What Really Guides Us?

By | November 20, 2015

Beliefs are a luxury of the idle and disconnected. I can say this because I am idle and disconnected enough to observe it in myself. Yet when I share this observation with others, some ask, “What about values and morals; aren’t they based on beliefs?”

“What do beliefs mean,” I reply, “when we are out at sea and angry waves are tossing our boat around like a leaf in the wind? Let’s say I am a Christian, you are a Muslim, and the next person is an atheist. Does it matter to the gale? Or to put it simpler, sharks find vegetarians and meat-eaters to be equally delectable.”

Still, the strongest exposé on beliefs comes from within. The rational mind feels nothing, which is why we can hate, criticize, and kill. When we scheme and manipulate, we are functioning purely from our rational minds, with our egos at the helm.

The ego runs the show, and the ego is amoral. Notice I didn’t say immoral. Morality is simply not in the ego’s vocabulary. The ego has only one motivating force—self-survival. Anything goes: aggressiveness, lying, cheating, judging, even beliefs. All are weapons in the ego’s self-survival arsenal.

Here is where I sometimes get a reaction, as beliefs are commonly taken to be what elevates us above the crass affairs of the ego. Yet stripped of the pleasantries in which we wrap “beliefs” in order to make them palatable to ourselves and acceptable to others, they show themselves as nothing more than another amoral manipulator the ego uses to promote itself.

In the wilds, the ego can—and must—manipulate and kill. All hunters do it to promote their own survival. However, when I am disconnected from the means and ends of my existence, killing and manipulating all of a sudden don’t look so pretty. In a farming region or city, the animals I end up preying upon turn out to be of my own kind.

Here is where beliefs come into play. The ego needs to disguise its actions in a new way, so rather than stealthily stalking an animal, it wraps its intent in altruistic-sounding platitudes—what we call beliefs.

When we speak purely from our heart-of-hearts, we say what is. We don’t run it through the filter of our beliefs, where love is good and hate is bad, but where love is love and hate is hate, and there is no difference between the two.

Making Pemmican

By | November 11, 2015

The Native People of the temperate and northern regions of America developed a high-energy fast food that is easily transportable and long-storing. We know it as pemmican, or pimikan in the Algonquin languages. The term is derived from pimii, the Cree-Chippewa word for fat. This is quite appropriate labeling, because fat, a concentrated energy source, is the most important ingredient.

We are all generally familiar with pemmican already, as it is basically sausage. It is a mixture of dried shredded or pounded meat, usually ungulate (Bison, Elk, Deer), and lard (solid rendered fat), usually ungulate also, which is combined and compressed into cakes. The popular understanding is that pemmican contains fruit. This is a misconception that may have arisen from the practice of some Natives making a treat for their children by mixing together fruit and dry meat. Historically, a small amount of dried fruit (such as juneberries) was added on occasion, more for flavor than for its nutritional contribution. Indications are that sweet pemmican was probably no more popular than was sweet sausage in the Euro-American tradition.

Pemmican is made by first separating the fat and meat from each other so that they can be processed individually. Meat is best preserved by drying, and fat by rendering. If there is fat in the meat, or vice versa, either could spoil. However, once each is prepared they can be mixed together and the resulting product will have good keeping quality. For travel it is tightly packed in sealed containers (similar to stuffing sausage in casing) so that it will not go rancid.

Fat is more necessary than meat in a northern diet, and is the primary ingredient in pemmican because fat has nearly 2 ½ times the energy of complex carbohydrates (which is starch, as found in grains and tubers), sugars or meat. This is important in travel and cold weather because a lot of energy is needed without overloading the system with bulky foods. Another benefit of fat is that it digests slowly, providing steady energy over a long period of time. Sugars break down rapidly, giving a quick energy peak, then a valley. Carbohydrates fare a bit better, yet nowhere near fat. Meat in excess of what is needed to rebuild muscle is broken down and converted to energy, however it requires more water than other energy foods and may carry health risks.

As a traditional North Country travel and winter ration, pemmican is needed to sustain life and provide energy, sometimes on its own. Northern greenhorn explorers have died trying to live on lean meat. Some Inuit Peoples’ winter diets consist of almost half fat. Recently a woman crossed the continent of Antarctica on foot, consuming pure olive oil for energy.

