There's Snow Place Like Home : An Interview with Bruce Carroll
"Teaching children about the natural world should be treated as one of the most important events in their lives." – Thomas Berry, Dream of the Earth
Bruce Carroll savors the benefits of a daily cold water therapy treatment which douses impurities from the body. Bruce Carroll can teach a child to live in the wilderness. He can teach a child to make clothing out of plant fibers, a shelter out of forest debris, and a fire from rubbing two sticks together. He can teach a child how to track a fox in the woods, tell which direction the fox is moving, and why.
We first met Bruce at Spirit of Changes' Harvest Gathering last fall. He had come to the Gathering to share his knowledge of survival skills. The word "survival" brought to my mind images of macho stuff – man versus nature and lots of self-denial. But when my eight-year old son, Ian, and I participated in Bruce's workshop we found his philosophy for living in survival situations not one of struggle, but rather one of enjoyment. "If you can make your home anywhere, anywhere is home." Bruce is a tracker, naturalist, and mentor. He teaches children and adults the skills to survive when everything else is removed. But his teachings go beyond merely survival. He shows us the tremendous sense of freedom that can exist when we allow Mother Earth to provide for all of our needs.
At Harvest Gathering, Ian and I, along with many other participants, attempted to make fire by friction with a primitive fire tool called a wood bow fire drill, and built a water tight debris shelter out of nothing more than leaves and sticks. Based on our experiences with Bruce at the Gathering, we wanted to visit his wilderness school in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire to talk with him again and learn more. The Virtual Mountain Wilderness School is located about 25 minutes from Keene, New Hampshire, deep in a private nature preserve. There, the school's instructors mentor students in wilderness skills, nature awareness and primitive technology. The school is "dedicated to helping people regain their knowledge of Self and of the Earth, so they may experience the woods and themselves with a completely new perspective."
It sounded great and I was ready to go. Or rather, I should say, I was ready to go once the weather got warmer! But when Bruce let us know a winter weekend class was planned, my son Ian didn't want to wait. He said it would be a real adventure. And so it was, on one very snowy morning in early March, that Ian and I traveled north to the Monadnock region of New Hampshire…to camp…without a tent…in the snow.
The Glow of Candles in the Snow
It is a simple joy to walk through a noiseless snow covered world carrying everything you need on your back, the inessentials left behind. Money is of no value in the wilderness. A timepiece is unnecessary; as Bruce explained, there is simply daytime and nighttime. It was daytime as we journeyed through the woods towards the primitive campsite. I wore snowshoes. Ian and Bruce walked wearing just boots on their feet, occasionally busting through the hip deep snow. My backpack contained two sleeping bags, two sleeping mats, a few industrial strength garbage bags, extra socks, a rain poncho and a few candles. Ian's small pack contained food to cook over an open fire. It was less than we normally took camping, but everything Bruce said we would need, and much more than he himself would use, for he carried nothing except the long wool coat on his back.
We walked until we reached a beautiful vista, the future location of the primitive camp. This spring Bruce will return what is now the current campsite to the earth. Our responsibility to nature, Bruce feels, should be one of caretaker and protector. After using the land, whether for a night or much longer, Bruce and his students leave the space in an improved state, better by ten years then when they found it. It helps the area along, he says, and is a way to express thanks and gratitude.
We met Lester the dog and trekked deeper into the woods. Big mounds of snow began rising out of the earth, and I realized we were at the campsite. A handful of students were working on primitive shelters, snow huts and snow mounds, which would be their homes for the night. We set our packs down, and Ian and I began digging, too. The instructions for making a snow hut are brief: make a big pile of snow, rest for twenty minutes, then make a doorway and a hollow space inside.
Once our "house" was completed, it was time to "heat" it. We would do this with a candle. Snow is an insulator, and every inch of snow acts as 1R value of insulation. With the heat of a candle, the inside temperature of the hut would be around 60F degrees. Ian asked if he should dig out a niche in the hut for the candle to sit on, or if a snow shelf would be better. Bruce said, "Try both," which Ian happily did, deciding on the niche approach. Ian climbed in the snow hut and felt totally content and happy. I, on the other hand, entered and felt claustrophobic. I asked Bruce to recommend other shelter options. With little effort, I dug a trench next to the snow hut. I lined it with my sleeping mat and a trash bag. At night, I would pull another trash bag over the bottom of my sleeping bag, pop my head through yet another one, cover the trench with my rain poncho and climb in. Not only would I be warm and dry, I'd have the peaceful experience of sleeping under a beautiful winter moon.
