to live a life that is true. For others, the inner light will guide you to become warriors of peace, and together, we can infiltrate the Machine and render it harmless.

      Together we can reach out to the next generation and introduce kids to new possibilities. We can connect with anyone who shows a glimmer of light and hope and help reconnect them with the natural world. We can provide an example of freedom, demonstrating that any person can be free to live their dreams.

      And for those who are truly dedicated, we can maneuver ourselves into positions in business and government where decisions are made and take over the controls. We cannot shut down the Machine without rebellion from the automatons, but we can give them new tasks to green the Machine and halt the destruction of the rest of the planet. The automatons will never notice. They will do whatever the collective unconscious of the Machine tells them to do.

      We cannot run away from the Machine. Not any more. We must make our stand and make a positive difference. But please understand that the path of the warrior is not an easy one. When you break free from the Machine you develop awareness. You connect with the earth. You learn to care.

      We may yet lose half of all life on earth this century, and yet the automatons won’t even notice. They are not aware of the natural world. It won’t look any different to them. But you will notice. You will feel the pain of loss of every plant, animal, and child to the Machine. You will feel both the joy and the anguish of awareness.

Expect the Unexpected
      As apprentice warriors, you must also learn to expect the unexpected. Watch your backside at all times and learn to sleep with one eye open. Every moment is an opportunity to hone our awareness skills as we stalk up on each other for the attack or count coup and run away.

      Finally, as a warrior, never forget that death is stalking you.

      Death stalks all of us, warriors and automatons alike. But automatons never see it coming. Each day they go to work being busy at something they don’t care about, only to one day retire and live out their days glazed over in front of the television until death stalks up behind them and finishes them off. To live and die as a automaton is to have never lived at all.

      As a warrior, you cannot escape death, but you can see it coming. You can learn to be aware every moment of your life, always on guard for death, or on guard for another warrior-in-training ready to leap out at you. In the words of Thoreau, we seek “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

      As long as you are aware, you are alive, and when death finally comes, you can face it like a warrior, alive and fighting to your last breath.

      If you think you have what it takes to be a warrior of peace, then Join Us at Green University® LLC and together we can make a positive difference.

Interesting stuff?
Challenge your preconceptions about reality:
Roadmap to Reality

      “The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.”

The Matrix, 1999


Filed under Education Reform, Sustainability, Uncategorized, Wilderness Survival

A Day in the Life of the Tribe

      Back in 2002, I volunteered to bring my daughter’s seventh grade class out on an overnight wilderness survival camping trip. We were deluged with 1.3 inches of rain overnight – and had nothing to keep us dry but shelters built of sticks and bark. But we had such a great time that I have continued hosting the Junior High Camping Trip every year, and it is now written into the Harrison School curriculum. Being a small school, we bring all of the seventh and eighth graders out together for three days and two nights each May.

      The outing is very hands-on oriented, engaging the kids in the many activities shown in the video above and much more. Instead of merely talking about nature, science, and the way that our ancestors lived, they experience it directly, being deeply immersed in this unique outdoors experience. However, it also seems important to reflect on the experience afterwards and process it on another level.

      This year, the students were asked to write a sort of journal about what it might have been like to be part of a tribe living in this area. The students shared their essays with me, and with permission, I am sharing one of those stories here:

Day as a Tribal Member
English Final Test, 2012
By Taya

Junior high students work together to construct a bow and drill fire set and start a fire with it.

      I sit up, feeling a small breeze hit my face. Sunlight streams from the small holes the wooden shelter doesn’t cover. My people are already gathering mint leaves for tea, so I slip on my worn moccasins and crawl out of the wickiup. Voices, speaking in our native tongue, surround me as I walk to the fire. I glance at the slightly curved stick and wooden board knowing that one of my tribe members must have used a bow and drill to create friction, and eventually fire. Looking at my father’s shiny brow tells me that he made the fire. He nods at me, so I turn and jog into the peaceful, wide band of trees. The awakened wilderness engulfs me, and drops of dew glisten on the green plants and a nearby spider web clinging to a tree branch.

     As I search for a fairly dry piece of wood and a mid-sized stone, I carefully avoid a duck nest lying underneath a small tree. The two weapons I grab will be used to hunt for prey. Cautiously, I place one foot in front of the other, like a fox, ducking underneath branches, trying to make as little sound as possible. Disturbing the forest and its creatures could cost my tribe and me a morning meal. I hear a scurrying beside me and quickly pause to turn my head to the noise. A rabbit crouches behind a shrub, nose twitching. It turns to dart away from me, but it waited a moment too long. I have already clutched and thrown my stick at the rabbit’s gray body before it has moved a hand’s length. I carry the limp creature back to camp with my teeth peeking out of my mouth. I lay the furry animal, along with three others, beside an elder. She will cut the rabbits with a deer rib saw knife and toss the meat into a smoking pan to be cooked. The fur could quite possibly be used as a garment later.

