Place as Curriculum: Moose Crossing

20181004_085058.jpg

Moose Crossing

Our drop off and pick up spot, Moose Crossing, has turned out to be an incredibly rich experience. It began as a simple way to initiate a walk. Today, we typically walk anywhere from 1 1/2 to 3 miles in a given day.

20180911_085621 - Copy.jpg

But the experience is vastly more than just a walk. By covering the same, relatively wild ground, day in and day out, we have witnessed the seasons in a magical and unpredictable way. We have encountered heat, cold, rain and snow. We have discovered animal dens, footprints, and bones. We have watched bluebirds, listened to scrub jays, and seen flocks of sandhill cranes. One particular day, we scared up a great horned owl, who circled us three times. Bull snakes, tarantulas, stink bugs, horny toads. One snowy day, one child beheld all the tracks - from coyotes, jackrabbits, mice and rats - and exclaimed, "Wow, I had no idea this many animals lived on the mesa." Moments like that are magic, and aren't easily planned. Just this last week, we saw the road turn into a river.

20190219_084014.jpg

Moose Crossing represents so well how I wish to approach education. Rarely have I directed the children's attention or made a point of "how much we can learn". I don't turn our observations into lessons. We're just there. Day in, day out. We lead ourselves, and when something unusual happens, we take the time to follow it. We explore. The children have no sense that they are "in school." There's nothing remotely instructional about it at all, we're simply immersed in a field of our own inquiry and excitement.

20190227_145100.jpg

This is the kind of education I seek for the kids, and I believe math and reading can be approached in a similar vein. How do we immerse ourselves in these subjects, almost as if we don't even realize it? I've been studying this all year. I won't claim to have mastered it, but I will claim that my students never express frustration or boredom. They look forward to school. Their eyes are wide open. They're hungry.

owl.jpg

Apples, Root Cellars and Life Without Refrigeration

Last fall we picked several hundred pounds of apples, all for free, all local, all organic. These are trees on vacant lots and even in parking lots, but some of them are very good. Sometimes, they're just in neighbors' yards and they don't pick them. I've been sampling these trees for years, and I know each one intimately. We dried 'em, nearly ten one-gallon bags full, and made several more gallons of apple sauce. It is my principal source of sugar. Finally, we repurposed the well-house as a root cellar. I just took a case of apples out today (March 23), and they're crisp and delicious. There's four more cases down there, and we'll be eating them through May, maybe longer.

20180922_100304.jpg

In my childhood, quite urban, I never had any perspective on life without refrigeration. It didn't even come up. But people have been living, eating and storing food without energy-consuming appliances for thousands of years. I don't expect my kids to grow up and never buy an apple from a grocery store, but at least they've seen what's possible. I never had that as a child. The first time I saw a root cellar - in my late 20's - it blew my mind. Holy shit, guys, this a hole in the ground!

20180922_102019.jpg

In case you don’t know the magic of a root cellar, here’s the basic concept. If it’s dug deep enough, below the frost line, it doesn’t freeze. If designed well, the air temperature in winter hovers around 35 degrees F, maybe a little more, a little less. It’s the exact temperature recommended for your fridge. And the earth does it all by itself. Isn’t that wild?

20181004_123743 - Copy.jpg

Someday, I’m going to live for a year without a refrigerator. I already have the basic plan in place, trapping cold air in the summer nights in an insulated cooler (it helps that I live in the desert), then leaving it in the shade of the house throughout the day. In winter, I’ll lug it into the coldest room in the house, then back outside during warmer moments. Food will rot more quickly. I’m sure it will freeze occasionally. Coyotes will sometimes eat my dinner. But I’ll compensate by eating quickly, and being happy.

Who knows, maybe I’ll never go back?

20181017_111312.jpg
20190304_104436 - Copy.jpg
IMG_20151018_153032.jpg

Dear Itchy Rash, You Glorious Son of a Bitch

How a Recurrent Physical Symptom Gave Me Insight into My Child’s Stress Level

Two years ago, my daughter starting having a mild but irritating rash. I’m changing some of the details for privacy, but a rash is a similar condition. The rash wasn’t so bad, but it caused us a lot of suffering because the itchiness woke her up in the middle of the night. Night after night, this caused a sleepless mayhem and, coupled with the uncertainty about what it was, was quite stressful for all of us. The doctor was unable to determine the cause, but eventually we narrowed in on a likely candidate. The doctor prescribed some terribly expensive medicine, but it turned out we could get much the same thing over the counter for ten bucks. Done.

It worked. Literally within a day. Shouting hurrahs and prancing about the room, we considered the problem eradicated and promptly fell asleep. Six months later, it recurred. Assuming it was the same cause, we gave her the same ten-dollar medicine, and once again experienced the reduction of symptoms overnight. Milder hurrahs, but hurrahs all the same.

A few months later, it came back. To be fair, the condition is highly contagious and easily spreads, so that it’s very easy, once cured, to simply get it again. Feeling a little impotent, and stupid, we gave her the same medicine. It worked for about a day, but within a week the symptom was back in full force. Fists raised in confusion and frustration, we gave up on the medicine and began cleaning the shit out of our house.

Meanwhile, having witnessed the condition a handful of times, including the slight differences each time and the greater context of our lives, I began to notice something. I, for example, am just kind of stressed out about medical things I know nothing about. I feel totally powerless. Fevers and broken arms are a bummer, but I can handle it because we know what to do. You get over it. This particular condition felt intransigent, because we were never one-hundred percent certain what was causing it. Point is, having watched myself go through it a few times, I began asking myself to grow up. I just sat with my daughter more, sighed, and acknowledged that we have bodies that sometimes we don’t fully understand.

I began telling her stories. Having no quick remedy, I simply lay with her at night when the itchiness came up and told her long and rambling stories. This soothed her more than anything else. I put my frustration and lack of sleep aside, plus my anxiety about a cure, and just exuded patience and calm. It worked better than a I thought, and frequently she would fall back asleep for the rest of the night. Hurrah.

Noticing this, I mentioned it to my ex-wife. She and I are committed parents, with lots of love and understanding between us. When the rash first started showing up, we happened to be living in the same house, a community with several other parents, children and adults. Agreeing that something subtle was at play here, we made some changes to ease the transitions and certain conditions of our daughter’s days. Within a week or so, the condition went away on its own. That was informative.

Still, six months later it came up again. I raised my hands to God once again as if to threaten him with the misfortune of my ignorance. To be clear, the condition wasn’t terrible. Like a rash, it didn’t impair my daughter much, and for most of the day it was unnoticeable. It was the late-night moments, when there was nothing else to distract her, that the itching would wake her up, and keep her up. It was the sleeplessness, more than anything else, that was getting to us.

We went to the doctor again. “Something’s weird,” we said. The medicine doesn’t work anymore, and it keeps coming back. Maybe it’s not the same thing. Is it the same thing? What can we do?

I should mention that we lived with sheep at the time. The condition, as we understood it, was transmittable through sheep, and this is why it was entirely possible to “cure” it, and then just get it again the next day. You can’t eradicate acres of sheep. Well, we weren’t going to. Maybe we had to move.

But no! The doctor did a swab test and it turned out to be a bacterial infection. Totally different thing! Totally different medicine! Hurray! My ex-wife and I weren’t so keen on antibiotics, but screw it. We’ll take ‘em. Then we’ll be healthy and normal again. At this point, you might start doubting our competence as parents, but I’m describing all this with hindsight. It was very hard to pin all this together from a handful of isolated incidents spanning a period of what was by then approaching two years. Confusion reigned.

We gave her the antibiotic. I continued telling stories. We rubbed and soothed and not-rubbed. We did all the right stuff. It was excellent and everyone said goodbye, including the bacteria. Probably. Once again, we returned to a healthy sleep life. But, just as before, I took note of the slight differences between each occurrence and began attributing the cause, at least in part, to some level of stress I wasn’t otherwise aware of in my daughter’s life.

I began experimenting with placebos. We often washed the rash with cool water, then applied a mild itch cream to reduce the sensation. This became a sort of midnight routine, as needed, and though I was loathe to continue the use of medicated ointments, I submitted in difficult times. However, here and there, I began telling my daughter that I would “get the cream”, but instead dipped my finger in a common jar of olive oil salve. I didn’t mean to lie to her, and if it persisted I would have just suggested we re-cream and then given her the real stuff, but most of the time this sufficed perfectly.

Slowly, it began to solidify in my mind that the medicine wasn’t exactly the solution, but that the love and calm and patience that I, as a parent, could sidestep into her life during moments of anguish was well worth it. I mean, duh, I already knew that, but when the itching got bad it often caused her to cry and even occasionally to scream. We didn’t want her to rip and tear her flesh to shreds, so we encouraged her not to scratch, but anyone with a really bad itch knows just how difficult this situation is.

Then she got a reaction to the antibiotic. It wasn’t the rush-to-the-emergency-room, my-child-is-about-to-die allergic reaction some children get, but it was an itchy rash that covered, now, her entire body. Excellent. We went to the doctor. It wasn’t chicken pox. Great. It was perfectly normal. Thanks. Nothing really to worry about. Okay. It should be gone in a few days. It was. Thank god.

A few weeks ago, my daughter’s best friend came down with a rash, a different rash, but one that is also highly contagious. We wiped toilet seats and told them not to share clothes, which, of course, they normally do. It’s the middle of winter, but given a few minutes they’re naked little piglets or running about in each other’s swimsuits. Nah, nah, nah, we said, none of that.

Nevertheless, about a week ago my daughter wakes me in the middle of the night. She’s itchy. Dammit, I think, blaming my daughter’s friend, her mother, and all the naked little piglets in the world. Someday, I will have my revenge. Then we get up, wash the itchy spot, put the cream on, the real cream, tell a long story about sea turtles, and go back to bed.

The next morning, I texted my friend. “Can you tell me about the so-and-so rash. We woke up feeling itchy.” Ten minutes later, her response: “It’s not itchy. Just a waxy, bumpy rash.” Well, you can’t get off that easy. Somehow, it’s your fault.

Later that morning, before school, I sit down with my daughter. “You were feeling itchy last night. Can you tell me what’s going on?”

“Well…” she fidgeted around. She couldn’t really think of anything. She was as bright and cheerful as ever. Outside the context of this story, my daughter is one of the most cheerful children on the face of the planet. She has two loving parents, a whole heap of good friends and about five-hundred aunts, uncles, grandmas and grandpas. We’re fairly slow and easy people, not too dumb, not too smart, rich or poor. There’s a lot of time in her life to just be a kid. Still, something’s up.

I blamed her mom. She’s messing something up, while I do all the right stuff again, isn’t she? Come on, spill it. I’m being facetious, but recently when her mother and I have transitioned between care she has not had much time to hang out. We’ve talked at length about this, agreeing that every time we switch, we’ll give an hour just to the three of us so that our daughter has an opportunity to let go of one parent and move into the space of another. If you’re beginning to wonder if our divorce has anything to do with our daughter’s condition, you’re right, but by and large it’s a very loving and good situation and all of this is out in the open. And, frankly, all the married parents we know face the same problems.

Point is, I asked my daughter whether she wasn’t somehow disappointed that her mother hadn’t had the time to stay and connect the last few times she dropped her off. “Mmm,” she said, crinkling her eyes, and kind of blowing me off. I believed her.

“What about the move?” I asked. Fact is, the weekend before, her mother and she had moved into a new house. We no longer live in community together, and haven’t for over a year. The constant moving is admittedly stressful too, but more or less I believe my daughter feels held in it all, again, because she has such a community of loving parents, adults and friends around her.

The day before, she and her mother had arrived with beaming faces and told me some hilarious stories about the move, how in the middle of the night one of the pipes was leaking and they had to get up to turn it off, and blah, blah, blah. My ex-wife wasn’t able to stay, she said, she had a lot to do with the move, so we said goodbye. My daughter didn’t resist. She was nothing but cheerful. I took her at face value, we had dinner, played a board game, then had a story and went to bed.

So, it completely surprised me when she woke up in the night with the itchy rash. Now that I had ruled out the friend’s rash, and having witnessed the last two years of recurrent symptoms, I searched my mind for some sort of stress that I hadn’t picked up on.

“Last night,” I said, “you told me the pipe was leaking and – what was it? – a piece of glass broke?”

“Yeah…” she answered, dropping her face slightly and scraping her toes on the floor.

“You know, some people think moving is stressful. Last night, you told me about everything as if it was funny and no big deal. Was it…maybe a little scary…at night?”

Bam. She turned and looked right at me with wide open eyes. I could tell that was it before she even said a word. We talked for a few more moments, then made a plan for how we would call Mom after the school day and check in. I asked her if she would come to me, or Mom, if she felt uncomfortable about something. She said she would, but that she hadn’t been quite able to put it into words before. It wasn’t that she was hiding anything, it’s just that she needed me to spell it out a little. Now that I had, her whole energy shifted. Mine too.

Later, as we walked to school, I was thinking about how wonderful I am and whether I deserved some sort of prize. I had slowly pieced the picture together, ruled out the medical conditions, forgone unnecessary medication, and solved the mystery. I already suspected that the following night would not be an issue (it wasn’t, and it didn’t recur after that). Two years of itchy rash, and this time I nipped it in the bud by simply being present with my daughter. Then it hit me.

Holy shit, itchy rash, you son of a bitch. You’re not a problem at all. You’re actually… (pretend I’m shaking my head as I finally realize the murderer isn’t the countess, the countess is the murderer!). Holy balls.

For two years, I’ve been chasing the conditions and causes of this itchy rash and suddenly it dawned on me what a strange gift it is. I’m a devoted and loving father. My daughter is a bright and cheerful child. Our life is pretty rad and rosy. Yet, problems exist. Stuff comes up. I’m not perfect. She’s not perfect. Sometimes, things slip by. This stupid itchy rash is actually, in most cases, a physical manifestation of the interior stress my daughter doesn’t know how to express or process. Holy shit. What a magnificent error!

From now on, I’m going to be the attentive and loving father I’ve always been – but when something slips between my fingers, I have an incredibly useful diagnostic tool here. What a blessing that this invisible stress – whether that’s because it’s truly invisible or I’m just an idiot – shows itself as an itchy rash! It could just remain invisible, invisibly fucking everything up while I whistle polite tunes to myself. Nah, nah, nah, buster. This rash makes it so that you can’t ignore your daughter’s inner anguish, even when she herself is incapable of speaking, behaving, or recognizing it. Holy moly. Blessed itchy rash, you glorious son of a bitch.