After Ian and I completed our shelters, we lit candles and placed them in hollows in the snow. We sat in the dug out space next to our new snow homes and visited with Bruce and some of the others at the camp. The glow of the candles in the snow was absolutely stunning. Down at the campfire several students worked on primitive skills. Bruce told me these older teenagers were "acorns" – students who worked with him before and were now the "cool aunts and uncles" who helped mentor to the other students. One girl worked on a dead fall mousetrap and made milk weed cordage. Others worked with primitive fire making tools. As the younger students showed interest, the teenagers shared their skills. These skills gave them confidence to feel at home in the wilderness.
As night progressed Bruce shared teachings with the group, which were as much life philosophies as they were survival skills. Reconnection with the earth is vital, he said. He asked the students how we got so separated from nature in the first place. Answering his own question, he pointed to his boot. "Footwear. Today we wear heavy shoes and boots. We no longer feel the earth under our feet when we walk." Unless there is very deep snow, Bruce prefers to go barefoot, or wear soft moccasins. It is best for the earth and for tracking, and he has no complaints of sore feet. "My feet get massaged with every step." As the campfire crackled, the students watched Bruce take off his boots and place his bare feet upon the snow. Bruce explained how our experience of the cold is largely a state of mind. He invited students who wished to remove their boots to do so. Many did. And as they sat with the soles of their naked feet resting on the snow they looked content, even comfortable. It was an experience they would not soon forget, and the beginning of a connection to the earth that would hopefully last a lifetime.
Interview in a Geodesic Dome
Later the following day, after Ian had sufficient time to sled off his self-built snow hut, we journeyed out of the woods and spoke with Bruce in his home, a geodesic dome he shares with his wife, daughter and assorted animals.
Gail: Bruce, how did you end up in the woods? What brought you to this wilderness camp?
Bruce: This is my lifelong passion. I spent much of my childhood in the woods, going tracking with my dad at an early age. My mom would take us out camping and birding and I just fell in love with doing that. When I first started backpacking and doing the camping scene I used all the traditional gear. Then one day, literally, the backpack weighed more than I did! At that point my brother and I decided we wanted to have more fun in the wilderness rather than become packhorses. So we figured out ways to reduce the load in our backpacks and learned primitive skills, until we got to the point where we could go out with just a knife and still have a great time camping.
Gail: But people are still pretty attached to carrying all their heavy gear.
Bruce: Tom Brown [founder of the renowned Tracker wilderness survival school in Colorado] equates the modern backpacker to the astronaut on the moon. When I first heard this I thought it was funny at first, but lately when I've been out watching people on the Appalachian Trail I've realized how true it is. Like the astronaut, these backpackers are carrying around their total life support system in that pack, and if they loose their packs they're done for. They are alien in their own environment. They can't live without that pack, without the sleeping bag or the tent. They don't know how to make a shelter or a fire.
The last couple of years I've been teaching at some of the summer camps down in New Jersey on the Appalachian trail, and we'd just sit on the trail where we knew the hikers would not look, and we'd watch them walk right by us. They looked like astronauts with these huge packs on their backs, using two walking sticks to help balance. They were just going from point A to point B and not really focusing on nature till they got to point B because they were packhorses in between. But the destination is not the key – it's the journey and what happens along the way that matters. Don't just go to something…go towards it.
Gail: Tom Brown was a big influence on you.
Bruce: Yeah, but he didn't come into my life until later, about six or seven years ago. One of his books fell off the shelf at a local bookstore and actually hit me. I picked it up and thought, "Ah, another joker writing a bad survival guide," because a lot of the guides out there don't give the correct information. The intent probably is sincere, but in their effort to preserve the knowledge, they try to write down everything without actually testing it. There is a big difference between knowledge and experience. Everything Tom writes about he's tested thousands of times, if not more, plus he's had thousands of students who've also tested the things he writes about.
Gail: Do most of your students adapt well to the natural environment here or does it depend on their background? For example, how about a child who's never been out in the wilderness before?
Bruce: It depends. Most kids make the shift pretty easily, but for some it's a bit tougher. When they first get here, I watch them to see what their nature awareness level is at. I use the animals to help me profile the students. If birds are flying all around a kid, I'm really going to pay attention to that child in a certain way. And if I see birds are constantly flying away from a certain student then I know I need to give that child a different kind of attention on a different level. A few summers ago we had a teenage Philadelphia gang leader come through one of our camps. The first few days were really tough and we knew he needed to make the transformation or he wouldn't be able to stay. It took a while, but finally he switched over to nature awareness. It actually took a bear eating cheese crackers from his shirt pocket to get him there.but that's another story! Anyway, he ended up being the most amazing kid at the camp. He was able to convert his street awareness to nature awareness.
