Sunday, September 07, 2008

Forests, Woodcraft and the Human Condition

by Stephen Bigger Read it all here

Today we are interested again in conservation and outdoor pursuits, even adventures as an important part of a child's education. The "forest school" has returned to the fore. I am reading two related books currently, Leslie Paul's An Angry Young Man (1952) and Trail of an Artist-Naturalist, the autobiography of Ernest Thompson Seton (1951).

Leslie Paul's title gave rise to the phrase 'angry young men' being used of various writers and playwrights in the 1950s. Leslie Paul, a Londoner, founded "The Woodcraft Folk" in 1925 to introduce inner-city lads to the joys of the countryside, with an emphasis on building inner strengths and on conservation. Now under the wing of the cooperative societies, the movement is still thriving and has many local groups. Paul took many of his ideas from scouting, but without the militarism it had at the time of the first world war. Beyond that he drew on the work of Ernest Thompson Seton who began the Woodcraft Movement in America, and from it developed the American scout movement, of which he became chief scout. Readers are more likely to have heard of his daughter Ann, who wrote fiction as Anya Seton.

As a boy in Canada, Ernest set up his own Indian tribe in 1874 in order to enjoy outdoor activities. Before long it had been renamed as "The Robin Hood Band", and once outgrown the attraction of the outdoor life continued. He made studies of animals and plants, and published many stories based on the forest. He prized the wisdom of the "Indian" first nation tribes on bushcraft, which he called "woodcraft". In setting up an education programme for boys, Robin Hood became replaced with the last of the Mohicans, of Fenimore Cooper's story. The movement was named The Woodcraft Indians. He devised a range of "exploits", each of which had a badge, starting with physical activities, and developing to mental development towards the highest "spiritual" level of "service".

He described his strict Calvinist Christian upbringing which assumed "the total depravity of human nature" [p.291]. He was a rebel, and (happily) thought himself depraved. As a young cowpuncher, he notes that his very rough mates all loved their mothers, and went to church mainly so they could tell their mother that they had been. In one service in a schoolroom, the preacher said "in sin did our mothers conceive us", at which one jumped up saying his mother was a decent woman and if the preacher insult her he would fill him full of lead. Ernest came to the view: "all children come here direct from God and are pure as God can make them. We do not have to reform them, but rather to keep them from being deformed [p.292]. He bought a derelict farm to turn into a conservation area, complete with Indian village, but the local lads declared total war as their age-old haunts were now off bounds. They did nightly damage. Instead of bringing in the law, as advised, he invited them to an adventure weekend with free food and no rules. 42 came, and the Woodland Indians had begun. The area criminal was democratically elected the Chief, and, taking his responsibilities very seriously, this began his transformation. There were rules - mainly for safety and against vandalism. The cardinal virtues were chivalry, kindness, courage and honour. The motto was "The best things of the best Indians". Feathers were awarded for "exploits", 'can do' skills but not competitive. They all received the 'can swim' feather because they could all swim. Fifty years later, all 42 had made something significant of their lives.

Lina and Adelia Beard, promoting scouting for girls in America,produced An Outdoor Book for Girls in America in 1915, recently republished. There is a chapter on ‘woodcraft’ which begins with the importance of the balsam fir tree: like a Christmas tree, it has aromatic needles and makes the best outdoor bedding. These are the trees on the Woodcraft Folk logo. The book teaches girls about how to track, swim, take wildlife photos, camp, find food and cope with accidents.

There are lessons here for families and schools - such personal strengths are not built up in front of televisions or in the back of people-carriers. Skills for life cannot be taught. But they can be encouraged, facilitated, directed, respected and applauded.

From the Czech Republic

Here's a link to an article about a Woodcraft Camp in the Czech Republic. It is Czech, but you can get something of a translation from Google. There are some nice photos

Our ursine persecution not a bear necessity

Bear with me. This is personal.

Try to forgive the opening play on words. The topic is bears.

We should be ashamed of our hype and hypocrisy. Such sentimental hype, such blatant hypocrisy.

Distant polar bears tug at our heartstrings. But bears in our North Shore gardens? For many, sentimentality ends at our rose bushes and fragrant barbecues. Shoot them, they say.