20190212_102323.jpg

How to Tell Stories to Children - Intro to New Book

Thanks to everyone who supported our book project How to Tell Stories to Children. We plan to have a complete edition out by May. In the mean time, we recently submitted a full proposal last weekend to a book agent who has expressed possible interest. Wish us luck. The introduction to the book is shared below to whet your appetite. Please share your feedback.


Introduction

Storytelling is one of the oldest and most profitable businesses on the planet. Modern stories are often told through movies, books and video games, but the oral tradition has something unique to offer - a lasting bond between the storyteller and listener. This is why it’s such a vital tool for parents, educators and anyone interested in a meaningful relationship with children.

Think of it as the difference between a can of tomato sauce and homemade marinara. A practiced storyteller draws upon the events and objects within a child's immediate surroundings, like plucking tomatoes and herbs from the garden, then crafts stories that are not only entertaining (or tasty), but local and organic - crafted precisely for those children in that place.

In this book, we outline the key ingredients for intuitive storytelling so that you can begin improvising your own stories directly from within the environment in which you and your children live. We are parents and teachers with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of story-hours under our belts, but this book has nothing to do with how to tell our stories, or anyone else's. It has everything to do with how to tell yours.

There are hundreds of storybooks available today, including several that give some instruction and background on storytelling. Some of these books are excellent, but each is primarily focused on memorizing or retelling stories that someone else, or yourself, has prepared for you. This is not the intention of our book. What you hold in your hands is not a collection of stories. It is a method to help you craft your own. Our method employs a simple architecture, starting with the physical objects and activities within your child's immediate environment.

This technique is something we employ every day, with a lot of variety and flexibility. Stories can be about local animals and birds, a craft we just made with the kids, or even something as simple as a backpack. Our characters frequently encounter situations that the kids have recently seen themselves. At the end of story time, it’s common for the kids to erupt with phrases like, “that was the best story ever!”

It’s true that we’re good storytellers, but the essence behind these children’s statements has little to do with the actual events and quality of our stories. What’s more critical is the emotional bond and shared experience we have with the kids, so that our stories are crafted from events and objects everyone recognizes.

Sometimes, this can be as complicated as reframing a conflict amongst the children in the guise of a quarrel amongst squirrels, but often it’s as simple as noticing a child’s bare feet, then telling a story about what happened when her shoelaces took a walk down to the stream. Such stories make the kids giggle, or think. They feel like they are a part of it, because they recognize the characters and events in the stories from their real lives. This is the method we teach in this book, and anyone can do it.

Contrast this with the message from storyteller Marie Shedlock in the introduction to her classic The Art of the Storyteller, "It is to be hoped that someday stories will be told to school groups only by experts who have devoted special time and preparation to the art of telling them."

This is precisely the opposite of our message, which is that everyone is a good storyteller and no expert can replace the intimacy of a story crafted from within a child's own environment by an attentive and loving parent or caregiver.

But there’s more. Because intuitive stories are crafted from within a child's environment, there is a direct and physical outlet for imaginative play afterward. This is the storytelling loop we describe in chapter one. It is not hard to imagine what a barefoot child who has recently heard a story about her shoelaces will do once she finds her shoes.

As a whole, the chapters in this book describe the key ingredients of our storytelling method, but each topic is self-contained, so that most folks will have no trouble cherry picking. The chapters, each designed to be short and sweet, can be read in less than ten minutes, with a sample story at the end to help shed light on the lesson of that chapter. Many folks will find it easy to read the entire book in one sitting, but it would be perfectly suitable, and even very much to our liking, if you read a chapter and then try a story with your kids, then return another day for another topic. Good storytelling, despite what Marie Shedlock says, is not about perfection. It’s about practice. There is no rush.

We trust this method because we use it almost every day. We’ve seen it work in multiple settings over multiple years, and there is enormous flexibility. The framework is helpful, especially if you are just getting started, but no two stories and no two storytellers are ever the same. Good stories, like good people, are as diverse as the peaks of a mountain range, with all the valleys and streams between. Find your place. Your stories will be most fruitful when you stop listening to any advice, including ours, and simply follow the story that is already inside you.

If this book can be reduced to one message, it’s this — you are already a good storyteller. It’s literally what makes us human. It comes with the package, just like hair and opposable thumbs. So remember, if it’s marinara you’re after, try a few recipes the first time around. It will help, and it won’t take long to beat the canned variety. But once you’ve mastered your particular tastes, throw out the recipe book. Your intuition will take you and your kids further than you ever dreamed.

Sample cover with gray background for relief. Artwork by dear friend and children’s book author Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw.

Sample cover with gray background for relief. Artwork by dear friend and children’s book author Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw.


Audio Stories for Kids

Children’s stories have always been a major part of Off Grid Kids and our school Taos Earth Children, but the blog and website has mostly been geared toward adults with an interest in child development and natural wonder. As we begin to finalize our draft of How to Tell Stories to Children, we are exploring recorded children’s stories. Our first two are below.

We hope that these stories inspire you to become a storyteller. Our goal in posting these stories is not merely to entertain children, but to use them as examples of the method outlined in our forthcoming book. To that end, we give a little context on each story below.

Subma-Beard

One day, Joe shaved off his beard. The kids noticed, duh, and made comments throughout the morning. At lunch, the following story unfolded about the chickens that stole Joe’s beard, and the intrepid chipmunk that took it from them and turned it into a submarine adventure.

This is a retelling of the original story. It’s impossible to reproduce the energy and excitement of that original moment when alone in a room with a microphone. Storytelling is about the relationship between storyteller and listener. No matter how hard we try, we can’t as yet reproduce that energy in a recorded file. Give us a year. It’s gonna rock. This is us trying to figure it out. Not bad for firsties.

Forbidden Hill

It being winter time, the kids are frequently outside sledding and making snow forts. It’s a major part of our day. This story electrified the kids when first told because they could recall the moments just prior when they themselves were racing down the hill. A primary aspect of our storytelling method is to use concrete objects and activities from within the children’s days. That’s the real power of storytelling, and we encourage you to try it with your kids.

20190117_094819.jpg

How Do You Find Wilderness in the City?

“Daddy, wait!”

I turned around to find Agnes holding a skull. How many times have I found this little girl raising the brain case of a dead animal for my inspection? Such a happy life. I smiled, caching the image along with countless others in the back of my head.

This one was different. As I catalogued the sloping maw of a predator (next to the bobcat, opposite the coyote) and parsed it from the larger, more antlered variety, I heard a giant sound. Just over Agnes’s shoulders, the I-64 overpass loomed large, blasting our ears like a terrible waterfall of cars and trailers. To my left, the runway of the Norfolk airport was in plain view, giving occasion for the periodic rumbling of the floors and windows of our hotel room. I was standing on railroad tracks. Nearby, a brackish waterway connected us to the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, where some of the largest ships on the planet lay at anchor.

How do you find wilderness in the city?

In his bestselling book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv suggests that our children (and we) may be experiencing nature-deficit disorder. Louv is hardly an extremist and his well-balanced book acknowledges the absurdity of that term. We don’t need more syndromes, he says. But we do need to start asking what happens when a child, or a person, loses touch with the earth that sustained us as a species for thousands of generations. Fast answers and tidy explanations aren’t in order.

My life in New Mexico, and the lives of my daughter and many of our friends, circumnavigates this problem. We have skulls everywhere. Trees, forests and canyons. Most of us are just as modern as the next guy, but because we are surrounded by countless miles of wilderness we have a fairly rich and full life. This is all well and good, but what about the millions of us living in cities and dense suburban areas? How do we raise children with a healthy sense of nature in those environs?

I believe that natural environments afford something unique to children (and adults), but I wish to be clear that I welcome and admire those who think otherwise. It’s commonplace for parents and all sorts of people to poo-poo shopping malls and video games as an adulteration of reality. I think that’s a mistake, because it creates a gulf between hippie-naturalists and techno-modernists. No such division exists. We’re all in this together. There’s love in every household, and there’s no reason for any of us to claim singular title to it.

So, the point is not what’s better, but whether one values the sort of experiences one can have in a natural setting. Clearly, I do. I find that it makes me happier. I feel more whole, more connected to my hands and feet, and sharper in my mind. Most people agree, though we can never tack down the word “natural” to any particular place or product. We do, however, know that most parents want their children to spend time outdoors. We quibble about screen time, but there are few parents who think an indoor electronic life is enough for their child. We need nature. We need wilderness. We need some amount of unpredictability, and even discomfiture. We need to get rained on.

My daughter and I get rained on all the time. We’re some of those lucky people who have access to vast tracks of wilderness. It’s literally right outside our door. We can hardly keep chickens alive because there are so many wild animals attacking them. With skulls.

But what about the rest of us? Louv’s book does an excellent job of identifying the problem – nature deficit disorder – and his work since then has done a lot to help people find some answers. But that information isn’t trickling down to most of us, or if it is it’s happening too slowly.

More than half the planet’s population now lives in urban environments. In the U.S. and other industrialized countries, it’s more like eighty-percent. I’m in the backwaters, but I think it’s fair to say that people like me don’t count. Oh sure, we’re fine and dandy, but if we as a species (and that’s how we need to think) are to regain the earth then we need to find ways for urban children and parents to connect with the ground under their feet. We need to help them find skulls. “A chicken in every pot,” might have worked for Hoover, but today we need “a ditch in every neighborhood, and a skull in every garage.” Try that in 2020.

I’ve posed similar questions on Facebook before, using this exact phrase – how do we find wilderness in the city? My page, Off Grid Kids, is largely full of natural parents and all sorts of earthy shit. Yet, overwhelmingly, the answer I get is “watch out for dirty needles,” or “too much trash.” To be fair, that’s not the only answers I’ve gotten. There are hundreds of folks who thumbs up or share a word of support. But there’s very few who have shared how their doing it. Why? Wouldn’t it be great if we had a solid meme with ten-thousand unique stories from parents and educators all over the country explaining in paragraph-sized bites how they found wilderness in urban areas? Am I the only one?

Surely, I’m not. There are tons of people and organizations out there trying to get our kids’ hands dirty. Some are better than others, but every step is worth it. The I-64 overpass turns out to be my step.

I began this essay by describing the bridges and landing strips near our hotel in Norfolk, Virginia. Now, let me describe the trees. There were hundreds of them! The earth in that spot had been rifled with and tumbled dozens of times since Europeans first landed on the shores of Jamestown more than four-hundred years ago. It had been covered with gravel, dug into canals and piled over with concrete. None of it stopped those trees. They grew from every available inch of soil, along with a host of grasses, shrubbery and flowering plants I met for the first time, right there, under the overpass.

They had sticky seed pods, sticks for poking or marshalling about, and leaves of every conceivable shape and color. Texture, too. It was December, but squirrels ran up and down the branches, while songbirds flitted in and out, mixing with occasional ocean birds that had flown inland. Blue Planet is good. I’ve watched some of those things, but the I-64 overpass had something David Attenborough does not. I could touch it. Gum trees with those weird monkey balls were everywhere.

And skulls. There were rabbit skulls and bird skulls. Owls and wrens and emerald oryx. Insects with tiny wings burrowed through wet, fetid earth. Rotting! It was everywhere. The graffiti on the walls didn’t stop it. Gnomes. Fairies. Tiny footsteps. Drips from the roadbed above, no oilier than the waxy surfaces of magnolia leaves. I held the brittle stem of a tiny flowering plant, now golden and dry. When the wind blew, it tumbled like feathers across iron rails. Iron is really just a rock. People passed by in leather shoes. Aurochs lingered in nearby streams.

I’m probably wrong about almost everything. Words aren’t really the point. Wilderness is a concept, not a place. It feeds us, because when we arrive there our minds expand. Go to it. Send your kids there. Don’t listen to the experts. No one has explored anything yet. Most of us haven’t even been across the street. Everything remains. There’s danger, but much less than you’ve been led to believe. Crime is actually down. Most trash is really just old trees, rocks and dinosaurs. McDonald’s is a world health organization. Their discarded cups are composting the earth beneath your feet. There are beetles under them. Lift them up. Hold them. Cherish them. This is how you find wilderness in the city. You never, ever, never-ever-ever leave it.

IMG_20170207_132432 - Copy (2).jpg

If this article grabs you, share it with someone. Or, leave a comment on our Facebook page. Let’s create a block of knowledge for parents and ecucators, a meme with ten-thousand unique stories from people all over the country explaining in paragraph-sized bites how they found wilderness in urban areas.


Our Top 10 Photos of 2018

Thanks to everyone who has made Off Grid Kids a success in 2018. Two years ago, this project began as a humble way to share my outdoor adventures with kids. Today, we're reaching over 10,000 people and launching a new book - How to Tell Stories to Children. If you've been touched by our work, please consider supporting this project. You'll be helping two teachers bring education out of the classroom and back to the earth.

Now, onto the photos...

That tiny spot of color is our kindergarten class in Bone Canyon, a small side canyon off the Rio Grande Gorge.

That tiny spot of color is our kindergarten class in Bone Canyon, a small side canyon off the Rio Grande Gorge.

A view from inside Bone Canyon. These kids are shouting into the distance from Echo Rock. The cliffs in the distance provide an amazing 5-second delay crystal clear echo.

A view from inside Bone Canyon. These kids are shouting into the distance from Echo Rock. The cliffs in the distance provide an amazing 5-second delay crystal clear echo.

In the gorge, the Rio Grande below.

In the gorge, the Rio Grande below.

Along the Rio Grande.

Along the Rio Grande.

In the Hondo Valley.

In the Hondo Valley.

At Farmer Ron’s.

At Farmer Ron’s.

One of the things that makes outdoor education so rich is that it provides opportunities for the children to socialize, learn games and crafts, and sit quietly by oneself - all in the stretch of a day. There’s so much room in Mother Nature.

One of the things that makes outdoor education so rich is that it provides opportunities for the children to socialize, learn games and crafts, and sit quietly by oneself - all in the stretch of a day. There’s so much room in Mother Nature.

I love how this image captures the enormity and the intimacy of our days.

I love how this image captures the enormity and the intimacy of our days.

There are a number of curious holes in these boulders, some of which hold water for long periods of time when the earth is dry and bare. We sometimes find tadpoles inside. Look close and you will see petroglyphs on the rocks.