Students wade into the swamp to gather cattail roots (rhizomes) and shoots for our meals.

      Next, I run like a coyote, with knees reaching my chest, to a marsh only a short distance from my home. There, cattails roam the inky waters. Taking off my footwear, I wade through the knee-deep substance. I pull many cattails from their roots, feeling the muck seep between my toes. With the plants in both hands, I head back to camp, hearing the birds sing their sweet melodies. All of a sudden, the noise to my right stops, and I can only hear a steady, staccato bird warning call. I turn my head right and catch a glimpse of tan, buckskin clothing disappear behind a tree. I faintly call out, and my little brother’s head peeks out. I laugh, and with him by my side, we pick dandelion leaves and flower heads to go with the cattails.

Taya uses hot coals and a blow tube to burn out a cup from a section of cottonwood root.

      Once we are back, I chop the pale cattail roots into a wooden bowl I had made by blowing on ashes in the center of a log to burn a deep hole in it. I add the dandelions, and soon adults and children have gathered to eat the salad. The greens that didn’t fit in the bowl, I lay on a bark plate.

     The sun is completely out by the time our meal is gone. I quietly sip my mint tea, from a cup also burned with ashes, staring at the gray sky near the mountain peaks. I then gather my belongings and toss them in my shelter. To prepare for dinner, we move the fire to a different location, so there is now a hot pit. While some are placing stalks of cattails in the pit, others are putting in fresh deer meat, killed with an atlatl, a device used for throwing a long dart. Roots, wild plant leaves, and other greens are also added to the pit. It is then covered with grass, picked by little fingers, bark pieces, water to create steam, and finally soil.

We covered ourselves with mud, then played stalking games in the woods.

     While the food is steaming, which will take a few hours, I gather all of the children. Their challenge is to get as close as possible to one of his/her parents without being spotted. We all crawl in thick mud. I crawl on my stomach to get as low as possible to my mother. She is sewing moccasins and a shirt. I look at the men, and they are either sharpening their knives or brain-tanning hides. My father is trying to tan my rabbit hide. The game ends after a few hours, with my brother winning. Being so small, he was unnoticeable.

     I go to help my father, and soon, dinner is ready. A few pieces of meat did not cook thoroughly, but other than that, the food was delicious. Right after we are done eating, the rain shower hits us. I wash my bark plate in a stream and then head to my wickiup. Although it’s not very late, my eyes feel droopy. I rest my head and slowly close my eyes, oblivious to the rain pounding. I think about being a bird and come to a conclusion. We are alike. I am free in this place, and so is the bald eagle. I spread my wings and drift into sleep.

For more information about the Junior High Camping Trip, be sure to read Outdoor Classroom (Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 2011) and more comments from students of the 2011 camping trip. Also, take a look at our Classroom in the Woods DVD, and please check out our Stone Age Living Skills Programs for Schools for more information about our classes.

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Letters from Students (Hide Tanning)

      “It was very neat to learn how our ancestors made their clothing. Dressing up and putting on a fashion show was awesome. When we were stretching, singing, and dancing, I felt like I was a Native American working on clothing.” –Zach

     Today I received a packet of letters in the mail from the local seventh and eighth grade students that attended an impromptu hide tanning class at our home in December. I have permission from the students to share, and I would like to share one letter in it’s entirety, plus some additional snippets:

Dear Tom and Katie,
      December 8th was an amazing day. You gave me an opportunity I will never forget. I never thought I could have so much fun.
      When I showed up I was ignorant on the subject of brain tanning. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I learned so many fascinating things and did so many things I had never done before.
      The tour of your house was amazing! I did not think the house would be so efficient and beautiful. I was dumbfounded when you said you had built the house yourself. Everything was so well put together and was very energy efficient!

      When we had completed the tour of the house and went outside to begin the braintanning, I was very excited. The best part for me was dehairing the hide. It was cool for me to see that I could actually do that. When I first started fleshing, it was hard, but once I got the hang of it, it became natural to me. Stretching the hide was hard work and took a long time, but it was very exciting when we finally got the hide dried out and ready to be smoked. The smoking of the hide was very interesting to me. It was interesting to see how it actually gets done and becomes so beautiful.

      When we did the fashion show, and I had the furs on, I felt like a real Native American wearing my traditional clothing. Katie did an excellent job in making the clothing and must have put a lot of time into them.
      Finally we came to the elk hide toss! The most frightening and amazing thing I had ever done. At first, I did not think that my class would be able to launch me into the air, and I was very nervous to try. But when I was in the air, I forgot about it and had the time of my life!
      I would also like to thank your interns. They were very helpful and made the experience even more exciting for my class and me.
     Thank you again for an amazing day! I am really hoping I will have the opportunity to do it again in the near future!