And if they are pushed close to the point of extinction? No contest. We'd shed crocodile tears . There'd be the charade of debate, open-line chatter, op-ed pieces and such. But human needs always trump nature's when our safety, food supply and species imperialism are involved. It's them or us, right?

Not so for me.

I admit to being a city boy who has never had to contend with the harsh realities of country life. And -- here the promised personal note -- my wildlife views were shaped early and indelibly by Ernest Thompson Seton's books, once very popular.

One was Monarch, the Big Bear of Tallac. This small blue book about a huge bear that ended up caged at Golden Gate Park was lent and never returned, but I as good as have it in my hands now.

My lifelong enthusiasm for the fresh phrase, sharp insight and concise aphorism began with Seton: "The life of a wild animal always has a tragic end." (And also, upliftingly: "Because I have known the torment of thirst I would dig a well where others may drink.")

Monarch's story, fully available on the web through the Project Gutenberg e-book, and other Seton stories stoked my childhood eagerness to live the life of a hunter and trapper. Until, with a distant lucky shot of a BB gun, I shot a sparrow from our attic window. My hunting career skidded to a stop.

In the last few years this sensitivity led at last to an unsteady, maybe 95-per-cent vegetarianism. I still guiltily fall off the vegetable wagon now and then.

Back to the black bears, of which about 650 are killed each year across the province: The nut of it is I feel for anything with a mouth, anything that's hungry. (I not only know the torment of thirst that Seton mentioned but I've been hungry in Italy, a poignant place to want food.) Embarrassing to say, I have trouble killing mosquitoes, and any spider or ant in our abode is tenderly transported to the outdoors.

The wild berry crop has been sparse on the North Shore. Shooting any animal is revolting. Shooting a hungry animal is revolting and barbaric. It should be a last resort.

Even some people who survive mauling by a bear aren't angry at the bear, even sympathizng with it. But the offending bear is usually tracked down and "executed" by the authorities, as if it were a criminal with moral sentience. Why is such nonsense -- anthropomorphism elevated to absurdity -- tolerated?

Passenger pigeons -- to be fair, birds of annoyingly messy toilet habits, if their pigeon cousins are typical -- were once so numerous that the great Audubon (1785-1851) once carefully estimated a single flock contained one billion birds.

In his entry for the passenger pigeon P.A. Taverner, whose 1937 book Birds of Canada in my view still overshadows its successors, tersely wrote: "Field marks: The species being extinct, field marks are unnecessary." The last one died in a Cincinnati zoo in 1914.

West Vancouverite Neil Thompson, whose property abuts a bear area, is a retired stockbroker -- an unlikely champion of wildlife, one might think. He recalls that Buffalo Bill Cody on a visit to Canada shot 500 buffalo "just for fun."

Thompson is scathing about the Liberals' lifting of the B.C. ban on trophy hunting of grizzlies, one of the earliest acts of the Gordon Campbell government. I share Thompson's disgust. The idea of hunting any animal for sport -- death as entertainment -- should sicken everyone.

Yes, I count myself an anguished hypocrite. If a bear were attacking one of my children, and if I had a gun, and if I could shoot straight, I'd kill it. There would be plenty of time later for sorrow.

But I'm a big sissy. The killing of bears breaks my heart. (And others' hearts, especially children's. The shooting of a bear chomping on cherries at the 2004 Kaslo Jazz Festival, witnessed by 1,700 shocked -- some weeping -- people, will be remembered longer than the music.)

In my neighbourhood there seems to be a tacit agreement: If you see a bear, don't call the authorities.

My proposal: Three or four bear food banks high on the Lower Mainland's remote slopes. God knows the appalling waste of food in restaurants, separated from hard garbage, would provide a cornucopia.

Crazy idea? Make the bears dependent? Mess up their diet? I don't care. Anything is better than the idiocy of luring them with the trap of food and other human-generated attractants and then shooting them.

And not to forget the polar bears. Canada is the only country in the world where hunting these beautiful, threatened animals is still legal. The allowed limit for the 2007-08 season in Nunavut was a stunning 468. The hunters are mostly stupid-rich and plain stupid Americans. Shame.

