Category Archives: Uncategorized

One Public Lands Agency for All

Anyone looking at western public land maps will quickly notice the multi-colored hues of different federal management agencies, including green for the U.S. Forest Service, yellow for Bureau of Land Management (BLM), typically dark green or purple for the National Park Service, plus various shades for the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Other than the Forest Service, each of these federal land agencies exists within the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Forest Service originated to manage forest reserves, and the BLM originated to manage mineral rights and grazing leases, yet both agencies have coalesced towards increasingly similar missions and often cooperate with each other on projects with overlapping jurisdictions. Therefore, we should logically consider the potential benefits of merging the Forest Service and BLM together, or potentially merging all public lands agencies together as one entity.

Agency vs. Agency

In the 1800s, most federal lands were managed by the General Land Office within the Interior Department for sale to the public.

Forestlands were eventually transferred to the Agriculture Department through a series of moves that stemmed from an 1876 appropriations bill. A bill to fund a forestry study within the Interior Department failed, so the appropriation was added to the Agriculture Department budget instead, leading to the establishment of the Division of Forestry in 1881, later renamed as the Bureau of Forestry in 1901 and renamed again as the Forest Service in 1905.

Meanwhile, the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 allowed Presidents to withdraw and protect timberlands from disposal, and The Transfer Act of 1905 moved those forest reserves from the Interior Department to the Agriculture Department to be managed by the newly named Forest Service.[1]

In 1946 the General Land Office and U.S. Grazing Service were merged together to form the Bureau of Land Management. Its purpose was to manage miscellaneous scraps of land that were neither set aside as forest reserves nor claimed by homesteaders. Although the BLM and Forest Service are different federal agencies, they often share common borders and similar management plans.

For example, my home in Pony, Montana is nestled into the foothills of the Tobacco Root Mountains. The mountain range lies mostly within Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, administered by the Forest Service, while surrounded by a fringe of BLM parcels, requiring separate offices, duplicate personnel, different management plans, separate maintenance crews, and a constant stream of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) back and forth between them.

Tobacco Root Mountains

Like many western mountain ranges, the U.S. Forest Service manages the core of the Tobacco Root Mountains as National Forest, while the Bureau of Land Management manages scattered parcels around the perimeter.

Although timber sales are predominantly the domain of the Forest Service, the BLM also conducts timber sales, as happened just up the road from my home. And when a mining company did a short-term project in the watershed, both agencies had to dedicate personnel towards writing Environmental Assessments, collecting public input, coordinating with the reciprocal agency, and issuing permits.

From the map shown above it seems immediately apparent that any BLM lands bordering national forest should be transferred to the Forest Service to consolidate and simplify public land management. However, there isn’t an obvious line that should separate what stays with the BLM versus what transfers to the Forest Service without leaving behind other fractured land management issues. It is more sensible to merge all lands from both agencies together, eliminating one federal agency altogether.

The Forest Service and BLM both manage for multiple uses of public lands. Across the West, they manage for recreation by providing public campgrounds, roads, trails, trailheads, vault toilets, and the associated weed control and maintenance. Both agencies manage wilderness areas and a portion of our national monuments. The Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area here in southwest Montana, for example, includes both BLM and Forest Service lands.

Lee Metcalf Wilderness

Montana’s Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area includes both BLM and Forest Service lands.

Both agencies oversee grazing permits with private ranch operations. Both agencies must employ recreation specialists, grazing specialists, mining specialists, timber specialists, wildlife biologists, fire-fighting crews, and a litany of secretaries, managers, supervisors, and public relations specialists.

Our cash-strapped federal agencies are unable to afford such superfluous duplication. Decades of federal budget cuts have necessitated extreme belt-tightening. As noted by a local trail maintenance employee, there were sixty seasonal workers maintaining forest trails in the district when he started work thirty years ago, yet now he is the last one. Some projects are parceled out to private contractors. Other trails are neglected, abandoned, or maintained by volunteer groups such as Backcountry Horsemen.

