Coming Back to Nature

by on Wednesday, 26 June 2013 Comments

--A conversation with Mike and Dawa Bochnia of Seven Generations Outdoor School

On the evening of April 26th, 2013, I met up with Mike and Dawa of Seven Generations Outdoor School, along with their trusty intern, Wanderer (蕭健宏), to talk a bit about the school, and what they hope to accomplish here in Taiwan.

Emily: So when I signed up for your Natural Living Basics I course last month, I didn't know what to expect. But I have to say, Mike, you had me right from the opening speech. You spoke about what you hoped to achieve through the course, and you talked about building a deeper connection with nature, a relationship of respect and love. Can you give us a bit of that speech now?

Mike: Well, when you talk about respect, if it's not a part of you, if it's not a part of who we are, it's almost fabricated. Then nature becomes a place to visit, nature becomes a place that we entertain ourselves with, but it doesn't become a part of us. Whereas, as soon as people integrate and understand that nature is the one thing that everything on this planet has in common, and if we can integrate that back into our lives, there is no fabricating, there is no, "Oh, I should do more to save the earth", there is no trying to be a conservationist, you just are. And that's what I aim to accomplish through our courses.

Emily: Yes, that was just as powerful as I remember it. Now, before we get into what 7 Generations (7G) is doing here in Taiwan, I would like to ask you a question, Dawa. You were General Secretary of the Society of Wilderness in Taiwan, and I imagine this must have given you a pretty good picture of the environmental situation here in Taiwan. What would you say the state of the general public's awareness is now, in regards to the environment?

Dawa: You know, before I went to tracker school in the US and gained a deeper connection with nature, of course I knew there were problems and issues here and there, but really had no idea how deeply rooted the problem was. But after coming back from the US and seeing it from a completely different perspective, I realize now that it's a part of our culture and personality, which has developed here that is causing the problem on the island, and it's actually getting so much worse! It's an awareness that people are really lacking, and I'd say it's so much worse than what I would have admitted a few years ago. But I'm also very happy to see that there are counter actions going on. Because I'm in the field now and helping people connect with nature, more of this information is coming my way. If I wasn't doing what I'm doing, most of this information would just pass me by and I wouldn't know that there were so many people who are concerned about the environment and working to help it. So it's a blessing for me to be walking on the path and seeing so many more problems, but at the same time seeing so much more effort being done. Even though this effort is not enough yet to counteract the damage, I still see hope in it. You know, it really is the government and the structure of this society that needs to be changed, but for that to happen you need to go back to the role of the people and look at what kind of politicians they are electing, and their knowledge of what kind of actions they can take to make a fundamental change, otherwise it's not possible. Going back to the grassroots is very important.

Emily: I was going to say, working for a group like the Society of Wilderness (SoW), where you were dealing with government authorities and the general public on a more political scale, had you found yourself frustrated with the amount of impact that you were achieving?

Dawa: Actually, the Society of Wilderness kept themselves away from politics as much as they could. I mean in the past. I've been away from it for a while, but when I worked for them, it was their policy and they were very proud of the fact that they would not take a cent from the government, and that all their donations or funds were coming from the people. I mean they would rather have one thousand people donate $100 dollars each than having one person donate a hundred thousand dollars. So, that's their mentality, they want to work with the general public rather than the government. I haven't worked with them since 2000 and I don't know how much they've changed, but at that time they were more grassroots and even now, they are still the biggest conservation group in Taiwan.

Emily: With 7G you're working with people more on an individual level. Would you say that this is just as effective, maybe even more so, as far as raising awareness and making change?

Dawa: Yes. There is a fundamental difference between SoW or any other conservation groups and what we're doing here at 7G and that is that other groups provide more of a flash experience, in that they go in and out. You've attended some 7G activities and you know that it's not just a superficial experience, it goes inside, you know, into the heart. We provide people with the ability to look inside further, rather than only having an interesting, exciting and fascinating experience. It's an experience that allows you to go inside and to see your relationship with nature, and that is very rarely achieved by other methods or activities provided by most environmental or outdoor groups.