“The day went by quickly. I wish we could have stayed longer. We all loved the Indian trampoline. The video you made was perfect. My parents laughed so hard that they couldn’t breathe.” –Orion

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The New Era of Self-Sufficiency

As a wilderness survival instructor, I have spent a good deal of my life out practicing skills—sleeping in holes in the ground, eating roots and bushes, starting fires by rubbing sticks together, and trying to figure out how to kill stuff with my bare hands, since it seems like cheating to bring a fishing pole or a gun. These survival skills were the skills of our ancestors, who lived by their hands and wits for most of human history, until the rise of agriculture. But one must wonder if this kind of traditional knowledge is still relevant today.

Thomas J. Elpel, Keynote Speech.

Speaking at the Bioneers conference in Anchorage, Alaska. October 2011.

It is arguably self-indulgent to go camping in the woods to freeze and starve for entertainment while the whole world seems to be careening towards economic and environmental collapse. Indeed, the practice of survival skills flies in the face of the prevailing conservation ethic, which preaches that we should stay on the trails and leave no trace. As the saying goes, we should “take only pictures and leave only footprints,” not go thrashing through the woods, breaking down trees to build shelters, nor throwing sticks and rocks at the wildlife. But having done these things, I would posit that traditional skills are absolutely relevant today, and that by rekindling our connection to the natural world in this way, we can find answers to some of the most vexing problems that face our species.

Connecting with Nature
The way we relate to nature ebbs and flows with the fashions of our culture, and nowhere is this more evident than in the management of our national parks. Places like Montana’s Glacier National Park, for example, were not set aside out of any particular conservation ethic, but at the request of the Northern Pacific Railroad, to create a tourist destination with ritzy accommodations to entice wealthy clientele to ride the railroad West. Later, the rise of the middle class made the national parks a playground for common people, a place to camp with the family and feed the bears for entertainment. And America’s love affair with the car led not just to drive-in movie theaters, restaurants, and churches, but also to paved roads winding through geyser features in Yellowstone, and drive-through trees in California’s Redwood and Sequoia National Parks.

The prevailing philosophy today is supposedly more ecologically enlightened, and environmental educators often remind us that we are part of the interconnected web of life. Yet, in the next breath, they tell us not to step off the boardwalk. We are told to leave nature as it is, and not touch, pick, or eat anything. It is as if nature has been reduced to an exhibit in a museum. We can look at it, but not participate in it. In many cases it isn’t even legal to gather firewood and build a campfire, not even in the dead of winter, camped miles from the nearest road, in the middle of a million acres of firewood.

This hands-off philosophy isn’t limited to the national parks. It is deeply embedded in our culture, touted by ecologists, environmentalists, wilderness advocates, boy scouts, parents, public land managers, and even taught in public schools. The theology is well intentioned. Our species is clearly devastating the planet. But there is something wrong with an ideology that tells us on the one hand that we are part of nature—and on the other hand that we are the bad part!

As a society, we have embarked on perhaps the greatest social experiment ever conducted. What happens when we tell our children to look at nature, but not to touch it? What happens when kids are herded into organized sports, but never really get beyond the lawn grass to explore, play, or build forts in the woods or gullies at the edge of town? What happens when kids spend all their free time exploring virtual worlds, but not the real one?

Consider the Army veteran who was unable to start a fire in my neighbor’s wood stove, because he couldn’t light a big log with a little match. He had no concept of tinder and kindling, and he was unable to warm up the house on a cold winter day. He is not alone, and I am continually shocked to meet adults who don’t know how to chop wood, or cannot start a campfire without gasoline and matches. We have an entire generation of young people who are very smart, yet don’t know how the world works and don’t know how to take care of themselves. Conceptual knowledge is meaningless without context, much like having a brain in a box on a shelf. What good is it unless you can take it out and do something with it?

Author Richard Louv called the nation’s attention to the dangers of losing our connection with nature in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. His book sparked a new back to nature movement, as people began to recognize the importance of connecting with the natural world and having free time to play and experiment in the environment. Even the Forest Service has jumped on the bandwagon with its Kids in the Woods programs in an attempt to reconnect children and nature.

For those of us involved in traditional skills, Louv’s book labeled a problem to which we had already grasped the solution, as implied in the title of my wilderness survival book, Participating in Nature.

In short, what one can learn while playing in the woods is nearly impossible to quantify on a written test, yet essential to our understanding of real-world physics, essential to the quest for sustainability, and essential for sound resource management. In my case, figuring out how to meet my needs for shelter, fire, water, and food in the wilderness provided the proper grounding to address those same needs in society.

As a child, I lived in what later became known as the Silicon Valley, but every summer we traveled to Montana to visit my grandmother, Josie Jewett. She lived, “up a creek without a paddle,” as she often liked to say, and we kids spent our summers playing in that creek, building forts, and roaming the hills and meadows. Grandma Josie still cooked on a woodstove, and every day she made a pot of herbal tea, using herbs such as peppermint, yarrow, blue violets, or red clover, which we collected on our walks and dried. When we moved back to Montana for my junior high and high school years, Grandma’s house was the one place that I wanted to go every weekend and every summer.