Pemmican is quite easy to make, and a variety of ingredients can be used. In making pemmican, we are basically disassembling and reassembling the meat. Fresh meat rots quickly; once the flesh and fat are separated and processed, each in the way that works best, they can be reassembled and will remain preserved for an extended period. The most important guidelines to keep in mind are to be sure your meat is lean and completely dry, and to use rendered fat that will not melt (such as the fat of ungulates) while the pemmican is being stored and used.

You can learn more about how to make pemmican in my most recent book, Extreme Survival Meat, A Guide for Safe Scavenging, Pemmican Making, and Roadkill. It provides step-by-step instructions on how to make pemmican, including how to prepare the meat and render the needed fat. This book, especially handy in survival situations, is also an excellent guide for those who want to find and process their own meat without hunting. I hope you’ll check it out – and let me know what you think!

 

The Right-and-Wrong Trap

By | October 25, 2015

When we speak from our hearts, there is no right and wrong. If I tell someone else she is wrong, I am probably either not hearing what she is saying or I am not accepting it. Instead, I am judging, externalizing, or defending. When I tell someone else he is wrong, it is usually to elevate my position or to avoid taking blame or responsibility.

When I consider myself wrong, I am not respecting my own truth. I take the power away from my heartvoice. And I may be enabling somebody else by taking blame or responsibility for him. I disable that person from taking personal responsibility for his actions. In doing so, I give him power over me, while at the same time I self-deprecate and disempower myself.

Why would I do such a thing to myself, or to another? I may have low self-esteem, and it may be a sign that I am in an abusive relationship (the two usually go hand-in-hand).

In healthy relationships—both with self and others—the concepts of right and wrong do not play into relationship dynamics. When we speak from the heart, what is, is, with no qualification. Each of us hold and speak our own truth, take personal responsibility for our words and actions, and respect the truth of the other, no matter what it is. When we do so, we create a supportive, healing environment seeped in acceptance and understanding.

Become the Animal

By | October 3, 2015

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Becoming Nature: Learning the Language of Wild Animals and Plants, scheduled to be released this upcoming spring with Inner Traditions.

You wrap yourself in the skin of an animal and move within her movements. You see through the bright of her eyes and feel through the pads of her feet. You know how she perceives her world, her mate, and her enemies. Her hunger and her pain are yours; her lust and her courage are yours. Hear the crying of her young, feel the strain of her fears, and know the how and why of all that she does.

In order to experience this, we need to be the animal. The Kung San of the African Kalahari know what it feels like to be a Lion or an Elephant. “When I tracked with [them],” South African conservation officer Alan Howell told me, “they literally became what they were tracking.”

“Becoming one with the animal you seek,” says my friend and special investigations tracker Tony Kemnitz, “is the spirituality of tracking.” Becoming their quarry was essential for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, as it is for hunter-gatherers today. And it is equally important for us if we want to reclaim our place in Nature.

When we first Become an animal, the experience is bound to turn our view of natural processes upside down. If we were to look at fishing or hunting from the perspective of the animal, we would see that we do not catch the Fish, but rather the Fish chooses the Worm and catches himself. Instead of us trapping an animal, she decides to walk into the trap.

Becoming the animal has deep roots in Native traditions around the world. Through fasting, dreams, and rituals, often accompanied by trance-inducing drumming and dancing, people enter the bodies of animals to gain their skills or seek personal guidance. They sometimes journey to the homes of particular animals. Others will go and live for a time with animals, as I did with Wolves. These people are not outside observers—they learn and speak the language of the animals and they join in their daily activities. In essence, they Become the animals.

We all have the intrinsic ability to Become animals, which will help us find them, learn their language, and even touch them if we so choose. Some of us simply want to get to know animals on their own terms, rather than from our usual detached perspective. We might want to become better naturalists or more effective trackers. Perhaps we have deeply personal reasons for growing in relationship with our nonhuman kin. Whatever the reason, the Becoming process will take us into the heart of an animal’s existence.

Master Stalker

By | September 22, 2015

One afternoon in my youth, I became mesmerized by a Wolf Spider stalking a Fly on a sunny windowsill. It was as though I had become the Spider; I felt the dynamic tension he had disguised by his outwardly relaxed state, and I adopted his keenness of focus, while at the same time maintaining overall perspective. Every cue, every minute movement and sound and feeling, was picked up by him, and by me, and we synthesized the information and moved accordingly.

