There's just no substitute for sitting in the woods...

This week I thought I would digress a bit from the discussions of patterns in forestry and return to a fundamental practice that I've, well, recently returned to.

An important part of my education was spending time at a local environmental education program called EarthArts in Ithaca. From my first visit with a friend in high school I knew there was something special going on at this place. Founder Dale Bryner created what she called and "invisible school," which has no walls, but is everywhere outside as students explore nature and their own self in a number of ways. In this school everything - people, plants, rocks, the landscape - is a teacher.

One of the key tools employed at EarthArts and in many nature awareness programs is called Sit Spot. The goal of this practice is to spend time alone, outside, for 20 or more minutes, focused on taking in your surroundings with the only tools we carry with us at all times; our senses.

The reason we spend at least 20 minutes sitting is because we humans tend to create a chaos of disturbance when we enter the woods. If you've ever watched a cat stalk prey or a blue heron flying across a wetland you gain a new respect for the ability to move with grace and quiet. We have lost that ability, partly because we don't spend time outside, and partly because we just don't have to. If you were constantly worried about a predator around the bend you'd walk softer and slower on the land.

While a mere experience sitting in the woods may not seem to be a profound practice, it truly is. Imagine visiting the same spot, day after day, season after season, to sit and open your eyes, ears, and nose to the events going on around you. This creates a relationship to place, and you can begin to see the subtle changes that nature takes.

While I am so thankful for all the reading and classed I've taken over the years, I feel I have learned more in sit spot, in practicing observation, than I ever could have from people or books.

An important distinction I've made here is the relationship between primary learning and secondary learning. In primary observation WE are directly receiving information and learn from interacting with the elements we are trying to learn about. An example would be learning tree identification by collecting leaf and seed samples, feeling the bark, and observing the landscape habitat where the species persist.

Another example of primary learning; walking blindfolded through the landscape. 
In secondary or mediated learning, we get this information from a book, or from a person. In the tree identification, we'd be working with a diagnostic keys, or someone would be leading us around and telling us about the trees we are seeing. Or perhaps, the best example of secondary learning would be to not be in the woods at all, but to be inside, looking at slides or listening to a lecture about trees.

It's an obvious statement to say that most of our learning these days is secondary, or mediated by something - whether it is a person, book, or the internet. I run into this in all my educational ventures, whether short classes or longer programs. The interesting paradox I've experienced is that most students want "hands-on" or primary learning experience, but very few have any actual skills or experience learning in this way.

A good example of this would be interactions I've had with summer apprentices over the last  few summers. We run a 6 week program through the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute and host 8 to 10 young and eager apprentices each season. They are often fresh out of college or still attending, and VERY hungry to get their hands dirty, to learn by doing.

One activity we always undertake is planting an annual vegetable garden, in no till beds that are sheet mulched in true permaculture fashion. Each year I get the same questions; "how far apart should we plant the tomatoes?" which I could easily answer. My strategy has been to ask, "Have you seen a mature tomato plant before?" or "What if you planted
them at different spacings and observed over the summer to determine the correct spacing?"

This sort of approach - giving a question to a question, rather than just the answer, is the single most challenging thing for students to grasp. We are all so used to asking a question and getting the answer, but the problem is that is shuts off our brain, and removes the opportunity to form a relationship to the things we are learning about.

The same happens with tree ID, where many students just want to know the name, and once they do, are satisfied they've "learned" the tree.

Instead of telling them the tree name, I ask, "What does the form look like? What shape are the leaves? How does the bark look and feel? What does the tree look like in different stages of life?"

One apprentice in particular was really frustrated with my tomato answer, but now when I see her she always reminds me what a powerful learning that was for her. My questions, or rather my LACK of answer, forced her to look at the plant in her hand, assess her surroundings, and take charge of the situation. It didn't matter if she was right or wrong, but that she was willing to try something, and learning by observing the results of her actions. This is primary learning.

All this touting of primary learning is not to discount or blow off the value of secondary materials - I absolutely love learning from people, and books, and movies. Instead, I want to encourage thinking around the need to tip the balance - to create a world where we each take responsibility for our learning by diving in, and not sitting back waiting for someone to tell us the facts. This is the main way conventional education has failed us.

Back to Sit Spot; I've recently begun sitting in the woods again, practicing exercises to open my senses and take in my environment. I couple this with asking myself questions about the forest as I look around, such as:

"How long has this tree been lying across the creek?"
"What evidence do I see of past humans here?"
"Why is the moss growing on that log and not the other?"  (I learned why from a book, but only after I had asked myself the question!)

I strongly encourage those who are interested in being better land stewards, farmers, foresters, and gardeners to find a quiet spot in a place you can visit daily, or several times a week. Sit there for 20 minutes or more. Make observations. Ask good questions. And don't doubt the benefits of this exercise. Imagine doing this through sunny days, rain storms, and in the snow. Imagine seeing your sit spot waking up from winter, being there when the first green shoots emerge from the ground. Who needs television?

More about sit spot from Wilderness Awareness School