As a teenager and young adult, I indulged in things that our culture doesn’t necessarily view as productive. I had little interest in going to college or getting a job. Instead, I hiked hundreds of miles in the mountains, studying plants, stalking deer, and experimenting with survival skills. Every day was a new opportunity to starve, trying to live on roots that were too small to justify harvesting them, trying to outwit ground squirrels that were smarter than me, or trying to down a dinner of fried grasshoppers and enjoy it.

Every night was a new opportunity to freeze in shelters that seemed like good ideas in the survival books, but didn’t really work in the northern Rockies. The challenge is that you can’t just take a class and get a diploma that says you now know how to survive in the world. You can get the basic idea, but ultimately, you have to go experiment to figure out how these skills apply to your specific environment.

I lay awake, shivering in many cold, damp, or drafty shelters, before I learned how to build some that were adequately warm and dry, or sometimes downright cozy, even without a blanket. Through trial and error, with little more than my bare hands, I learned the fundamentals of sound construction principles and energy efficiency. Lacking a tent or sleeping bag, a thermostat, or a furnace, I became acutely aware of heat loss due to drafts or conduction. Trying to stay dry taught me a lot about proper shingling and ditching around my dwellings. Hauling firewood to my shelters made energy itself tangible and quantifiable and taught me the importance of conservation. Rubbing sticks together and living with fire gave me an intimate familiarity with my energy source in all kinds of conditions, from hot and dry, to cold and windy, drenching wet, or even while sleeping inches away in a grass-lined bed inside a shelter built of kindling.

My greatest fear in life was getting stuck in a job and losing my freedom. I understood that I could not just hang out at my grandmother’s house and tan hides, eat cookies, and go camping my whole life. But I desperately did not want to go the conventional route of going to college, getting a job, and paying down a mortgage until retirement. That seemed a little more complicated than it had to be anyway.

With my background in survival skills, I recognized that it was fundamentally the same issue. We are all on one great survival trip, trying to figure out how to meet our needs for shelter, fire, water, and food—preferably without destroying the planet in the process. That really is the bottom line. How can we sustainably meet our needs for shelter, water, fire, and food without consuming all the earth’s resources, without altering the climate, and without being enslaved to a meaningless job until we die?

The conventional route of getting a job and paying a mortgage doesn’t really work. Conventional houses are way too expensive, and not even very good. Most houses require a furnace and constant inputs of fossil fuels to keep the pipes from freezing and breaking. The bathrooms are virtually guaranteed to rot out halfway through the mortgage. The walls are so flimsy that you can punch a hole through one with a fist. From the floor to the roof, there is an endless parade of ripping out, landfilling, and replacing carpets and cabinetry, furniture, and shingles.

It is any wonder that we struggle with resource depletion and global warming when every person in America is burning up the pavement running back and forth to a job that is generally bad for the environment, just to make a pile of money to throw at their home mortgage, utility bills, and endless repairs? What happens if we hit a recession and don’t bounce back? How long can we maintain the illusion of being an affluent nation?

It made sense to me to focus on the basics and build my own house, figuring that if I had a place to live and no mortgage then I would be free to do whatever I wanted in life. I had no qualifications to build a house, beyond having read some books on the subject, but I was accustomed to making do.

I did know how to start a fire by rubbing sticks together, and with that on my resume I got a job working with troubled teens in the wilderness, and saved up a small nest egg to get started. I married my girlfriend from high school, and together we bought land, moved into a tent and built a passive solar stone and log home for about the cost of a new car. Later, we added solar panels to generate electricity and run the meter backwards, producing on average as much power as we consume. Naturally, the house doesn’t have either a furnace or a thermostat.

Ironically, life’s choices later took us away from home for most of eight years, but I never really worried about the house. We could leave it all winter without risk of freezing the plants or breaking the pipes. The house just sat there sustaining itself. The solar water heater kept producing hot water; the photovoltaic panels kept generating electricity, running the meter backwards. I stopped by every couple weeks and watered the greenhouse, which kept growing greens, and thanks to my brother’s care, the chickens kept laying eggs. And that’s the funny thing about sustainable living. It’s really not all that difficult to achieve and it is far easier than the conventional route. If we had built houses properly in the first place, then we wouldn’t be facing such dire economic and environmental issues today.

I read an article recently outlining ways to create jobs and get the economy back on track. Oddly, one of key suggestions was to provide incentives for foreigners to come to America to start businesses and create jobs, as if we Americans are no longer capable of doing it ourselves. Are we really that far gone as a country, that we are dependent on the charity of others for employment opportunities? Have Americans lost all sense of self-sufficiency, reduced to mere couch potatoes, capable of thinking, but not of doing? What happened to the can-do attitude that built this country?