The more I became the Spider, the more I realized that the Spider had also become the Fly. The more I became the Fly, the more I realized that the Spider had also become the dapples of sunlight, the dust on the windowsill, the draft sliding through the crack under the window, and the birds flying by outside. We were all in this drama…. no, we all were the drama. We were in the most intimate of relationships — the beautifully choreographed dance of life and death.

I didn’t dare blink. My senses were keened to every movement — the smallest flutter of a leaf on the branch outside the window, the appearance of another Fly that created a ripple of disturbance, the Fly herself changing posture ever so slightly. I was prepared for anything, from a slow stalk that might take another ten minutes, to pouncing as fast as a sprung trap if the Fly spooked and was about to take off.

Not being as cool and centered as the Spider, I broke into a nervous sweat. My eyes became dry and fatigued, and I worried that my movements were getting less and less fluid the closer I approached. I feared that if I pounced, my tenseness would make me miss.

So imperceptibly, so slowly, and so in sync with the greater movement, I advanced. There were times when I thought I moved the tiniest bit, but I wasn’t sure. It was as though I was a magician playing sleight-of-hand tricks to convince anyone who was watching, that nothing really happened.

I was about an inch from the Fly and she took off. Was it me, or was it some internal motivation of hers that sent her on her way? I didn’t know, and it didn’t seem to matter. I just sat there on the windowsill, continuing to cultivate the illusion of benign presence (i.e. invisibility), and waited for the next Fly to come along.

A Wolf might chase ten Moose before bringing one down. Wolf and Wolf Spider possess the same hunting spirit. For them, a miss is not a failure, because they live not just to eat. If all they needed to do was grab the first hunk of meat that came along, they would grow dull and weak. By having to work for their food, they continually develop their strength and keep honing and refining their hunting skills.

It works both ways: in exchange for the food which Fly and Moose provide Wolf and Wolf Spider, they keep Fly and Moose healthy by continually testing them, and they become quicker and sharper. In this way, only the best survive to pass their traits on to their offspring, thus insuring the health and longevity of their kind.

Seeing Through Our Biggest Blinders: Prejudice and Fear

By | September 4, 2015

 The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Becoming Nature: Learning the Language of Wild Animals and Plants, scheduled to be released this upcoming spring with Inner Traditions.

When we Become Nature, we are at-one with our surroundings. We move among the animals and plants as if the forest were our home. Our sense of awareness comes from knowing ourselves as one part of an already-existing whole. There is no need for reaction or fear, as we are immersed in the flow of the life around us—we are in relationship rather than in tourist mode.

Yet if I were to walk down an unfamiliar city street at night, I’d be on alert. Everything would be unfamiliar and I wouldn’t have a relationship with those who live there. All I’d know about this city would be from the news reports of its decay and crime rate—secondhand knowledge that would have instilled fear in me. I’d peer into the shadows and tense up with every noise I heard.

Someone who had grown up in this neighborhood would likely be more at ease than me. She’d have relationships with those who lived here, and she’d be familiar with its sights and sounds. She’d know what constitutes a real threat, as opposed my imagined ones based on my fear of the unknown.

Whether we grew up in the city or in the wilds, it would be natural for us to base our perception of reality on our experiences, and on the beliefs we were taught. Beliefs can lead to prejudice and fear, which keeps us in ego-rational-mind consciousness. Although the ego mind can serve us well by keeping us safe, our ability to Become Nature is hindered when we keep ourselves separate from our surroundings.

The Teaching Trail

By | August 26, 2015

When two paths open before you, choose the hardest one.
– Buddhist saying

“You’re kidding Tamarack!” were the first words out of Meg’s mouth after trekking up the new trail to my lodge. “What is wrong with the old trail? You’re going to break your neck trying to get up this one at night.”

“Perhaps, but only if I don’t learn how to walk better at night,” I replied.

My lodge rested atop a steep-sided rock outcrop. The original trail to the lodge wound around the backside where the slope was more gradual. It was an easy walk. I had it so memorized that I could do it blindfolded even when loaded down with supplies. The new trail was steeper and went right up a small rock face at the very top. It was a safe trail — if you accounted for conditions that might make the rock slippery and paid attention as to where you were placing your feet. It was a Teaching Trail.

