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The Cadaver in My Knee

"The ephemeral nature of life speaks to the deeper reality that we can only serve others."  This X-ray shows my bones, but not the torn ACL.

“The ephemeral nature of life speaks to the deeper reality that we can only serve others.” This X-ray shows my bones, but not the torn ACL.

      Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust. We take nothing with us. All our work and worry to get ahead in life is squandered on delusions of serving the self, while the ephemeral nature of life speaks to the deeper reality that we can only serve others. As the recent recipient of a cadaver graft, I feel deep gratitude toward the individual who chose to “pay it forward” to me, as I have strived to pay it forward to others. In the service of others we begin to see beyond our corporeal selves to the broader reality that we are all connected–we are all One.

      Death is the great equalizer, and neither wealth nor fame can alter our final destiny. We are but temporary caretakers of this world, stewarding what has been handed down to us in order that we may pass it along to future generations. Thus I especially appreciate the anonymous tissue donation to replace and reconstruct the torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) from my left knee.

A look inside my knee, after the torn ACL was removed, but before the new one was installed.

A look inside my knee, after the torn ACL was removed, but before the new one was installed.

      The operation to repair my knee with leftovers from a cadaver is an astonishing and somewhat morbidly fascinating miracle of modern medicine. I will never know who provided my new ACL or how they died, only that they were generous enough to allow themselves to be picked over for spare parts to help the living.

      The surgeon repurposed a patellar tendon (connected to the knee cap), with a plug of bone at each end, to serve as a new ACL inside my knee. The tissue was frozen to -70F to destroy any living material that might be rejected and attacked by my immune system, making me the inheritor of a wholly dead, yet fully functional tendon. The doctor adjusted the tension with a permanent screw, so that the tendon (and my knee) would be neither too tight nor too loose.

This X-ray was taken during surgery, showing the tools inside my femur.

This X-ray was taken during surgery, showing the tools inside my femur.

      Firmly secured in place, the tendon is immediately functional, even though it takes about six weeks for the bone plugs to fully fuse with my own bones, and a good deal of physical therapy before I am out hiking hundreds of miles again. Blood vessels will slowly repopulate the tendon, theoretically repairing and replacing it cell by cell until there might eventually be no trace of the donor tendon. With arthroscopic surgery, using small instruments and cameras, there are only a few small incisions on the outside of my knee, and minimal scarring. It is a gift I hope to honor and pass forward by doing my best to make a positive difference in this world for others.

      For better or worse, the temporary nature of life was deeply impressed upon me by the death of my father when I was twelve years old. Death became my “constant companion,” as Carlos Castaneda described it in his books about the teachings of Don Juan. Normal people seemed absurdly complacent, content to work meaningless jobs and fill idle time with hollow conversations about sports, celebrities, and television. Yet none of it seemed particularly important against the reality that death was poised to strike its final blow at any moment.

"Worthwhile actions must necessarily reach beyond the self in the service of others."  This X-ray shows the screw left inside my bone.

“Worthwhile actions must necessarily reach beyond the self in the service of others.” This X-ray shows the screw left inside my bone.

      Life is short — a few orbits around the sun, and its over. I learned to measure the importance of any potential course of action against the knowledge that death was stalking me, that there was limited time to act. Moreover, I saw that there was nothing in this world that I could take with me. In the annals of time, the individual self is dust in the wind, a short-term investment that inevitably and literally goes belly-up. Worthwhile actions, therefore, must necessarily reach beyond the self in the service of others. I have strived to pay it forward ever since, although it may not always seem that way from an outside perspective.

      On the surface, many aspects of my life may seem self-indulgent and self-absorbed. I live in a nice house. I keep my office up to date with recently new computers. My name is blazoned across my books, videos, and hundreds of web pages. And I am frequently in the news, usually because I call reporters and invite them to come write a story about whatever project I happen to be working on. Yet, from my perspective, the self is never the end goal, but rather the means or tool towards the broader goal of making a positive contribution to the world.

One week after knee surgery, my knee was swollen, yet looking remarkably good for all the work inside.

One week after knee surgery, my knee was swollen, yet looking remarkably good for all the work inside.

