Want to see more animals, move quietly through the woods or just feel a stronger connection with the world around you? Here's five traditions passed down to us by our First Nations, all capable of doing just that, occasionally in surprisingly powerful ways.
A major reason we have such a great outdoors tradition in North America is the wisdom passed down to us by Native Americans. From the way we teach our kids about manhood — The Boy Scouts — to our reverence for wide open spaces, the lessons we learned from the first people to live on this continent are still palpable in our day-to-day lives. And, perhaps surprisingly, more relevant than ever.
The Fox Walk: Moving quietly through the woods is one of the first skills any outdoorsman must learn. There's still an awful lot of life out there, you just won't see it — or appreciate it — until you slow down, adapt to the pace of the environment you're in, and stop disturbing it so much.
The ability to stalk was taught to me in Boy Scouts, but was handed down to white men by the people who taught them to hunt and survive in this continent's vast wilderness. You're not going to be able to read this, then immediately go sneak up on a deer and poke it in the butt, but we can at least outline the basic steps for you, ones you should devote time to practicing whenever you're outdoors.
This is basically a way to sense what's under your feet before putting weight on them, snapping twigs or rustling the leaves you're walking over. To do it, lift one foot high enough to clear any small branches, grass or other obstacle (sometimes as high as your knee), then extend it forward and slowly move it towards the ground. Point your toes up as your foot gets close to the ground and make contact first with the outside of the ball of your foot. Don't put weight on it yet. Roll your foot sideways to connect the rest of the ball with the ground, feeling for obstacles. If you detect a twig or something else that's going to make noise, put your foot somewhere else and try again. When you've found a good step, lower your heel to the ground, then your toes, then transfer your weight. Repeat.
That sounds slow and awkward, but with time can become fluid and natural and enable you to make decent progress. Which you'll be doing as quietly as possible. With patience, practice and awareness, this can allow you to approach animals stealthily enough that they won't notice you until you reach out and touch them. I've done that with creatures as wary as deer, you can too.
Counting Coup: This is a great way for a group to practice the skills of moving silently and concealment. And an even better demonstration of their power and application.
It comes from a Plains Indian tradition of touching enemies without harming them during battle, thus demonstrating great skill. The other guy was trying to kill you, and you'd just walk up and whack him on the back of his head, then walk away. You'd count a coup by putting a notch on your coup stick.
I first did this while spending a little time living off the land with a member of the Cherokee Nation in the Georgia mountains as a child. The small group of participating kids all fashioned foot-long coup sticks from tree limbs, decorating them with carvings, bird feathers or other natural totems. Then, we hunted each other with them. If you were tapped by another's coup stick, then you had to give that other kid your dinner that day.
That may sound a little like Lord Of The Flys, and it was, but rather than an all-out hunt, it just became part of our other daily activities and lessons. No, you couldn't just whack another kid with your stick while walking together in a group, but if you spotted an opportunity to sneak up on someone unawares, you took it. I suppose this teaches awareness too.
Photo: Brian Liloia
Sweat Lodge: You sit in a sweat lodge to undergo a purification ceremony. In a small enclosure created by bending over green branches and covering them with hides or mud, hot rocks are carried inside from a fire burning outside. Water is poured over the rocks, producing billowing clouds of steam. The idea is that you sit in that steam for periods of 15 minutes or more.
What does that do for your connection with nature? Well, famed wilderness tracker and author Tom Brown describes the effect as an "attunement," it's a way of shedding the thoughts and stresses and impurities of your civilized life and bringing your mind down to the pace of the natural world. It locates you and is a great way to begin any long period spent in the outdoors.
Sweat lodges are typically considered sacred and there's specific ways and orientations in which you're supposed to build them. Learn these from someone initiated in them before trying it yourself, you'll also want to pick up the safety stuff from them too.
Drinking Blood: There's no more powerful way to immerse yourself in the natural world than to learn how to hunt, using wild animals as a source of food. In some cultures, it's traditional for a hunter to drink the blood of his or her first kill. This ritualization of the act helps drive home the message that the animal is giving its life so that you may live and that killing is not something which should be taken lightly; it's also traditional to thank the animal for the gift of its life while you're doing this. Sometimes, the hunter may also smear the blood on his face (although it's hard not to get some there anyways), a little ceremony to welcome the neophyte into his new identity as a hunter.
You can do this by simply grabbing a handful of blood as the animal is being drained from its neck or by removing the heart and drinking the blood that comes out of that. Blood is hot and thick and tastes strongly of copper. It's not something you'll ever forget doing.
To this day, I take home the animal's heart and eat it for dinner, sharing it with my loved ones. It's an excellent source of lean protein and a powerful way to share the experience of your kill.
Photo: Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak
Ayahuasca: That Simpson's episode was about ayahuasca, as was the recent Russell Crowe movie "Noah;" if you read or see a reference to a spirit quest in literature or on film, that's ayahuasca too. It's just that powerful an experience that its presence in popular culture is immense, even if that culture currently poo poos talking about psychedelic drugs openly.
It shouldn't, because this is absolutely the most powerful way in which you can commune with the world around you, vividly seeing and participating in its rythms and paths and higher beings.
Never "do" ayahuasca in an environment that's not ceremonial in nature and not administered as a sacrament by someone who's legitimately spiritual. Failing to do so is failing to appreciate the full nature of the experience or to give the drug its due respect. This isn't recreation, it's a powerful purging ceremony that's physical as well as spiritual in nature. You will vomit, you will cry, you might scream or laugh hysterically and you'll probably shit your pants. Take a spare pair, seriously.
Everyone's experience differs, but basically you're going to go fly through space and talk to god for about eight hours. Turns out, that chick is mean, she's going to turn a mirror on everything that's wrong in your life, every little bit of evil you've ever committed and demonstrate to you why you've failed and how that's impacted your life. But, that is some amazingly clear insight and, if you're prepared to listen to it, she'll also show you the way forward. Again in a way that's powerfully clear and useful. You'll walk away with a checklist of how to fix what's wrong with your life. Follow it.
Demonstrating the power of the universe in such a vivid, painful, useful way is the only message you'll ever need that everything around you is connected and that nature plays a greater part in your life than you're probably aware. If you're lost or looking for something, this is where you'll find yourself.
A variety of native american worship groups exist that administer ayahuasca ceremonies, although they obviously need to fly a bit below the radar. If you're interested in finding one, ask around in your group of friends, I think you'll be surprised by how accessible and pervasive this is.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.