Overstory #118 - Native Intelligence
Native or native?
We observe the following conventions with respect to our use of the words Native and native. "Native" refers to a person or persons from a specific indigenous cultural background, and is most often prefixed to a description or place, such as in Native American or Native Australian. The uncapitalized "native" refers to refers to a person of any cultural or ethnic background who is on a first-name basis with the natural world, a person who has the knowledge, a spiritual feeling for and therefore the mindset of being a part of the land, not separate from it.
Where has Native Intelligence Gone?
There are many studies indicating that the indigenous people from many natural areas around the world are capable of identifying, harvesting and using for medicine, food and craft, hundreds of species of wild plants over all four seasons. The knowledge possessed by these people, common average citizens of their societies, includes similar information about trees and their uses, bird and animal language and its significance, weather patterns indicated by clouds, and animal behavior indicated by track and sign.
If we were to walk in the Kalahari with a native of the land, and we asked them to identify the most common plants, animals, tracks, and trees we encountered, they would do so with 100% accuracy, men, women, and most of the children alike.
If I were to take you, a resident of Metropolis, USA, on that same walk in the Kalahari and ask you the same questions, you would not do so well, I'm afraid. "Of course," you would say. "I'm not from around here! I live in Metropolis."
But what if I asked you the same questions about your own area? When I give people a test about plants and animals in their own region, they fail as badly as if they were walking in a foreign land. What does this mean?
Are We Aliens in our Own World?
If a "native" is in harmony with his or her environment and the natural world, what can we call the rest of us who are unable to pass even the simplest identification test? There is only one word that fits--we are "aliens" in our own world. This condition and feeling of alienation from our own world, I refer to as the dread disease of "Alienitis." Its symptoms are a lack of knowledge about our world, and with that, a lack of appreciation, understanding and concern. For many so afflicted, the natural world consists of grass--something that is a pain to mow every week, but must be greener than their neighbors'--and the neighbor's dog who uses our patch of green as a waste recycling station.
In advanced stages of Alienitis, many people do not recognize that the natural world even exists. They move from back-support mattress to drip-grind breakfast to heated garage, then on to a bumper to bumper commute on a cement-smooth roadway, into another heated garage, and up to the 32nd floor in an inertial-damped elevator. After staring at a computer screen and manipulating numbers for several hours, they dash down to the ground floor where they hurriedly throw down a few mouthfuls of pale lettuce and imitation texturized meat, held together by two pieces of white bread, which was made from wheat that had been sprayed with chemicals, harvested by machine, bleached, baked and denuded, then labeled as "enriched." Is it surprising that many of us have succumbed to Alienitis?
It is not only our life-style that makes Alienitis such a virulent disease. The only kind of education that the average citizen receives about the environment is a frightening digestion of the issues concerning its destruction, misuse, or degradation. Little or no opportunity exists to learn about the positive side of our natural world or to learn to appreciate its gifts to life. Is it any wonder there is such a sense of hopelessness among our young people today, or that we have so many overwhelming problems involving the environment?
Who Are the "natives"?
The ability of native and indigenous people to read the ground through tracks and sign left by humans and animals is astounding. Tracking, as an art, is unknown to most people in the modern world, yet indigenous trackers are quite capable of seeing and interpreting incredible information from what appear to be random marks on the ground.
So what does all this add up to? These people are perfectly at home in the natural world. They understand everything about their surroundings that they need, not only to survive, but to live in cooperation and harmony with the other elements of nature.
Does this mean that only people who sleep on the ground, dress in skins and eat food that they themselves have caught or gathered can be called natives? Does it mean that only hunting and gathering people who were born and raised in a particular location, whose parents, grandparents, and ancestors, back to the beginning of recorded time, have lived in that same location, can be called "natives" of that place?
One of the most important parts of being in harmony with the natural world is a deep understanding and appreciation of nature, and that promotes the ability to solve current problems and to prevent future problems by care-taking the environment on behalf of the future generations. This comes quite naturally to people who are personally knowledgeable and spiritually bonded with the natural world, and who consider the other elements of Creation to be their honored relatives.
It is not place of origin, nor skin color, nor family tree that makes a native--it is bonding with and having a deep and abiding love for the natural world. It is an understanding between the natural world and ourselves that goes so deep as to approach the realm of the spiritual. It is an attitude of thankfulness, and actions taken with consideration for their effects on the future generations. And most of all, it is the willingness to set aside our own preconceived notions about reality, our technologically oriented patterns of thinking, and to see the Earth as it really is--a natural system, a whole, with all the elements interdependent upon each other.