      For example, when I undertook construction of my home twenty-five years ago, I sought to demonstrate that adopting a green lifestyle could be more economical than following a traditional route. I wanted to show that it was still possible to live the American Dream – to own a nice home without a mortgage — and to do so in a more-or-less green and sustainable manner. I wanted to avoid getting stuck in an uninspiring job and working the rest of my life to make rent or mortgage payments, and I needed a quality place to live, rest, and recover in my efforts to make the world a better place. Thus my home is, and always has been, a tool for me to serve others, and that is my approach to just about everything I do in life. I cannot claim to be overly successful in making a significant positive difference in the world, but that is the goal that motivates me in just about every aspect of life, from exploring alternative building methods to writing books, working on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, or teaching wilderness survival and nature awareness skills to kids.

      In terms of my knee, the gift I received will once again enable me to play, run, and engage in wildlife stalking games with kids in our Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS) programs for public schools, and it will allow me to undertake backcountry adventures with young adults who seek a more intimate connection with nature. Above all, it will facilitate my being fit and healthy to continue working to make a better future for our beleaguered planet.

      In the grand scheme of things, perhaps none of it really matters. We are but one insignificant planet in the far reaches of an insignificant galaxy, out of hundreds of millions of galaxies, each one containing hundreds of millions of stars. A few more loops around the sun, and myself and everyone alive today will be maggot fodder. Kids seldom know the names of their great grandparents or anything about them, and even the work of architects and authors typically disappears after a few decades or centuries. Marble headstones on graves are but passing blips against the tick-tock of time.

      Everything we do, good, bad, or indifferent, will be utterly forgotten in the not too distant future. Time will continue to march forward. Tectonic plates will inch around the world, making new continents. Our sun will slowly burn up its fuel supply and eventually swell to become a red giant, consuming our planet and everything on it. We will one day be reduced to stardust, just as we were stardust once before. And maybe that’s the point.

"The self is but a temporary illusion that masks the greater truth that we are all in this together. " Back on my feet again, and ready to go to work.

“The self is but a temporary illusion that masks the greater truth that we are all in this together. ” Back on my feet again, and ready to go to work.

      The self is but a temporary illusion that masks the greater truth that we are all in this together. The hydrogen and helium that made up the early stars fused together to make the heavier elements that were blown across space and time to build new stars, new planets, new life, and our very bones, muscles, and skin. We are as much a part of the Heavens as this cadaver graft is part of me, is becoming me, is me, and in a cosmic sense, always was me. When we peer through the telescope to the ends of the Universe, we ultimately see ourselves. We are not mere passengers along for the ride, we are the Universe looking at itself. We are all One.

      Our individual lives are intrinsically insignificant, except possibly in terms of this grand experiment called life, the living Universe, evolving, growing, learning, and perhaps becoming something greater than the sum of its parts. When we look beyond ourselves, we contribute towards a greater universal understanding and perhaps a Universal consciousness. At a time when life is imperiled on our planet as never before, it is more important than ever that we all work towards making a positive difference to pass the gift of life along to future generations.

Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit and numerous other books.

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

      This video shows an ACL reconstruction using an allograft or cadaver tendon, very similar to the surgery that was preformed on my knee. However, it is sped up to compress the entire surgery into just a few minutes, making it look like they are wildly and carelessly cutting, drilling, and operating on the patient. I am thankful that I did not watch this or any other surgery videos ahead of my own surgery!

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American Nations: Book Review

American NationsThe issues that divide our country are as old as the union itself, according to Colin Woodward, author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. The original colonies were founded by vastly different cultures that had little in common, aside from a common enemy during the revolutionary war. Even then there were instigators, pacifists, and colonies that were reluctantly dragged into the fray. One might expect that these disparate cultures would have long ago melded together or been diluted by immigration, but Woodward asserts that the nation is still divided into multiple definable “ethnoregional cultures” that have largely carried forward the beliefs, values, and behaviors descended from the original colonies.

These ethnoregional cultures remain intact because new immigrants from other states or countries tend to adopt local perspectives and beliefs over time. In a family, for example, the parents might retain their own traditions, but their descendants tend to adopt the local culture. As a result, the original cultures mostly grew and spread, yet retained identifiable geographic boundaries, independent of state lines, that can be mapped according to factors such as crime rates, religious tendencies, and election results. None of these cultures are able to dominate the national agenda, but through shifting alliances based on overlapping priorities, sometimes one culture can strong-arm the rest of the country into following its agenda.