There are a number of curious holes in these boulders, some of which hold water for long periods of time when the earth is dry and bare. We sometimes find tadpoles inside. Look close and you will see petroglyphs on the rocks.

Bone Canyon in winter.

Bone Canyon in winter.

20180222_114413.jpg
It’s time to admit that there are more than ten photos here. They’re just too good.

It’s time to admit that there are more than ten photos here. They’re just too good.

This is the most popular photo on Off Grid Kids.

This is the most popular photo on Off Grid Kids.

Caroling in town before the winter break.

Caroling in town before the winter break.

Chickens have been an enormous part of the school year, all the way from raising chicks, “chicken school”, collecting eggs, making chicken houses, and burying chickens killed by predators. All very real. Here, the kids rest with them during story time.

Chickens have been an enormous part of the school year, all the way from raising chicks, “chicken school”, collecting eggs, making chicken houses, and burying chickens killed by predators. All very real. Here, the kids rest with them during story time.

Carving has become a big part of our school days.

Carving has become a big part of our school days.

We sometimes lack for pencil sharpeners though.

We sometimes lack for pencil sharpeners though.

On a windswept mesa, one tree makes all the difference.

On a windswept mesa, one tree makes all the difference.

Boys.

Boys.

Spring!

Spring!

What I love about this photo isn’t so much the tenderness with which these hands are holding two creatures, but the tenderness with which they are holding each other.

What I love about this photo isn’t so much the tenderness with which these hands are holding two creatures, but the tenderness with which they are holding each other.

It’s a rope swing.

It’s a rope swing.

20180523_113959.jpg
20180617_173210 - Copy.jpg
One of the most interesting moments of the year was when we discovered this ant carrying a tiny piece of selenite crystal back to it’s home.

One of the most interesting moments of the year was when we discovered this ant carrying a tiny piece of selenite crystal back to it’s home.

This is also real.

This is also real.

This guy too.

This guy too.

Mother Nature.

Mother Nature.

IMG_5948.JPG
20181018_140055.jpg
The hay hanging in midair is mesmerizing.

The hay hanging in midair is mesmerizing.

IMG_8052 - Copy.JPG

Thanks to everyone who has supported Off Grid Kids in 2018!

Are Disabled People Important to Your Kids?

Slurp…that’s good pizza,” said the man. It wasn’t the first time. He sat at the table opposite us, with short-cropped gray hair and thick frame glasses, patting his wide belly with deliberate satisfaction. He grinned at us without a hint of self-consciousness. “I like pizza,” he repeated, shaking his head and body a little too vigorously for polite society. Everybody likes pizza. He slurred his syllables too, ending with a peculiar enthusiasm on the final -za.

Steven smiled at me. “Why does he keep saying that?” he asked. A shy look of amusement spread across his seven-year-old face, as if he wasn’t sure if he should say anything or not. Steven, my daughter Agnes and I had just gone ice-skating to celebrate the close of our fall semester. A small event for a tiny school. My ex-wife, Megan, had arrived only moments ago with hot cider and now the four of us were eating lunch at a tall table in the middle of the rec center. I shrugged. “He likes pizza, I guess.” Agnes giggled. I couldn’t help smiling.

I had noticed the group when we had come in to take our skates off. The middle of a school day, there weren’t many folks present anywhere – the rink, the pool, the game room, the playground. As the kids vocalized their relief at having their tight skates taken off, a group of about ten adults walked in the door. Being socially awkward, I made no attempt at eye contact, but kept them in my periphery. They said a handful of hellos to the staff, one who was behind the skate rental counter, another who was needlessly sweeping the floor. Clearly, they had all been here before. Don’t go to the tables, I thought, those are our tables.

They went to the tables. They had all brought bagged lunches, and as I hurried to untie my own skates I watched as they spread out over the three tables with comfy booths and two of the café tables. That left only one for us, a tall table with thin-legged chairs meant to look interesting and feel miserable. The nerve.

“Agnes, Steven – grab your backpacks,” I said. I stuffed my arms with jackets, hats, gloves and skates. As we made our way to the table, Allison, my ex-wife, walked in the door with a thermos of hot cider and a bouquet of flowers. Damn.

“Congratulations!” she shouted. Into the room that was almost deaf with silence. Like any sane person, I pretended not to notice. For a second, I even thought about acting like she might be talking to someone else. But I could see from the bright smile on her face that that was impossible, so I accepted her show of love with the weak-willed sort of tepidity I’m famous for. In front of everyone.

“Oh, thanks…” I said, hoping not to sound as awful as I felt. Flowers? For me? And right here in front of all these strangers. How…noticeable.

“Congratulations,” the woman at the next table said. She appeared to be in her late forties, with curly black hair and a thick winter jacket that went down to her calves. Her eyes were bright and her teeth, which were a little imperfect, betrayed the sincerest of emotions. By now, I had picked up on the fact that these men and women were disabled, meaning they were delightful, free, fat, and skinny - and here this woman even had on the same winter jacket my sister used to wear and looked like it never came off. Fuckers.

There’s a reason I like writing so much. Or telling stories. I don’t mind being the center of attention so long as there is a role to play, but there are few things I detest more than being admired to my face. At a party, I usually wash the dishes, which not only gives me something to do but keeps my back towards anyone trying to talk to me.

“Thank you,” I said to the woman, smiling awkwardly. I was trying hard not to ruin everyone’s day by drawing attention to the fact that they were so beautiful. Fact is, I love pretty much everyone and I can’t bear to expose that fact too recklessly. I’m a tough dude, doing tough and smart stuff. I don’t have time for this shit.

As a child, I often accompanied my mother to Broadfield Manor, an old stone building which served as a castle for disabled men and women. At that time, there was still a moat and a drawbridge and it was perfectly appropriate to call the prisoners retarded. My aunt lived there. I never knew her as a fully “with it” person, but the way my mother tells it she sounds pretty wild. At the age of eighteen, she went on the road with a group of bikers and got into an accident. For almost a year, she was in a hospital far from home till eventually my mother and her father (her mother had passed some years before) managed to bring her back. Since then, she has had a hard time walking and has severe cognitive failure.

What I do remember about my aunt is how joyful she was. Is. Miserable too, no doubt. Broadfield Manor was exactly the kind of place no one wanted to be, just like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or that kind of thing. But my aunt had something that no one else did, and so did a lot of people there. She was genuine.

It would be insincere to pretend that I enjoyed her company, or that I liked my visits to Broadfield, but those times were like nothing else. I was uncomfortable, always. If given a hair of an excuse, I would not have gone. But our visits, and aunt Linda’s visits to our house, gave me something that I would not have otherwise had: empathy. No, wait. It gave me something more.

By most measures, I’m a capable and bright human being, but it is excruciating how impotent I can be at times. Moments like those at the rec center leave me wishing I was invisible. I don’t know how to balance my role as a teacher, a parent, an ex-husband, a stranger, an ice-skater and a lunch-eater. I get stuck between it all and wish everyone would just leave me alone.

What I’m trying to say is that my aunt, and people like her, show me what freedom is. They show me what life is like when you’re not being someone. It’s beautiful. It’s rather hellish. We don’t look pretty. We have bad teeth. Sometimes, we get wheeled outside so we can smoke in our wheelchairs. Why not? There’s something so liberating about being with those people. It breaks the sky in half.

When I look a normal person in the eye it’s as if I’m incapable of relaxing. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s honestly how it feels. I’ve lived enough years to realize that it’s not their fault, just some mental backwash that’s filling inside my own head, but that doesn’t change the way it feels. Instantly, effortlessly, I reproduce this veneer of normalcy, my brand of personality, in order to live up to what I think this eyeball expects of me. It’s all in my head, sure, it has nothing to do with anyone else, but…there it is.

I’ve learned that this veneer isn’t actually me, but I have not learned how to scrub it off. These people have. They’re not perfect. They’re full of their own problems and difficulties, and sure, it’s not every disabled person in the world. I don’t mean to whitewash what is surely a difficult life at times. But there is something about the presence of someone with this ability to make me feel like a big fat faker. In a nice kind of way.

I don’t have a hard time walking or getting things off a shelf, like my aunt does. And I don’t have a hard time empathizing with children, rec center staff, disabled adults, myself, my ex-wife, or a blowup Christmas tree. I’m kind of in tune with all of it. Maybe not. Maybe there’s lots that I’m still missing, but sitting at an uncomfortably high table with my daughter, my student, and a roomful of adults with various priorities and abilities – this is excruciating to me. I feel bombarded by clean and crisp awareness. Sensation. All this information just buzzing through me. And here I am trying to be the person for it all.

Anyway, point is, here we are in the rec center, bodies warm from skating, greeted by my ex-wife, Agnes’s mother, surrounded by the warmness and discomfort of human beings who at various points in history have been called idiots, morons, retards, etc., and everybody, I mean everybody, is more comfortable than I am. For much of my life, I’ve been able to make mental leaps over other people, but who’s the retard here? It’s me.

Slurp…that’s good piz-za.”

Steven laughed. There wasn’t an ounce of ridicule in his expression. It was just funny to him. Dude likes his pizza. We all like pizza. Isn’t that wonderful?

Finally, the man stood up and introduced himself, thrusting his hand over the table with almost comic sincerity. What a joy. What a beautiful hand. What a fat little pizza tummy.

Having introduced himself properly, Adam walked over to the pool table, where another disabled man, a bit younger, a bit browner, but with a belly just as round and pleasant, smacked his hands in excitement. The young man who was one of their caretakers looked at us and smiled shyly. As if they were the problem. I’m the problem!

He turned and put four quarters into the slot. Ka-ching! Rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble… Who doesn’t love that sound? I don’t care if you’re in Mensa or a mental institution, or if you’ve never played a game of pool in your life – fifteen fresh clacking balls rolling across a felt table. Everybody wins.

My sister was born with several deformities. Considerably older than I, she was the product of a different father and when my mother died unexpectedly after my first birthday, my sister, and our oldest sister, went to live with their father. For reasons good and ill, my sisters and I didn’t see each other much throughout childhood. Fact is, after my mother died, I probably saw my sister less than ten times, most of which weren’t very memorable for me. I do, however, remember the last time I saw her. It was at my parent’s house when I was in my late twenties. She was a bit aloof with me at first, which was fine. I didn’t want to push her. Then someone explained to her that I was Joey.

It’s hard to explain how an adequate young man reacts to an older sister he hardly knew who has troubling disabilities. Poorly, you might say. She, however, had a tender place in her heart for her little baby brother. She could have held me all night. This was the kind of love that poured out so effortlessly from her.

A year or so later, my sister died. I lived far away at the time and had little money. Besides, I was busy. I came up with some excuse not to go to her funeral. Nobody thought ill of me. Looking back, I can’t believe how callous and stupid I was, but there it is. People think I’m the healthy one. Something’s wrong here.

My aunt Linda is still alive. My mother, who’s really my stepmother, will arrange for us to visit when I make it home for a holiday or some such thing. Like a child, I still don’t exactly look forward to visiting her, but I have a place in my heart for my aunt Linda that I never had the chance to create for my sister. Or my mother

We finished lunch at the rec center. As we stood up to say goodbye to Allison, her partner Glen walked in the door. I love this shit. Glen is a wonderful man and I’m glad to call him a friend. He’s a great surrogate father to my daughter when she’s not with me, and a great dad to his own kids too. Life is so complicated. And real. I’m not going to waste my time disliking people.

Allison smiled slyly at me. “This is your work, Joe,” she said. “When you’re done teaching, maybe at the end of eighth grade…this is the next thing. It’s so perfect for you. I can see it. It’s like…you’re home.” I nodded thoughtfully. It’s so pleasant when someone nails you. Glen, you see, manages a ranch for disabled folks about an hour away. “I recognize some of these folks,” he said as he walked up to our table.

I want to recognize everyone.

How are we to treat others.jpg

One Black Moth

“Then what happened?”

“Little bear looked into the creek…”

“Did she find the maple leaf?”

“She did. But first she looked over the stones, which were gold and green, brown, red and silver. Water flowed over them, casting them in light, and between two of the stones there was a tiny brown fish. Little bear watched as it shimmied side to side, swimming against the current, then wiggled her own butt…”

The girls laughed. It had been a long and funny day. One bare bulb draped the walls of the room, powder blue, in a soft yellow glaze. Turquoise curtains rose above our heads with the breeze, then settled back in place. It was hot. Burning hot, in fact, which is why we had been evacuated from our campsite earlier that evening. A forest fire was on its way.

A good friend and I had planned a three-night camping trip at a nearby alpine lake, bringing our two kids along plus a third. Dudes and kids, my kind of weekend. But after being evacuated at 5PM, we had taken several too long drives to try and find another campsite, only to give up and head home a little after ten. He and his son had gone to his house, promising to meet up with me and the girls in the morning. I was exhausted. It must have been ninety degrees in that room. Outside, no moon.

“Where was the maple leaf?”

“Well, that’s what I’m getting at. Under the fish, at the bottom of the creek, little bear began to notice something. At first it looked like a spider web, a golden lattice of intricate threads. But as she looked closer, the web had the shape of a maple leaf. She was curious…”

“Wha?”

“Aggh!”

“Dad!”

It is hard to describe the events of the next moment, because they occurred before you can finish this sentence. We had spent the day stomping through mud and marsh, paddling in canoes, then escaping fire and eating pizza. At one point, in a nowhere place at which we had stopped for the briefest of moments, we had seen lightning bugs. I have never seen lightning bugs west of the Mississippi, but we had no time to capture that precious moment. We moved on. Again. Now, in that familiar blue room, with a bare mattress on the floor and sweat still beading on my forehead, the curtain lifted.

Turquoise, cornflower blue, incandescent bulb. A moth the size of an airplane, black on black on black, glided into the room.

“Dad! What is it?!”

“Well, it’s a…” I was a bit nervous. It was so sudden, so close and so large. I could feel my limbs pulsing, my skin pucker. We were finally in bed, fully recumbent, spines flat against the earth. The moth turned two or three graceful arcs above our heads, then made for the bulb. Its paper-thin wings were the size of dinner plates, soft, slow, hovering with impossibility.

But it was possible, and the moth, one that none of us had ever seen before, simply floated across the room, our island of light which had set sail only moments ago for the land of slumber. Such a long day. And here, this giant moth.