Additional layoffs have been driven by escalating fire-fighting costs due to encroachment of housing developments bordering federal lands, past management decisions that allowed greater buildup of fuels, and warmer, drier conditions due to climate change.[2] Fire-fighting costs rose from 15 to 55 percent of the Forest Service budget over a twenty-year span[3], forcing drastic cuts to core services. Local district offices have been closed to consolidate remaining employees into ever more centralized offices farther and farther from the forests they manage. The few remaining employees must manage remotely, rarely leaving the office to step foot on the lands they manage. As noted by one former Forest Service employee, whenever they actually left the office, they typically spent six hours per work day driving: three hours to get to a site, one hour to work there, and three hours to drive back. This is no way to manage our public lands. The system is broke and broken.

Failures and Corrections

Proposals to return forest reserves to the Interior Department or to otherwise consolidate public land agencies were debated shortly after the initial separation, appearing in different incarnations through nearly every administration of the 1900s. These efforts were summarized in a 2008 study by the Congressional Research Service titled, “Proposals to Merge the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management: Issues and Approaches.”[4] Some administrations proposed transferring the Forest Service to the Interior. Others proposed transferring the General Land Office (predecessor to the BLM) to the Agriculture Department. Meanwhile, national parks were carved out of national forests and transferred back to the Interior under jurisdiction of the National Park Service, established in 1916, a move that was opposed by Forest Service officials.

Following formation of the BLM, proposals surfaced to merge the BLM and Forest Service together. Different administrations favored mostly Agriculture, but sometimes the Interior Department as the principal public lands agency. Several administrations proposed combining the two agencies with others to form a new Department of Natural Resources or some variation thereof. All such efforts died due to interference from political infighting, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, special interests, and an ongoing tug-of-war between the Interior and Agriculture over the right to manage our nation’s public lands.

The 2008 study was initiated in response to rising wildfire costs in the search for means to make the federal agencies more fiscally efficient. The report outlined potential issues and variables to merging the agencies, without actually formulating any proposals.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a similar report in 2009 titled, “Federal Land Management: Observations of a Possible Move of the Forest Service into the Department of Interior.” The GAO report did not address merging the agencies, just transferring the Forest Service over to the Interior, which offered few tangible benefits without actually merging the duplicate agencies.[5]

Unable to reach an agreement on merging the agencies, Congress authorized the Interior and Agriculture departments to cooperate where convenient, starting in 1998 and solidified in subsequent years. Known as a “Service First” policy, as of 2012, “The Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, subject to annual review of Congress, may establish programs to conduct projects, planning, permitting, leasing, contracting and other activities, either jointly or on behalf of one another; may co-locate in Federal offices and facilities leased by an agency of either Department; and may promulgate special rules as needed to test the feasibility of issuing unified permits, applications, and leases.”[6]

In effect, Congress gave broad authorization to the Interior and Agriculture departments to function as one entity to whatever extent deemed practical. However, one of the key challenges to cooperation is that public land agencies developed different rules and procedures for similar functions. For example, is it not uncommon for ranchers to hold grazing leases with both the BLM and Forest Service where agency lands intermingle, but with different laws applying to each lease. If both agencies cooperate as one, the rancher need only meet with one range conservation specialist, but that specialist must understand the rules and procedures of both agencies.[7]

To date, interagency cooperation remains more symbolic than substantive. A list of cooperating projects reveals that the BLM and Forest Service share a common campus in Missoula, Montana, but not the same buildings. The Forest Service pays the BLM its share of a joint janitorial contract. The BLM pays Forest Service employees for cutting timber, and employees from both agencies share many resources. The BLM purchased storage lockers for Forest Service fire employees to store their equipment.[8] These are two separate federal agencies attempting to cooperate from the bottom up in the absence of leadership to merge them together from the top down.