A Key Routine: Sit Spot
Good field and research skills are inherent qualities of people in indigenous cultures. These qualities are cultivated by a number of routines, including a simple but essential routine called "Sit Spot" (or sometimes "Secret Spot"). The Sit Spot is a place to observe and interact with nature on a regular basis. It can be practiced by anyone, from very young children to adults. Sit Spot consists of going to one place (under a favorite tree, for example), and being quiet and still.
The Sit Spot practice has these essential elements (after Moon, 2000):
- choose one place (a spot that speaks to you or has some special significance)
- make sure the location is convenient
- visit frequently (ideally, daily)
- visit at varied times of day
- go by yourself
- sit for at least 20 minutes
Being quiet and still at the Sit Spot is key, staying open to the senses and observing. Extend your awareness as far as you can. Eventually, questions will come up naturally: what kind of tree am I sitting under? Is that herb edible? What kind of spider is that? What is that bird doing now, what do those noises mean? Which way is North? These questions will be answered through observation and through further research, which will lead to more questions. It's also very important to record observations and feelings in a journal. Journal writing gives structure and meaning to the questioning, to act as a mentor to the whole process. Before you know it, you will have a deeper understanding of place, and be on the path of a naturalist.
Young, Jon. 2001. Kamana One: Exploring Natural Mystery. Owlink, San Gregorio, CA, http://www.owlinkmedia.com
Young, Jon. 2001. Kamana Two: Path of the Naturalist. Owlink, San Gregorio, CA, http://www.owlinkmedia.com
Moon, Warren. 2000. "Building the Secret Spot Routine." FoxPrint News, Wilderness Awareness School, Duvall, WA, http://www.wildernessawareness.org/
This article was excerpted with the kind permission of the author from:
Young, Jon. 1996. Songline: Introduction to Wilderness Awareness School's Natural Training Programs, Third Edition. Owlink, San Gregorio, CA, http://www.owlinkmedia.com
For training programs in awareness of the natural world (including the excellent home-study Kamana Naturalist Training Program) or to order this or other publications contact:
Wilderness Awareness School P.O. Box 5000, PMB 137 Duvall, WA 98019 USA Tel: 425-788-1301 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org .
About the author
Inspired by his childhood mentor, renowned naturalist and tracker, Tom Brown Jr., Jon Young has been a naturalist, tracker, and educator for over 25 years. Jon Young has pioneered blending indigenous mentoring techniques from around the world with the tools of modern field ecology. He is driven by a vision of a learning model that affects people of all ages and backgrounds to re-establish their relationship with themselves, others, and the environment. As Jon continually shares this model with others he has inspired thousands to reconnect with their native environments.
In 1983 Jon Young founded the Wilderness Awareness School. He is the principal author of the Kamana Naturalist Training Program, which serves over 5000 students worldwide, and the Shikari Tracker Training Program. He created several popular training tape series including, Seeing through Native Eyes, The Art of Mentoring and Coyote Teaching, and Advanced Bird Language. He is the leader of a model of mentoring that is currently being used in 29 different schools across the country, he is an advisor to undergraduate and graduate students, and continues to be a consultant for various schools, community leaders and businesses.
Because of his success as an educator and inspirational consultant, he was a keynote speaker for the Association for Environmental Outdoor Education and for home schooling conferences in Washington and California; he was also invited to be part of a think tank at The Union Theological Seminary, sponsored by the Nature Institute. Jon Young is a celebrated and gifted presenter, and is a sought after peacemaker to resolve conflicts. His internationally recognized mentoring model has inspired thousands of students to deepen their relationship with the environment on their journey to fully express their gifts. And through those students, his message has reached countless others. For more information about Jon's programs see http://www.shikari.org.
Related editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #116--Observe and Interact
- The Overstory #109--Cultural Landscapes
- The Overstory #82--Indigenous Knowledge
- The Overstory #76--Ethnoforestry
- The Overstory #74--Microenvironments (Part 2)
- The Overstory #72--Microenvironments (Part 1)
- The Overstory #34--Forest Islands (Kayapo Example)
- The Overstory #31--Tree Domestication
- The Overstory #15--Cultivating Connections with Other Farmers
- The Overstory #9--Observation