Over twenty years ago, my college Geology professor projected a photo of a huge crack running all the way up the middle of a cliff. He asked the class to hypothesize what caused it. It looked like the cliff was mainly basalt. We tried to imagine which of his lessons this question pertained to. Geological forces? Rock types? And of course, most of us agreed it could only have been caused by an enormous force like an earthquake. Nope. He showed us a wider view of the area, where a smallish tree could be seen growing out of that rift in the rock. Then he showed us a slide of a tiny sapling, its seed still visible. A single seed, growing on top of that cliff had worked its root down through a small fissure and spread the rock as it grew, until the rock slowly cleaved, and the sapling became a tree. The force that cleaved that cliff was life.
In the nearly quarter-century that followed that class, I married and had children, got my degree in, and ended up teaching visual arts, until it became evident to me that the only place I wanted to teach was the wilderness. I began taking my art classes into whatever wilderness was close-by, and gradually developed a trio of intertwined careers for myself: mother, visual artist, and explorative learning facilitator. I did as much of these as possible outside, and eventually, my Wild Art program consisted mainly of taking groups of children, families, and educators out into the wilderness to explore.
Open, non-coercive exploration is, I have realized, essential to learning, and specifically, in the wilderness, it’s the only way to help people feel connected. It’s amazing to learn that a crayfish carries something called a gastrolith inside it, just waiting until it molts and uses it to form its new exoskeleton. It’s far more amazing (and memorable) to find a bunch of gastroliths beside a stream, pick them up, look at them, and get so curious that you have to figure out for yourself what they are. That kind of discovery and engagement only comes from open-ended exploration, something we often lose sight of when parenting and teaching our children about the world that we already know so much about. As adults, we’ve sometimes forgotten that there is still an infinity to discover and that more than anything we, too, need to connect by getting out and exploring. My career has been to help people reach for this discovery again, for the sake of our own growth, and our children’s.
Then came the pandemic. The restrictions came to our area just as I was in the middle of a Wild Art spring break camp. Two families pulled their kids out of the camp, and I tried my best to keep the remaining kids engaged but separate, and it was impossible. “Don’t go outside," people were saying. “Stay home.” Or “go outside but stay far away from other people." Fear became bigger than curiosity. The virus is like a silent killer lurking everywhere and anywhere, and when we walk out our doors we see masked people stepping aside and turning their backs on us as we pass. We can’t even take the bus to the park. Many of the parks are closed. I had to cancel every single one of the programs I had planned for this spring and summer. As the season of corona wears on, I am feeling less and less positive that we’ll ever get back to the way things were. But that can’t be the end of it! We can’t just stop exploring! We can’t all shutter ourselves away. Then I remembered the seed.
With the loss of income, including a pay-cut for my husband, my family has cut back quite a bit on our spending, and we’re working very hard to produce more food in our garden. For as long as I can remember, I have thought that our society needs some deep change in the way we live, working for personal wellness in the present instead of earning money for some undetermined future. We need to leave capitalism behind and work for love and community, including the local ecologies that we depend on. This pandemic has shown us how uncertain the future of capitalism is, and I’m looking at this time as an experiment to see if we can grow into something more healthy. Can I be the seed that sprouts on the rock, slowly works its way into the crack of this new reality, and grows there? Can we all? Can we work our way into the many fissures of our individual lives and grow up out of capitalism to create a huge forest?
In our abundance of newly-spare time, my eighteen-year-old son and I have started a YouTube series called Outdoor Exploration with Emily. I talk and he films. We go out exploring the roadsides and open park areas near our home, and we simply share what interests us in the moment. Sometimes we even film the weeds by our front step, or what’s growing in our vegetable garden, and we’re going to start sharing the adventure of starting a new chicken flock. Each of us gets to practice and increase our skills in an area of interest, and – in isolation – to share with the rest of the growing world. In the past few weeks people have contacted me for advice and to share their own discoveries, as well as to offer plants for our garden, and supplies for our new chicks. At least three educational communities are using our videos as a learning resource. We’re connecting with our community, and, without any money changing hands, we’re feeling that we can contribute meaningfully to our world, and receiving community support in return. I can feel our roots stretching down through this big rock, and discovering the sweet water, beneath it. What shall we call this new forest we’re growing? Maybe “Life”.
Check out Emily's YouTube video series, Outdoor Exploration with Emily.