Gail: I just read Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature and Survival for Children. In it Tom writes that today's children are in need of getting "in the dirt," that they are experiencing a great disconnect from nature. Do you see that in the children you work with?
Bruce: Oh, definitely. Nature is so foreign to so many kids today. They've seen it on video, they've seen books, they've done work in their science classes, but you have to be out playing and rolling in the dirt to really experience it. You have to take your shoes off, get muddy, go romping through a swamp. You also have to just sit in nature. Find a "sit spot." Sit for long periods of time, in silence, watching the birds, watching the animals. You can't get that from a video.
Ian: What is a "sit spot"?
Bruce: Basically it's a place that becomes your own spot. It's called different things: sacred spot, secret spot, nature niche, natural spot, sacred area. It's really an area you go to every day at the same time and sit. If you pick a hill or high spot, you can look over a whole area. You can notice if an animal is sneaking by you, see the cloud and sky formations, and just watch what's going on. Over time, you get to know that area better than you know your own bedroom. You get to know what time the animals move and what the birds are doing. For example, you might hear a bird doing alarm calls and wonder "What is that?" You go over and check it out and see that someone was there, so you learn tracking. And you recognize, "Oh, it was the gray fox," and every time that certain bird makes this call, the gray fox is leaving my sit spot area because I just put him out. And then by following the bird language you can know where the animal went.
Bruce: Bird language is bird body language and their alarm systems. It's more than just simply saying, "That's a robin, that's a blue jay." When you walk into the woods, or even open your front door, all the birds alarm, "Human, human, human, human!" They all flock together and then realize after profiling you for a while that you're either a threat or not a threat. Then the most daring start to slowly come back. As you walk through the woods all the animals listen to the juncos and the other birds, and they know by listening, "Oh, a human's coming. I have two minutes to hide." The animals just literally lay down and let you walk by. They simply listen to the bird language and know when you are coming and when you are leaving. We can listen to the birds in the same way.
Gail: So bird language isn't so much about identifying the birds?
Bruce: I found that once somebody merely "identifies" something, his or her brain shuts down. For example, if we're walking through the woods and someone says, "Oh, that's a junco," their brain shuts down. They think they already know it and they want to go on to the next thing. But they haven't really studied it, they haven't built it into their mind's eye. Often if a student asks me what something is, I won't tell them what they hear or see. We might walk by a junco and someone might ask, "What is that?" and I say, "Oh, I don't know. Is it a bird?" and I play dumb. I try to draw them in by asking questions. I might say something like, "Gee, I can't quite see it. Does it have a white patch under its throat? Is there red under the wing?" And the kids look a little closer and say, "No, it's not that color." Then I ask them things like, "How many toes does it have? What about its tail?" And with just the art of questioning they get fully involved until it gets burned into their minds' eye. The final goal is that at night they literally dream about it.
Gail: Is this what is called "coyote teaching?"
Bruce: Huh? Coyote teaching? What's that? (Laughs.) In our modern school systems teachers will say, "Turn to page so and so, write a report on it and spit it out on a test a week later," at which point the student promptly forgets the information. In fact, when I was in the seventh or eighth grade one of my teachers said eighty percent of what you learn in school you forget. In contrast to that is the coyote method. The coyote method is how the indigenous people taught their children throughout time. It was a completely invisible school. The kids never knew they were being taught. They might go out to a central fire and maybe see an aunt or an uncle working on a primitive trap. And the kid would want to know about it, such as what kind of wood they were using to make the trap, etc. And the aunt or uncle wouldn't say too much. But now the kid is touching the wood, smelling it. The next thing you know the kid is outside looking for that type of wood, because he wants to make a trap like that, too. If he would have been told, "This is oak or this is whatever," it's just a name to him. But now the kid knows the tree, he knows the leaves, he knows what that wood is good for. Then while the kid is working on the trap he might walk by and see somebody making a basket. And he might get drawn into that, as opposed to having someone saying, "OK, today we're doing Basket Weaving 101." The teaching is all completely invisible, in the background. And the grandmothers and the grandfathers are in the background, too, saying, "That child has a real spark for fire. Let's nurture that." And the people who are the fire clan of the village suddenly appear in that person's path.