Teaching Trail is a metaphor for a state of mind, an attitude, an opening. It has become a metaphor for my life. With everything I do, I strive to walk the Teaching Trail. I’ve become adept at making challenges out of the commonplace. No set of steps is just a set of steps for me. I’ll take three steps in one stride and then one and then two, or I’ll go up or down the steps backwards or while rotating.

The Teaching Trail is anything but a trail of recklessness and daring. It is a path of conscious growth. It is a path of choices, and at the same time, it is a path of no choice. It may seem as though I have a choice, but that is just an illusion—a game that the ego plays so that it feels that it has some control. The actual me—the whole me has no choice. If I am going to live, I must live who I am. Otherwise I am merely existing—merely taking up space. Free will and the right to choose are not intrinsic to our core being. When we are in Balance with our Self, when we are centered in our Heart of Hearts, we know that the Teaching Trail is the only trail.

Our pre-civilized ancestors knew how to walk the Teaching Trail. But today, it is extremely difficult for those living in our modern culture to walk this way, as it runs contrary to the “do it in the fastest, most expedient and productive way possible” goal of civilized ego existence. With the Teaching Trail, the walk itself is the destination. It matters little where I’m going or what I’ve set out to do, or whether I ever get there or accomplish my task. In that sense, every step on the Trail is its own goal, its own accomplishment.

When walking through the woods, select a Teaching Trail—one that will challenge your senses and abilities. Suppress the tendency to take the easiest route. Let your goal be far more than to get from point A to point B. Find a trail that is slightly more challenging than one you would normally choose.  It doesn’t take much to keep us in the moment and attuned to what we are doing, so be careful not to over challenge yourself. How do you know when you are on the Teaching Trail? If you are not occasionally slipping or tripping (literally or figuratively), you are not pushing the edge of your skill, the edge of your awareness, or the edge of your defined world. If you’re staying in your comfortable envelope, then you’re not learning.

An interesting paradox of the Teaching Trail is that it usually takes you off trail. The trail is the known, the comfortable, the predictable. Let me give you the example of a literal trail, the one out to my Wilderness Camp. The established trail is the easiest way there and I go there regularly. In the fifteen years that I’ve had my present camp, I’ve come to know the wilderness between the trail head and my camp as well as you might know your house. The plants and animals who dwell there have become my sisters and brothers. Continually taking the same trail into camp would be like continually walking down the same aisle every time I visit the store. I would have little idea as to what the rest of the store might hold, and I would not know how well my favorite aisle reflects the rest of the store.

Imagine if you were meeting someone new and wanted to get to know them, but chose to ignore everything except his left arm. As time goes on, you develop a relationship with just that arm. How well would you know the person? That is exactly what we do when we keep walking the same trail. It matters little if it’s the same trail to the woods or the same mental pattern or emotional rut; sameness is the antithesis of learning, growing, and discovering. With the Teaching Trail there are no limits, no boundaries, and no directions. For many of us, our only limitation is our acculturated self.

Be as a Question

By | August 12, 2015

A short while ago, two Seekers brought me a conifer branch they wished me to identify for them. If I did so, they would have their answer and likely be content, learning little about neither the tree nor the learning process. So I turned the question back to them, along with some guidance as to where to find their answers.

I discouraged their use of field guides, as books can give answers almost as quickly as I can. Instead, I encouraged them to ask the plant who she is — why she is growing where she is, who her neighbors are, why she is structured the way she is in consideration of her neighborhood. Then I suggested they flow into the plant so they can feel thirst and sun and wind as does the plant.

A person’s potential to learn is more important to me than what he already knows. I gain a feel for that potential by the questions he asks rather than the answers he gives. His questions give me insight into how his mind works, his perspective, and his potential adaptability.

Questions unfold your future; answers reflect your past. So your growth would benefit more from an insightful question than a knowledgeable answer. Both your time and that of your guide would be better spent questing the unknown than restating the past.