Hunter GatherersI was drawn to the book because the author outlined a theory of realty that potentially conflicted with the theory of reality outlined in my own book, Roadmap to Reality, and I felt it important to compare the two books.

Roadmap to Reality shows how technologies used for survival ultimately dictate population levels, style of government, and beliefs about the nature of reality itself. For example, hunter-gatherer societies typically live in bands that vary in size from a few families to multiple extended families. Hunter-gatherer societies are largely egalitarian, where everyone works to produce food and the chief only has power to the degree that everyone else agrees or disagrees with him. Hunter-gatherer societies tend to have a very magical worldview, believing, for example, that a sacred charm might bring success in hunting.

AgricultureSkipping over horticultural societies to full-blown agricultural societies with livestock driven plows, these societies are overwhelmingly patriarchal and hierarchical, organized as state governments with centralized leadership and standing armies. Agricultural societies typically have a monotheistic and mythical worldview, with a moral code of right and wrong dictated by myths or stories such as the bible.

IndustryAn industrial society enables even larger populations and restores a degree of equality, for example, that men and women can do equal work and attain political power. Industrial societies develop a sequential worldview, for example, that illness might be caused by bacterial infection, rather than God’s will or black magic. Thus, Roadmap to Reality effectively provides a broad “theory of everything” that explains human behavior in all past, present, and emerging societies.

American Nations doesn’t contradict Roadmap, but rather compliments it nicely. Roadmap outlines big picture principals that apply to societies everywhere, while American Nations focusses specifically on the ongoing clash between competing ethnoregional cultures largely descended from the original colonies. The culture clashes Woodward describes are deeply rooted in the fact that the southern states were solidly agricultural, while the northern states industrialized first, resulting in vastly different worldviews and beliefs about everything from family life to education to government.

Societies do not suddenly jump from one technology and worldview to another, but transition gradually over time. As noted in Roadmap to Reality, northern states were still solidly agricultural in the mid-1800s, driven by a God-given mythical view of reality that dictated right and wrong. Yet, northerners also retained a few holdover ideas from a past magical worldview. They knew and understood that most plants sprouted from seeds, but it was also commonly believed that plants, particularly those that sprouted far from any obvious seed source, arose spontaneously and magically. At the same time, the North was already building textile industries and hand innovated interchangeable parts, laying the foundation for assembly lines and full-scale industrialization in the twentieth century. These technologies are characteristic of sequential, linear thinking.

The South has followed the same trajectory, but industrialized later, resulting in a developmental rift and a never-ending culture clash, not just between competing ethnoregions, but between inherently incompatible viewpoints about the nature of reality itself. Roadmap to Reality and American Nations compliment each other to provide a comprehensive view of current events, explaining regional differences that play out in our interpersonal relationships and political dramas.

Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit and several other books.

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

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Russian Roulette with a Bottle

"Statistically speaking, the odds of roulette run in your favor. About one out of every thirteen Americans has an alcohol problem, so any individual can confidently put a bottle to their head on the expectation that they will be one of the twelve who gets lucky."

“Statistically speaking, the odds of roulette run in your favor. About one out of every thirteen Americans has an alcohol problem, so any individual can confidently put a bottle to their head on the expectation that they will be one of the twelve who gets lucky.”

The True Cost of Drinking
      One gun. One bullet. Spin the chamber. Pass it around. Each person puts the gun to their head and pulls the trigger. One person dies. The others live and call it entertainment. Sound barbaric? Americans play the game on a daily basis, but we don’t use a loaded gun. Instead, we use a loaded bottle, and it is just as lethal.
      Almost any adult can name at least one person they have lost to alcohol. A parent. A sibling. A cousin. An aunt or uncle. A childhood friend. A neighbor down the street. For some, it was drunk driving. For others, it was binge drinking or cirrhosis of the liver. Others never tasted alcohol, but were mowed down by someone who did. Many who lost their lives are not dead. But alcohol cost them their job, their marriage, their family, and their dignity. Some lost their mobility and dreams to a beer-belly and never regained their freedom. Controlled by alcohol, the bottles and cans stack up into great piles for the dumpster, or hang on wires around the garden to scare away the birds. Nearly everyone can think of someone who lost their life to alcohol in some way or another, but strangely that knowledge doesn’t stop people from drinking.
"The odds are less favorable for some people than others. Kids who start drinking before age fifteen have a one in six chance of becoming alcohol dependent. Adult children of alcoholics are most at risk, with approximately one in three becoming alcoholics like their parents."