The reality is that graduating from college with a piece of a paper that says you know something no longer guarantees that you can get a good job. Getting a job no longer guarantees that you can keep it for life, and having a fat retirement fund one day is no guarantee that it will still be worth anything when you actually need it.

Welcome to the new era of self-sufficiency. It is about shelter, fire, water, and food. Whether you live in the city or the country, there are always steps you can take to become more self-sufficient. You can prioritize your expenses to pay down your mortgage faster. You can improve the energy efficiency of your home to become more independent from the power company. You can remodel and retrofit rot-prone materials with something made to stand the test of time. You can collect rainwater from the roof for use as household or irrigation water. You can plant fruit trees to grow free food either for yourself or for children walking down the sidewalk. If you have the skills to take care of yourself, then you have the skills to take care of others, and you will never be short of work. Moreover, if you have your shelter, fire, water, and food in order, then you can choose whether you want to work or not.

Today there are a great many disenfranchised young adults who don’t feel that college is for them, and don’t want to get a job and become hopelessly stuck in the machine for the rest of their lives. I founded a fledgling Green University® to provide a new and desperately needed model for higher education—one where young people can get grounded with hands-on wilderness skills, combined with a healthy dose of do-it-yourself alternative construction and sustainable living skills. It is my hope to eventually mentor participants in green business development, providing a support network to help students incubate enterprises that will make a positive difference in the world.

In addition to mentoring young adults, the highlight of my year is always taking the local junior high kids out for three days and two nights of wilderness survival skills. They sleep in shelters of sticks and bark, even in torrential rains, and sometimes they sleep in piles of grass without even a blanket. They make fires by rubbing sticks together. They make their own dishes; they wade into the swamps and gather cattail roots for food; they cook their own meals, doing such things as a stir-fry using hot rocks on a slab of bark instead of a metal pan, or cooking bread in a stone oven. They stalk wildlife; they stalk each other. They play in the mud; they have marshmallow blowgun wars.

As one student, John, wrote after a camping trip, “I have pondered the simple construction of the mousehut… sticks, grass, and bark piled on each other, but yet it is one of the warmest shelters I have ever encountered. How interesting that a mouse, a hundred times smaller than myself, can survive performing the same tasks we did to make the shelter. Also, how smart this creature must be to come up with this simple, but yet, complex design. In my opinion, you must experience it to fully understand what it is all about.”

I doubt that any one of these kids will ever be in a situation where they have to build a mouse shelter or start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. But I also know that you can ignite something much bigger than a fire with these kinds of skills. Doing hands-on skills connects the brain to the hands and the hands to the world. This kind of hands-on ability not only makes it possible to transform ideas into reality, but also facilitates the flow of information the other direction, from the hands to the brain, opening up a world of infinite possibilities.

Towards a Sustainable Civilization
Perhaps most importantly, the hands-on quest for shelter, fire, water, and food ultimately enables a deeper connection with the natural world. As I wrote in Participating in Nature:

      In primitive living you learn about the wilderness as you create your niche in the ecosystem and gather the resources you need for living. For example, to harvest edible plants you have to learn about them. You learn the names and the habitats of plants. You learn about individual edible plants by eating them and by noticing the changes in the appearance and taste throughout the year. As you harvest plants you learn to recognize them throughout the year, as dead stalks, or seeds, or even by the roots. As you seek out edible plants you begin to notice characteristics of the soil; you begin to notice that your desired herb grows better in one type of soil than another.

The knowledge that you acquire is not always scientific, but you develop an acute awareness of nature and natural resources. For instance, you learn the basics of geology as you look for different types of rock that are useful as tools in primitive living. You might look for quartz, quartzite, or chert rocks to use as “flint” in flint and steel fire starting. Or you might look for sandstone to use for sanding arrow shafts or bows, or to abrade a stone tool. You might look for a clay deposit for making pottery, or for various minerals for mineral paints. You learn about geology as you spend hours searching the riverbank for the right piece of round, symmetrical, fine-grained rock for a hammerstone. You begin to notice if the rocks around you are igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary. Instead of merely hiking from point A to point B, the process of hunting and gathering makes you investigate the land around you.

This intimate connection with nature isn’t just critical to our own well-being, it is essential to the effort to conserve nature. The bottom line is that the more you know about something, the more you care about it. The more you care about it, the more you will work to protect it. One of the greatest threats to wilderness and wild places is a lack of cars at the trailheads. If we reduce nature to mere wallpaper — something to look at, but not to touch — then who is really going to care about it or advocate for it?

As another student, Chas, wrote after the three-day camp-out, “It has always seemed to me that nature is like a piece of artwork, fragile, but only to be admired through the gentlest of hands. We go walking on a weather-beaten path that so many have followed, but never step off to travel farther into the heart of the forest. I now know what it is like to go into the depths of the forest, experiencing the full force of the wild. Nature is not a picture. It is much more than that.”

