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.

1 comment:

Michael said...


I had never know that Lina and Adelia Beard had produced a book called "An Outdoor Book for Girls." I've only known of their "American Girl's Handy Book", which was done around the same time as their brother's book for boys. I have reprints of both from David Godine Press.

Will have to look for a reprint of this one as well.