“The odds are less favorable for some people than others. Kids who start drinking before age fifteen have a one in six chance of becoming alcohol dependent. Adult children of alcoholics are most at risk, with approximately one in three becoming alcoholics like their parents.”

      Statistically speaking, the odds of roulette run in your favor. About one out of every thirteen Americans has an alcohol problem, so any individual can confidently put a bottle to their head on the expectation that they will be one of the twelve who gets lucky. The odds are less favorable for some people than others. Kids who start drinking before age fifteen have a one in six chance of becoming alcohol dependent. Adult children of alcoholics are most at risk, with approximately one in three becoming alcoholics like their parents.
      Statistics vary from source to source, but according to the Council on Alcoholism, about 85,000 Americans die from alcohol-related issues every year, including about 16,000 from drunk driving or drunk drivers. Alcohol is also implicated in about one fourth of all emergency-room admissions, one third of all suicides, more than half of all homicides, and half of all incidents of domestic violence. Alcohol is associated with unplanned and unprotected sex, sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies, and abortions. About 1,700 college students are killed in alcohol-related incidents in the U.S. every year, but they are generally considered expendable because they are someone else’s children, not ours. It is part of the cost of roulette. We accept their loss as necessary in order for the rest of us to have a good time.
      That is the reality of Russian roulette. It is a game. It requires winners as well as losers. The odds are pretty good for any one individual. It is only a question of whom we are willing to sacrifice for our entertainment. Point the bottle around the room at friends, family members, and strangers.
"Whom do we consider expendable? A brother? A sister? A niece or nephew? Our own child or someone else’s? We don’t know who the winners and losers will be. We only know that roulette requires participants, and we willingly gamble with other people’s lives every time we reach for the bottle."

“Whom do we consider expendable? A brother? A sister? A niece or nephew? Our own child or someone else’s? We don’t know who the winners and losers will be. We only know that roulette requires participants, and we gamble with other people’s lives every time we reach for the bottle.”

      Alcohol will ruin the life of one out of every thirteen people in the room, whether or not it actually kills them. Whom do we consider expendable? A brother? A sister? A niece or nephew? Our own child or someone else’s? We don’t know who the winners and losers will be. We only know that roulette requires participants, and we willingly gamble with other people’s lives every time we reach for the bottle.
      In the effort to make roulette safer, people are encouraged to “drink responsibly.” Put the bottle to your head. Just don’t get trigger happy, or at least don’t try driving after you’ve blown your brains out. Responsible drinking works great for the winners, not so great for the losers. How many people have been seriously maimed or killed in a drunk driving accident after attending a funeral for someone who died driving drunk? Sadly, it happens all too often.
"Montana has the highest alcohol-related fatality rate in the nation, and our state is the national champion of drunken driving. Teenagers are killed in drunken driving accidents all the time, and nobody cares enough to change their own behavior."

“Montana has the highest alcohol-related fatality rate in the nation, and our state is the national champion of drunken driving. Teenagers are killed in drunken driving accidents all the time, and nobody cares enough to change their own behavior.”

      Drinking alcohol is a mimicked behavior, and participants are recruited early into the game. Give alcohol to a child, and they will likely recoil in disgust the first time they try it. But adults act like alcohol is special, fun, and tastes good. Drinking and partying is glorified in television and movies. Drink it enough times, and a child learns to like it. Some families are so alcohol-oriented that every party and family reunion is a drinking escapade, as if they wouldn’t know how to interact with each other as authentic human beings without alcohol. Children learn that it is necessary to drink in order to have fun, fit in socially, and play the game. In my home state of Montana, drinking is a way of life, indoctrinated early.
On July 14, 2011 Megan turned 20 years old, and only 2 days later on July 16, as she celebrated her birthday with friends by floating the river and drinking, Megan thought she was okay to drive. She crossed the center lane and was hit by on-coming traffic and she died instantly.

On July 14, 2011 Megan turned 20 years old, and only 2 days later on July 16, as she celebrated her birthday with friends by floating the river and drinking, Megan thought she was okay to drive. She crossed the center lane and was hit by on-coming traffic and she died instantly.

