374. Outdoor Education

In case you missed 364. The Core Story, let me remind you that Spirit Deer, now posting in Serial, began as a novel for adults, and only reached it’s present incarnation years later.

I wrote the original of Spirit Deer in 1975. By the mid eighties, finances led me back to college to add a teaching credential to my resume, and I began teaching middle school. I started  teaching sixth grade and worked my way up to eighth, over twenty-seven years.

One feature of sixth grade in central California schools was outdoor education week, during which the students lived in dorms at a foothills facility and went out twice a day for half-day hikes with naturalists. Teachers accompanied their students.

I had spent my childhood out of doors, and had added rock climbing, camping, and canoeing to my skill-set while in college. I still learned a lot preparing for outdoor ed, since my critter knowledge was based on Oklahoma and Michigan. That’s common. Any time a teacher has to brush up on a new subject, he learns a lot more than he will be able to teach his students.

I learned — then taught — all the common native trees and shrubs, the mammals and birds, a few of the reptiles and amphibians, and the manner in which the local Native Americans, the Miwuks, lived with nature. I took my students through a couple of weeks of intensive study before the week in the foothills, so they would be able to better appreciate their experience.

Even after I moved up to teaching seventh grade, I continued to go with the students on their outdoor ed week. When it came time to rewrite Spirit Deer, stripped to its core story, I called on that experience to tighten up my descriptions, calling trees out by their actual names this time.

One of the things that Tim-the-adult in 1975 did not have was the survival shelter that young-Tim builds in the present version. During the late 80s and early 90s, one of the hikes our outdoor ed students took was called the survival hike. They were taken to a place in the far end of the property and shown how to take a long piece of down wood, jam it into the crotch of a bush or tree, then stack shorter pieces of down wood against it. Next, they thatched the result with twigs, leaves, dirt, and moss, carpeted the floor with duff, then crawled inside their self-built shelter.

They were not taught how to make a fire. In the dry foothills of California, making a fire to  keep warm is a good way to burn down the forest. It happens every year.

They don’t do the survival hike any more. I can’t blame them. They trained hundreds of kids each week in what was a useful survival skill, but that also meant that hundreds of kids each week were ripping up the local environment. The area where the shelters were made eventually came to look like a bombed out battlefield.

Fortunately for young-Tim, he was one of those who learned how to make a survival shelter. It saved his life in the rewritten Spirit Deer.

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There is another writer’s learning experience in this. When I was newly published, I met Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and started reading her St. Germain books. I was impressed, but also intimidated. Her descriptions of architecture, about which I knew little, and of the clothing worn by all classes of society, about which I couldn’t care less, made for a rich and dense reading experience. My own books were comparatively bare bones.

Then I read Path of the Eclipse, St. Germain book number four, which begins in China and ends in India, with an arduous journey through the lower Himalayas in between. About half way to India, I had an epiphany. In thousands of miles, Quinn had never called a tree by its name.

I had been holding myself to a false standard. She was writing the books that she wanted to write, and I was writing the books I wanted to write. Forget better or worse — they were supposed to look different.


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