The girls went berserk. They giggled and screamed, then hid like ostriches under the bedsheet. Heads in, heads out, more laughter. It was the kind of fear that, when shared, is absolutely joyful and hilarious.

“Well, guys…” I began, still lying down.

“Dad!”

“What about little bear?” I snickered.

“Dad!”

I stood up, my bare chest and undies not quite manly enough for this graceful creature. I didn’t want to touch it. I didn’t want to hurt it. I didn’t want to, you know, be icky with it. Friend, what brings you here, and tonight of all nights?

“The dark.”

“The dark?”

“The moon.”

I looked at the bulb and considered turning it off.

“Don’t turn it off!” the girls shouted.

“Okay, okay… Guys, hold the curtains open. I’m going to try to shuffle this dude outside.”

“What if it’s a girl?”

“Does it…?” I rolled my eyes. “What if you’re a girl?”

“Dad!”

I grabbed a pillow and a floppy paperback from the shelf. Air control to moth – this way.

The black dinner plate fluttered around the light bulb, dodging my pillowful caresses and – what was this, anyway? The Grumpy Easter Bunny?

“Dad!”

“I’m trying!”

You might say that I’m exaggerating, and you’d be right, but even still I can’t overemphasize the size of this moth. It was larger than Jupiter. Bigger than a whale. Exceeding my ego by several degrees of magnitude. Yet paper thin and pulsing at a rhythm slower than my heart.

“Maybe I should turn out the…”

“No!”

You can’t see air, but this moth had a way of moving that made the currents within it visible. Suddenly, the whole room was as thick as cream, and the air was a flurry of movements. I couldn’t touch the moth, but I could sit motionless and watch my arm pushing the pillow pushing the air pushing the moth… Time slowed. I smiled.

I tried to escort it towards the window, but it dodged me like an expert oarsman avoiding river rocks. I didn’t want to smash it.

“Dad!”

“Huh?”

“Get it!”

I dropped my arms for a moment. The girls were at the foot of the bed, heads peeping from beneath the sheet. I cannot remember the color of that sheet, which strikes me as curious and important. Maybe it was some sort of protective layer of nothingness which shielded them from the warping of time and space currently assaulting me from the night sky, and it was only secondary, or a sort of side effect, that my brain was incapable of recording it as a color. Hard to know.

“Dad, the moth!”

“Totally.”

I girthed myself in weaponry. Still circling, the moth hovered over that nameless sheet, unable to penetrate the cloak of ignorance which removes all non-essential qualities from the space of remembrance.

“Dad!”

One stroke. On thrust of my mighty pillow, and that furry jabberwock was slayed (in a metaphoric sense). Back, beyond the threshold of night, the swirling darkness, the eternal blackness, the nothing, the everything that was not me or us. Our island and swords of light.

You should glance over the mesa at this point. There are houses here, a handful, with occasional porch lights or brake lights. But the darkness is consuming. No moon. No nothing. Blue walls and turquoise curtains. A bare bulb of yellow lamplight. Never again have I seen such a moth. Never before.

Stories linger. Little bears visit. Wet rocks gold and green, brown, red and silver. Everything is real. Rhinoceroses are perfectly true, and so are giant squids. There are zebras and catamarans and Teslas in outer space. All of it real. But there are mysteries right outside our windows. Black movement in a moonless sky. Moments just waiting to make an impression on the soft tissues of imagination.

I cannot wait to hear this story as retold by two grown women, whose heat, whose day, whose fun and frustration and wet, marshy feet somehow dangled into that hilarious moment of fear. What a privilege. And me, this dude right here, I got to be a part of it. I won’t forget. I won’t forget you. I won’t forget a single one of you. Reality is nothing. The emotion, the entanglement, the weaving of time and space and chemistry into our bodies, this is what’s real. This is what makes us human. Those girls have me forever. That moth is my breakfast. And the night.

IMG_7247 - Copy.JPG

If you enjoyed this story, please share it with one friend. Word of mouth is worth a lot. Thank you!

I Arranged a Dad Photo Shoot After School

I arranged a dad photo shoot after school. It took a bit of courage to ask for it but the impact was palpable. Each child was beaming. So were the dads.

It took courage because, like many men, I feared other dads would look at me as a priss if I suggested we, you know, publicly share our love and respect for one another. Even in my progressive community, we men are fairly stoic. Mothers stand in the school parking lot for twenty minutes, gabbing and arranging plans, but men are usually in and out like foxes. I even feared that my request would come across as a boast.

Every single dad showed up. I expected a handful but I was shocked (and pleased) to see everyone. This was 2PM in the middle of a workday but we had lawyers, farmers, firefighters, pilots, park rangers and more. These are strong and caring fathers, many are good friends, but I'm not sure we had ever gotten together as a whole group. I'm glad we did.

It only took twenty minutes (and zero dollars), but the impact was significant. The grinning faces of the men was enough, the proud chests and strong arms. But what surprised me most was the impact it had on the kids. I’m also one of their teachers. Throughout the entire day, the children had come up here and there with a particular look of confidence. “My dad fights fires,” one girl repeatedly told me. “You’re strong, Joe,” said another, “but my dad could probably carry all our backpacks by himself.” That kind of pride is worth a million dollars.

One more thing happened. Photos and words were shared with family and friends, here and there on Facebook and that kind of thing. Nobody made a huge deal of it – it wasn’t newsworthy – but in our own small way we made an impact as a group of men bonding over fatherhood. In other words, we were visible. Imagine if groups of men and fathers across the country did that. We're not just workers and providers. We're sensitive, strong and caring creatures. We love our children, and the rest of the world too. Don’t forget.

IMG_7549 - Copy.JPG

Animal Tracks in Snow: Why Curiosity May Be More Important Than Answers

“Wow, look at this one. What do you think it is, Joe?”

I spun on my heel to find Jon kneeling in the snow. One of his mittens pointed to a fresh paw print perfectly preserved in the snow. The crisp edges of the track revealed the precise placement of each toe, each pad, each nick of the nail. Down I fell, my gaze sinking into the gravity of admiration. Fully inside, my eyes traversed the highways of that singular paw as revealed in the blue-black liquor of its shadow. White.

“Coyote,” I said, sitting upright and looking into Jon’s sharp blue eyes. Animal, my animal. We looked left, then followed the tracks down the hill, across the road, and out into miles of silent snow-covered sagebrush. Every track was this perfect. Every track was this unique. Every glance, every prick, every moment of that animal embedded in a sea of crystals. The sun. There is only so much time. I stood up. “Looks like he came through recently.”

“She,” Pema answered, the muffled crunch of her snow boots approaching from behind.

“Right,” I nodded. “Could be she.”

I glanced around, eyeing the familiar landscape. A few hundred yards away a sprinkling of earth-colored houses dotted the mesa, streams of smoke hanging like windsocks from their stove pipes. In the distance, the low rumble of an engine. But there were not enough houses, and there were not enough roads, and there would never be enough trees to occlude that wilderness.

“Joe, what’s this one?”

I turned to find Jon once again huddled over a broken patch of snow.

“It’s an elk,” Pema offered.

I looked at the familiar heart-shaped print, only inches from where I had stepped earlier. The diagonal sole of a man who keeps his distance. “An elk,” I said, “but probably a mountain goat, or bighorn.”

“Or a deer!” Pema answered.

“Or a deer…” I smiled.

I walked ahead, letting the children ponder and explore. It was shortly after 9AM on Tuesday, a school day for us. Jon had just been dropped off, and the abandoned dirt road we walk each morning was fresh with new possibility. I hummed with satisfaction at having arranged this contrivance. I could have asked Jon to be dropped off at the house. But the walk from the car to the front door could not possibly brighten our senses the way this meandering dirt road does every day.

In the early fall, we had caught horny toads and whiptail lizards here. I had almost stepped on a bull snake. There had been stinkbugs, tarantulas and towers of ants, and many holes and homes we could not identify. Once, at the end our day, we had walked up a nondescript cleft in the hill, a nowhere place we had passed countless times before, and found the scattered white bones of a deer. Children love spines. A great horned owl had swooped over our heads, not just once but three times. There was thick, gloopy mud every time it rained. And one redwing blackbird. “What’s it doing up here?” my daughter had asked, revealing a sharpness every child once had.

Seasons and place. Rhythm. Common and uncommon. Half a mile of wilderness to call our own. It isn’t the earth that belongs to us, nor its stinkbugs, snakes or sage. It’s we who belong to the earth. Maybe it’s the cultivation of our senses, and the observations of our minds. They weave us, quite literally, into this place. Chasing lizards, following tarantulas, looking under rocks and smelling the dirt. Each step brings a fresh breeze. Each step makes a flower bloom under our feet. These last two lines we repeat each day on our walk, a poem we have memorized. It begins –

Take my hand

We will walk

We will only walk

We will enjoy our walk

Without thinking of arriving anywhere.

“Dad, look!”

I spun around to find Pema pointing to the side of the road. A quick glance revealed a tumble of brown dirt mixed with snow. As I drew closer, I saw that there was a hole – a large hole – dug into the side of the road. But it wasn’t just a hole. It was that hole, the same one we had stopped at many times before. As wide as my thigh, we had peered inside it on several occasions, always wondering if someone lived there. Now it was buried in snow, then unburied. The kids recognized this as plainly as I did.

“My gosh,” I said, fondling the serendipity of the moment, the exact location in spacetime when, for a second, it all made sense.

“Dad, something’s living in there.”

“Well…yeah.”

“Look! Prints!” Jon yelled.

Pema and I followed Jon’s gaze to the ground. The tracks were as smooth and pristine as the coyote’s, and the shape was familiar – a central pad surrounded by four oblong toes. But these prints were smaller and there were no claw marks, indicating the possibility of a feline, though considerably larger than a housecat. Their spacing was about six inches apart, and there was very little “dragging” of the feet in the snow, more typical of a coyote or dog.

“Joe, it’s the weasel!” Jon exclaimed. I smiled. Most of our chickens had disappeared in recent months, and we still don’t know what’s taking them. Coyotes can’t get through the fence and predatory birds aren’t large enough to carry them away. We’ve entertained the possibility of weasels, bobcats, even raccoons.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “A weasel has longer toes. Its prints look more like a squirrel, and it isn’t this big. Raccoons look like handprints, so it’s not that either. Might be a whale.” The kids laughed.

“Maybe it was a little coyote trying to eat whatever lives here?” Pema offered.

“Yeah, good guess.”

“Maybe it was a bobcat?”

“Or a fox!”

I had looked at many of the prints by now, but I couldn’t be certain. “It’s possible,” I said, then stood up and shrugged. The kids got up and raced ahead. They weren’t disappointed, because their goal wasn’t certainty. It was observation, engagement. Next time, maybe we’ll notice something else.

One of my goals as an educator is to foster a sense of confidence in a child’s direct apprehension. I wish I could do this with adults too. I know many, including myself at times, who doubt, disregard or sometimes don’t even engage their own opinions or observations, all in deference to the experts. There are aps for animal prints. There are recipes for dinnertime. There are therapists for depression. Someone always knows better. I don’t like to model that to the kids, because I want them to have something more important than the truth – a healthy regard for themselves. I want them to know that what they think matters.

This is partly what I mean by the “contrivance” of our morning walk. Jon could easily be dropped off at our house. Or, we could go on a walk from there. In fact, there’s really no reason we have to walk at all, but by “contriving” this separate drop-off spot, which we’ve fondly named Moose Crossing, we’ve created a destination which gives us our journey.

Human beings have charted most of the known world, its animals, plants and minerals. What’s more, we’ve made this info readily available. We know earth’s electromagnetic signature, the animals that no longer exist, and roughly when the sun, and therefore the earth, will end. And if we don’t, we can just look it up. This information is astounding and beautiful, but in the face of this behemoth of knowledge we small-timers sometimes believe our own observations aren’t worth much. In other words, the destination has been met. It’s been figured out. And by men and women more capable than us.

But what if it’s curiosity we seek, not just answers? It’s hard to remain curious about the changing colors of the leaves if someone has already told us, usually by the time we reach kindergarten, that it’s because of chlorophyll. How can we compete with that? Maybe its profound truth shouldn’t overwhelm us, but in answering our curiosity it often quells it.

It would be just as easy to have Jon dropped off at our house, easier probably, just like it would be easier to know. But it may be that for a human being to thrive, in all her emotional and physical complexity, she has to walk. She has to see her observations and her knowledge, not to mention her body, as the fount, or center, of everything right and true. Maybe later, in our teenage years, we can dash ourselves against the rocks of certainty. But without that foundation of inner certainty that exercise might prove dangerous. Does anyone think that intelligent people are happy? We founder, no matter how intelligent we are. We become particles orbiting the truth. I want to be the sun.

This is what I mean about the “contrivance” of walking, or not-knowing. In the modern world it may be that we are forced to contrive, or “choose”, ignorance for ourselves (and especially our children) so that we, and they, are able to sculpt it for themselves – from the inside out. At some level, we have no other choice, but the fact remains that most of us accept the fundamental truth of chlorophyll without any direct apprehension of it whatsoever. I certainly did. Do. This is the danger of knowledge, this double-edged sword that is so beautiful and so deadly. And this is why I ask Jon to be dropped off at Moose Crossing. We kneel in the snow, feel the cold air in our lungs, and scavenge those prints not to find animals or the truth but – ourselves.

“Joe, what’s this?”

I turned and spied the familiar three-pointed shape of a rabbit print, a jackrabbit to be precise. It’s not easy to make out their gait in real time, but rabbit prints in the snow make it obvious that they tend to land with both front paws in essentially the same spot, making only one hole in the snow, two more in the back. The result is an odd three-pronged track that, when accompanied by the settling of the body into the snow, resembles one large footprint with an uncanny placement of toes.

“Oh man, look at that!” I shouted, excited at what I saw.

“What, Joe?”

“Guys, that’s a jackrabbit. Look. Here. The two back legs land here,” and I pointed them out, “while the front legs land in one spot, making one hole. But look…” I pointed ahead. “Guys, this is one rabbit. It’s like, this is its whole body.” I made a rough outline of the animal’s shape. “But then, look, it jumps…” I arced my hand through the air in the direction of the next print. My own footsteps were to the side of these tracks and there were six of them between each print. “Guys, that’s more than ten feet. This jackrabbit jumps more than ten feet in one jump. And that’s in the snow!”

“Wow,” said Jon, awestruck for a moment. It was as if we could see the animal bounding and leaping before us, twitching its telltale ears.