Mike: That's the reason why we only have 5-10% lecture, so that I can have you guys get more hands on and active within different types of skills and activities, because in the end, sitting as a bystander is not going to give you any sort of immersion in nature.

Emily: I agree. When I look at the efforts of many environmental groups working to make change, whether it's through campaigning or educating people in different ways, you're flashed with images of nature and slogans of why it needs our protection, but you're not really experiencing it within yourself.

Mike: Of course. Photos are beautiful, but they're 2 dimensional and it's disconnected from you. I'd much rather sit somebody down in the grass and even if a spider has to crawl across your leg, that way you're a part of your surroundings. It's much more powerful to feel, taste, hear and smell life and learn that way.

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Children learning to use their Owl Ears.

Dawa: There is one thing that is very powerful in our belief and that is, we are not the teachers, not even the guides, the real teacher is Mother Nature and all the elements in it, and we have full confidence that the teaching will come through to each individual. We allow nature to do the teaching, because we know how powerful it is and we have the firm belief that it will be accomplished.

Emily: Right. But at the same time, I was blown away by the amount of information and skills that you have. Do you think it's this practical knowledge that people are attracted to and initially draws them to the courses?

Dawa: I think that why people are drawn to us, apart from the knowledge and skills that we can provide, is for the connection to nature and that is what we truly want to offer. A lot of people don't know that that desire to connect with nature exists or that it's is what they want in their hearts; but when they see that that's what we can offer, and through things that are more tangible, rather than just what people would call spiritual growth like meditation, they are drawn to us. Well, we do sit you down and do some meditation, but in a different way. But that connection is really what is bringing people in and that's what modern society really needs and craves, without necessarily being aware of it.

Mike: If you get to know your neighbours and you sit down and have tea with them and laugh with them and have food with them, cry with them and truly share with them, that's a powerful bond. Whereas if you just look at your neighbour, and know that I should be respecting my neighbour and say Hi to my neighbour, but never talk to him, you have a disconnect and it's much easier to create a dislike or prejudice towards him, or even a hatred. So what it is, is that you have that connection, that you aren't disassociated from it, but a part of it. Nature, it should feel like our bedroom or our living room, it should feel that comfortable. We shouldn't be there simply because we know it's pretty, or is good for us and offers a nice bike route, it should be, part of us. It actually is, it's just we aren't aware of that.

Emily: Yes, and as Dawa said, people may think that they're coming to your courses because they want to learn how to track animals or make a fire from scratch, but realistically when is your average person going to use these skills. I think that it is more the connection that they're looking for, rather than survival skills, and I believe that this connection is the number one survival skill that we do truly need for our survival on this planet and for the survival of the planet itself. This is what I got out of your course, and that's why it had such an impact on me. But as far as the skills that you offer, I guess they are a tool to building this connection...

Mike: It's one of the mechanisms. To have a balanced connection, it should be physical, mental and spiritual. If you are growing in only one direction, you become imbalanced, you become too heavy, if you will. You need to have a strong foundation. So, if you want to go out in nature and meditate, that's great, please do! You know, it quiets the mind and the body, but at the same time, there's a physical aspect to life. So if you can understand that by taking those pieces of wood and shaping them the right way by using your hands, being part if it, smelling it, having a little sweat from the brow and then rubbing them together... I mean, we all enjoy sitting in front of a fire, but knowing that you can make it from the wood that you just looked at; not only is this spiritually uplifting, but it's also physical. You're actually physically bonding with those pieces of wood. And so these skills, which our ancestors created and developed, well we wouldn't be here if it weren't for them. And some people look at them as primitive skills, but they're so beautiful! And functional! These physical acts also help us, in a way. For many people, it's hard to meditate, especially with kids. It's hard to tell them to sit down and fold their legs and be quiet with their eyes closed, for an hour. They think they're being punished. But if you can sit them down with a couple pieces of string in their hands or cord and teach them how to braid it, make a necklace, and interlace it with flowers and pine cones and leaves, that they found on their own, and it smells good and feels good – they've turned it into a form of meditation. They've got that connection because they've quieted down and are working with their hands. Even with adults, there are a lot of adults that can't sit still today, in this society. So these are ways to help us get grounded and connected. That's what these skills are.