To deal with escalating fire costs, Congress explored the idea of creating an independent U.S. Fire Service. However, part of the fire management effort by the Forest Service and BLM includes ecological management, such as fuels reduction projects, controlled burns, and cooperative timber programs with neighboring private landowners. An independent fire agency would clash with BLM and Forest Service goals.[9]

Congress ultimately agreed in 2018 to treat wildfires like other natural disasters by authorizing an additional $2 billion per year in fire-fighting costs to be shared between the BLM and Forest Service as needed, hopefully reducing the fiscal drain on public land agencies, although the funding doesn’t begin until 2020 and may not keep up with escalating fire-fighting costs.[10]

Through increased cooperation, the BLM and Forest Service are slowly merging into a single entity without actually making the final leap. It is conceivable that the two agencies could ultimately integrate rules and procedures until both utilize the same paperwork. Once merged at the ground level, it would be natural to take the final step to unite the upper hierarchy. Then again, why wait?

Re-emerging the Merge

The split between today’s BLM and Forest Service took root in the 1876 appropriations bill that directed forest funding to the Department of Agriculture instead of the Department of the Interior. Most other public lands are managed by various agencies within the Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service should logically be transferred to that department. The benefits of merely transferring the agency may be negligible, but there is much to be gained by also combining the BLM and Forest Service as a single agency within the Interior.

While the Forest Service principally manages forests and the BLM principally manages rangeland and desert, neither agency is exclusively dedicated to one ecotype or another. For example, in addition to National Forests, the Forest Service oversees National Grasslands, properties that were acquired and rehabilitated by the federal government in the wake of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.[11] Therefore, it is reasonable to merge the BLM into the Forest Service while moving the Forest Service to the Interior. The expanded Forest Service would then oversee national forests, national grasslands, and national deserts, all within the Department of the Interior.

Although the BLM oversees more acres of land, the Forest Service is the larger agency with a greater budget and nearly three times as many employees. The Forest Service name should be retained, since it is older, more widely recognized, and less cumbersome than the “Bureau of Land Management.” This proposal completely eliminates a federal agency, the BLM, while retaining all of its offices and employees within the expanded U.S. Forest Service.

Comparing the Forest Service and BLM

Although the BLM oversees more acres of land, the Forest Service is the larger agency with a greater budget and nearly three times as many employees.

Regardless of organizational changes, the land itself would continue to be managed according to pre-existing management plans, at least until those plans are due for revision. All prior programs and commitments would remain ongoing. Merging the BLM and Forest Service would gradually reduce staff duplication, thereby freeing employees to focus on other work that has been neglected due to budget cuts.

The expanded agency would effectively regain local offices in many communities through the merge. If a Forest Service office closed due to budget cuts, but a BLM office still remains, that office now serves the combined public lands from both agencies, bringing forest management back to local communities. Similarly, any existing Forest Service office would now manage former BLM lands in its vicinity, bringing management closer to the land.

There is no need to make such a merger hasty, stressful, or expensive. BLM and Forest Service employees could show up to the same job at the same office, doing exactly the same work as before. Only their letterhead and a sign on the door would be different. Uniforms and badges could be replaced at the regular schedule. Signs could initially be replaced as they wear out or modified with smaller signs or stickers signifying the new agency. The expanded agency could set benchmark goals, such as to switch all BLM grazing leases over to Forest Service leases within five years.

Since the BLM and Forest Service are already cooperatively working together, it is sensible to finalize the marriage and give the expanded agency an official name and address, that being the U.S. Forest Service within the Department of the Interior. That is a small change in comparison to other Cabinet-level shuffling efforts, such as creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, which cobbled together federal agencies from seven different Cabinet level departments.[12] It is time to make an official legislative proposal and make it happen.

Amended Organizational Chart for the U.S. Department of the Interior

Since the BLM and Forest Service are already cooperatively working together, it is sensible to finalize the marriage and give the expanded agency an official name and address, that being the U.S. Forest Service within the Department of the Interior.

Alternative Mega Merge Options

Merging the BLM and Forest Service into a single agency would greatly streamline public lands management while reducing bureaucracy and redundancy. Continuing this line of reasoning, additional efficiencies could theoretically be attained by merging additional federal land management agencies into a single entity. For example, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service presently works across boundaries with the BLM, Forest Service, National Park Service, and other federal lands agencies, while managing its own National Wildlife Refuges. Every agency hires its own wildlife biologists, and part of their job is to coordinate with USFWS wildlife biologists.