      In rural communities, the bar is often the town center. Kids flow in and out of the bar as they grow up. They play pool while the adults drink. But teenagers drink at the bars, too. I stopped by the town bar one lively night this past summer to check out the music and street dancing. My recently graduated son’s eighteen-year-old classmates were also at the bar, drinking beer and totally smashed. The adults knew they were underage. The cops knew it. Nobody cared. As one of the boys said when he went on a camping trip with us, “I’ve never been in the woods when I wasn’t drunk before.” It is a way of life here. Montana has the highest alcohol-related fatality rate in the nation, and our state is the national champion of drunken driving. Teenagers are killed in drunken driving accidents all the time, and nobody cares enough to change their own behavior.
      I was fortunate to grow up in a family where alcohol wasn’t particularly important. It wasn’t celebrated, and it wasn’t a game. Nor was it consumed in sufficient quantity to change anyone in that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde way that is often encouraged by other people. I’ve tried alcohol, but never drank enough when I was younger to acquire a taste for it, and at this point, probably never will. I don’t mind when other people drink, unless they make a big deal out of it and carry on like they are mimicking some party scene they saw on television. I would rather socialize with real human beings.
      As a nondrinker, it is perpetually incomprehensible to me why anyone would desire to drink until they puke their guts out, then engage in behavior that results in a trip to the emergency room or an unplanned pregnancy, only to suffer through a hangover the following day — all in the name of “fun.” There are a million ways to have fun without getting wasted and feeling lousy. It is a sad commentary on the quality of life in our culture that people find it necessary to get drunk on the weekends to forget for a moment how dreary their lives are the rest of the time.
Beer bottles discarded in a dumpster... by the recycling bin.

Beer bottles discarded in a dumpster… by the recycling bin.

      Roulette is not so great for the planet, either. Beer commercials often highlight beautiful scenery, but there is a direct connection between getting wasted and wasting the planet. Beer cans and broken beer bottles are strewn along millions of miles of highways. They can be found littered along most floatable rivers. They accumulate in fire pits and around the parking lots at campgrounds and outdoor recreation sites. We would be lucky if litter was the beginning and the end of the problem, but it isn’t. It is fundamentally an issue of self-respect. People who lack the self-respect to take care of their own bodies are less likely to respect other living beings and the environment. Here in Montana, for example, beer and guns are a common combination, as people drink while blowing away ground squirrels for entertainment. Those who lack respect for themselves are more likely to work meaningless or environmentally destructive jobs. Getting wasted on the weekends only ensures continued entrapment to destructive behaviors.
"People learn that alcohol is a means of escape, rebellion, and freedom, but it is ultimately a tool of entrapment."

“People learn that alcohol is a means of escape, rebellion, and freedom, but it is ultimately a tool of entrapment.”

      That is perhaps the great irony of the great escape. People learn that alcohol is a means of escape, rebellion, and freedom, but it is ultimately a tool of entrapment. It is an imaginary escape that leaves a person enslaved to meaningless or destructive employment to pay for a meaningless and destructive addiction. Perpetuating the game is good only for padding corporate profits. True freedom requires breaking free from the game to play life by one’s own rules.
      Unfortunately, no one can legislate freedom or end the game. Alcohol is a cornerstone problem linked to broken dreams, broken marriages, broken families, domestic violence, homicides, and wasting the planet, and yet, there is no person or entity on earth powerful enough to outlaw the game or enforce such a law if it were passed. Prohibition was an utter failure, and arguably only glorified alcohol even more.
      What we can do is lessen the impacts to the greatest possible degree. For example, states with deposit fees on cans and bottles have higher recycling rates and far less litter and waste than states without deposit fees. We can also hold corporations responsible for their part in encouraging addictive and destructive behavior. For example, the bags of cans and bottles that pile up at an alcoholic’s home typically come from only a couple major corporations, such as Anheuser–Busch (Budweiser) and MillerCoors. Ditto for most of the cans and bottles littered along our highways and rivers. These companies profit at the expense of individual lives and should be required to do more to rectify the problems caused by their products, or taxed sufficiently to fund treatment and counseling for everyone who needs it. Local microbrews, on the other hand, are not usually associated with destructive behaviors and should be exempt from such requirements. Beyond that, the best that any one individual can do is to refuse to play the game and set an example for our children, our families, and our friends, that drinking isn’t particularly interesting or important.

