I skied 30 winters in Fernie, B.C., but eventually Nina’s back and my knees could no longer tolerate the impact, so rather than risk further injury and complex surgeries, we bought a van and headed south to ride our mountain bikes in the Arizona desert.
On the day we were saying our goodbyes, as I was walking away from a friend’s house, he called me back and said, “Jon, I have something for you.” He ran inside and came out with a braid of sweetgrass. “It’s from my mother,” he said. “She would want you to have this.”
This friend’s mother is First Nations. When she was young, the government kidnapped her, removed her from her family and tribe, and imprisoned her in a residential school where she was confined in the name of removing the ‘savage within’ and replacing it with ‘reading, riting, and ‘rithmatic.’ It was a widespread practice, not only in Canada but in the U.S. and Russia as well.
I am not First Nations and I experienced a privileged and loving family upbringing. But nevertheless, I distinctly remember my first day, in first grade—1951. We were instructed to line up, shortest to tallest, shut up, and march down the hallway toward our classroom. I looked down the long parallel rows of concrete blocks that formed the walls that were framing my new reality—and closing in on my mind and freedom. I stepped out of line, sat down on the floor, and started to cry. I couldn’t have expressed my fears at that young age, but I intuitively understood that ‘the system’ was removing any ‘savage within’ and replacing it with, you guessed it, ‘reading, riting, and ‘rithmatic’. I should have no ground for complaint; I have adapted well in the world I was born into and have lived a rich and opulent life. But what, exactly was the price of this opulence?
Let me explore that question with a story.
Some years ago, I spent a considerable amount of time in a small village in Kamchatka, far eastern Siberia, among the Koryak people. An old woman in that village, named Moolynaut, was born in a skin tent, and from the moment she could walk, she herded reindeer on the windswept, remote, and often frozen tundra. From her earliest days, Moolynaut was blessed with shamanic powers. In the generation after Moolynaut grew up, the Soviets imprisoned all the Koryak children in their version of residential schools. Of those generations of young Koryak children dragged out of their homes, culture, and language, and away from their beloved reindeer, not a single one, zero, has found the shamanic power of Moolynaut who routinely traveled to The Other World to ask Kutcha the Raven to heal the sick.
Everyone who reads this has lived in a square house, learned their numbers and letters, and in the process lost many other forms of cognition and awareness. My guess is that no one who reads this could sit in a Siberian blizzard in the darkness of winter, among the reindeer, sense a pack of hungry wolves on the other side of a ridge, and ask the Wolf Gods to divert the pack and save the deer—as Moolynaut could. No one who reads this could stare at the ground and tell you precisely when a termite queen was about to emerge from her burrow—as many Aboriginal Australian elders can. No one. Zero.
So, does that loss of awareness matter in today’s uber-technological world? We learn what we need to learn, don’t we? I don’t need to know how to herd reindeer. Moolynaut couldn’t operate a cell phone. But I believe that the loss of awareness and connectivity does matter because if we are not emotionally tuned into nature, we find it easy to destroy the ecosystems that sustain us.
Or look at it this way. The sweetgrass braid on the dashboard reminds me that the vagabond life is not about racing around like a mad dog, salivating after some bucket list concocted by a journalist looking for a job or an advertiser trying to sell stuff. Surely, my version of vagabond life revolves around riding my bike, but that is just an activity, a crutch for sure, that holds my interest as I journey into nature’s wonders, day in and day out, from moon cycle to moon cycle, sunrise to sunset, too cold morphing into too hot.
The sweetgrass braid on the dashboard reminds me that the vagabond life is not about racing around like a mad dog, salivating after some bucket list concocted by a journalist looking for a job or an advertiser trying to sell stuff.
Because the outdoors is a force that opens windows into those glorious recesses of our awareness that have been stolen from us: hidden away, but still there—buried deeply—never completely accessible—but there. Those segments of awareness that have the potential to talk with wolves and termites. Or to help a person journey into old age with equanimity. Or to help build a sustainable future for the reindeer, wolves and termites.
As I write this, we are camped in the high desert northeast of Tucson, on the last day of January, on a mountain pass between two snow-dusted peaks. When I turned on my computer to write this article, a Microsoft algorithm locked my account because I had committed the heinous crime of not working enough. Yes, that’s correct. Before today, I hadn’t opened an Office file for five months, and Microsoft felt that it needed to punish me for this dastardly and subversive act of blatant vagabondism. Darn. I wrote this on my iPad and have just added “Deal with Microsoft” to my To-do list. Now that I have promised myself to look into the problem some other time, I will walk up the hill where a gnarled juniper spreads whitened branches into the sky, like a dancer frozen in time.
You might also like:
Check the ML Podcast!