“Maybe the coyote was chasing the rabbit!” suggested Pema. I smiled.

“You know, Joe,” said John, “In the summer, I never knew there were so many animals on the mesa. Now it’s like, wow.” I could have melted when I heard that.

“Wait till you see the mouse tracks,” I said, nearly ecstatic. “They have these little feet, and they go right across the top of the snow. They don’t sink in like the rabbits. And their little tails drag between. It’s just…I don’t know. It’s adorable.”

Jon stood up. “I want to see it,” he said.

I nodded and glanced over the mesa. This snow had given us an open book into ourselves and the animals that live in our presence. We, the animals that live in their presence. The feeling was intoxicating. There was warmth in my limbs, frost on my nose, and draughts of cold air in my lungs. These kids. Our kids. Every kid. “Me too,” I said.

*

It is enough to sit and watch one bird. It is enough to scour one track. It’s enough to feel the groove in a rock, or admire the way a blade of grass bends to touch its toes. There are salamanders everywhere. There are animals living in holes that you know nothing about. There is a breath inside your lungs, a chemistry all your own, a universe that belongs to you.

Walk, and touch peace every moment

Walk, and touch happiness every moment

Each step brings a fresh breeze

Each step makes a flower bloom under our feet

Kiss the earth with your feet

Print on earth your love and happiness

Earth will be safe

When we feel in us enough safety.

- Thich Nhat Hanh

20181113_091000.jpg

If you enjoyed this story, please share it with one friend. Part of my goal with Off Grid Kids is to demonstrate to a publisher that this subject is relevant, timely and valued. If I can supplement my income with publishing, I can maintain my work with kids without asking so much from parents. I can also keep Off Grid Kids advertising free. I’m approaching that threshold. Anything you can do to help is greatly appreciated, and word of mouth is worth a lot. Thank you.

Children and Sexuality

Warning – the following excerpt about children and sexuality is not explicit but it will shock you. If you’re easily offended, you might want to skip this one.

What is the appropriate attitude a parent or caregiver should have towards a child’s budding sexuality? In the US, we tend to sweep the subject under the rug and assume that a few good talks at puberty will somehow make up for ten to fifteen years of silence. We thought the same thing about racism for a long time too.

The result of this silence (or invisibility) in childhood is that, as adults, we tend to see our own bodies as foreign or distasteful. I am one of those unfortunate males (and there’s lots of us) who were not only bred to see our bodies and desires as sinful, but contact of almost any variety with other male bodies as homosexual. The result is that millions of men across the country (and the world) are trapped in their own bodies. Is it any wonder, then, that some of these men commit heinous crimes? Women have an entirely different set of circumstances, just as unfortunate, and then the two meet. Ugh.

We might like to think that children don’t know or care about sex, but as all parents learn – children are inherently curious. They have to be taught not to touch this or that, or that certain subjects are taboo. Instead of offering them mature advice from adults (which we do with every other subject), they are often left to figure it out on their own or with their peers.

I’m the last person who should be writing about this subject. I won’t claim any degree of health or freedom either for myself or my daughter. But in the course of my studies, I came across the following excerpt from Centuries of Childhood by Philippe Aries. The book is dry and boring, as one might imagine it to be written as it was by a Eurocentric French historian in the 1950’s. Yet, it is provocative all the same because, as all good histories reveal, our current attitudes did not always prevail. His overarching point (which has little to do with sexuality) is that, until quite recently, the entire concept of childhood was foreign (at least in Europe).

To begin with, he says, most children died before reaching adulthood. Families simply could not invest the kind of emotional attachment to children we take for granted because all too frequently they died. Typically, they were buried without so much as a name. This seems barbaric to us today, but Aries documents this and other subjects with exhaustive detail over the last thousand years, from clothing to art, to games, school, sexuality, domestic life and more.

In a chapter dedicated to the concept of age, something we take for granted without much thought, he documents exhaustively how for many centuries people had only the vaguest sense of when they were born or how old they were. This held for merchants and nobles as equally for the poor and peasants. Once a child reached the age of viability, they were simply considered a young adult, and it was not strange for a boy of ten to mingle in the company of men twenty or thirty years of age. The ten-year-old was considered a man.

The book is eye-opening, but in this essay I merely mean to quote the following excerpt about sexuality, because it caught me completely off-guard. Aries sees this behavior as perfectly in step with the lack of a developed sense of childhood then current in seventeenth century Europe.

Now, listen to this:

“One of the unwritten laws of contemporary morality, the strictest and best respected of all, requires adults to avoid any reference, above all any humorous reference, to sexual matters in the presence of children. This notion was entirely foreign to the society of old. The modern reader of the diary in which Henri IV’s physician, Heroard, recorded the details of the young Louis XIII’s life is astonished by the liberties which people took with children, by the coarseness of the jokes they made, and by the indecency of gestures made in public which shocked nobody and which were regarded as perfectly natural.

Louis XIII was not yet one year old: ‘He laughed uproariously when his nanny waggled his cock with her fingers.’ An amusing trick which the child soon copied. Calling a page, ‘he shouted, “Hey, there!” and pulled up his robe, showing him his cock.’

He was one year old: ‘In high spirits,’ notes Heroard, ‘he made everybody kiss his cock.’ This amused them all. Similarly everyone considered his behavior towards two visitors, a certain de Bonieres and his daughter, highly amusing: ‘He laughed at him, lifted up his robe and showed him his cock, but even more so to his daughter, he then, holding it and giving his little laugh, shook the whole of his body up and down.’ They thought this so funny that the child took care to repeat a gesture which had been such a success; in the presence of a ‘little lady’, ‘he lifted up his coat, and showed her his cock with such fervor that he was quite beside himself.’

[At this point, you might be wondering if these liberties were reserved for males. Admittedly, Aries largely reports on boys because they are the ones for whom there are records. However, what’s important here isn’t so much the specific actions of any child or adult, but the prevailing attitude which is well documented in both men and women.]

During his first three years nobody showed any reluctance or saw any harm in jokingly touching the child’s sexual parts. ‘The Marquise often put her hand under his coat; he got his nanny to lay him on her bed where she played with him, putting her hand under his coat.’ ‘Mme de Verneuil wanted to play with him and took hold of his nipples; he pushed her away, saying: “Let go, let go, go away.” He would not allow the Marquise to touch his nipples, because his nanny had told him: “Monsieur, never let anybody touch your nipples, or your cock, or they will cut it off.” He remembered this.’ Again: ‘When he got up, he would not take his shirt and said: “Not my shirt, I want to give you all some milk from my cock.” We held out our hands, and he pretended to give us all some milk, saying: “Pss, pss,” and only then agreeing to take his shirt.’

It was a common joke, repeated time and again, to say to him: ‘Monsieur, you haven’t got a cock.’ Then, ‘he replied: “Hey, here it is!” – laughing and lifting it up with one finger.’ These jokes were not limited to the servants, or to brainless youths, or to women of easy virtue such as the King’s mistress. The Queen, his mother, made the same sort of joke: ‘The Queen, touching his cock, said: “Son, I am holding your spout.”’ Even more astonishing is this passage: “He was undressed and Madame too [his sister], and they were placed naked in bed with the King, where they kissed and twittered and gave great amusement to the King. The King asked him: “Son, where is the Infanta’s bundle [the Infanta of Spain, to which the little prince was engaged]?” He showed it to him, saying: “There is no bone in it, Papa.” Then, as it was slightly distended, he added: “There is now, there is sometimes.”

The Court was amused, in fact, to see his first erections: ‘Waking up at eight o’clock, he called Mlle Bethouzay and said to her: “Zezai, my cock is like a drawbridge; see how it goes up and down.” And he raised it and lowered it.’

‘He stood between the legs of Mme de Montglat [his governess, a very dignified, highly respectable woman, who however did not seem to be put out – any more than Heroard was – by all these jokes which we would consider insufferable today]. The King said: “Look at Madame de Montglat’s son: she has just given birth.” He went straight away and stood between the Queen’s legs.

[Aries goes on and on here, including other families and children, so I’m editing out some of the countless examples. We then continue.]

Nowadays the physical contacts described by Heroard would strike us as bordering on sexual perversion and nobody would dare to indulge in them publicly. This was not the case at the beginning of the seventeenth century. There is an engraving of 1511 depicting a holy family: St Anne’s behavior strikes us as extremely odd – she is pushing the child’s thighs apart as if she wanted to get at its privy parts and tickle them.

The practice of playing with children’s privy parts formed part of a widespread tradition, which is still operative in Moslem circles. These have remained aloof not only from scientific progress but also from the great moral reformation, at first Christian, later secular, which disciplined eighteenth-century and particularly nineteenth-century society in England and France. Thus in Moslem society we find features which strike us as peculiar but which the worthy Heroard would not have found so surprising. Witness this passage from a novel entitled The Statue of Salt. The author is a Tunisian Jew, Albert Memmi, and his book is a curious document on traditional Tunisian society and the mentality of the young people who are semi-Westernized. The hero of the novel is describing a scene in the tram taking him to school in Tunis:

‘In front of me were a Moslem and his son, a tiny little boy with a miniature tarboosh and henna on his hands; on my left a Djerban grocer on his way to market, with a basket between his legs and a pencil behind his ear. The Djerban, affected by the warmth and peace inside the tram, stirred in his seat. He smiled at the child, who smiled back with his eyes and looked at his father. The father, grateful and flattered, reassured him and smiled at the Djerban. “How old are you?” the grocer asked the child. “Two and a half,” replied the father. “Has the cat got your tongue?” the grocer asked the child. “No,” replied the father, “he hasn’t been circumcised yet, but he will be soon.” “Ah!” said the grocer. He had found something to talk about to the child. “Will you sell me your little animal?” “No!” said the child angrily. He obviously knew what the grocer meant, and the same offer had already been made to him. I too [the Jewish child] was familiar with this scene. I had taken part in it in my time, provoked by other people, with the same feelings of shame and desire, revulsion and inquisitive complicity. The child’s eyes shone with the pleasure of incipient virility and also revulsion at this monstrous provocation. He looked at his father. His father smiled: it was a permissible game [Aries’s italics]. Our neighbors watched the traditional scene with complaisant approval. “I’ll give you ten francs for it,” said the Djerban. “No!” said the child. “Come now, sell me your little…” the Djerban went on. “No! No!” “I’ll give you fifty francs for it.” “No!” “I’ll go as high as I can: a thousand francs!” “No!” The Djerban assumed an expression of greediness. “And I’ll throw in a bag of sweets as well!” “No! No!” “You still say no? That’s your last word?” the Djerban shouted, pretending to be angry. “You still say no?” he repeated. “No!” Thereupon the grown-up threw himself upon the child, a terrible expression on his face, his hand brutally rummaging inside the child’s fly. The child tried to fight him off with his fists. The father roared with laughter, the Djerban convulsed with amusement, while our neighbors smiled broadly.’

You can imagine my surprise as I read this passage one morning while my daughter slept nearby.

Having lived my whole life with the sense that sexuality is taboo, as an adult I have a somewhat stunted relationship to my own sexuality. Many of my friends report the same. I’m not condoning the behavior of the men and women depicted here, but I was shocked to learn how comfortable everyone seemed to be with the subject, both at home in the family and in public with strangers, between children, between children and adults, etc. – and not more than a few hundred years ago. Surely, Aries hasn’t covered the subject with absolute exhaustion (there must have been some dissent back then, too), but this reading exploded the notion I had always had, which is that for many hundreds of years Europeans have been prudes.

But more than that, it forced me to think about my own behavior and that of my daughter. I so deeply want her to grow up with a healthy sexuality. In part, that means protecting her, but I believe it simultaneously means somehow modeling to her that her body and sexuality is wonderful and healthy. How do we balance that? Is it right to think that we can just ignore it for ten to fifteen years, and then “have a talk”? I doubt it. I bet the healthiest people in the world (and maybe they don’t grow up in Europe and never did) learn at an early age that their bodies are lovely, that there’s no reason to hide from them or think they’re dirty, etc.

I know this topic will set some people off, so forgive me. I honestly don’t know what to do, or think. All I really know is that what I’ve learned isn’t enough. And what Aries’s excerpt reveals to me is that it hasn’t always been this way, even for our recent European ancestors.

My daughter knows what a vagina is (how could she not?). Every child discovers his private parts. To date, if my daughter asks me a question, or touches herself in a way that discomforts me, I mostly just feign ignorance, as though I don’t even notice. That feels neither right nor mature. It feels wimpy, in fact. And I don’t want to be a wimp.

I don’t think our society knows what’s right. Wanton sexuality like Aries’s reports doesn’t strike me as health. Neither does the prudishness of our current society. How do we as parents help our children evolve into something better? That’s probably one of the hardest questions for me.

20181103_094757.jpg

A Glimpse at Childhood Without Media

Note - this essay was subsequently published on fatherly.com as My 7-Year-Old Doesn’t Watch Any TV, and has gathered a bit of attention. You can read it there, but both articles are essentially the same.

This is a brief account of a child who lives in the modern world without any media. She is my daughter.

Let me begin by saying that I like you. Regardless of the choices I make, or how we might agree or disagree, I also respect the choices you make. What I share here has nothing to do with what you should be doing. It is simply a window into our life, a life that is disappearing as we (myself included) are increasingly surrounded by media and technology. Actually, it’s not so much disappearing as reappearing.

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where I watched plenty of TV. Back then (the 80’s and 90’s), we still called it TV because computers and video-on-demand weren’t readily available. We didn’t have cable at my house, or a VCR until I was in high school, but that didn’t hold me back. I watched cartoons most mornings before school, most Saturday mornings, game shows in the early evening, and eventually more adult shows and movies as I got older. On a whim, I gave up TV in 2003, my first year out of college, but I continued to watch movies here and there with friends and family. Eventually, I gave those up too. I now watch nothing at all. Except, of course, the world is still here and I watch that in real time.

Aside from the lack of media, my daughter and I are basically modern and normal. I have a bank account and a car. We go the grocery store and buy our clothes from retailers. Her mother and I are divorced, which is sort of normal. I even have a blog. The title is Off Grid Kids, which implies something not normal, but if you met us at the playground you wouldn’t guess it. We did live off the grid for some of her childhood, but we no longer do.