In north-central Montana, for example, USFWS manages the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the smaller, embedded UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge, surrounded by public lands managed by the BLM. Wild animals do not recognize jurisdictional boundaries, so USFWS and BLM personnel must coordinate to manage the collective area. If the BLM were merged into the Forest Service, it wouldn’t effectively enhance the management situation. USFWS would still manage the middle, but within Forest Service land instead of BLM land.

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge

The Charles M. Russell and UL Bend National Wildlife Refuges are surrounded by BLM lands, requiring cooperative management between the two different federal agencies.

Therefore, it could be argued that the Forest Service and USFWS should also be merged together. If either agency’s name were retained, that agency would then be in charge of managing all our national forests, national grasslands, national deserts, and national wildlife refuges.

On the other hand, USFWS also works across national parks, monuments, and recreation areas, while offering wildlife enhancement programs on private lands, making an agency merge less practical. A more probable solution is to embed USFWS employees within other agencies. For example, instead of the Forest Service hiring wildlife biologists, USFWS would place their own biologists within Forest Service offices, while the Forest Service would take over management of national wildlife refuges, smoothing out management across borders.

Similarly, this expanded Forest Service could take over management of campgrounds and other recreational lands currently managed by the Bureau of Reclamation or Army Corps of Engineers, which presently hire their own specialists for these tasks.

Consolidating federal land management into a single agency would simplify maps and management, where all federal lands and campgrounds are managed by a single entity, except that we have not yet included the National Park Service. Here again, there is significant duplication where separate federal agencies share common borders.

Consider the Pryor Mountains of south-central Montana. Half the land is managed by the Forest Service and half by the BLM. In addition, BLM lands also border Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, which is managed by the National Park Service. Overlapping boundaries with all three federal agencies, the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range is cooperatively managed between them, requiring triplicate personnel and paperwork and numerous meetings and MOUs back and forth between the different entities.

Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range

Overlapping boundaries with the BLM, Forest Service, and the National Park Service, the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range is cooperatively managed between them, requiring triplicate personnel and paperwork and numerous meetings and MOUs back and forth between the different entities.

Management issues are also evident in roads within the Pryor Mountains. Quality roads within Custer National Forest end at the forest boundary. Access on the northwest side traverses heavily rutted clay roads across Crow Indian lands that are only passable when dry. Access from the southeast side traverses similarly poor roads across BLM land, greatly limiting the ability to enter or exit the Pryor Mountains. Merging the BLM and Forest Service and potentially all federal lands agencies together can facilitate more consistent management with less duplication and waste.

In this mega merge scenario, the National Park Service would be elevated to the prevailing public lands agency, absorbing the BLM and Forest Service as well as USFWS lands and other federal public lands. The Park Service already manages national parks, national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, etc., so why not also national forests, national grasslands, national deserts, and national wildlife refuges?

A national forest would still be managed with the existing rules as a national forest, but with Forest Service employees rebranded as Park Service employees and all federal land managers working in one theoretically cohesive agency.

Some people might contend that the mega merge would create confusion between national parks and national forests. However, many people who live far from national forests refer to them as national parks anyway, since it is all public land open to recreation and camping. Our national forests effectively function as parks, but with looser rules for camping, recreating, cutting firewood, and hunting, while also allowing commercial grazing, logging, and mining activities.

Consolidating all public lands agencies within the National Park Service is the most sensible, efficient long-term plan, although undoubtedly more politically controversial than merely merging the BLM and Forest Service. In the final analysis, federal policy isn’t determined by what is good or optimal, but what is politically achievable. From that standpoint, merging the BLM and Forest Service within the Department of the Interior is a reasonable and potentially achievable goal, provided someone will assume leadership to shepherd the legislation through Congress.

Elpel.info logo.Thomas J. Elpel is the author of seven books on wilderness survival, botany, and sustainable living, including Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams. He is president of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and the founder/director of Green University LLC of Pony, Montana.

Notes:

[1] Gorte, Ross W. “Proposals to Merge the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management: Issues and Approaches.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. May 5, 2008. URL: http://nationalaglawcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/assets/crs/RL34772.pdf.