Dawa: And what the physical aspect is doing, is not only training you physically to do the skills, but through all the elements that you are using, the materials, you often learn more about your self than you learn about the different substances. You know, the wood will teach you that you are not patient enough, or that you need to find different ways to work around difficult parts, or that you need to find some ingenuity in making things work. Discovering how little patience you have or how you react when faced with different problems are some of the teachings that the materials show you when learning the skills. So that in itself is a powerful form of therapy.

Emily: Well, yes. The interaction is such an important part, and the course made me realize that I don't get a lot of this sort of interaction with nature. I mean, I've always considered myself an outdoorsy sort of person, I like camping and hiking and love nature, but I'm not really interacting with the elements.

63100 489870251052779 1963622678 nMike: You're not the only one. That's the way I was some fifteen years ago. I was a hiking, camping enthusiast. I thought the ultimate was getting out of my car throwing my backpack on and slugging it up to the top of the mountain, and being like – I camped on the top of that mountain, I'm bad-ass. But between the car and the top, I didn't connect or know very much. I didn't even really look at very much to tell you the truth, because I was just so focal visioned on the task of getting to the top.

Dawa: The beauty about working with nature is that it will teach you whatever you need to learn in that moment and however much you are ready to learn at that moment and there is no judgement. No one is going to say you are doing this wrong or you are stupid, it's just self learning. And that's why it's so comforting to be in nature, allowing nature to be the teacher.

Emily: You know, after the two day course, I got back to Taipei and I felt so good, better than I can remember feeling in a long time – mentally, physically and emotionally. I was full of this strong positive energy and it reminded me that nature really is the best medicine, an amazing cure for our modern day ailments.

Mike: That's great to hear, and it's so true. I say it often in my lectures – we would put so many therapists out of business if we re-immersed ourselves in nature as regularly as we possibly can.

Emily: Yeah, I believe it. So, as for what's to come -it seems like the response so far has been pretty good.

Making fire with a handmade bow drill.

Mike: Yes, the response has been great. We've had up to 80 -100 people show up at lectures and in the last few months we've had waiting lists for some of the workshops here. The only thing that is holding us back now is finding the right piece of land.

Dawa: Right now, because of the lack of a permanent site there are a lot of things we cannot do. For example, having a sweat lodge.

Mike: We can't do more advanced courses. We wanted to teach people how to make shelters that they could live in or adapt to their home, more advanced skill like these, but you need a more permanent location for that. So it's frustrating, but it's out there, it's just a matter of finding it.

Emily: Right. Well, I hope you find each other soon. Before we end, Wanderer, can I ask you a couple questions? You've been with Mike and Dawa, what, almost a year now?

Dawa: Yeah, it'll be a year in June. The first workshop was in June.

Emily: So, you came to do a workshop and then never left (laughter)?

Dawa: He wrote us an email telling us that he wanted to walk China, and that he didn't have enough skills yet, but didn't have enough money to come to all our classes; so he asked if he could volunteer and in exchange he would do labour work for us. And so we let him participate in the first workshop, that was All About Fire, which is a very labour intensive course (laughter), and he's been with us since.

Emily: So, I'm sure you've acquired a lot of information and skills to help with the walk to China, but what would you say is the most profound piece of knowledge or experience you have gained from being here at 7G?

Wanderer: The biggest part of my learning experience, apart from the skills, has been how to "be" in nature and that, even when I leave in the future, I am confident that I will be able to continue to learn from nature.

481823 489870237719447 1684203386 nWanderer nestled deep in nature.

On the way back to the train station the next morning, I had the chance to talk to Dawa a little more about Vision Quest, an 8 day course, of which 4 days are spent alone in the wilderness.

