One of the communities you’ve really dedicated yourself to is the Wilderness Awareness School. Can you say a little bit about your work there, what led you there, and what initially spoke to you about that work?
Grace: I started as a student at Wilderness Awareness School (WAS) six years ago. Before I moved to Duvall, I had been living on Orcas, WA and the southeast of Alaska, working in many different fields (literally and figuratively) and jobs. Some of those were farm labor and management, kayak guiding, ecotourism, and environmental education. I was in the midst of creating a business plan to start my own forest preschool on Orcas, when I learned about the 9-month Anake Outdoor School (AOS) at WAS. I went to a visit day of the program and chose to enroll right after. The curriculum was like learning to down-shift a bicycle while already going uphill. It added framework and tools for a field I was already dedicated to (environmental education), but also offered me as an educator more ways to make the job sustainable, me personally more resilient, and all around more conducive to my vision. All this as a naturalist student focusing on education, while undergoing major, perspective-altering rites of passage. Since completing AOS I have been a student-teacher for short-course and yearly adult and youth programs, I’ve done the Wildlife Tracking Intensive, a Soul Tracking Intensive (connected to but not sponsored by WAS), volunteered for the school in various ways, taught and directed yearly and summer programs...many different hats.
What drew me in was the inspired curiosity brought for all aspects of the natural world. It wasn’t about fulfilling the state requirements for public education in environmental science—though I firmly believe it offers students the same, or even better, methods of learning. It was about learning to ask more, broader, attuned questions, and expanding awareness of self, place, ancestry, and connection. Learning to ask the right questions and having to earn the answers through personal curiosity and patience. And ultimately for me, returning to the roots of ancestral sciences.
Grace: I’ve tracked in many communities I circle past that a lot of people are feeling burn-out. I have the thought this is a cumulative, empathic, and epigenetic response to everything humans have been experiencing for many generations, with the added sprinkle of near constant, poorly filtered awareness on what’s going on in the world (social media, smart phones). Depression and mental illnesses seem to be a majority baseline, whether people are talking about it or not. I feel it myself. One thing that helps me have a sense of purpose and keeps me motivated towards healing are acts of ceremony. Sometimes ceremony is a major rite of passage I undergo or support others in going through (either way it works). Sometimes it’s a spontaneous feeling and acknowledgement in my body during a movement exercise. Sometimes it’s a quiet moment of stillness. I have an idea that I have a gift for creating and supporting a complete spectrum of ceremony. I think most all of us do. And I know I receive appreciative feedback from people in my life, and feedback from myself that this is a path to continue dedicating energy to.
Marisa: I know it hasn’t been super easy for you to navigate having a strong internal sense of purpose and a world that doesn’t offer an obvious path to put that into action. Do you have any thoughts to offer people struggling with how to show up in the midst of great atrocities happening right now?
Grace: I was just listening to a dear friend this morning as he expressed his despair and grief for Amazonia amidst the devastating wildfires currently transforming the land. I often wake up at night, or feel consumed during the day by my grief of sensing and knowing suffering in the world. It’s not unusual to find myself weeping for road-killed animals, be them snake, frog, raccoon, coyote, crow, deer, mouse, opossum, or other kin. I witness a young child struggle to understand the desires of their caregiver, as the child seeks to please them and also remain an autonomous person. I hear of the pain of a family’s separation or loss. Some moments I feel debilitated by these griefs, some moments I think of no pain or pleasure but my own, and some moments I believe I’m insufficient to give and return love needed to offer healing to the world. But when I go out, I take all that comes with me, and by the time I return I’ve shed what’s weighing me. The chaos and order of the natural world reflect all and more back to me, and almost always I can take a deep breath again.
Grace: That I’m not alone. Being a human can be so alienating. But spending “alone-with-self” time (be that no human in sight or alone in a crowd) makes me resilient. And when I join in with a group of people (at work, at a gathering of friends, even with meeting with people I just met) there is always something to offer in awareness of what the natural world is doing, and I’ve never had no one respond in delight, curiosity, or connection to my observations. People gravitate to honest connection. And what better way to connect than to offer time, observation, reflection, and imitation back to the natural world. Time will pay off. It felt like it had been a long while since I’d had a remarkable connection. Then a few months ago I was on a night hike and I sat to take a break with my friend, and a creature came and hovered feet from out heads. It took me a day before I concluded it was a Flammulated Owl! A very rare and exciting encounter, and one to remind me that I belong, as destructive as a feel sometimes.