[2] Moseley, Cassandra. “Why wildfires are bigger and harder to control.” EarthSky Voices. August 2, 2018. URL: http://earthsky.org/earth/why-wildfires-bigger-harder-to-control-wildfire-season-2018.

[3] “Forest Service Wildland Fire Suppression Costs Exceed $2 Billion.” Press Release. U.S. Department of Agriculture. September 14, 2017. URL: https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2017/09/14/forest-service-wildland-fire-suppression-costs-exceed-2-billion.

[4] Gorte, Ross W. “Proposals to Merge the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management: Issues and Approaches.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. May 5, 2008.

[5] “Federal Land Management: Observations on a Possible Move of the Forest Service into the Department of the Interior.” U.S. Government Accountability Office. February 2009. URL: https://www.gao.gov/assets/290/286048.pdf.

[6] “Laws Authorizing Service First.” URL: https://www.fs.fed.us/servicefirst/authority-legislation.shtml.

[7] Gorte, Ross W. “Proposals to Merge the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management: Issues and Approaches.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. May 5, 2008.

[8] “Service First Locations: Montana.” URL: https://www.fs.fed.us/servicefirst/sf-loc-mt.shtml.

[9] Gorte, Ross W. “Proposals to Merge the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management: Issues and Approaches.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. May 5, 2008.

[10] Scruggs, Gregory. “Wildfire funding fix will take ‘a period of years’ to protect U.S. forests.” Reuters. March 26, 2018. URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-fires-forests/wildfire-funding-fix-will-take-a-period-of-years-to-protect-u-s-forests-idUSKBN1H21AT.

[11] “United States National Grassland.” Wikipedia. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_National_Grassland.

[12] “United States Department of Homeland Security.” Wikipedia. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Department_of_Homeland_Security.

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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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Filed under Education Reform, Uncategorized, Wilderness Survival

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

Robins Barking at Owls and other Bird Language Basics

Book Cover: What the Robin Knows

Jon Young’s newest book on bird language.

I never knew that sitting and listening could be so fascinating. Parked there in the evening twilight, it was evident that the nearby robins were agitated, while those farther away were not. In retrospect, it seemed that the robins were barking, much as a dog might bark at something or someone scary, but in a shrill, bird-like way. I had often heard this behavior in the evening, and never made any sense of it, nor really tried to. But then this great horned owl swooped by overhead, and the “barking” followed it. The robins didn’t follow it themselves, but the barking did as robin after robin sounded the alarm in sequence along the owl’s flight path. I felt as if the door had just been opened to a whole new experience of nature.

            The following day, and again a couple weeks later, I encountered barking robins and stopped to investigate. In each case they were barking at an owl. I do not know if that call is always associated with owls, but I definitely know to look, listen, and pay attention now when I hear the robins barking.

            Interpreting bird language is a skill I’ve wanted to learn for the last thirty years, but somehow never figured out how to get started with it on my own. Back in the early 1980s, in junior high and high school, I devoured each one of Tom Brown’s books as fast as he could write them. I constantly practiced my fox walking, stalking, peripheral vision, intermittent attention, basic tracking, and survival skills. Brown also talked about the “concentric rings of nature,” how disturbances, such as a person walking, sent ripples of alarm out through nature. If you could learn to read these disturbances, he implied, then you could know what was happening beyond your field of vision. It was a skill I desperately wanted to learn, but somehow couldn’t figure out how to begin. Brown’s advice was basically to sit in one spot and observe nature until you figured it all out.  I admit that I never really did. I got restless. My mind wandered. I didn’t have any tools to decipher what was going on around me.

            I was completely stymied for twenty years, until Jon Young described learning the language of the birds in his Seeing Through Native Eyes audio series. Young outlined the five voices of the birds (song, companion calls, territorial aggression, juvenile begging, and alarms). Somehow, merely having definitions of these calls made it possible to begin to hear them for the first time.

