To mend our culture and heal the earth, we must teach kids to learn from nature through careful mentorship.
Very early in life I found myself deep in the forest speaking words into the wild landscape that surrounded me, “I want to make the most difference, for the greatest number of people, that will last the longest time.” That has been my mission ever since.
Today I live in Putney, Vermont, part of a vibrant community nestled in the Green Mountains. With the birth of my young daughter, the questions that had driven my life took on an even clearer tone. I’m committed to her future, and that of her children and the children I’ll never meet. What can I do with my life to ensure them health and happiness?
My time in nature has made clear to me that we live in a broken culture. The culture of empire and the culture of the machine can never be regenerative. In the great sweep of human life, some million and half years of our working with fire, 5,000 generations speaking languages, 30,000 years of sophisticated art, the time of empires and the time of machines is short; it will not last. These things are temporary provided they do not destroy the heritage of what went before. How could we preserve and reclaim that heritage?
Humans are cultural animals. Our evolution continues along paths that we direct through our choices, patterns, and behaviors. Even more importantly—we pass culture along through initiation and story. If we have a broken culture, how can we again become whole people? As I searched for effective tools and practices to ensure that I lived up to my promise, one truth emerged: healthy culture can trump the messages and patterns of modern life. By that I mean, the cultural context of a learning situation is more powerful and influential than the content or even the learning environment. The context of modern learning is the broken culture of empire and of the machine. I had to find a way to repair the broken culture around me.
Cultural repair has many aspects, but all involve remembering, restoring, and reinventing the invisible fabric of understanding that produces happy, healthy people and healthy land. Just as permaculture derives its power from understanding the regenerative capacities and logic of nature, so cultural repair arises from the assumption that there is a core logic to human societies and their relation to the living world. Since 1999, I have worked with Jon Young, author of What the Robin Knows, in the field of culture repair. We have travelled the world leading more than 60 courses in the Art of Mentoring.
Everywhere different according to the gifts of each natural environment, cultures that have endured hold in common many things intrinsic to the human genome, to the way we learn, grow, mature, reproduce, age, and die. This transcendent cultural logic is closely patterned to our brains, senses, and glandular systems, which have not changed much at all during the time of empire, and even less during the time of machines. These conditions—about which our present culture teaches little—can still be accessed through nature, which was our original teacher. Thus, the great tool of cultural repair is Nature Connection, reconnecting human beings and human culture to the larger whole of which they are a part. This is the essence of all healing.
In my quest to understand the world, I found no wholeness in the culture around me, so I embarked on a journey, seeking the structures, containers, and practices that empower people to reach their highest potential, their greatest humanity. This is what I wanted for myself. I wanted to remember what it is to be a full and vibrant human being walking in the beauty way. The culture I was born into had no understanding of beauty; it created ugliness everywhere. How could it teach me something so profound?
Human beings do not create beauty just for themselves. We do not walk alone. Our highest purposes, greatest dreams, and deepest needs are realized in relationship. I wanted to see the village coming together to restore, repair, reinvent, and remember. I wanted connection—to a village, a clan, a tribe. Permaculture and nature connection share this vision of the village as a place of reclaimed and renewed culture. In the village, we can appropriately place the orchards, gardens, homes, and centers that nourish the people. We can also re-pattern life and human development to create the healthy, happy people whom I wanted around me.
As my journey unfolded, the good news dawned: there is an entire basket of powerful tools that human beings from the Arctic to the Kalahari have used to create enduring cultures. These are molded to the teachings of nature and have been passed down by the wisdom of elders. Gathered up and wielded with humility, they can create a framework for vibrant, healthy, regenerative culture to emerge again. This framework of understanding seems to be similar to that of permaculture, wherein the principles are observed in nature, and have indigenous roots. To bring people back into contact with that wisdom tradition is what we now call cultural mentoring.
Respect for elders is a value that permeates traditional and indigenous cultures. Elders are individuals who have garnered potent experiences through long lives. Maturing developmentally with intention and guidance through their life stages, living with purpose, they have come to a place of deep meaning and understanding of the collective life and its spiritual ground. For a society to respect its elders means to keep wisdom elevated, honoring deep time and the long view. Our modern, high-energy culture does the opposite, tending to value only the newest thing to come along. We may value innovation today, but in a natural setting, it is unusual and often dangerous. Wise cultures know that if enthusiasm for the novel is unchecked by more experienced voices, it might kill you. David Holmgren observes that traditional wisdom, arising in low-energy settings, is not about innovation (contrast that with the “techno-fix culture”) but about conserving values and assets that already exist.