      Thomas J. Elpel is the author of six books, including Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit. He has often dreamed of getting into politics and making a positive difference in the world, yet recognizes that it might be difficult to get elected if he cannot sit down and drink a beer like a “regular guy.”

Drinking

Hi Tom,

You wrote an article last year on the destructive elements of alcohol and it’s been really helpful to me quit drinking. I find myself going back to it frequently. It’s been a recurring problem for me but I’ve been fortunate not to get into any serious trouble. Your work is very inspiring to me, thank you.

When you have a lot of Native American blood like me, the odds are really against you. But I’m determined to keep positivity in my life as a focus. Groups like AA don’t take the attention off the problem and can keep someone overly identified with their problems… in my experience anyway.

–Max H.

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For the Love of a Woman

Katie and Flint       I am not a self-indulgent person. I don’t need coffee or tea to wake me up in the morning. I don’t need a beer to wind down in the evening. I don’t need fancy clothes, and I am content driving a rusty bucket of bolts. I don’t own a smart phone, a cell phone, or even an iPod, although I might change that one day. I like background music, but usually tune it out. I am admittedly addicted to chocolate. But otherwise, I can rock ‘n roll from four or five in the morning until ten or eleven at night, and few people can keep up with me. I have a thousand grand dreams and epic projects to make a positive difference in the world, and there is only one external substance I really depend on to keep me going: the love of a woman.
Katie Silhouette       People often say that it is important to be self-sufficient before getting into a relationship. Be comfortable in your own skin and follow your dreams in life, and when it is meant to be, the right partner will come along. That may be true, but somehow it doesn’t resonate with me. I am already about the most self-sufficient person I know. I have designed and built houses from the ground up, including doing the wiring and plumbing. I write books, produce videos, and often do every part of the process from rough drafts to layout, graphic design, publishing, marketing, and even hand-coding the HTML for the website. I don’t need help, nor do I need to be entertained. Television and movies are often tedious. Bars are boring. Most people are uninteresting. I am almost content with nothing more than the company of my own thoughts, but I do have my limits. It is difficult to achieve emotional self-sufficiency in a vacuum.
Tom with Rock Cairn       As with many introverted people, I am most content in a relationship with an extrovert. I like being in the “fun bubble” of a woman who knows how to have a good time. For me, it is a way to get out of my own head, and it is like a passport to enjoy social events that I would otherwise find alienating and stressful. It is a normal form of co-dependency for a lot of introverts in the world.
      In addition, my best work is often tediously demanding and emotionally draining. I am content hiking and camping alone, and I enjoy teaching and being around people. But as a writer, being alone in my head 24/7 is much like being locked away in solitary confinement. It doesn’t matter how many people are around me, I live confined within the walls of my own head. I find it necessary to put words to paper, and the end result is usually satisfying and sometimes potentially world-changing. The process, however, can be infinitely tedious. Writing a book, for example, requires a single-minded devotion to the end product and thousands of hours of solitary, introspective thought and writing. But solitary confinement is often used as a form of torture. Locked away by themselves, people eventually go mad.
      The only escape I know from the solitary confinement of my writer’s brain is the playful presence of an extroverted personality. I don’t need a lot. I just need to get out of my head from time to time to shift emotional states, to wrestle, tease, laugh, and play. My last relationship was all teeth and claws as we engaged in epic battles. I am so cerebral that I crave that kind of play. With nothing more than the love of a woman, I am inspired, empowered, and energized to do great work and make a positive difference. Sometimes I feel so energized and empowered that I am sure I can change the course of the world. But take away the love, and suddenly I question if the world is really worth saving. I lose interest in my dreams, goals, and ambitions. All I want to do is hang out and ride my horse.
Tom and Katie Shadows       Maybe I should learn to be more emotionally self-sufficient and keep plowing forward, working to make a difference in the world, but I’m just not sure what for if there isn’t someone special to share the journey with. I don’t need much in this world, and I definitely don’t work for money, although I often get paid. But I do need to get something out of it for me. I can work miracles on a hug and a smile. Take that away and I would rather go on strike than continue working. And so, when my love life falls apart, so do all my dreams of making the world a better place.
      I have often said that the greatest obstacle to creating a sustainable civilization is that people are too wrapped up in their petty personal lives to see what is right in front of them. We have all the knowledge and technology we need to create a functionally sustainable civilization, and we can achieve it with less work and less cost than the way we are living now.
Elpel House       As a young married man, I found it relatively easy, even without much for money or job skills, to buy land and build a passive solar home without a mortgage. With the basics covered, I have had the rest of my adult life free to work towards making a positive difference in the world. But as my marriage and family began unraveling six years ago, I found myself in the same boat as everyone else, too distracted by my personal life to focus on saving the planet. It wasn’t until I found a new and seemingly sustainable relationship that I was able to pick up where I left off, and start working for the benefit of others. But her path ultimately took her away from me and left me alone again.
      I’m not sure what the answer is. Maybe my path would be easier if I had smaller dreams or worked a steady job that was independent from my love life. I don’t know. I’ve only been in two romantic relationships in my life, and both were so intertwined with our mutual goals and enterprises that disentangling the relationships unraveled a lot of other dreams in the process.
Tom with Moe       What I have learned, however, is that it is essential to prioritize relationships first. Strangely, it doesn’t matter if climate change is spinning out of control, our forests are dying, species are going extinct, our government is corrupt and nearly bankrupt, or that our kids are losing touch with nature and physical reality itself. Without love, nothing else really matters, not even the fate of our planet. And so, here I am again, looking for love.