            In retrospect, I wonder if I might have been more successful if I had spent more time in the bird-rich riparian areas of the valleys, rather than in the hills and mountains. The whitetail deer of the valleys, for example, are hypersensitive to bird language. Sometimes it seems like you cannot walk ten feet through the woods, even quietly stalking, without spooking out a bunch of whitetails a quarter mile away. It is very different experience than in the mountains, where an absent-minded person can walk around a bush and nearly bump into a mule deer. The mule deer are either not as attuned to bird language as whitetails, or there is much less bird language to listen to. I suspect it is the latter. 

            Nowadays I take junior high kids out camping each spring in the bird-rich riparian zone along the nearby Jefferson River. I am in that busy part of my life where I have not yet been able to prioritize a sit spot on a daily basis, but we at least try to spend a few days in the field before the junior high kids arrive, tuning in, practicing bird language, and evaluating potential means to incorporate lessons about bird language into the experience for the kids.

            This year I eagerly watched Jon Young’s new video, Bird Language: How to Interpret the Behaviors and Patterns of Nature, and learned several new tips for interpreting bird language. Most helpful was the journaling/mapping procedure, to record pretty much everything that is happening, as it is happening. Instead of randomly hearing bird song without meaning, and ultimately drifting off in thought, this method provided a clearly defined mission for my admittedly very busy Western mind to tackle and accomplish. Almost immediately I observed events that I may not have paid much attention to in the past. It opened up a whole new channel of experience. For example, while walking along the slough one day, I saw a common mallard duck shoot out of the water like a bullet. I recognized that it was not the usual, agitated, quacking rise and departure associated with my own approach, but rather that the duck was more like a missile fired straight out of the water. It reacted precisely to the arrival of a bald eagle flying in over the trees. It was utterly obvious, yet I probably wouldn’t have noticed the connection had I not just watched the bird language video. Somehow, writing it all down and making a map brings the bird world directly into my consciousness.  It is pretty basic stuff, but it is a start!

            Right on the heels of the video, Jon Young published his newest book, What the Robin Knows, which I also eagerly devoured. It is a veritable encyclopedia of bird language tips and tidbits, fleshing out and clarifying many of the themes he introduced in Seeing Through Native Eyes and the Bird Language DVD.  The book is definitely not just about robins, but also describes bird language in detail across numerous other songbirds, as well as water birds, such as geese. Young also clarifies some previous statements, such as, “You cannot trust the corvids.” While the crows, ravens, magpies, and jays do not necessarily play by the rules of the five voices of the birds, they nevertheless have a lot to talk about in their own way, as Young expounds on throughout the book.

            My only complaint about Young’s book is that it isn’t organized in encyclopedic fashion. The information is excellent, just so scattered through the text that it would be difficult to relocate and review a specific tip about any particular bird. The book wasn’t apparently written as a book per se, but condensed by editors from 200,000 words of other text and speeches given by Jon Young over the years then peppered with notes from bird biologists. No matter, the book is worth reading again and again and again. 

            A purist might argue that it is “cheating” to have such great resources to work from at all, rather than just sitting out in the woods and figuring it out from scratch. But on the other hand, even the best resources still just outline what is possible. It is ultimately up to the individual to go out and see firsthand some of the bird language patterns described by Jon Young, and from there to build one’s own library of observations about bird language and bird behavior.  A person can still spend a lifetime listening and learning.

            Having spent the past week visiting a friend, I couldn’t help but notice a particular robin singing on and off throughout each day.  We were busy, so I didn’t have much time to sit and study bird language. But in the middle of a conversation one evening, I did notice the robin “barking” away at something. When I walked over to take a look, there was an owl sitting in a tree. It was a real thrill to recognize the same kind of behavior yet again. The door has definitely been opened to a whole new kind of experience in nature!

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Filed under Nature Awareness, Reviews: Books & Videos, Uncategorized

Work versus Play

Do we make a difference or just go down with the ship?

I love my work. I’ve had a passion to make a positive difference in the world since I was a child. The schism between economics and the environment was a particularly compelling issue to me. I often watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, and there was a constant debate between the need for jobs versus the need to protect the environment. I wanted to help. I wanted to know if it were possible to create a sustainable civilization. I wanted to know how to do it, and I wanted to come up with a plan to help get us there. It was my singular mission in life, and for a while, I thought I had it all figured out.