In the mentoring tradition, one of our most revered elders was Gilbert Walking Bull. Raised by his paternal grandparents in Wanblee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, he learned the old ways of the Lakota and was strong in the traditions of his people. He once told me about his grandfather and one of his earliest teachings. Gilbert was telling his elder, “I don’t understand what these grown-ups are saying,” to which the grandfather simply replied, “Pay attention! The Creator gave you a brain, eyes, and ears, so that you could pay attention. If you listen, you’re going to understand what that man is talking about.” From that point on, Gilbert listened deeply with his eyes closed when others were sharing from their hearts. I would say Gilbert had something like a photographic memory. He was impeccable with details of his personal and tribal history. He went on to talk about how his elders, his aunts and uncles, were always making him take pause, to pay attention. This was not a random occurrence, but a strategy to build awareness.
Gilbert’s grandmother used to play string games with him. Each time she brought a new one out, it was like a new toy had just appeared, not because the string itself is fascinating, but because the grandmother knew how to be attractive to the grandchild. She would begin a new string game that he hadn’t yet seen, on the other side of the room. Arriving halfway through the game and wanting to know how to begin it, Gilbert would hear her say, “Next time pay attention.” It was a teaching, not a teasing. In that world, in his time, the ongoing pull of his senses shaped him into an adept leader, a tracker of nature, and an ongoing student of life. It made him hungry to use his senses, to be curious, to lean into experience, to be awake and alert. That became his normal state of being. He was constantly picking up on things—deep insights and knowledge.
It’s a detriment to our children to satisfy them all the time. What does that do for their ability to survive? It’s very tempting just to give the answers out, but in Gilbert’s time there was real danger. The habit of paying attention meant the difference between life and death.
Another elder in our movement, Ingwe, born M. Norman Powell, was a descendant of Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouting movement. Of British ancestry, Ingwe grew up on a coffee plantation in Kenya with no friends among the other settlers. His playmates were the Akamba children who lived nearby. He was deep in the native fold. He learned the stories, sat by the fires, and experienced the wisdom of the elders transferred through the children and on to him in many of the same ways that Gilbert was experiencing, thousands of miles away. Gilbert, Ingwe, and the Akamba youth had to be awake and alert; they had to be good learners. Out of this came life, laughter, joy, and abundant energy. In Kenya, the number of things that can kill you is pretty high, and back then adults weren’t “helicopter parenting.” The children watched the other children … and do you know what? The kids didn’t die … they flourished! I often think about what it would take for my child to flourish in the outback of Kenya. We love our modern lifestyle and defend it because there are perks: good health care, decent infrastructure, readily available pleasures, our lives are extended. But there is a cost to our awareness and resilience.
Ingwe’s guardian, Ndaka, was only a child himself, a few years older. He taught Ingwe to hunt, to listen to the voices of the natural world, to keep his awareness honed to a razor’s edge. Ingwe learned to collect poison from a grub that would be applied to their hunting arrows. It was so lethal that if it got into the bloodstream one would be dead in 15 minutes. The Akamba were a mentoring culture in which competent children mentored younger children about the application of lethal poison. There’s something terrifying and awesome about that.
These stories can teach and inspire us today. As we become more inte- grated with nature and the land, how do we convey the danger, the joy, the magnificence, and the confidence that comes from belonging to a place?
To be a mentor is to do regenerative work: helping others to help themselves. “Fish for someone, and they eat for a day, teach them to fish and they eat for a lifetime.” As people new to the mentoring process quickly learn, it’s all about slowing down, because it takes a lot longer to teach a person to fish. It takes patience, profiling skills, questioning skills, awareness skills, and relationship skills to be a mentor. In our fast-paced world, the pressures of time present disincentives to mentoring.
Mentoring involves letting the other person make his or her own connections. It draws out the natural passions and genius of the other to support internal growth while gently steering the learner out of his or her comfort zone and on to new horizons. The mentored person may not even realize how carefully this is being done. Teaching, or instructing—especially as offered in public schools—can be about downloading data, or managing an impersonal learning system. When education means regurgitating lecture notes or historical dates for a standardized test, we flatten the creativity of our minds. Both rote learning and intuitive awakening are important; knowing the difference is even more so.
The Art of Mentoring (AOM) workshop is an immersion in personal and cultural mentoring approaches that lead to regenerative culture. Jon Young led the first AOM in 1994, based on his upbringing with Tom Brown, Jr. and his research in anthropology. Jon, his wife, Nicole, and I co-founded the 8 Shields Institute, which along with my Institute for Natural Learning and a few other projects, are the key organizations offering cultural repair workshops. In the AOM, we create a temporary village. The program weaves a living cultural basket from conscious elements like humor, ceremony, awareness, curiosity, and mindful risk-taking. The AOM is derived from principles and practices of indigenous learning, survival, and ceremonial systems, and has nature connection at its core. Through it people experience cultural repair. They learn self-reflective tools that turn experience into wisdom and prepare them to become elders.