Gail: At last year's Harvest Gathering, and again last night, I noticed you express gratitude quite often. You give thanks to the woods and to the fire. It's an important thing to pass on to the students.
Bruce: Gratitude is very important. You have to remain humble to it all. Everything is your teacher. The more you are in thanksgiving, the more that everything responds in kind. Last night I was showing the wood bow fire drill to the students. It's one of a couple of dozen methods of basically rubbing sticks together to produce a flame. A student just handed me a kit; I hadn't carved it myself, so I needed to make a few adjustments. But even after I had made all the adjustments the fire still wasn't coming. Then I realized one thing I forgot to do was to ask for the fire and to thank it. And as soon as I did – poof! – fire.
Gail: How does our state of mind contribute overall to our nature experience?
Bruce: Most humans are just living in their heads, just thinking: I have a math test on Thursday or the boss is a jerk or I have to pay this bill, the car's broken again. Their minds are just chattering because they're in the beta state. They are in total focus vision, tunnel vision. They aren't using soft doe eyes or wide-angle vision.
Ian: What are doe eyes?
Bruce: Soft doe eyes is seeing in wide-angle vision. It's where you use your peripheral vision. You're sort of seeing everything at 180 degrees in a somewhat fuzzy mode. You can't really read or actually pick up things, but you can pick up motion. You see the flit of a dragonfly at a hundred yards, something you would never see in focus vision. To be in tunnel vision, to have your eyes focus on something really clear or to read a text, your brain has be at twenty cycles per second which is in beta frequency. So you can't stay in the alpha mind frequency and be in tunnel vision.
Gail: And tunnel vision is produced by television, computers, books.
Bruce: Yes, books, school teachers, all of that. It actually starts when we're very young. Just think how we say to a little baby, "Here, look at this!" and we put a block or something right in front of the baby's face. We basically teach the child to go out of wide-angle vision and into tunnel vision. In tunnel vision we're locked high in the beta frequency. So when we're in the woods in tunnel vision – in beta – our minds are just like a radio station producing static. The animals can't stand that. They want to go to the outside edge of that energy field. If you walk down any trail that is heavily used by people and go two hundred yards on either side of it, that's where you'll find the animal trails. They live at the outside edge of human consciousness, outside of the static.
But when a human starts to meditate, that's when the animals start to get closer. And I don't mean meditate as in just sit there and close your eyes, but meditate in wide angle vision, which you can do while walking, or making your wood bow fire drill, building your shelter or even riding your bike. You can sit at your sit spot with eyes wide open and meditate and check things out. As you do this, and slowly go deeper and deeper into the alpha wave, the animals will start to come out and get closer to you because you aren't sending out the static wave form anymore. You're sending out a purer mind wave. And just as running water is soothing to humans, a person meditating and producing that type of mind wave soothes animals. They are drawn to it.
Gail: At the school you teach skills so a person can survive completely on his or her own in the woods, but you also focus outward. You have workshops on things such as alternative energy sources.
Bruce: It's all connected. We have to walk the razor's edge and have a foot in both nature and the world. It sounds romantic to live out in the woods with no connection to society, but if we just go back to the woods and stay there we're kind of running away from the whole thing. We need to think of what legacy we want to leave for our children and our children's children. Do we want to leave just a huge, barren wasteland? But in one generation we can re-educate the children back to the woods. Get them more nature aware. And that's all it's going to take.
Gail: You sound hopeful.
Bruce: Absolutely. I've been asked, "How many people is it going to take to do it?" Just one. But who is going to be that one?
Gail Lord and Ian Wixon live in Grafton, MA, where they enjoy a small woods behind their home and wonderful neighbors. Bruce Edward Carroll is the founder of Virtual Mountain Wilderness School in Fitzwilliam, NH where he leads numerous nature awareness, wilderness skills, and tracking programs. He is a certified herbalist and Reiki Master and has taken numerous advanced wilderness courses from Tom Brown Jr., Paul Rezendes and Jon Young. Bruce is also an accomplished drummer and computer consultant. He lives in the woods in a solar powered geodesic dome that he designed & built and keeps honeybees and dairy goats. Bruce will also be attending the Harvest Gathering this year, Sept 7-9 in Becket, MA to work with children and adults. He can be contacted 603-585-3094 or email@example.com PO Box 84, Fitzwilliam, NH 03447. Website: http://www.virtualmountain.org.