Creating a quasi-sustainable lifestyle was the easy part. I knew that I didn’t want to get stuck in a job because I had too many dreams to live, and my own mission seemed too important. I theorized that a good path to success would be to save up a small nest egg, waste nothing, and build a low-cost solar home on cash, to avoid paying monthly expenses such as rent, a mortgage, a big utility bill, or college loans. Then I would have a secure home base and the freedom to focus on the mission.

Although it took a few years longer than anticipated, the theory largely worked. I found a partner in high school, got married, and saved up a small nest egg. We bought land, moved into a tent, and built the American Dream for about the cost of a new car. We eventually added solar panels to generate electricity and run the meter backwards, zeroing out our already meager utility bill. It also looked really good on my resume. I figured that I could really change the world if I could just build up a sufficient resume to get into politics and have a platform to speak to the American public.

It is not so much that we need a bunch of new regulations and red tape to tell people what they can and cannot do. I do have the aptitude and attention to be a good policy wonk, to get into the details of good legislation. But that’s not where change happens. Change happens when individual Americans get a new idea and run with it. As I saw it, my “job” was to introduce new ideas, new memes, to the general public, to illustrate potential paths to sustainability. Politics offered the promise of regular airtime on the microphone to get the message out.

I focused on my writing to better flesh out cutting edge ideas about building sustainable homes, connecting with nature, prospering in the green economy, and reflecting on our place in the universe. I liked to imagine that getting into politics would be a good way to market my books, and I could invest any income in further making the world a better place.

But in order to be a serious political candidate, I would need more than just a pretty house and a few books on my resume. I also needed business and leadership credentials, and I had about fifty different green businesses and products that I wanted to launch. I wanted to demonstrate green prosperity, that it is possible to make a living while making the world a better place.

A logical next step was to start a publishing company and print my own books on fully recycled paper. From there it was natural to start a retail bookstore and sell my own titles and other quality books and products. In addition, I was already teaching wilderness survival and nature awareness skills part time, which expanded into separate programs for youth and adults. I started a nonprofit organization to promote conservation and recreation on our local Jefferson River. I also built a couple more houses to refine my theories and designs on low-cost solar construction, with the hope of eventually starting my own construction company. I was continually looking for partners to help launch some of my other business concepts as well. With half a dozen different careers, I was spread too thin to give any one area the required attention, but I managed to keep them all moving forward a little bit at a time. It all looked good on my resume, and I thought I might be minimally qualified to try my hand at politics.

The other thing on every politician’s resume is family. For better or worse, a politician is judged by his personal life, and I was acutely aware of that with my wife and kids from the very beginning. For example, I genuinely wanted to raise children, and I felt that I had a lot to offer. I felt like I was making a positive difference in the world when we adopted our first three children and later had a baby. My love for them was and is sincere. In addition, I was equally aware that my family looked really good on my resume. Indeed, my family represented everything I believed in and worked for. I can think of at least two other couples who were likely inspired to adopt because of our experience, and I hoped to inspire many more as a public figure.

Through twenty years of marriage I tried to win my wife’s support for a political career. But she never wanted a public life, never wanted anyone to know we existed, and objected to efforts to market my books. With these issues, and our very different emotional needs, our marriage eventually crumbled and our family fell apart. I not only lost any chance of launching a political career in any foreseeable future, I also lost the one thing I believed in promoting most of all – family. For the first time in my life, my focus shifted from the world’s problems to my own, as I have struggled to resolve the past and mend broken relationships with my children.

Fortunately, the last couple years have been really good to me. I have a new love, and she understands me in a way my ex never did. We laugh, growl, and play a lot, which is a completely new experience to me. The transition has been hard on the kids, and my relationship with my older daughters remains rocky, but my relationship with my younger boys is better than ever. We go on some great adventures together, such as canoeing and carp hunting. We are currently building a small castle for my youngest son, Edwin. He and I are both taking fencing lessons. We have a lot of great battles. And while my political career hangs in limbo for the foreseeable future, I am enjoying indulging in my hobbies. I am currently writing a book about foraging wild foods, and I could easily spend the next ten years just writing about things that interest me.