A common practice in both nature-based cultures and the AOM is the Art of Questioning. Nature is rich in information, so learning from nature is a demanding job. I could talk for weeks about how to gather water or make fire by friction, about migratory flight patters or how landscape dictates animal movement, edible plants, tracking, trailing, or how to heal yourself with the available herbs in your bioregion. And yet if I want to honor the value of the learner finding his own connection to nature, over my own information, then I must take a different approach. This is “the mentor’s burden.” It carries with it a short-term loss and a long-term gain. I lose my immediate satisfaction, but I’ve mentored a dedicated life-long learner who has absorbed the principles of regenerative practice, nature connection, and cultural mentoring.
To draw out curiosity and self-motivation, we use the Art of Questioning. When the learner is engaged with something, I ask “What do you see? What do you hear? What’s that smell? What does that feel like? Which way is the wind coming from?” Open-ended questions provoke presence and awareness—the “now” moment. And then comes a trail, a mystery to follow. Out of that observation grows an interest.
“Whoa! What is that?” Something new enters the senses after being provoked by an open-ended question.
I go on a journey with them. I go toe-to-toe with them. They’ve got questions; I’ve got another one. They want to go down into that burrow; I go down into the burrow with them. They want to get muddy; I’m the first one in the pile … it’s about pulling out their passions, adapting to their experience. The Art of Questioning is half of the process. It shows respect. It’s sacred to someone’s connection to their world, to their unfolding learning.
In my experience, nature is inseparable from mentoring. That’s the way I learned it. If I go out to enjoy nature with somebody, the last thing I’m going to do is name all of the local birds. If I hear a thrush, I’m likely to whistle the bird sound back. If the person asks, “What’s that bird?” I’m likely to say, “Listen to the quality of its voice.” If they are still stuck on knowing the answer, I might say, “Let’s just put knowing on the shelf for a moment. What do you say you and I take a journey? Take a moment, make that bird sound, through a whistle.”
With an adult I have to pull out curiosity which has been stuffed or suppressed by education and habit, but kids will usually accept the challenge. So next we’ll go looking for the bird, we’re off-trail, on an adventure, we’re testing our mettle, pursuing a mystery, we’re on a treasure hunt. It’s the original exploration journey, something timeless. Thoughts like I wasn’t satisfied with not knowing the name of something are long gone, and we’re experiencing life!
We’ll encounter 20 other things on the path to discovering what this bird is, and when we come home, we’ll have a vibrant story. We’ll want to share with the people we love, and they will listen to that story with enthusiasm, and then start asking questions: “What was its color, did it have a wing bar (what’s a wing bar)? How high up in the tree was it? Were there other birds around it, how long was its beak, what was the shape of its tail?” Each time a question comes, it takes the searcher back to the scene to replay it, to explore the raw data, to reclaim the crackling experience of this moment.
The story is TOLD AND RETOLD until the searcher realizes it has come to life; filled with a thousand points of data, of knowledge. The answers to these questions are alive in them And now they’re dancing … now the vitality of cross-generational mentoring comes into play. A dynamic exchange enlivens everyone in the room. Now the searcher can’t stand it anymore, and is tearing through field guides, no longer in search of a name, but because the possibility of a deep relationship to this question is thick in the air, and we have a burning desire to know all of creation.
The Art of Questioning derives from the native need for deep reconnaissance. What is happening on the land today? We call this routine “The Story of the Day.” When somebody comes back from the bush or the garden, we want to know! In a village, these people are the eyes and ears for everyone. We wonder what has happened out there. It’s important to be updated. Information about plants, water, wind shifts, tracks, food, survival, danger, humor, story, learning, engagement are all offered up and savored.
Here’s the most wonderful part: we don’t have to be living in Kenya, surrounded by native elders, to do this. No matter the bioregion or the context, the Art of Questioning sets off a dynamic and life-affirming journey that may change every aspect of our lives, deepening our connection to families and community. It can enrich the inner landscape beyond measure. To pay attention to the world is to pay attention to ourselves. When the birds sing their songs of thanksgiving to the rising sun, how can we listen without becoming thankful? The Art of Questioning may change lives, and we’ll be leaving the earth better than we found it, creating hungry, awake, enlivened people who are asking the important questions. That’s regenerative!
Weaving these many strands together is a lifelong work. It creates rich and diverse tapestries that bring the stories of our past into the present, making space for a more hopeful future. We hold in our hands a basket filled with regenerative tools for restoring soil health and elder wisdom, ways to pay attention. In the center of this basket are storytelling and artful questioning. This is the promise of permaculture, nature connection, and cultural repair that inspires and delights me, and to which I have devoted my life as an artist. I do this for my daughter, her children’s children, and the ones I shall never meet.
Mark Morey is a creative artist, visionary educator, cultural engineer, and consultant who designs holistic communities in keeping with timeless native principles. Reprinted from Permaculture Activist (May 2013), a quarterly magazine dedicated to the designers and inhabitants of a regenerative human culture.