Some of the most successful conservation groups, such as Ducks Unlimited or Trout Unlimited, are driven by consumers of nature — people who work to expand habitat and breed more ducks and more trout because they like to hunt and fish for them. This act of participating in nature effectively increases the demand for more nature. As ecologists and environmentalists, we need to adopt this new paradigm and help the populace reconnect with the natural world before we bulldoze and develop everything that is left.

As Spencer wrote after the camping trip, “The outdoor classroom experience has given me a more in-depth look at nature and our ancestors than any movie or text book has or ever will. Living in the outdoors has shown me that nature is full of surprises and that it provides everything that we need to survive. If more schools took their students on outdoor trips like we do, humans might learn to be more conservative and save our world.”

An experiential connection with nature is in fact imperative if we are to conserve and sustainably manage our natural resources. Consider energy. What happens when people grow up without a quantifiable sense of energy or knowledge of where it comes from when they flip on a light switch? How can we formulate sensible energy policy or steward our resources when energy itself is an abstraction?

If you spend enough time living with fire, you can develop a quantifiable sense of energy. You will know approximately how much heat and light a given pile of firewood produces, and from that you can better extrapolate to make meaning out of energy policy concerning coal, oil, gas, or the various avenues of generating electricity. Likewise, if you have a solar water heater, you can temporarily turn off your electric water heater, to experientially discover just how much hot water a solar water heater produces according to the weather and the seasons.

My local utility would very much like to construct a massive transmission line, with fourteen-story tall towers, down our local section of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. It is being touted as a “green” energy project because it would serve partly as a conduit to send wind energy from Montana south to markets in Las Vegas and California. But it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that there is nothing remotely green or sustainable about building this kind of industrial infrastructure and ramrodding it through virgin land. It would be far more sensible if utilities installed solar water heaters for their customers and took care of any maintenance, just as some utilities still come around to light customers’ gas furnaces each fall. Rather than each customer researching solar water heater brands and installers, the utility could take advantage of volume-pricing to install thousands of identical units, charging customers for some, but not all of the energy they save. In effect, the customer would get a small discount on the monthly utility bill, while the utility would get to sell the same electricity twice. That would constitute green energy policy.

A Deeper Connection
There is one more thing you may begin to see when you spend enough time in nature and begin to connect on a deeper level. You can begin to see the things that are no longer there.

That is perhaps the greatest irony of our cultural disconnect with nature. If you don’t know what lives outside your window, then you will not notice if it disappears, either. In fact, you can take a lush and forested ecosystem and completely denude it, and if it happens slowly enough, than nobody will notice any difference.

I’ve walked thousands of miles across several western states, looking at the ground. Prior to the domestication of livestock, semi-arid rangelands took care of themselves. In North America, massive herds of buffalo migrated across the West, sticking together for protection from predators. These herds nuked everything in their path. Anything not eaten was trampled into the soil, effectively planting fresh seeds while providing a mulch cover of organic matter and manure.

Today our rangelands suffer most from a lack of animal impact, so new seeds don’t get planted. The bare ground between the plants keeps spreading, even when the existing grass grows tall and green. In places like west Texas or South Africa, where the wild animals were too numerous to count only two hundred years ago, the land supports only a handful of cows over hundreds of miles today. The same process is happening all the way north to Montana, but almost nobody has a clue, because most people are too removed from nature to know what they are looking at on the ground, and whatever you see out the window looks completely normal, as long as you have nothing else to compare it to.

Moreover, the thing that makes the soil brown or black in the first place is carbon that has been extracted from the atmosphere and, in the case of rangelands, trampled into the ground to build soil. Grasses grow rapidly, and grasslands can sequester significantly more carbon per acre than forests. We’ve not only shut down the sequestration cycle on every continent, we’ve also oxidized half or more of the organic carbon from most crop and rangelands back into the atmosphere. And we wonder why we have a global warming problem.

It is hard to imagine now, but people once hunted pigs in the forests of Israel. Greece was also covered by rich Mediterranean forests. The fertile fields of Libya once grew grain for the Roman Empire. Is it any wonder that people fight all the time in places like Libya, Afghanistan, or Iraq, where the land has lost its fertility?

We may see on the news that the capital of China is in danger of being buried under sand dunes, but what we don’t see is that we are also turning the American West into a new Saharan desert. You can watch it happen year by year if you are accustomed to looking at the ground.

The problem can be easily remedied once it is understood, and with proper soil management, we could potentially put the brakes on global warming. Yet, the ground beneath our feet is functionally invisible to most people. Perhaps we could see it better if we took off our shoes and got back in touch with the earth.

