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The Moral Lessons of the Wilderness Shelter

The first thing I did when I came home from Tom Brown's Tracker School, after my first class there, was build a debris shelter.    


It was mid November in upstate New York, and most of the leaves had just fallen to the ground, so the forest behind my house was perfect for practicing one of my new skills.

If you've never built a forest shelter, well, you should know that it's a lot of work.   You've got to pick a spot that has lots of materials, sticks, brush, leaves, grass or pine needles.   You have to measure the size of your shelter so it will be custom fit for you, and make sure it's on level, well drained ground, away from insect nests, overhanging dead trees or limbs.

Once you start, it's kind of fun to see it come together.   The intertwining of branches, brush and a strong ridgepole is very satisfying, to see it take shape as something useful in the wild, that wasn't there before, until you started to work.

But at some point along the way, you get tired.    I know I did, when I built my first one.  There's a big difference between making a shelter with 19 other people, and doing it by yourself!  I hit the wall when I had covered the whole structure with armloads of leaves, but there wasn't enough debris worked in between the branches.   There were holes and openings and lots of empty spaces, where cold could seep in, or where the wind would blow right through, taking away my body-warmed air.


I remember sitting there, with my hands and fingers stained brown from scraping leaves off the ground, resting, and trying to weigh the idea of keeping on, or taking a break.   Tom's voice and words echoed in my head.  

"The Wilderness teaches you to always do your best.   You don't take shortcuts.   You don't fool around.   You have to make whatever it is you are working on the very best that you can make it,  whether it's a hunting bow, or a fire kit, or tanning a hide.   You do your best because your life literally depends on your work being perfect.   It has to work when you need it most."

I remembered him leaning forward and looking around the rustic barn room.   It seemed as if he could see into my past, and all the times where I was tempted to do just enough to get by.   He had 100% focus and belief in this 'facet' of wilderness survival philosophy.

"It's not just your life that you're playing with," he continued.

"When you do a crappy job, you're not taking things seriously.   You're dishonoring the gift of the wood, or the animal hide, or the stone or whatever it is that you're working with, that is giving up it's 'gift' and form for you.    It's about recognizing and being thankful for that gift, and not wasting it.   You can't go around taking things for granted.     That's what this culture does, and it's wrong.  It's not the way that we are going to make it as a society, and in the wilderness, that casual, 'I don't have to care' attitude will get you killed."

Tom wasn't smiling when he said this to us, and his words hit home.   I found that writing them down in my journal helped ease the impact of the guilt I felt when I thought back to all of the times I've taken things for granted over my 20 years.   (This was November, 1984, so, I was a lot younger then!)

All of this flashed through my mind as I began to work again, my effort strong as my determination was renewed.    I found a forked stick that served as a crude rake, and this allowed me to quickly create a pile of leaves that I stuffed in all the openings.     I gathered boughs from a fallen pine that make a soft, sweet bed, and lined it with tall dead grasses I found at the edge of the field.     

When I slept in this shelter for the first time, it was deeply satisfying.    I knew that I had learned not only a survival skill that I could depend on, any time, to help me stay safe, but I also knew that I had cemented a concept in my mind that would serve me well over the coming years, of thankfulness, appreciation and maximum effort and attention to detail.   I felt pride in my effort, and what I had done.   I was also deeply grateful and appreciative of the natural world, for helping me and keeping me safe.

In today's world, I know that the idea of learning and practicing wilderness survival skills, earth living skills, if you will, seems kind of backwards, even stupid.    Why should we work this hard when we already have so much offered to us every day, with so little effort?    Why should we practice or learn, when we have houses, internal heating or cooling systems, lots of food and great entertainment aways at our fingertips?     Why should we go into the woods, and risk anything?

The answers to those questions is always up to the individual, and what they are searching for in their life.    Do they need tools that will serve them in the coming days, or skills that, once honed, are theirs forever?   


Flash forward to 2016, present day.    At this point, I've built probably five hundred shelters with kids, in programs throughout my career.   Honestly, if I never build another shelter, I won't be crying.   I'm pretty much 'sheltered out'.     But it's so valuable a skill, with lessons that are profound and lasting, that I'm still having trouble NOT building them in my programs.    I just don't know what you do to replace it in our program curriculum, that would give you the same ROI (return on investment).       

The greatest thing about building a shelter and then sleeping in it is the immediate feedback loop that it gives every student, adult or child.    It's not personal, either.    Quite simply, you will know if you did a good job, and you will know if you didn't, because you will be able to see for yourself if it sheds rain, or keeps out the cold, or if it's uncomfortable, or whatever.    Your ability to do your best work, and pay attention to the details will be right there, perfectly obvious, for you to see.    

I'm sick of shelters, but I love them too.   They are so powerful!     

Unfortunately, most people and children today will not get the benefits of these lessons, because of their lifestyle, their lack of access or connection to the natural world, or the lack of a suitable, inspiring teacher to guide them on their way.


Tom Brown, Jr, is not the easiest teacher or mentor.    I'll admit that to anyone.   He didn't demand perfection, but he wasn't shy about pointing out imperfection when he saw it.    He followed a code of appreciation for the natural world, the gifts that it offers us, that went way beyond simply recycling or turning the lights off when you leave a room.     I know he's still teaching these principles, all these years later, too, and hundreds of his students like myself, are teaching them as well.    We estimate that we've taught over 10,000 people in the 27 years that Hawk Circle has been around, and that's a very conservative estimate.

I'm not sure how to end this post so I'll just close this by saying that I believe the secret to getting our culture back on track lies not on our phone apps and computer software (not that those are bad or anything) but in our hearts, and in our own experiences building our own code of honor and appreciation found in our communities and our wild places.    Those codes of morality must be forged in small groups, sometimes alone, where we can test these principles and see which ones work, that will stand the test of time.

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