The Full Story

There was a time when childhood was spent outside.

That period lasted for millions of years. Then, in the mid 1900’s were a few televisions that began to pull people indoors. Children came in also. There were only a few shows during daylight hours that were attractive, and many of the modern day distractions like video games and computer screens did not yet exist–can you imagine this? It may seem that this was a long long time ago but there are still many of us who remember these times.

This is the time in which we begin our story, our history.

The second world war was over and fights had begun at home for the rights of the people, the waters, the land. There were many great people standing up and letting their voices be heard. They spoke about unity, equality and preserving the wild places, preserving indigenous people and their cultures. At this time, it was still illegal for indigenous people in some places to follow their culture. The people who were awakening to the need for change spoke about their grand parents and what they told them to value. The air was thick with ideas, vision and prophecy. And the children could not help but hear and wonder who they might become in this changing world. These were times of change, excitement, unrest…

The grandmothers and grandfathers, the aunts and uncles at this time had all grown up playing in the natural areas, and many in the wilderness. Most of them grew their own food to some extent and supplemented their diets with wild game. This was considered normal and not remotely unusual. There was no need for the idea of organic food because everyone was already eating this way. These times were populated with men and women who naturally, instinctively held the hands of the children and led them to the edge of the wild where they released the children to play and explore.

Research has shown that this type of childhood experience is essential to the development of creativity, and an ecological mindset in adults. For this reason we honor all of our grandmothers and grandfathers, aunties and uncles for the role they played in connecting the children to the earth in the time before the televisions.

Amongst these children who were growing up in this time there were those that connected very deeply with nature. They were hungry for it. The long hours confined within the walls of the school houses were filled with day dreams and plans for afternoon fishing, frog catching and fort building in some remote little patch of woods. They believed only they knew this place existed. The hands on the school room clock moved too slowly as they thought about their pet turtles and garden patches that were waiting for them at home.

The Snapping Turtle and the Mentor

Now fate had different things in store for each of these children but there was one boy in particular whose fortune would change the course of not only his life but that of thousands and thousands of children in the years to come. At ten years old he might have gone into the little league, grown up like everyone else and found a ‘normal career’, or any number of other feasible fates. Instead, one day as he stood alone on the street corner staring into the eyes of a giant snapping turtle he had just caught, his future pulled up to the stop sign in an old jeep and asked him, “What do you have there?”

The year was 1971. The place was New Jersey on a dead-end street in farm country on the corner of the first sub-division in the area. The boy on the street corner was named Jon Young and the man in the jeep was Tom Brown, Jr. This was the beginning of the movement and of a seven year mentoring relationship that brought Jon Young into contact with a lineage of cultural mentoring and relationship to the land far older and more powerful than any that he had yet experienced.

At this moment, Jon stumbled into an intensive and invisible process of powerfully connecting a human being to nature through the use of fully engaging one’s senses in the process of holistic tracking and wilderness living. At this moment, he also fell into an old man’s prophecy and thus became unwittingly bound to bring this powerful method of teaching and living to the next generation of children.

In 1978 Jon Young was beginning his scholastic career at university as a student of natural history and anthropology while his mentor Tom Brown, Jr. was publishing his first book, The Tracker. Jon noticed a great disparity between his knowledge of place and nature and that of his peers–and in some cases even his professors. This concerned Jon because even well-meaning people can not make appropriate choices about something they do not know, and he seemed to be the only one among his New Jersey peers who knew the natural world.

Jon recognized that native cultures held a deep understanding of the ecological relationships of all the living beings in their environments and the foods, medicines, useful materials and dangers they presented to humans. This knowledge was fully understood by even the most ordinary members of these indigenous societies. These realizations spurred in Jon a need to understand what had taken place around him to facilitate his depth of knowledge, connection and understanding with nature.

In Tom Brown’s new book the accounts of Tom’s mentoring relationship with an old Apache Indian read to Jon like a play-by-play account of his mentoring relationship with Tom. Thus Jon focused his college career on the study of hunter-gatherer-tracking cultures around the world who were like the Apaches to try and gain understanding of how knowledge was shared. To do this, Jon sought what they had in common in an effort to distill the practices and philosophies that could regenerate mentors, trackers and naturalists so that he could recreate what had happened to him.


The Invisible School

Over the next few years Jon refined his understanding of the “invisible school” and in 1983 with the help and support of others he founded the Wilderness Awareness School. The very next year he met another person raised and mentored like himself, and Tom.

Jon Young & Ingwe near Mt. Rainier, 1993

This time, the man who came into Jon’s life was an elder raised as a boy in Kenya among hunter-gatherer-trackers of the Akamba tribe. This man was “Ingwe”. He joined Jon in 1984 and helped to truly shape the Wilderness Awareness School’s cultural mentoring foundation, and the foundation of a movement that has now reached many parts of the globe.

For the next twelve years together Jon and Ingwe touched the lives of literally thousands of children using the cultural elements distilled from research and life experience. They reached children of all ages, backgrounds and economic levels. Using age old, yet innovative methods of nature connection, they transformed the lives of kids who were considered hopeless, lost and even suicidal. They saved them from fates such as attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity and they did it all through their simple yet profound understanding of connecting people to the land. (The connection between these types of disorders and lack of time in the woods is well documented in Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods”.)


Building Connections Around the World

Ingwe mentoring youth in the teachings of the wilderness

In 2009 a story that began on a street corner in New Jersey 38 years earlier is touching a world-wide network of teachers, families, schools, children and communities. A best-practices group has formed from the veterans of this movement called the 8 Shields Group. This group is working with Jon Young and other cultural experts to create a refined map of this work so others can more effectively and efficiently learn and transfer the wisdom of all our collective ancestors again. All over the globe people are using the methods prescribed by our ancestors, re-gathered by Jon Young and Ingwe, and handed to the 8 Shields Group to create whole and healthy people and communities that are deeply rooted in the earth and sense of place.

Since its inception this movement has attracted the attention and wisdom of elders from a diverse set of cultures around the world as well as knowledge carriers from a variety of different traditions popular today including martial arts, yoga, and holistic health practices. The 8 Shields movement has drawn to it collaboration with other movements such as the “unschoolers”, Non-violent Communication, Permaculture, and organic farming. It has also attracted experts from a variety of modern fields including economics, business & organizational leadership, politics, the arts & music, and sociology.

The open-source spirit of collaboration continues to enrich this movement and now in a time when so few children are forming trails into the nature, this movement is producing Grandmothers, Grandfathers, aunties and uncles who take the hands of the children and lead them away from the many modern distractions and back to the edge of the wild.