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Thomas J. Elpel
August 29, 2013

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Gratitude: Thanks for a moment in time

Katie and Equines       I owe my life to the compassion and kindness of the most amazing woman in the world. She believed in me when everyone else abandoned me. She reached out to me when I was in pain. She gave me a hug when I needed healing. She gave back my life after I had lost everything.

      It is hard to believe it has been only three years since I showed up on her doorstep, five hundred miles away from home, with nowhere to go and nothing to return home to. My marriage had gone sour. My relationship with my kids was terrible. Their relationships with each other were no better. We lived in constant crisis mode. The issues were rooted in dynamics of my marriage, but I was the one who got the blame for everything that was wrong with our family.

The Gulch       It is ironic, given that I worked every day of my life to make a positive difference in my family and in the world. Yet, all that blew up in my face. In the breakup of my family, I lost everything I ever worked for, cared about, or believed in. I was totally alienated and utterly alone with no one turn to, except for the kindness of this virtual stranger.

      Actually, Katie told me not to come. Twice. I just didn’t have anywhere else to go. I was drawn to her on raw instinct. We had met a couple times before and emailed back and forth a bit. She understood the depth of my problems at home. She was the only person who cared enough to really listen.

      Thirty miles away from her house in central Washington, I called and left a message. I didn’t know what I would do if she didn’t return my call, or if she told me to leave and go home. I considered driving back east to walk the Appalachian Trail. I wanted to run away and start my life anew. Returning home seemed like a death sentence.

      Fortunately, Katie returned my call and allowed me to come to her home, albeit, reluctantly. She understood that I needed help, and she responded with compassion. Besides, her hired help failed to show up, so she needed a dumb bloke to help build her corral.

Katie Corral       I stayed for a week. We built the corral. We talked. She listened to me when no one else would. She believed in me when no one else did. She gave me a hug when I was all alone. And there began a turning point for me to regain all that I had lost. In the ashes of my failed marriage and family, Katie was the angel who helped me carry onward. She gave me strength to deal with the issues at home. She helped me believe in myself again.

      Over time, I would prove that I am a good and competent father. My sons flourished at home and at school. My adult daughters gradually thawed towards me. I have grown to cherish my role as Dad, and I enjoy being a happy home-maker. I have kept my business alive and growing through the trials and turmoil of divorce from my ex. And I still try every day to make a positive difference in the world.

Tom and Katie       Katie and I progressed to become friends, partners, and lovers. We found great joy in our life together, and we proved ourselves to be an amazing team. I helped her achieve her dreams and goals, and she helped me achieve mine. More than anything, being with Katie filled me with gratitude. Life is short, and relationships are shorter, and one never knows what tomorrow will bring. But in the three years that we had together, I learned to love life again. As I often told her, “Thank you for this moment in time.” I am greatly sorry to lose her as my partner, yet eternally grateful for the time that we shared together. Katie gave my life back to me, and for that I can never thank her enough.

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Thomas J. Elpel
June 29, 2013

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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.”

–“Morpheus”
The Matrix, 1999


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Filed under Education Reform, Sustainability, Uncategorized, Wilderness Survival