I do not give the Seekers whom I guide, tests in the standard sense. I give them challenges and scenarios that stimulate them to ask themselves the questions that will lead to the knowledge they need. This is seldom the knowledge they seek, for they are looking into the unknown—their own future, and know not what they will find. One thing they do find with this approach is that their life with Mother Earth unfolds as a series of questions, one blossoming into another, rather than graspable answers, as they had been taught in school.

Questions reflect flow, answers are concrete. Questions stimulate, answers state. Questions travel, they carry you like the flow of a stream; answers sit, they hold you as would a weighty stone upon your back.  An insightful question reflects depth; a knowledgeable answer displays storage.

An answer feeds you; a question teaches you how to find food. A question honors your time, your ways; an answer asks that you adapt to its time and ways.  An answer shows you a facet of the crystal; a question takes you inside the crystal, where you are bathed in a kaleidoscopic rainbow of its faceted light.

            The root of the word ‘question’ is quest.  Quest!

The State of Western Values

By | July 31, 2015

My mate Lety recently went to a talk given by a college professor on ISIS, acronym for the Islamic State insurgence centered in Iraq and Syria. He was discussing the appeal ISIS has for drawing recruits from all over the Western world. As he saw it, the primary reason was that we have bankrupted ourselves regarding values.

The presenter went on to say that he asked the students in one of his classes about their values and aspirations, and the consensus was that they wanted to graduate, get a good job, buy a house, and get married. Most males wanted a garage full of toys, and most females wanted kids.

I recently asked a couple of women I have been counseling on relationship issues what values guided their lives. They talked as though they were reading a fill-in-the-blanks sheet, essentially repeating what the presenter’s students told him. What impressed me was their goal orientation. They were single-minded, and it seemed as though achievement was their primary goal. They spoke nothing of the quality of the experience, or of alternatives they were considering.

Yet what surprised me most, and what Lety said was of most interest to the professor, was that there was little or no talk of concerns beyond themselves. Social and environmental issues were off their radar, and they did not question the value system they were adopting. This was a far cry from my college experience in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when political, cultural, and environmental consciousness had permeated nearly every academic discipline. From discussions at bars and coffee houses to demonstrations and lifestyle choices, the majority of students were involved.

“The draw of groups like ISIS,” Lety said, paraphrasing the professor, “is that they represent something beyond the self. It gives people what they don’t have—something to believe in, something to live and die for.”

Have we abandoned our children in a way far more devastating than if we denied their material needs?

The Power of Everyday Awakening. Or not.

By | July 25, 2015

I have a confession to make: I’ve been ignoring my spirituality. In fact, I’ve been acting just like an animal, with no higher purpose. I eat, I shuffle things around (my substitute for the hunt), then I sleep and get up to do it again. Am I missing something?

Alright, I’ll get serious (I said that with a wink). People I know have many and diverse opinions on what spirituality is. Some tell me it is different from religion. They see religion as rote and structured and often hierarchical; whereas spirituality is personal. Some people define spirituality by the practices associated with it, and others see it as more intuitive and beyond conscious grasp.

I’m a perspective person. Rather than getting too analytical and definitive, I like to take a few steps back and enjoy the view. When I do that with spirituality, it disappears. All of those touch points that I and others have meld into one amorphous whole. And to me, that whole is the process of awakening.

So, what, then is a spiritual being? I would say it is any sentient being who is not stuck. If I am perceptive and inquisitive, open to new ideas and experiences, and able to listen, consider, and empathize, I am awakening. I am having a spiritual experience.

A spiritual experience, then, does not have to be blatantly spiritual. In fact, I wonder if the events, rituals, and practices that many of us consider to be spiritual might actually be running contrary to spirituality-as-awakening. Am I open and inquisitive if I am repeating something that is rote and repetitious? Am I truly listening if I keep hearing the same thing over and over?

Herein lies the power of everyday awakening, of being a conscious, ever-changing being. In this sense, are the wild animals not also spiritual beings? Are the trees and the wind not ever-changing, open, and adaptive to what the new day brings them? Perhaps this is what the Wise Ones meant when they said that everything is alive and has spirit. Perhaps this is the way we are all related.

And perhaps this is just more gibberish and I would be better off shuffling some things around, then going to bed.

The best response thus far to my meanderings is, “Like, whatever.” I know, it’s so 90s, but I still like it. Do you have anything as awakening to contribute?