I can feel tree roots running diagonally down my torso as I slowly belly-crawl through the shadows with the rich smell of the earth just centimetres beneath my nose. I can feel layers of charcoal and mud cracking on the soft skin of my face as my expressions explode with changing emotions of concentration, excitement, anxiety and fear. I can see figures, silhouetted in the growing darkness by the firelight, looking out to the shadows which hide me. For all the 12 year olds around me these shadows have been transformed from fearful places to avoid into refuges of safety. The game of the fire stalk goes on.
I’m on a Trackways camp playing a night game with the kids who’ve come along. Thomas Schorr-Kon, the founder of Trackways, uses games such as these to connect children to the natural world. He works from the understanding that people protect what they care about, and they can not care about something they don’t know. So by forming connections between children and nature, the next generation might do a better job of taking care of the environment.
“There!” comes the shout from a boy on the other team. I freeze. And again out comes the detector, guided step by step to the place the boy thinks he sees one of us who’re advancing. “Right here?” asks the detector. The boy confirms. Is it a hit or a miss, hit or miss? “Miss!” calls out the detector. Hearing that word, I breath out, feeling all my muscles relax around me and only then noticing that I’ve been almost holding my breath that entire time. I pause momentarily before venturing on. The fire is about five body lengths away.
This afternoon Thomas explained how once upon a time, when we lived in small tribes, there would have been scouts, and that even now in other parts of the world people still depend on these skills for survival. He taught us some tools to increase our awareness. He taught us how to see in a whole new way, using our peripheral vision. “You just put your arms out and wiggle your fingers and draw them back to see how wide a sphere of vision you have. In doing that you will have changed from your normal ‘tunnel vision’ to ‘wide-angled vision’”, he explained. In wide angled vision, we can notice minute movements whether it's the wind moving branches of a tree, or a person across the circle jiggling their knee, or the flick of a deer’s ear who might feed the tribe. “Although whilst in wide-angled vision you'll find you are able to focus on your full field of vision rather than just a single focus, you do have less ability to define shape and colour, but you are much more alert to movements.” There was no doubt that most of the people looking out at us from around the fire were using wide-angled vision now.
I begin venturing out into a more open area between the bracken around me and the young trees just the other side. I’m almost at the grove of trees when the shadow of the big oak tree I’m relying on vanishes. More wood on the fire. I lie still, not knowing how visible my left leg is and wishing my shoes didn’t have that stripe of white on them. About four body lengths away.
I could have just pulled my leg into the new shadows, but Thomas had just taught us how to see acute movement with wide-angled vision. Fortunately, he’d also taught us how to move in such a way that did not catch others’ eyes. He taught us to slow our movement down so that when moving in an upright, walking posture, your leading foot feels the ground first before you transfer your weight onto it. He calls it ‘fox walking’. He shared with us how to crush charcoal and mix it with water to make a dark, matt body paint to break up our human shapes and help us merge into our surroundings.
I slowly move my leg into the shadows hoping nobody around the fire just saw a log disappear before their eyes. The boy who had sent a detector out and didn’t get a hit had to look into the fire for 5 minutes and is now complaining that he has lost his ‘night-vision’ and he can’t see anything. One of the girls on their team asks him to be quiet as she thought she heard something. And again, a detector is sent out to the opposite side. I take advantage of the distraction and move a little faster towards the flickering light beyond the blackened outlines of benches and people.
Thomas has been working with kids and adults outdoors since 1994 after his training with Tom Brown Jr. who founded the Tracker school in
My body is rippling over the ground following the shadows. I notice that I have no concept of how long we’ve been out here. Tenderly compressing the dry leaf litter underneath me. I don’t want to startle it. Don’t want it to shout out with a loud ‘crunch’ and give me away. I hear “Hit!” and two boys leap up from the shadows. It's hard to tell how close they got to the fire. They start sharing their stories in excited chatter with details that just seem to keep bubbling up out of them. They join the team who are watching for us. About three body lengths away.
I imagine I’m a scout sent on a mission to get information about another tribe. I wonder at how good their skills must have been to do this even without the blanket of dark covering them. Without the birds sleeping, I would have to be making sounds and movements so small that they didn’t even disturb perching birds around me. The peoples on the land long ago would know something was up if they heard birds alarming. When the birds have nothing to fear, then their song and behaviour is like a tranquil lake. A person comes in and it's like a rock has been dropped into the lake. Birds send out their alarms like concentric ripples. Unless, of course, you know how to move with the natural rhythms. And again my focus comes in.