Dawa: The vision quest is an eight day course, with 2 days preparation, then the sit, which is four days and then there are two days after the quest to help you reintegrate back into daily life. The first day of the course is very relaxed, as you may have had to travel a while. The next day you go out and find your site and I will give a little lecture about the things you can do and what not to do during a quest and stuff like that.

Emily: I would guess that it's more practical preparation, as there's probably not much you can do to prepare mentally, is there?

Dawa: It's actually both – preparing mentally, physically and spiritually. In fact when you register, which needs to be a few months before, I will give you homework. In the time before the quest, I ask that you practice how to fast and how to be alone. If you can get accustomed to doing this in your daily life, you will not find it to be such torture. That is definitely not the purpose of the vision quest.

Emily: I know that I can be alone and I've done some fasts before; what makes me nervous is the thought of sleeping outside with no shelter, with the mosquitos and snakes and this feeling that it's going to be a battle. But I imagine you just have to get to the point where you let go and surrender to the elements rather than fight it.

Dawa: You're right, surrender will happen. It's either surrender to the fear or you surrender to nature. You surrender to the journey, or maybe you surrender to the fear and you come out crying, but either way it will be what you need at that time. What I'm try to say is that you can prep all you want, but you still won't know exactly what the lessons will be. That's what makes the vision quest difficult for people today, is that we are so far away from nature, whereas in the past indigenous people, walked out their door and were in nature. So this one step for us is a much bigger step now.

Then, in the two days after the quest, one thing is to break your fast, that is a very important part after the four days. We need to help you come back and integrate into society, not only mentally and spiritually, but physically as well. And there are a lot of things that need to be taken into consideration. There are also lessons taught on how to understand the visions that you received in the four days. This isn't all that easy either, as there is a lot of symbolism and the visions are not always clearly interpretable, they come in many different shapes and forms.

Emily: I thought it would be more like a sort of meditation practice. With the time spent alone and without all the usual comforts and distractions, you would have no choice but to look inward, but I guess you also have nature as your teacher.

Dawa: We always say that vision quest is a very long (ninety-six hours) and very slow meditation, but meditation is mostly in the mind, whereas here when you are sitting in nature, what you are doing is allowing the mind to be quiet enough to receive the visions. Like I said, the visions come in all shapes and forms, they can come in your dreams, from things that you learn, or your encounters with the animals. For me, one of the biggest teachings that I received during a vision quest was from the trees. In the traditions and beliefs of the Native Americans all things have their own spirit, and they are all capable of teaching and all of us are creators in ourselves, so allowing that part of you to be in communication and communion with that is a very important part. So, it's a bit different than a meditation course where you solely concentrate on quieting the mind. When you sit in nature, a solo sit in nature and it doesn't have to be a vision quest, it has such power because you allow yourself to be open to all teachings. This is especially strong with the vision quest, as you are fasting from everything familiar, including food and everything that gives us a sense of security or comfort zone. This allows you to go into a different dimension and make a much quicker jump forward spiritually.

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Seven Generations Outdoor School is run by Mike and Dawa Bochnia, and has been helping people reconnect with nature through workshops and classes in Taiwan for over a year now. Mike has been practicing primitive skills for about 14 years. He studied with the Tom Brown Jr's Tracker School and 6 years ago, he held a position with the school, in which he lived primitively in the woods for one year. Hsiao-Ping, also known as Dawa, was born and raised in Taiwan where she worked for the Society of Wilderness for many years. She also worked as a translator, which brought her to Tom Brown Jr's Tracker School to translate two of Tom Brown's books. She has studied primitive living and skills with the Tracker School and became a vision quest facilitator under the guidance of Malcolm Ringwalt at The Earth-Heart Institute of Vision and Healing. Mike and Dawa met at the Tracker School and were married in 2009.


More about Seven Generations courses and how to register can be found at their website

Emily McKee

Emily is from the west coast of Canada and currently lives and works in Taiwan. She has been living and travelling in foreign countries for much of her life and lives by the belief that each and every place on this earth should be loved and cherished like it's your home.

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