I like to think of primitive living as a metaphor for living in the modern world. The metaphor reminds us that we are part of the ecosystem and we have no choice but to take from it. But in the quest to meet our needs for shelter, fire, water, and food, we learn about ourselves, we learn about the ecosystem, and we become empowered to make a difference in the world. Playing in the woods won’t solve all the world’s problems, or necessarily any of them. But it can point us in the right direction, and direction is perhaps what we need more than anything else.

Thomas J. Elpel delivered this as the keynote speech at the Bioneers conference in Anchorage, Alaska in October 2011.


Filed under Conservation, Education Reform, Energy Issues / Policy, Sustainability, Uncategorized, Wilderness Survival

The Power of Experiential Education

“I saw my friends and classmates in a new way. They acted much more caring and considerate. We never talked about who saw that movie and if it was good or not. We talked about what remarkable event had taken place during the day, and I personally liked that better.” –Taya D. – 2011 Junior High Camping Trip.

Thomas J. Elpel

Working with Kids – From the Junior High Camping Trip, 2011

Working with kids, I can tell when they are having a good time and excited about learning. But I consistently underestimate the true depth, insightfulness, and heart of our young people.

My work with public school kids began in the mid-1990s, when my daughters, Felicia and Cassie, were in elementary school. I volunteered to take them and their classmates out for an all-day field trip every spring. We built shelters, started fires with flint and steel, told stories, did crafts, made ashcakes and wild tea, and played some stalking games. It was lots of fun, and a good opportunity for the kids to get out of the classroom and have some fun at the end of the year. But it wasn’t just an excuse to “get out of school” for a day, as the kids were truly learning, and very importantly, they were learning about the world directly, instead of just reading about it in a book.

We upped the ante a bit when my daughters entered junior high, taking their classmates out for overnight camping trips on a local ranch. Lacking any tents or tarps, we built shelters out of sticks and bark… and survived more than an inch of rain (on multiple occasions). I taught the kids how to start fires with the bow and drill, basically a simple mechanical device for “rubbing two sticks together.” I demonstrated how to do it, then provided a couple of sticks to each group and had the kids figure out how to replicate the bow and drill and start a fire. We harvested edible wild plants and mushrooms, cooked a stir-fry dinner with hot rocks on a slab of bark, practiced stalking skills, observed wildlife, and played games. It was great fun, and the kids ate it up like it was the greatest thing in the world.

That was ten years ago, and my daughters are now in their twenties. But I still do the junior high camping trip every spring, and we now take the seventh and eighth graders out for three days and two nights, charging a small fee to make the program sustainable. Every year we look at new ways to fine-tune and improve the experience for the students, to make it more educational and more memorable.

The seventh and eighth grade teacher at Harrison School is Linda Ehlers, who was bold and adventurous enough to try this wild idea in the first place, and after doing it for a few years, began to realize just how deeply and positively the experience impacted the kids. She has the students for nearly nine months before I see them, and I am told that the kids talk about the junior high camping trip all year long. Two weeks before the campout, she finds it impossible to focus on anything else, so she structures her lesson plans around the upcoming trip, covering skills like plant identification, fire-starting, and knife safety in the classroom. She talks to these same students in the hallways as they continue on through their high school years, and the way she tells it, they never stop talking about the experience and the memories. But sometimes I have trouble believing it. I have trouble believing that three days of hanging out in the woods doing skills and playing games could impact these kids so much.

It isn’t until I see the written comments – in the students’ own words – that I began to get a sense of how deeply they have been touched by this little camping experience. On a purely academic level, it is obvious that they are truly learning, and they resonate with the lessons in a way that could not be achieved by reading about it in a book:

“I think our Indian ancestors were awesome because they lived how we did, but we only stayed three days. I think it is amazing how they lived, and when they killed something, they used everything off of the dead animal. It is also fascinating that they used everything that they found or killed. The coolest thing was all the cooking utensils and how they used fire and coals to cook.” –Brett P.

“The life we lived out there for three days is what our ancestors’ lives were like year-round. I see that my ancestors routinely did what I struggled to do once. It makes you stop and think about how technology has changed our way of living. This experience has changed the way I see people back then.” –Britt C.

Sometimes I try to get in the heads of the kids while we are out in the field, and I imagine them to have little depth beyond the desire to have fun. Yes, I can see that they are excited about learning, but I rationalize it as “excited compared to sitting in the classroom.” After all, this is technically a school trip, and they are conditioned to follow instructions and do whatever I tell them to do. And yet, when the kids have started some game of their own – and it is obviously a healthy and satisfying activity – I hesitate to interrupt them. I experience a moment of self-doubt, thinking that they will be disgruntled at the interruption – that they won’t get excited about learning some stupid stalking skills or playing some dumb stalking game. But when I finally make the call, I am shocked to see their game break up immediately as the students come streaming over, excited for the new activity:

“My most meaningful experiences were Wolves and Deer and the Stalking Game. These were meaningful because they are games that everyone was involved in. We were having fun and enjoying ourselves. Wolves and Deer was meaningful because it involved paying attention and being knowledgeable. The Stalking Game was meaningful because we had to be quiet and know the placement of our feet. I enjoyed this because when I got out, it was very fun watching everybody else try to get the bag of candy.” –Colton C.