But with the present state of the world, I often feel like we are merely dancing on the decks of the Titanic, steaming towards an iceberg as if we are invincible. Dancing is good for the soul, yet I wouldn’t count on it altering the course of the ship.

I hear the call of duty, and I know that for our children’s sake we must make an all-out effort to create a sustainable civilization now, not later. I sincerely believe that I have the skills and aptitude to make a significant positive difference in the world, and yet, I am merely hanging out, playing games, and having fun.

My ex and I were fortunate in that we owned two houses, two business, and two cars to ease the pain of splitting the estate. However, I am definitely rebuilding my personal life, my businesses, and my resume, and I feel that I am a long ways from being ready to enter politics. Strangely, I find myself in less of a hurry now than before, if only because I see little choice but to take time to find solid footing again. Yet the need is greater than ever before.

The Titanic was considered unsinkable, and that is our attitude today as a nation. We are steaming along as if we can just ram through whatever lay in our path. But the iceberg I could see ahead of us as a child seems to loom overhead today. The captain is off taking a break, and nobody seems particularly interested or qualified to take the helm and steer us in a new direction. I would gladly do my duty and serve my country in any way possible if I had the opportunity. I’m just not sure I can rebuild my resume in time to do any good.

It is possible, and perhaps likely, that I will never accomplish the mission that called to me since childhood. I gave it everything I had for thirty years, and I feel as though I am now starting all over. But if the iceberg is unavoidable, and nobody else takes the leadership to do anything about it, then at the very least, I intend to enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts. I will be dancing on the decks of the Titanic with everyone else. It is not my preferred choice, yet for the moment, it seems to be my only choice.

If you, however, want to change the future, if you want to work together to chart a new course and a new destiny, then by all means, speak up. Let’s talk. Let’s make a plan, let’s make a difference, and let’s do it before we run out of time.

Thomas J. Elpel
June 15, 2012


Mr. Elpel,

Today I was offered, and I accepted a job as a research assistant for a Canadian politician. Before being informed about the interview this last week, I was certain I would be on my way to Montana come end of October. That said, I won’t be joining you this November for an internship.

I want to thank you for taking the time to write back to me so quickly and with such detailed information. I recognize that you’re likely very busy with e-mail and writing and work etc. I’d like to express my appreciation for you taking the time to communicate.

In your article ‘Work versus Play: Do we make a difference or just go down with the ship?’ you say you feel like we’re ‘dancing on the decks of the Titanic’. I can’t tell you how much and how often I think similar thoughts – whether it is even possible to change the world or if our actions are ultimately futile, simply wasted energy in the big picture. This has been a big part of my thought process and has resulted in a contemplation of two major life paths:

1) Keep on dancing on the decks! Prepare myself and those close to me for coming change, but make little attempt to influence others’ lifestyles and actions. The ship is sinking anyways, might as well have fun, or as Joseph Campbell says, “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.”

OR

2) Try my damnedest to make as big of an impact as I possibly can – fight the good fight and hope that our tribes’ collective actions will be successful. Heed Margaret Mead’s advice, “Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

I have not concluded which, if either, choice is valid / correct. For now, option 2 seems to be the better for emotional and spiritual well-being. At least here there’s a place for hope.

I’d like you to know I’m all-in for option 2. Hopefully my new job will allow me to have influence on major decisions, in large or infinitesimally small ways. It will also help me, should I decide to run for office at some point.

I feel compelled to tell you all this to let you know that I’m on board to make a difference. I hope to keep in contact, and have no doubt that I will come to intern with you or participate in one of your workshops in the future.

All the Best,

Dustin

P.S. I thoroughly enjoyed Participating in Nature. While reading your narratives and learning about your philosophy, I felt like I was reading a much clearer, more organized and focused version of some of my own thoughts and ideas. Thank you for sharing and showing me and others like me that we’re not alone.

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Filed under Autobiographical, Uncategorized