Still, I would be disingenuous to claim that we’re average. To begin with, we live in New Mexico, which pretty much defines us as weirdos. We live at the end of a long dirt road, and from our house we can walk into miles of unpopulated wilderness. We commonly do. But so do lots of other people and it’s not like we’re walking around in buckskins. My daughter likes pink dresses. I wear sweatpants. All made in China, as it should be.

The other day I was talking with a friend. Our children both attended the same school, an outdoor kindergarten called the Earth Children. Our kids are close like siblings, and for a period we even lived together. It was another parent we were commenting on, gossiping as we sometimes like to do. This parent, whose daughter is a few years older than mine, is raising her daughter without any media and had expressed to my friend how that’s occasionally challenging because other families just couldn’t quite relate. So, we were smiling and clapping ourselves on the back, expressing our gratitude for each other, when it suddenly dawned on me just how weird we are.

When I say that my daughter has no media in her life, what I mean is that she never regularly watches: movies, TV, videos, computer games or anything. She has seen one full-length movie in her life, Mary Poppins. She loved it, of course. Two years ago, she watched Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with Grandma and Grandpa, the classic clay-animation that I watched every year as a child. A few years ago, when she had the flu, we watched a few nature documentaries, but I’ve stopped doing that because I no longer need them. Besides, we get plenty of well-documented nature at home. She has also seen bits and parts of movies or videos here and there with friends or family. This summer, having watched twenty-minutes of some recent animated movie on an outdoor screen at a park with her cousins, she told me later with both excitement and confusion how, “a coyote, who was really a person, had scared someone and their head fell off.” She couldn’t quite make sense of it.

If we happen into a restaurant with a TV behind the bar, my daughter will twist around in her seat to watch replays of NFL football, commercials or news anchors on mute. I don’t stop her. On occasion, she sees short videos or clips from Facebook or that kind of thing, but I’d estimate less than five a month. To my knowledge, that’s the extent of what she’s seen. She’ll be seven years old in January.

Now, why am I such a terrible and mean-spirited father? If my daughter, in the last seven years of life, has watched what the average child does in one week (2 hrs/day according to PBS), I must be exceptionally severe. There must be a lot of crying and stoicism in our house. I bet you eat porridge. Without salt.

But here’s the thing, and this is exactly what was lighting up my conversation with my friend the other day. Our children are thriving. You might suspect that my daughter is wheedling me here and there to watch movies, or feels left out. But that’s not the case at all. You might be shocked to hear this, but the number of minutes my daughter has spent asking me to watch a video is – are you ready for this? – zero minutes. It has never happened once.

It never happens because it’s not in our life. It’s a total non-existence, like eating snails. She never asks for those either. Since she never sees me (or her mother) watching TV, she doesn’t expect to do it either. But the main reason it doesn’t happen is because we don’t not-do things. We don’t spend even one minute not-watching TV. We spend all of them eating or talking, playing and walking or any of the myriad things we do. Let me share just one of them.

There are millions of ways for children to express their creativity (including clever jokes and allusions to TV characters). My daughter does it in all sorts of ways, but she’s recently taken to drawing. She cannot read or write yet (which might also shock a few parents), but she will sometimes produce as many as thirty drawings in an evening. They’re books. She numbers the pages, each one a scene in a colorful story full of actions and subtle details. Not one thing is extraneous. From the outside they appear like any children’s drawings, no better or worse, but it’s what’s happening inside that floors me.

As she creates these drawings, she is telling herself the story. Her characters might appear simple on the page (she’s not a masterful drawer), but to her they are full of life and action. One page is not merely a scene in a story, it is alive with purpose and emotion, both happy and sad. Watching her draw (and become alive in her stories) is sometimes so intimate and endearing that I have to fade to the background, lest I intrude on what rightly belongs to her.

This goes on for hours.

I never asked my daughter to draw anything. I never suggested that she make a book. She spontaneously chose it. Months ago, she played with a set of matryoshkas (Russian nesting dolls) in much the same way. In a pinch, she’ll do it with stones.

All children have this imaginative world. I’m not suggesting my daughter has something unique. I’m simply reporting that the experience of her interior life is full of joy and possibility. She wastes no time, literally none, wishing she had something else (like a video to watch). She’s just fully present, and with little need for guidance or support. Maybe she’d be just as happy and robust if she were watching cartoons. Maybe everyone’s children are like this. Maybe I’m not reporting anything unique or useful.

But here’s the thing. I’m also a teacher, a mentor and a caregiver. I spend the bulk of my waking hours with children, and not just my own. I’ve seen the kids who are trapped in their movies. It affects their games, their ideas, their clothes, masks and – here’s the kicker – their relationships. It’s sometimes exhausting to us adults, but imagine what’s going on for the children themselves. At a young age, indeed often right as they develop into consciousness from infancy, they see themselves and their world through the eyes of those characters. I’m not suggesting this is terrible, or that my daughter is substantially different, just that the imaginative world which she sometimes inhabits is entirely her own. It belongs completely and fully to her, and no one else. My friend’s son is much the same (and the daughter of our common friend). The fluidity of their play is breathtaking.

Why would that be important? First of all, let’s be honest and say that we don’t really know. No one does. I want to reiterate that I’m not writing this to convince you or anyone else to live like we do. I like diversity. And it may well prove out that a certain amount of screen time is actually better for a developing child. Maybe my daughter will be left behind, and essays like this will be laughed at and forgotten, like the Y2K bug.

But I don’t think so. I think my daughter, and others like her, will grow up to be clear-headed and self-directed. I think she’ll have an advantage. She’s just as bright and crisp as the rest of America’s children, but she has no baggage from boredom. There’s nothing lacking for her, like there appears to be in some kids who have a managed amount of screen time. Maybe it would be best to simply let them have all they wanted. At least they wouldn’t be missing something.

If my daughter can carry that creativity and presence through her teenage and early adult years, I believe she’ll have a gift that few of us adults have these days: she might like herself. She might have peace. Maybe she’ll know how to spend her evenings and weekends. Slicing apples with a friend or lover might be enough to make her laugh. Maybe she won’t do anything all that interesting, maybe she won’t be successful in the eyes of her peers, but maybe, if she’s lucky, she’ll just like what she’s doing all the time. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Fifteen years ago, I gave away my TV. It was just a test. Would I miss it? Would I become untrustworthy? Would I no longer be able to make informed decisions? In time, I found myself more in touch with my internal creativity. I gave up newspapers and magazines. I became a storyteller and a singer, then a father. These were talents I had never recognized in myself before and they caught me by surprise. Today, I sit on the ground and arrange leaves, twigs and berries, often while a handful of children play nearby. I feel like I’m the king of the world.

20181027_080715.jpg

Lying in the Forest is Enough

“Joe! Look!”

I turned, then hunched slightly to peer under the canopy of green forest. About a hundred feet away, the floor of dry cinnamon needles gave way to the excited steps of one of my students. Army green boots. His arms were cupped as if carrying a heavy load of firewood. The vertebrae in his hands, still nearly intact, gleamed vibrant and white on this cloudy day. I smiled.

“That’s quite a load there,” I said, shaking my head incredulously. The vertebrae protruded from both sides of his elbows, the occasional spear of a rib giving an inkling of the size of the beast. “That’s no deer,” I said.

“What do you think it is, Joe?” By now, my student had caught up with me and was heading for the car.

“I don’t know…maybe an elk?”

“I’m going to put it with my other bones in the car.”

I thought for a second. I didn’t mind the bones in my little car, but the separate piles – one on a pink booster seat in the back and one spilling over our belongings on the passenger seat – were starting to become unseemly.

“Let’s keep the bones out here,” I said, spreading my palms wide to indicate the natural storage container of the earth.

“Aww, Joe…”

“Naw, we can take them. I just think it would be better if we kept them in piles out here. Then we put them in the trunk when we leave.” I grabbed a handful of bones from the front seat, the curving arc of a rib snagging on my daughter’s winter jacket.

“Daddy!”

“Yeah, pup.”

“Look what I found!”

We had come to this muddy canyon to cut wood with a friend of mine. After clearing some trash and identifying a few dead limbs, we took turns cutting some thick branches with a bow saw. The kids, only six and seven, were eager to prove their strength, but their attention was distracted by the real excitement – we had been talking about this for weeks – which lay snarling in the back of my friend’s pickup truck.

I never touched a chainsaw till I was twenty-nine, but I made up for those three decades over the course of several winters in the mountains. One particularly fruitful autumn, my friends and I put up about twenty cords. I prepared for those days as if for God’s interview. Kevlar chaps, leather gloves, tattered denim shirt and a sooty old pair of Carhartts. Iron pumping in my fists, I crashed my way through scrub oaks and over downed trees, which lay like pickup sticks on the steep slopes of the earth. Trigger. Snarrrrrllll…! I can still hear the high-pitched squeal of a chain too loose, the muffled roar of the saw buried in a trunk, my own voice, silent and throaty, as I reared that masterpiece against the woody skeleton of God’s creation. Death is me, and I am death.

“Dad, can we keep them?”

“The bones? Yeah…let’s just keep them out here for now.”

The kids deposited their finds, then raced off in new directions like ants. I had planned on cutting wood most of the day, but we gave up on that soon after discovering the chain was a bit too dull. We hadn’t given up, actually. First, my friend filed and sharpened the teeth, which the kids got to watch. They stared as he filled the gas and oil tanks, then adjusted the tension with the chuck. We talked about the importance of eye and ear protection. My friend is a wiry and aging hippie-biologist. The pink earmuffs he donned were darling.

We put ours on too, then watched as he pull-started the engine. “Sounds like your old car, Joe. Glug-glug-glug-glug.” It’s true. We watched him slice through a few logs, not exactly like butter, then kill the engine. Lips pressed together, he shook his head, then took of his pink muffs. “I’m going to go home and get a new chain,” he said.

“You sure?” I asked. Home was just a few miles away, but I didn’t want to take up more of his time. He was doing this as a favor for me and the kids (I don’t own a chainsaw, or a truck).

“You know,” he said, more to the kids than to me, “I usually carry a box with extra chains and tools with me. I figured we were just going to cut a little bit today, so I didn’t bring it.” He raised his shoulders and feigned a smile. “I should have brought it.”

We followed deer tracks as my friend drove home for the chains. The little canyon had a wash about the width of a truck, full of sand and stones. That’s the route it took, and we followed gratefully. Along the muddy banks, we found colorful stones, old roots and even a small bird’s nest. “Who do you think made it, Joe?” one of the kids asked, touching the soft grass cup with two delicate little fingers. He turned and looked at me with the kind of eyes that think I should know this kind of thing.

I should know this kind of thing.

A little way further, the wash gave way to an open meadow. I pointed out the ponderosas to the southeast slope, then turned northwest and looked over a sea of juniper and pinyon. “How come there’s no ponderosas over there?” I asked, as much to myself as the kids.

“Hey look!” my daughter shouted, then pulled a bone from a pile of bark and twigs. I was about to say, “neat,” or something like that, but was interrupted by my other student shouting, “Hey! More!” Within a few minutes, dashing under trees and through fences, the kids had a tangle of bones in their hands. One of the leg bones reminded me of the Flintstones.

We walked back and found my friend kneeling over the chainsaw. Once, before I had understood the workings of the engine, I had been unable to choke-start the saw and was kicking about with frustration. Another friend, a sixty-nine year old woman, happened by and offered to lay her hands on it as if to give it Reiki.

“Sorry, guys,” my friend said, looking disappointingly at the children’s eyes. “Looks like the guy I lent my saw to last used up all the chains. I thought I had one or two more, but…nope.” The kids were more excited about the bones at this point, so there was little disappointment. “I’ll need to take these in to the shop and have them sharpened,” he said. Anyway, it hadn’t been a bust. The kids saw the chain, the engine, watched a few cuts, and now had even seen the guts of the saw opened up and put back together. That was the important lesson.

We ate lunch. The smell of fermented pine needles mixed with the taste of sandwiches and nuts, and between mouthfuls we eyed the canyon and talked about our days. Spying the ponderosas to one side, I repeated my question from earlier. My friend explained that they were on the southeast slope (facing north) because that’s where they were modestly protected from the sun. “They need more water,” he said. My daughter identified the four cardinal directions, there being no visible landmarks save the sun, which lay behind a thick bank of clouds.

After lunch, my friend excused himself then rose to say goodbye. He had things to do, he said. We did too. I thanked him, then laid on my back. The kids put their lunches away, then propped their heads on me, one on the shoulder, one on the belly. We laid that way for some time, just listening to the silence.

Children don’t need teachers. They need parents, aunties, uncles, etc. who show up for them. They need mentors – examples of men and women who are happy, healthy and holy (or profane). Children are innately capable and bright. They will spontaneously teach themselves whatever the adults in their lives are doing. If those adults are healthy, the children by and large are too. If the adults are exhausted, stressed or distracted, then the children by and large are too. Sending kids to school would make sense if we lived in a society of content and sympathetic people. Maybe it would even be okay that the oceans were full of plastic. But they’re not, and it’s not, so I’m working for something far more radical than a change in the school system, and far more radical than green energy. I know it sounds crazy, but I’m working towards making it okay to spend the day lying in a forest with children.

20181018_140053.jpg

The Magic of Reading

The Magic of Reading is the title of a little-known but influential technical paper written by Bill Hill, an early innovator hired by Microsoft to develop ClearType typography, a readable text for the computer screen. Written in 1999, when internet developers were beginning to capture the confidence of the general population (and their credit cards), the paper, a genius exploration of the history of reading, characterized a decisive shift in the evolution of the written word, the moment when tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft began searching for a viable alternative to print.

Hill’s story is intriguing because it gives us an example of the kind of foresight and hindsight that results from the twin engines of need and innovation. Hill was a journalist, not a computer programmer, academic or historian, but he was admired by people as diverse as fellow journalists and coworkers, tech bloggers, corporate executives and naturalists. In his 2012 obituary in Forbes Magazine, he was referred to as, “one of the greats.”

I heard about Hill through Jon Young, a naturalist and “master tracker” whose book What the Robin Knows summarizes his research into the impact of nature on human intelligence. Young and Hill share a common interest, from widely disparate fields, in the cognition of patterns, and the two refer to each other fondly in their respective work.