Also, I love having weird, exciting, odd facts of the natural world on hand to share with people. I only recently learned (which I can’t believe I didn’t know, and am certain this fact came only at the right moment for me) that the American Badger and Coyote will hunt together, and spontaneously led a game with children that offered time to teach of this behavior. I’ve seen lots of other facilitators do this and felt so joyful and the natural rhythm it offered. The more we learn, the more we learn of the infinite possibilities the world offers.
Marisa: That's such a good reminder. Thank you. One of my dear friends who does racial equity work is calling for white people to find something greater to belong to than whiteness. She sees that white people are scared for the societal-level change that would occur if we actually dismantled the bedrock of racist and otherwise oppressive systems that we live in. It would mean we (white people) would have to seek belonging, a sense of mattering, and relational security in a different way than is currently accepted. I think something you and I share is a sense of belonging to a web of life that transcends human-created systems. Are there particular role models or guides you turn to to reconnect with yourself, or your purpose in life?
Grace: Yes. I believe that at some point in our ancestry, every one of us was led through rites of passage. Today, those rites of passage in our culture look like getting a driver’s license, prom, hazing at college, weddings, baby showers, and a few others. A bit to my dismay these celebrations of life chapters are more often that not fully marked by consumerism. To pattern ourselves with highlighting momentous life changes with the acquisition of more material belongings, or stories of humiliation or destructive behavior, doesn’t actually provide lasting belonging.
I don’t know where it originated from, if anywhere, but I’ve heard in many ways this sentiment of “initiate the children, or they will burn the village to the ground”. When we offer people the opportunity to struggle, be challenged, even suffer, and persist, while they are intentionally supported by a mindful collective, we offer them the chance to see their own worthiness. This (ideally and usually) doesn’t lead to the arrogant righteousness I see to be rather toxic. When done well, rites of passage work evokes among many things humility, grief, strength, compassion, connection, love, and willingness to stand for something centered in the ecocentric thought, rather then egocentric.
Bill Plotkin, founder of Animas Valley Institute, writes about this prolifically and often eloquently (if not sometimes verbosely, but I’m guilty of that too!). The late poet Mary Oliver also comes to mind, I know a beloved one to you, your mother, and myself.
And, if you’re question is also asking specifically of non-human people who I personally feel a sense of kinship too, the answer is, yes. Those relationships are evolving, impermanent, and often come to my awareness seemingly spontaneous. As a curious naturalist I love to learn about them, their behavior and lifestyle and native lands, and then keep asking why we connected. I’ll share a short story about that. Recently I was in a remarkable meditation when a completely new-to-me four-legged animal showed up. I knew next to nothing about this unique, beautiful species, had never encountered them nor studied them. Since then I’ve learned they are the fastest mammal in North America! And they’re not at all good at jumping, unlike what I would have expected. I was a distance runner and a terrible sprinter when I ran track. And loved the hurdles. So that’s fun.
Grace: I always thought myself a dedicated “plant person”, until I began studying bird language and wildlife tracking. Since I began amateur studies of birds, my daily wanderings--be it an intentional walk, watering my garden, going to my car, or to check the mail--have immensely enriched my life and sense of belonging. If it’s possible, take a short (or intensive!) course in bird language, wildlife tracking, ethnobotany, or some other ancestral craft skill (That includes something as common as knitting! Or learning friction fire making.). Anything that can get you without a roof over your head and a bit more into your body. If you find finances are tight, ask the organization for financial support. Or find a free Audubon class. Take your shoes off and walk around barefoot--even if that’s just your neighborhood sidewalk. Let your body be drawn to somewhere outside that
Marisa: If people wanted to support your work or know more, where would you recommend they start?
Grace: Filip's podcast is a great start. I shared it with a bunch of my adult students this last year and they sent a lot of positive feedback and encouragement. It's called "Listening to Land Podcast" and can be streamed or downloaded on most any podcast provider. He also works for Raven's Roots Naturalist School in Sedro Wooly, WA, and I highly recommend connecting with them on the internet or social media.
Some beloved book and author recommendations: Linda Hogan, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Mother Night is a favorite - I got an audible account just to listen to her prolific library.
I know I wasn’t condoning social media, and I still enjoy using the instagram for following some ancestral skills students. There are far to many to list or even chose a few favorites, but people could find some through my followings (without even following me), at @water_xylem_woods. You can also message me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, though apologies in advance if it takes me a week or two! I’m in a work transition myself right now to take a little down time from teaching youth, but if anyone has any questions for me, I look forward to connecting.
Thank you for these questions, Marisa. As I said in other words when we opened, I am very grateful our paths have crossed the way they have, and as our friendship and sisterhood challenges me to rise up and also surrender to warmth and love. And my naturalist curiosity for the day is, how many people read to the end, but before they did, web-searched “fastest North American mammal”.