I bring my attention back to my every move. I’m sure that any moment now they’ll hear me. My heart pounds. What if the firelight is reflected in the whites of my eyes? I inch closer. Slowly. More slowly now. About two and a half body lengths away. This game is just one of the many exciting things I got to engage with this weekend. Thomas lays out a plethora of survival skills and activities. Each one draws different individuals into a connection with the natural world and “provide(s) us with a lifetime’s worth of study, that no encyclopaedia can be completed upon...whether its tracking, learning about crafts or different ways of making fire, edible plants or medicinal plant use…understanding the language of the birds, understanding how to move silently and invisibly. Any of the topics that we pick up, we don’t ever have to put down.”
I get to what looks like another safe spot. It's the last fairly big tree before the benches. Ahead it’s just low growing stuff. I take a rest here for a moment. About two and a third body lengths away. So many kids in the ‘modern’ world don’t get these experiences now. When these kids first showed up, they said “oh my god, that’s really dirty” as Thomas tells me is typical. Which is funny now that they couldn’t be more dirty! Charcoal and mud on their faces, and scattering leaf litter on top of themselves to blend in more. What a transformation! But, as Thomas pointed out, “there’s clean dirt and there’s dirty dirt. And in the woods it's mostly clean dirt, it's not the kind of dirt that you have in the city. That is dirty dirt, that is polluted. You know, where we’re talking about earth and good micro-organisms at work as apposed to a build up of toxins.”
My reaction is to freeze. All my muscles become tense. What was that? Something just scurried over my right forearm. It was very light. It was soft. Hardly a sound. Now all I can hear is my hurried breathing. Breathing in and out, in and out. I’m worried I’m moving too much. Up and Down. Up and Down. “You’ve got 10 more minutes. See how close you can get!” And why is it so few of us get these kinds of rich experiences? Thomas talks of how “risk management caused a real reduction in the amount of outdoor activity that took place. It has got to the point where it has become ridiculous, you know, conker trees being cut down because it is dangerous to have one in the playground. Well, its funny, they’ve been around in the playground for hundreds of years and it’s never been a problem before, so why are we being so over protective?”
My face about two body lengths away from the fire, among bracken ferns. It smells different here. They’re more scratchy than the leaf litter - less noise, more movement. And how important is it anyway for kids to get outside? Thomas frowns…and goes onto explain how he hears from so many people that through the experiences on his courses, they finally feel a part of the world they were born into. He says “I think one of the problems is this idea that we are separate.” He shares how “even just the simple construction of a shelter can have a profound effect. I ran a class a while back where a group of adults built one shelter between them and at the end of it one of the women participants burst into tears. And I said 'why are you crying?' she said 'now I can build a home anywhere on Earth' and it was a profound experience for her to suddenly feel at home on the earth.” Thomas feels “that that sense of connection and that way of relating to nature is kind of the first bit of teaching that we need as human beings. And that then, the concept of reading and writing and so on, can grow out of how we’re reading nature.”
A silhouette moved. It moved the shadow masking my face. “Here! Here!” “Forward, forward, a little to your left, another step forward. There, right there.” Detector: “Hit!” Disappointedly, I slouch to the fire. And then I realise that other than a few passing thoughts, I’d really had an empty mind for the last…well, I don’t know how long. I share this with Thomas. He explains that when using some of these techniques he has taught us and slowing down in this way, your brainwave state changes. What is considered normal for western people is not our actual normal brainwave state and that “we’re living in a state of being over adrenalized and just by going into a natural environment, we start to relax, our brainwave state starts to change from a beta state to an alpha state,” In the beta state brainwaves come at anything up to 30 times per second. Whereas the alpha state is as slow as 8 times a second. “Just sitting around a fire, just listening to the wind in the trees, changes our brainwave state and puts it back into a normal, an actual normal brain state.” Although scientists suggest we can reach alpha waves when in wakeful relaxation they reckon it is unlikely to reach these slower brainwaves with our eyes open.
Thomas agrees with this for when we’re in tunnel vision but finds wide-angled vision to be an exception. Even slower brainwave states are reached during sleep or some forms of meditation. He goes on to explain, “what I observe, the evidence if you like, is that nature is a huge biofeedback mechanism. We don’t need to strap ourselves to a computer and have our EEG [electroencephalography] measured, nature just does that anyway.” He tells me that if he’s with a group who’s been in the forest for 36 hours already and he then introduces them to some of the nature awareness material, fox walking and wide-angled vision, “what happens is that I can time it by the minute…within 6 minutes of them moving using the invisibility skills, the birds will come and start to sing around them in the forest for the first time. They won't have had an experience of having the birds coming and singing around them.” So nature not only detects our brainwave state, but responds to it.
I look around and see logs transform into children and white grins of teeth smiling up from the ground as “Time to switch!” is called out into the darkness.