- - -

I asked West Vancouver's councillors three questions: Have you decided to run for re-election in November? Have you decided not to run? Have you not yet decided?

Running: Bill Soprovich. A "definite undecided": Mike Smith. No response at this writing: Jean Ferguson, John Clark, Rod Day.

Coun. Vivian Vaughan of course is running against Pam Goldsmith-Jones for mayor.

Rumours: Ferguson and Day aren't running. Clark is. And here's a speculation by a close council-watcher: Mike Smith will run for mayor. Verrry interesting.

And another sticky wicket for Goldsmith-Jones: Rod Hesp, treasurer of the West Vancouver Cricket Club, which feels betrayed by town hall over its Hugo Park facility (the club's very unofficial slogan: "Keep West Vancouver Green. Turf Pam") is mulling running for council.

- - -

Jim Kearney, who died last Friday after painful months in hospital, was an outstanding, much-respected Vancouver Sun sports columnist who ran against the jock stereotype: In person and on paper he was measured, literate, gentlemanly and an engaging raconteur with a million stories who didn't need formulaic locker-room yackety-yack or wise-guy prose to tell his stories.

Especially admirable, and not all that common, was that Jim often passed over the hyped, big-advertising professional sports for neglected amateur athletes and games. That gave depth and variety to his columns and for 17 years he flourished in the demanding days of five a week, as the Sun's Lyndon Little reported.

Not widely known is that Jim, long a resident of Horseshoe Bay and then Bowen Island, had to leave his Sun job largely because of the new technology, the computers that replaced the lovely music of the newsroom typewriters: He suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome. But he went on to other successes, including years as a CBC Radio regular.

© North Shore News 2008

The Naturalist Guiding Light - Why we keep buying new field guides.

The golden age of large-mammal discovery has long since passed. Maybe that’s why the recent news that a police offer and car salesman from Georgia had found the body of Bigfoot was met with both predictable skepticism and a bit of discreet excitement. Nobody’s ever identified a Bigfoot before, so nobody knew exactly how to prove that what the men had was one, but the California-based Searching for Bigfoot, Inc., was willing to take a crack at the problem.

The determination, it turns out, ended up being relatively simple. After buying the frozen “corpse,” the group initially observed that the fur “melted into a ball uncharacteristic of hair.” Further thawing revealed that the head was “unusually hollow in one small section.” An hour later, in the final and most conclusive test, an examiner touched the foot and discovered that, alas, it was made of rubber, and that what they had on their hands wasn’t a Bigfoot specimen, but a gorilla costume.

The newest version of Peterson's classic guide.

Fortunately not all species identification is as fruitless. In fact, while Searching for Bigfoot laments its false discovery (as well as, one assumes, the money it paid the Georgia con men), the nature-loving world is celebrating a milestone in the world of animal identification. This month sees the centennial of the man credited with creating the modern field guide, Roger Troy Peterson. The moment is marked with the release of the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, combining for the first time the famed birder’s guides to eastern and western birds.

Aids for attaching names to species, to be fair, existed long before Peterson was born. The bird illustrations of Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon are well-known, but their tomes were multi-volume sets too bulky (and expensive) to be taken on outdoor journeys. At 800 pages, though, Thomas Nuttall’s Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada, published in 1832 and 1834, was small enough to carry into the field — its text and woodcut illustrations together make up what’s considered the first field guide.

In a cruelly ironic twist, the identification of birds through the 19th century meant killing the very things being appreciated. It wasn’t until the conservation movement of the late 1800s (fueled by the rapid decline in birds at the hands of both collectors and ladies’ hats makers) that birders began identifying not with shotguns but with binoculars; Florence Merriam Bailey’s Birds Through an Opera-Glass in 1889 was the first guide to help them do so.

Such books proliferated, but they relied heavily on text and few images. It was actually the 24 duck illustrations that writer Ernest Thompson Seton included in 1903’s fictional Two Little Savages that inspired Peterson 31 years later to create a guide that for the first time used text in service of images, and not the other way around.

Read it all here.