Drawing on a century of research, Hill suggests that the ability to read stems from millions of years of pattern recognition hardwired into the human brain, like the colors and shapes of fruits and other foods, footpaths in a field or forest, and the tracks of animals in dirt. This is where Hill and Young overlap. Young, who has spent decades working with the Kalahari Bushmen and other indigenous tribes, describes what he calls a “master tracker” as someone not only able to follow a herd of antelope but capable of tracking specific individuals within it. His books and talks are full of examples that mystify the modern mind, and raise a healthy amount of skepticism. To a modern reader, his stories are almost unbelievable and that is largely his point.

To an illiterate person, the skill of reading is a sort of magic. Simply by looking at a handful of arranged symbols, one can instantaneously decode some of the most advanced knowledge ever acquired by human beings. So, says Jon Young, can we compare a human with no tracking skill to one who has it. To solidify his point, he explains the difference between a “tracker” and a “master tracker,” which might be likened to the difference between a fifth-grader and a college professor.

A tracker is someone with a developing knowledge of animal tracks, calls, patterns, etc. He sees the tracks and understands their meaning, though, like a fifth-grader, he may need to “look up” the answer from time to time. But a master tracker, says Young, no longer sees the tracks. He sees the animal. His skill is so advanced that the tracks and patterns recede to the background as he reads the landscape of meaning in real time. To the modern person this sounds unbelievable, and his stories are full of unbelievable acts, but, and this is where Hill chimes in – it is precisely what you are doing right now as you read this sentence.

In The Magic of Reading, Hill, drawing on Young’s work, describes the master tracker as a master reader, or, in his words a “ludic” reader, meaning, “someone who reads for pleasure,” which is apparently ludicrous.

“Ludic reading is an extreme case of reading, in which the process becomes so automatic that readers can immerse themselves in it for hours, often ignoring alternative activities such as eating or sleeping (and even working)… Even at the low (for ludic readers) reading speed of 240 words per minute (wpm), a one-hour reading session – which in the context of the book classifies as a short read – the reader will read some 14,400 words.”

Have you ever been lost in a book? If so, it may not be so hard to imagine a ludic reader of the landscape, a master tracker, getting lost in the story of the animal kingdom. But Hill goes on -

“For very short-duration reading tasks, such as reading individual emails, readers are prepared to put up with poor display of text. They have learned to live with it for short periods. But the longer the read, the more faults in display, layout and rendering begin to irritate and distract the reader’s attention to content. The consequence is that a task that should be automatic and unconscious begins to make demands on conscious cognitive processing. Reading becomes hard work.”

Seen that before?

“The massive growth in the use of the internet over the past few years has actually led to an increase in the number of documents being printed, although these documents are delivered in electronic form which could be read without the additional step of printing. Why? Because reading on screen is too much like hard work. People use the internet to find information – not to read it.”

In other words, as Jon Young quotes Hill, “a good font is one that disappears." And that is precisely how he describes the skill of a master tracker, who reads the story of an animal crossing the desert as effortlessly as we read the meaning of words across the page.

In one of his talks, Young describes a boy he once mentored who was having a hard time. The child was in sixth grade but was reading at a first grade level, and his parents were worried because he was becoming irritable at home and at school. Young took the boy outside and initiated him in the rudiments of tracking, meaning they spent many hours in silence and observation. But, and Young makes this point several times, never once did he provide any tutoring or help with language skills. Two years later, however, the boy was scoring in the 99th percentile for reading comprehension at his grade level and showed a marked improvement in his confidence and disposition.

Stories like this are anecdotal, but it helps sum up the comprehensive picture of reading that Hill fits into an evolutionary framework. If we want kids that read well, we might wish to remember that reading skills derive from millions of years of studying the earth. Only recently have we turned that skill into the orientation of text on paper, and now on screen. Regular and focused attention in nature might be one of the best ways to set the stage for a child's education, and keep it tuned.

Last spring, as school for the Earth Children, our outdoor kindergarten, was winding down, we were sitting in the middle of the labyrinth. It was morning circle and after singing a few songs and invoking the day we were discussing what would be our last journey to Bone Canyon, a small isolated canyon which often served as our classroom throughout the year. Suddenly, one of the kids shouted, “look!” and pointed to a small ant crawling over the gravel. This labyrinth being like most others, there was a small collection of crystals and colorful objects in the center, and, this ant being like most other ants, it had managed to pick up something absurdly large – a piece of fractured selenite. We all marveled.

“How can it…? Look how big it is!” said one child. We watched as the ant tripped and clambered over gravel and stone, the sheer weight of the crystal in its jaws frequently causing it to fall. But it didn’t let go. Occasionally, the crystal would drop on the far side of a rounded stone and the ant, dangling in the air, would pump its tiny legs furiously in the air. We giggled. But it always recaptured its footing, and it never gave up.

After watching for several minutes, another child asked, “where’s it going?” Two or three of us popped our heads up and glanced around. About ten yards away was a large nest, of the pyramid type common here in New Mexico. Hundreds of ants were coming and going with an assortment of moth wings, dried caterpillars, plant bits and several other dead ants. These pyramids, which are made from uniformly sized grains of colorful stone, are masterful works of art, and the community of insects in the foreground was reminiscent of images from Teotihuacan or Egypt.

“Why is it taking a crystal?” asked a third child. My thoughts exactly.

“Look, there’s another!” shouted a fourth. Sure enough, there was a second ant with a second rod of selenite. One ant might be an anomaly, a mistaken pheromone or two, but two ants…? What on earth were they doing with these crystals? And how many had they already secreted to their vault? Were they somehow useful? Tasty? Or just treasure? Whatever it was, it opened our eyes for a moment.

The earth is never as simple as it appears. Ants become apothecaries. Children become doctors. Text becomes meaning. As a culture, we have become fairly good at teaching children to read, but we have often relegated that instruction to walled classrooms. What we learn there, via text and video, is useful, but sort of two-dimensional – knowledge without experience, knowledge without sense. Smell. Touch. Listen. Run. If we rescue reading and education from the classroom and reintroduce them like wild species into our children’s lives on the earth – literally in the dirt – maybe we will raise children who are capable of reading the entire landscape of our century. Maybe we will raise children who are knowledgeable, capable, wise and happy.

ant carrying a tiny selenite crystal.jpg

--

You can find Bill Hill’s paper The Magic of Reading here - https://www.scribd.com/document/77983392/The-Magic-of-Reading-by-Bill-Hill

Jon Young’s talk at Schumacher College - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQ87-DfLkz0

How Much Earth Does a Child Need in Her Education?

“The study of evolution is largely the study of trade-offs. Becoming better in some respects requires becoming worse in others, which in part explains why life consists of a diversity of forms rather than one all-purpose species… Factual knowledge of one’s physical and social environment is useful for many purposes… However, it appears that factual knowledge is not always sufficient by itself to motivate adaptive behavior. At times a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality fares better. In addition, the effectiveness of some symbolic systems evidently requires believing that they are factually correct. Constructing a symbolic system designed to motivate action is a substantially different cognitive task than gaining accurate factual knowledge of one’s physical and social environment. Somehow the human mind must do both…” David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral

“Imagination is supported as a ‘phase’ in a child’s ‘development’ rather than being appreciated as a fundamental intelligence.” Shaun McNiff in the foreword to Edith Cobb’s The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood

*

I was talking with a friend the other day about school. Both of our children attend an outdoor school, where the focus is as much about the texture of dirt on the skin as it is about letters or numbers. My friend had also returned to school to get his masters degree and we were using big phrases to wrap our minds around the subject of academic inquiry. The problem, we seemed to be saying, was that knowledge had taken over the classroom, from kindergarten to university. In his case, he lamented the reminders from professors that his papers would have to refer to the data or be judged meaningless. I mentioned my review of the Common Core State Standards as I prepared for first grade. There’s nothing wrong with the data, we agreed, but both of us sensed that something was missing.

In his groundbreaking book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv makes a similar point. Many parents sense that something is lacking in their children’s education, in other words their childhood. Like Louv, my friend and I suspect that missing element to be the earth, but it’s hard to prove that one way or another. Academic studies don’t address it. We know a lot about class size, demographics and homework, but until recently no one has tried to answer how much earth a child needs in her education.

*

I spent the last few days trying to finish this essay, then got stuck. I wrote dozens of paragraphs and deleted dozens of others, but I couldn’t seem to land anywhere. I grew increasingly frustrated and eventually stepped outside for a long walk. About an hour from home, the storm clouds that had been swirling around me finally broke and I began to get wet. I picked up my feet in the hope of making it home before long. Then I stopped.

Dropping the tension in my shoulders, I took a deep breath, filling my belly into the wet garment of my shirt. Why do I hide from this? Who is fleeing what? I stood still, listening to the multicolored earth. The rain grew heavy and the mesa swelled with rosy-brown swirls. Water dripped through my hair, down my face, soaking my shirt and pants to the skin. Underwear was wet. Butt. Feet and socks. This is what cold feels like. This is my thirty-eight year old body feeling cold. I’m magnificent, aren’t I? Half a mile back, the mountain goats, whom I had recently seen with their excitable new kids, were standing in the same rain. This rain. This storm. This mesa. This life. Warm blood filled my cold skin belly with heat from the inside, in and out. Back and forth. Tiny organisms, having never seen the light of day, traveled those currents. Inside. Me.

When I got home, I narrowed in on something I had chased around on paper for the better part of a day – I don’t believe in education. I believe in life.

20180301_091608.jpg

Building a Tiny School

In 2009, I moved into a one-room cabin in the mountains. It had a wood stove, no water, and a car battery, the latter of which was stored outside in a small wood case with a hinged door at the top. Out of curiosity, I opened it. Two mice glanced at me, twitched their whiskers, then scurried out the back. The battery kept the lights on at night, but it also gave off a little heat. Judging from the quantity of acorns I spied, it had obviously been a useful home for quite some time. A short distance away, at the top of a slender metal pole, stood a photovoltaic panel about the size of a car windshield. I was given a small broom with which to sweep it during winter snowfalls.

Four years later, having gotten married and produced a child, I left that one-room cabin and moved to town. It was a small town, but I felt the old familiarity of the big city in my genes: rental agreement, utility payments, two parking spaces… I shaved my beard and got a haircut. At first, it was sort of fun. Four years in the mountains had been euphoric, and it was no surprise that we came down with a child. But it hadn’t, perhaps, been long enough. Something happened in that big house with its large refrigerator and running taps. By the end of our lease, we had divorced.

My wife moved back to the same cabin on the same mountain. I moved to a little hut about a mile away. Our daughter, then three, walked back and forth almost daily, hand in hand with her mother or father through the woods. Once more I carried water, hauled wood. I bathed in cold rivers. We learned more in that time than I realized, that the whole mountain was our home, but it too was destined to be short-lived. My little hut, which had lain unused for several years, had recently been sold. In exchange for tidying it up a bit, I was given the pleasure of staying there, but as the oak leaves turned from green to brown it was time for me to leave.

I glanced up, twitched my whiskers, and scurried out the back.

By dumb luck, or perhaps grace, I landed in a small room at an old hippie community. I had power and water, but once again my life revolved around that one room. It couldn’t have been more than a hundred and fifty square feet, but it was enough for a bed, a work station, a teapot, couch and more. Much more. It held my file cabinets, my clothes, my daughter’s clothes, her toys, a chest of dry foods, a comfortable reading chair, two lamps, good conversation, silent moments, love, frustration and kindness. One corner had long-term storage items like wool hats, camp stoves, suits and ties, all neatly stacked like a tiny garage.

It was a good life. It was a small but good life. It was a small and good life.

In time, my relationship with my daughter flourished and I transformed from a man with a broken marriage and an uncertain future to a man with considerable power. First one friend, then another, moved to the same community. We befriended the little girl next door, and her father. Other children started showing up. In time, even my ex-wife moved there. It’s not right to say that all that happened because of me, but it is fair to say that it wouldn’t have happened without me. Without us. I was on top of the world.

Somewhere along the way I heard about tiny houses, those elegant hand-built homes built upon reinforced trailer beds. I saw a few photos online. I watched a few videos. They were filled with happy and ingenious folks sliding hardwood tables from underneath countertops, folding beds into couches, couches into walls, performing stock analyses and decorating with flair. It was like a Swiss Army house, and I wanted one.

I looked into contractors. I talked to friends. I priced trailers and spoke with a banker about loan eligibility. In the end, I didn’t follow through, but the process helped me put words to what I had found so special in my mountain cabin, my little hut, my room at the commune. A tiny house is just a trailer home. The difference is the emphasis, which is simplicity, beauty and pride rather than the poor quality and ignominy typically associated with mobile homes.

But there was something else too, and it’s come to my attention only just recently. Last February, I moved into the house of my partner, Silke. It is a beautiful and handcrafted three-story house on the Taos mesa. The woodwork is exquisite. The tile is magnificent. The layout is simple, precious and warm. But as my life and my things spread into the house I began to notice something. My mind unraveled.

Sometimes, standing in the kitchen, I’d think of something I wanted to do later. That would require something from the bedroom, so I’d make a mental note. Later, on my way to get eggs from the coop, I’d walk through the greenhouse and spy the laundry on the drying rack. “Get the basket from the laundry room,” I’d say to myself, waving my finger as if making another mental note. Stepping outside, I’d smile. Then, seeing how sunny it was, I’d wish for my hat. On the front door. Not worth it.

My life became full of such moments, minor and imperceptible moments. I had notes and lists for the important things, but often they were in the other room, or upstairs. Or, I couldn’t find a pen. The house wasn’t cluttered. My mind wasn’t cluttered. It was just kind of too big. I would sometimes recall my little room, my little hut, everything within arm’s reach. There was never an excuse not to do something, to get something, or make a note. Nothing ever got lost. Okay, sure, the room felt a little cramped at times, but on the other hand I was incredibly efficient. And happy. I could make tea, do some bookkeeping, and lend a wet stone to a passing friend – all within seconds. When my daughter came, I could fold up my work life, put my books aside, and take out a puzzle. Clear the table top, open the lid and…glancing up, they twitched their noses, then scurried out the back.

School starts in one week. In the last month, I have been converting the apartment on the backside of Silke’s house into a classroom. I’ve also moved all my things from the main house, so that the apartment doubles as my living space. I still share the kitchen with her, and occasionally a bed, but when my daughter stays with me we sleep in the apartment. We have our clothes here, our books, our tools and stuff. This very second, I’m writing from within the apartment. We call it the Desert Cave, the main house being the Mountain Spirit, because, as my daughter says, “Silke likes mountains and spirits.” Good choice. The mountain cabin was called Bluebird.