“I felt everything I stepped on as I walked in the all-leather moccasins… Stalking to get that candy was so intense. It shows how patient you have to be to get your food in the woods. From the birds chirping to Koby running through the trees, all the natural sounds really made me open my ears and listen.”  –Alecia P.

I am always surprised at how much the students comment on the importance of teamwork, friendship, and appreciation of each other, especially because our schedule doesn’t have include any specific team-building activities or agenda. But from the kids perspective, it is all about teamwork:

“My most meaningful experience was being able to work together to start a fire with the bow and drill. The campout taught all of us that we had to work together or you wouldn’t get anything done.” –Gabie A.

“The bowdrill is one of the best ways to make a fire. It takes teamwork and passion. When my group was making fire, Britt was working the bow, then she said, ‘Help!” I grabbed the other end of the bow and helped her through it. We were the first group done because of the teamwork we did.” –John E.

“Friendship and teamwork are priorities above all others. Without these I would have never been able to start a fire, find Kris, or even fix the wickiup. You need friends and partners to survive in the real world, and without them, we are lost.” –Jon S.

More surprising to me is that the kids truly connect with the natural world. I often imagine our young people as being totally into the social scene and not really interested in nature beyond the excuse to be out of the classroom for a few days. I imagine them to be patiently tolerant at best, when we wake them up early in the morning to go stalking through the woods in the hopes of seeing wildlife:

“Another meaningful experience was when we went on a morning wildlife walk. This time, I could hear the animals waking up. That morning was very peaceful. I felt proud that I was on this walk seeing animals, not disrupting them, and making my way through the great outdoors.” –Taya D.

“Before I went on the campout, I did not take the time to enjoy all of the experiences that are out there. I would walk to the bus each morning with my headphones in my ears, ignoring all of the natural music around me. The birds sang their songs each and every morning, and I ignored their exquisite music. Now, when I walk to the bus in the morning, I try to listen to each and every song that the birds have to offer. I slow my pace as I indulge the sound of the songs. I allow myself to ‘stop and smell the roses’ when I stroll along the twisting, winding road to the bus.” –Michaela J.

Most of all, I am surprised at the depth, reflection, and insightfulness of many of the comments. These comments come from young teenagers, yet sound more like adults:

“For three whole days, we were shut off from the TVs, the iPods, and even the world famous cell phone. It is hard to believe, even now, that we could survive without these advances. Now, new things can replace this “junk” that has taken over our lives. Instead of watching TV, we can play the real live video game of marshmallow wars, instead of being stuck on a couch with a joystick in hand.” –Britt C.

“It has always seemed to me that nature is like a piece of artwork, fragile, but only to be admired through the gentlest of hands. We go walking on a weather-beaten path that so many have followed, but never step off to travel farther into the heart of the forest. I now know what it is like to go into the depths of the forest, experiencing the full force of the wild. Nature is not a picture. It is much more than that.” –Chas B.

Seeing feedback like this from the kids makes me realize just how deeply they are affected by this one-time experience in nature. And they are definitely hungry for more. In his book Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv called the nation’s attention to the growing problem of “Nature Deficit Disorder,” a concern that was shockingly brought to life in the documentary Play Again: What are the consequences of a childhood removed from nature? The book and the movie highlight the crisis that faces our young people and the future of our society. How can society function if we raise an entire generation of kids who are plugged into something like Second Life, while lacking a First Life in the real world?

I never imagined that our little camping trips would turn into cutting edge work that could make a critical difference to the future of our young people. But while Last Child in the Woods and Play Again have called attention to the problem, we have apparently stumbled into a critical piece of the solution. The experiential model that we have created resonates with the students and reaches them at a deeper level.

It is my greatest hope to expand our programs to many of our other local schools to share similar experiences with the kids that are currently missing out. More than that, I hope that our work can become a role model for other people seeking to introduce experiential outdoor education to the young people in their lives. As one student wrote this year:

“The outdoor classroom experience has given me a more in-depth look at nature and our ancestors than any movie or text book has or ever will. Living in the outdoors has shown me that nature is full of surprises and that it provides everything that we need to survive. If more schools took their students on outdoor trips like we do, humans might learn to be more conservative and save our world.” –Spencer O.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

For more information about the Junior High Camping Trip, be sure to read Outdoor Classroom (Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 2011) and more comments from students of the 2011 camping trip. Also, take a look at our Classroom in the Woods DVD, and please check out Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS) for more information about our classes.

Classroom in the Woods DVD.


Filed under Education Reform