On one hand, this reveals a thing or two about my relationship with Silke, but on the other hand it’s honest. It keeps us light. The goal is love and laughter, not an undeviating devotion to the script of romance. But all this is moot. The purpose of my essay is not to talk about tiny houses or my personal history, but I needed to lay that out in order to introduce the concept now growing in my mind: tiny school.

Throughout the last few weeks, I’ve been discretely attaching blackboards to the backsides of cabinet doors, testing liquid chalk markers on my window panes, sliding mattresses behind draperies, and generally pretending to live a secret life, a secret life of school and mystery. Basically, I’ve been having a blast.

Because I am searching for ways to quickly and repeatedly convert my living space into a classroom, and vice versa, it dawned on me recently that I’m building a tiny school. Beyond the doors and hinges, I am sourcing materials and tools that are small, multi-purpose and ultra-efficient. And, like a tiny house, the physical aspects of the school are merely a response to the energy and drive of its inhabitants. I’ve spent the last forty-eight hours fantasizing about a nation of tiny schools, aligned with integrity, righteousness and bravado, but with a diversity almost incomprehensible in the modern world. Isn’t that what growing up used to be?

I’ve recently discovered liquid chalk markers. I can source them for $3 at Pam’s Unicorn School Supply, where Pam lovingly stocks a perfectly human helter-skelter of school-related supplies, or I can find them for about $1 online. They are non-toxic, literally just chalk mixed with water, and they can write on any window or non-porous surface. Like my car. They wipe off with a rag, leave no residue and have no odor (like dry-erase markers). The particles of dust that fall to the earth are made of chalk, originally limestone formed from the calcium carbonate found in marine shells, and now usually gypsum, a naturally occurring mineral deposit. I have yet to find refillable markers, but that gives my class and I the chance to experiment with crushing chalk in mortar and pestle, mixing in water, straining through cheesecloth, then finding a way to unscrew or unglue one of the markers – ergh, uh, teeth – refill it, and put the tip back on. Even if we’re not successful we’re still successful, know what I mean? And with one of these in my pack, I can now take my class almost anywhere and quickly and easily iterate letters, numbers, words and equations, then disappear. Tiny school.

But in order to express this idea at its full depth, one needs to transcend the physical stuff. My school is comprised of one adult and three students. Here’s what a day looks like: we begin with a walk, checking in casually about our mornings and how we’re doing, maybe talking about the day, then we hold silence, reciting a brief walking meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh. Once at the classroom (my apartment), we set our things in our cubbies then share a brief morning verse to signal the start of our day. Opening the bathroom door, a fact we can routinely laugh about, a large door-sized chalkboard is revealed. The children watch as I write out the day of the week, the date, etc. Then we begin our main lesson, writing, math or what have you. If needed, we spin our seats around and I use the chalk marker on the large south facing window. Ignore the chickens. No wait, don’t ignore them. Wait, what if we can’t learn because of all the distractions in our lives? Don’t listen. Chickens are healthy. We are not morons. Focus doesn’t come about because of a lack of distraction. Focus comes from within. This is what we’re here to learn. Stay sharp. After an hour, I put away the lessons and give the kids a cutting board and knives. We cut apples for snack, or peel peanuts out of their shells. Something physical. Something requiring dexterity. If we had a math lesson about halves and quarters, we take a moment to halve and quarter our apples. How many peanuts are inside one shell? Snack over, we turn to individual work based on the main lesson, maybe sorting and counting polished stones, maybe playing a game with number cards, maybe just practice writing. At any point, both during main lesson and throughout the day, I can retreat from my high position at the chalkboard, to sit low on the carpet (wool carpet, nice right?), and work with the kids up close. Back and forth. Back and forth. Converting, shifting, resizing. Tiny School.

Around eleven-thirty, we pack up and get dressed. We walk a half mile or so to meet up with another group in an isolated canyon nearby. We play a circle game or jump rope to bond the groups, then sit down for lunch, during which we tend to the sky, the trees, the lizards and birds. Occasionally, there are snakes and we giggle and shout till we settle back down. After lunch, we rest and listen to a story from one of the teachers. In time, as the kids age, maybe they start telling the stories. After story, there is time for free play, then we walk back home. Or school, sorry. I meant school. We set our things back in our cubbies, then revisit main lesson from the morning, giving space for lots of questions. Around two-thirty, we pack up once more and walk back out to the pick-up spot, a half mile or so away. Along the way we talk freely, or notice the lizards are getting fatter. There is no homework. Just a chance to be alive.

Tiny school.

The tiny house movement revolutionized the concept of a trailer home by focusing on pride, craftsmanship and simplicity. We take it for granted that anyone living in a tiny house has certain values: a desire to live simply and leave a small footprint. What some of us find, however, is that regardless of whether one values the earth or its resources, our lives become more clear, concise and cohesive when we live in a small space. A tiny school is similar.

A tiny school has fewer resources (meaning less money) than a traditional school, but when we recognize that the relationship between child and adult is meaningful, even paramount, we begin to see its advantages. What exactly is it we wish to teach our children? Is it math and science? Good literature? For me, it’s happiness and peace within. And if it’s good literature, we can hit that up too. In fact, because we’re so small and mobile, we can do pretty much anything we want. We start to recognize that the earth is our school, and the students begin to see that their education belongs to them, not me, not adults, and that it arises from within. The teacher becomes less of a filler-upper and more of a pilot. “Where does water come from?” asks the child. “Oh, I know where to take us,” says the pilot.

A tiny school is not physically much different than a home school. In fact, it’s essentially the same thing. But just like a tiny house freed folks from the ignominy of a trailer home, a tiny school gives us language that can lift us up. Euphemism is great, isn’t it? Home schools can be incredible, but outside the home school community, the word has a mostly negative connotation. One thinks of religious fanatics, lazy parents and socially awkward adolescents. We need to change that, and language, coupled with some good boots on the ground (which we already know are there), is sometimes a good place to start.

But a tiny school is more than a home school too. I know four independent teachers who have a class exactly as I’m describing, even a little larger, okay a lot larger, whose students are not their children. These are teachers, men and women, who believe so securely in their community’s education that they have retreated to the jungle to escape the tendrils of incorporated schooling. I sometimes call them guerrilla teachers, but tiny school is going to get better publicity, no? And don't we know that there are thousands more in this country already?

There’s good reason to believe that tiny schools – and imagine a whole forest of them – could revolutionize the way we educate our children. Slow as concepts like eating locally and using less energy are to seep into the national consciousness, there is a growing awareness. Superficial as our efforts might be to buy locally and resist the affordable products at Walmart and Amazon (I’m trying Pam!), Americans are starting to get the message. It might not be too long before parents and educators start waking up to the nationalized, corporate structure of the classroom, including its focus on industrial efficiency, and start wanting something a little closer to home. We want efficiency too, but a different kind altogether.

Take the Prius for example. Have you heard of the various Prius groups around the country? The car is now fairly common (1.6 million sold in the US in the last decade) and its mileage and data are so accessible to drivers that fanatic owners are now competing for the highest miles per gallon, the longest distance traveled on a full tank of gas, etc. Instead of who can drive the fastest, or the longest, it’s a competition for who can use the least amount of resources. Imagine if we looked at education that way.

How do we raise the happiest, healthiest, smartest human beings on the planet while simultaneously using less resources? Isn’t it obvious that pouring more money into our school systems isn’t doing it? Sure, there’s no sense in limiting our kids to an abacus and two sheets of papyrus, but I’d venture to say that no student has ever benefitted from the chaotic decor of the modern classroom, with its number lines, cartoon alphabets, birthday boards, tubs of materials, fake trees, rubberized flooring, lesson books and photos of African animals. Give them the real thing, the earth. The animals and plants are right under our fingertips.

But here’s the biggest challenge – give them you. We’re already smart. We already know how to read. We know how to write. We’re not all math wizards, but we’ve got the basics down. Maybe not everyone in the country is ready to take a group of children under their wings, but within a community of three to five families there’s got to be someone. It doesn’t make sense to send our kids to strangers just because an incorporated body of experts has certified that they’re competent for the job. Guys, it doesn’t even make sense if that person is the greatest and most loving teacher on the planet. Don’t you see? Our children want to learn from us, their confidants and elders. This is the pattern set down by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. That didn’t change in the last couple hundred years. The reason your child cries the first time she goes to preschool or kindergarten is that she wants to learn from you, not them. That means that we need to BECOME those great and loving teachers, not find them. No, it means that we have to realize that WE ALREADY ARE. It’s done. There’s nothing more we need to do.

Still, even if one recognizes the simplicity of what I’m getting at, it feels impossible to most of us. Maybe we even feel guilty (which doesn’t help). We are so enmeshed in the incorporated structure of our lives that it’s hard to envision extracting ourselves enough to focus on our children. Me too. And I don’t mean corporate, as in corporations and businesses are bad. They mean well for the most part. I mean the way we have cut our connection to family and tribe, the small community in which life has historically made sense, and given that trust over to organizations and experts. This is causing daily damage to our sanity, and there’s a growing body of evidence that a simpler life, including a simpler education, results in a more satisfied human being. Satisfied human beings may not have lots of money, or ten different cheeses to choose from, but they don’t pour their anger into each other, or their children, at least nowhere near the rate at which unsatisfied men and women do. Children don’t require massive intelligence. Neither do adults. They require the rudiments of food and shelter, a loving mother and father, a community of like-minded folks, and a chance to express their creativity, whether that be through gardening, singing, storytelling, or raising their own children. Tiny school.

I want to give one more example. Along with my daily schedule, the kids and I will go on regular field trips. That might occasionally mean the museum, but usually it will mean the forest, the dump, the woodworker’s studio or the garden. Because we’re tiny, we are highly mobile. Here’s one trip I have planned for the coming weeks.

We start the day meeting up with a friend of mine who has a pickup truck and chainsaw. He’s such a loving and tender man. I will bring a handsaw, some ear protection, and lunch. We’ll drive into the forest nearby, then search out some fallen trees. Climbing over logs and under branches, we’ll talk about the health of the forest, and the kinds of animals and plants that live there. We’ll dare each other to eat rose hips. It’s life, not a lesson. When we find the right place, I’ll look for a small branch a few inches thick, then invite the kids, my friend and I to cut it with the handsaw. We’ll laugh, get frustrated, then try again. Once we’ve had a chance to feel what that work means, we’ll take out the chainsaw. My friend and I will show the kids where the gas goes, we’ll have to smell it a little, then we’ll show them the chamber for bar oil and explain why it’s needed. With calm and quiet energy, the kids will have the chance to look at the chain, how it’s made from lots of tiny hinges, how the sharp teeth are curved and razor sharp. Engines. The kids are too young to use the chainsaw, but my friend or I will demonstrate - pull, pull, pull and zzzoooommmm! The silence of the forest is suddenly gone. Protect your ears. What about the chipmunks? Keeping a safe distance, the kids can watch as my friend slices through the trunk like butter. What a difference it makes. How did people gather wood before the combustion engine? Once sliced up, the kids can help haul, or try to help haul, the rounds to the truck. We get to skip and laugh and talk the whole time. Safety. My friend will take the bulk of the wood home to heat his house. We’ll say goodbye and thank you, and take a few rounds with us, ones we’ve cut purposefully a little shorter. Last year, I had the kids split a few logs into kindling, which was difficult for most of them. Shorter logs will make it easier. Over the next few days or weeks – there’s no rush – the kids can take turns with the hatchet, such a lesson in itself – aiming, striking, feeling one’s own strength, recognizing the need for safety. Talk about handwork. Eventually, we’ll have a nice little pile and each child will be invited to take a grocery bag full of kindling home to his or her parents for the stove or fireplace. Once home, they can watch how the kindling, once a tree they held in their own hands in a mountain forest, becomes heat in their home. Tiny school.

Imagine the barriers to such an experience in a typical school setting, yet how rich, educational and fun it will be for us. It’s true that many parents can provide their children with opportunities to do these sorts of things outside of school, but why? Why don’t we incorporate our children’s education into the fabric of our own lives? Does anyone really believe that kids can’t learn reading and math in the same way? That they need a stranger to teach it to them?

We’re finally beginning to learn that the intellectual comprehension of an animal, plant or event holds little weight for us. It’s the tactile, sensate relationship to the materials and beings of the earth that matter. The name of a bird next to a picture is like a ghost in comparison to a living, breathing bird building her nest outside our home. We know that if we fill a child with curiosity and wonder about their immediate and real surroundings they usually have little hesitation to follow their curiosity into a novel, mathematical language, or chemistry textbook. That’s how it’s been for thousands of years. But fill them with text and knowledge at an early age, or the kind of two-dimensional information available on screens, and they often lose interest in the tactile and real world. Why is that? Why are our ideas so captivating? Goodness, you better stop reading this and go outside. Are you familiar with Circe?

In my first year after college, I was working for a large construction firm in Washington, DC. I had been a successful student, even a happy student, and my engineering degree had recently gotten me a high-paying job in a competitive field. One particular Friday afternoon, after the crews had all packed up and left for the weekend, I was walking the rounds of the building in progress. It was stage one of a billion dollar consolidation project for the FDA. The enormity of the job is hard to describe, but on this afternoon the site was deserted. Construction crews often clock out at four, especially on Fridays.

My job was to photograph the progress of the building, including date stamps, in order to keep a record of its progress, a task which had little to do with pride and everything to do with litigation. Mostly, the photos would just sit in a file somewhere. I was performing this duty rather carelessly (my excitement for life having faded substantially when the curiosity I had felt so frequently during my education became yoked by my paycheck to this faceless work) when I came around the southwest corner. There was a large retaining pond there, where the bulk of the rainwater runoff was directed to prevent soil erosion and a muddy workplace. No one, including me, paid much attention to it. As I stepped forward, in order to get the building into the viewport of my camera, I heard something rustling in the cattails nearby. Immediately, there was a goose, mad as hell and flying right for my face, honking and making a terrible ruckus. Never in my life had I been as scared as I was at that moment, and it was instantaneous. I felt a dramatic shift in consciousness, as if the roof of my life had suddenly been thrown open. I glanced up, twitched my nose and lips, took in the enormous half-built structure beyond, and ran like hell.

Let’s plant a forest. Let’s send a flock of wild geese into the heart of every child on the planet.

IMG_6099 - Copy.JPG