If you have one, take a look at your pet cat or dog. These animals descended from wildcats and wolves, but today live pretty sedate lives, walking around your house and yard, waiting for you to deliver some kibbles to their bowl.
My guest today says that modern humans are, in a similar way, domesticated versions of our former, wilder ancestors, and that living a flourishing life requires reconnecting with the primal energy within that now lies dormant. His name is Micah Mortali and he’s the founder of the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership and the author of Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature. Micah first shares how he came to combine his passion for yoga and mindfulness with a love of the outdoors and bushcraft skills to create his unique philosophy of rewilding. We then dig into what rewilding means, and why it’s vital to body, mind, and spirit to throw off the malaise of modern domestication and restore your sensory connection to nature. From there we turn to the practices that can help you do that, from walking barefoot in the woods to staring into a campfire to meditate. We also talk about how practicing hands-on ancestral skills like making fire with a bow drill, building a wilderness shelter, and tracking animals can heighten your confidence and awareness. We end our conversation with small things that everyone, even if you live in the suburbs or city, can start doing today to begin rewilding your life.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- The Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership
- Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer
- Bill McKibben
- Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracking School
- AoM Article: How to REALLY Avoid Living a Life of Quiet Desperation
- AoM Article: The Art of Topophilia — 7 Ways to Love the Place You Live
- AoM Article: The Switches of Manliness — Nature
- AoM Podcast #343: How to Read Nature
- AoM Article: How to Track Animals
- AoM Article: How to Make Fire With Friction
Connect With Micah Mortali
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Read the Transcript!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, if you have one, take a look at your pet cat or dog. These animals descended from wild cats and wolves but today they live pretty sedated lives. They’re walking around your house and yard, waiting for you to deliver some kibbles to their bowl. My guest today says that modern humans are, in a similar way, domesticated versions of our former wilder ancestors, and that living a flourishing life requires reconnecting with the primal energy within that now lies dormant. His name is Micah Mortali. He’s the founder of the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership and the author of Rewilding: Meditations, Practices and Skills for Awakening in Nature.
Micah first shares how he came to combine his passion for yoga and mindfulness with his love of the outdoors and bushcraft skills to create his unique philosophy of rewilding. We then dig into what rewilding means, and why it’s vital to body, mind and spirit to throw off the malaise of modern domestication and restore your sensory connection to nature. From there we turn to the practice that can help you do that from walking barefoot in the woods to staring into a campfire to meditate. We also talk about how practicing hands-on ancestral skills like making fire with a bow drill, building a wilderness shelter and tracking animals can heighten your confidence and awareness, and we end our conversation with small things that everyone, even if you live in the suburbs or city, can start doing today to begin rewilding your life. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/rewilding.
Alright, Micah Mortali, welcome to the show.
Micah Mortali: Thanks Brett. Great to be here.
Brett McKay: So you got a book called Rewilding: Meditations, Practices and Skills for Awakening in Nature. Before we get to the book, let’s talk about your background, ’cause it’ll explain a lot about what the book’s about. It’s interesting, you have combined yoga… That’s something you’ve done, meditation, mindfulness, yoga with just being outdoors and also teaching ancestral skills, so like, how to start fire with just rubbing wood together. How did that happen? How did you combine yoga and the survival skills? That’s something you don’t see every day.
Micah Mortali: Right, yeah. Well, I guess, I was kind of a free range kid growing up, you know, as they would say today. So, when I was little, kinda fortunate in some ways, I had access to woods and unsupervised time, so I probably… You might have found me out there with matches [chuckle] and a bow and arrow and climbing trees and doing old school stuff out in the woods as a kid. And I had a lot of fun doing it, and I bonded with the land, you know? I just would go out there and sit by the stream or climb trees. And as I… As life went on, and challenging things happened here and there in life, the natural world, the woods, the fields of Connecticut where I grew up, where I went for recovery, it’s kinda where I went to heal, and those times of being out there sitting by a fire, listening to the wind in the trees, those moments were my first experiences of spirituality.
So, as I got into my later years of high school and into early college, I started to think a lot about, “What are we? How did we get here?” And I started to learn a little bit about meditation and different religions. I decided to major in religion as an undergrad. And that’s where I found yoga, and I basically, just kept going back and forth, bouncing between the forest and the texts of the great wisdom traditions of the world, and I always felt that there was a vital bridge that connected these worlds. And I spent my 20s and 30s trying to figure out what that bridge was and how to make sense of it all. It didn’t feel like a clear career path. It was… It kinda felt like a bit of a hero’s journey, not that I’m a hero, but kind of like I had to step off the well-beaten path to just kinda get out there and follow my heart. So I became a yoga teacher and really fell in love with the breathing practices of yoga, but realized that yoga is a wisdom tradition that’s based on this idea of everything is connected, everything is united. Yoga means union. And of course, the place to realize that everything is connected and one is in the forests or out in wild places. That’s where you can actually feel that and experience that in an embodied way.
It’s very obvious when we’re out in nature that everything’s connected. Maybe it becomes less obvious when… If we find ourselves in indoor or really built up human environments. It’s more about disconnection. So I always thought that there was this deep connection, and so, the funny part about it was that when I got into the industry you could say of yoga and mindfulness, working at Kripalu Center For Yoga and Health here in the Berkshires, I realized that 99.9% of every yoga class or meditation class or training is offered in indoor environment. So, it was interesting how this tradition that had come from the wild had become pretty unwild. [chuckle] So, with the land here in the Berkshires where I live and where Kripalu is being just so beautiful, it seemed like an open invitation to break down some of those walls that separate modern human beings from their connection with the more than human world. And mindfulness always seemed like a great way to do that, because mindfulness is really present moment awareness. It’s paying attention. It’s being with your experience in the moment.
And when we’re outside, there’s so much to be present with, that’s really interesting and fascinating and nourishing and wise. And it seems like, in the time we’re living in today, there’s a tremendous need for the wisdom of nature to become infused again into our experience as human beings, ’cause the more disconnected I think we get from ourselves in relationship to the Earth, the more lost we feel and become as a species. So, that’s a big part of what rewilding is about to me.
Brett McKay: Alright, so okay, you said this idea of getting back into nature, and helping people realize how connected they are to everything, to each other, and to the world around them, is a big part of what you’re trying to do with rewilding, but like, dig deeper really, I wanna dig deeper into this idea of what it means to rewild, like, what else does it mean, and why do you think it’s important for people to do that?
Micah Mortali: Yeah. Well, if I could sum it up as succinctly as possible, for me what it’s about is, in one sense, as human beings, we’re very much animals, and that’s not to say that we don’t have a spiritual or a etheric nature, I think we do. But as animals who evolved as part of the living Earth, I think that rewilding is acknowledging the fact that we as modern people, through a process of… A long process of domestication, have become severed from the source of ourselves, our animal selves, which is the natural world. So, it’s the idea that all of our senses, our faculties, our sense of smell, our feet, our sense of taste, all of our senses, our intuition, it evolved in relationship with water and trees and mud and sand and the sky, right? Our sense of hearing, all of these senses were essential for us, and when we were hunter-gatherers, or even when we were more agricultural as people, we used our senses more, we used our physical bodies more, and we were forced in a way to have to rely more on the natural cycles of nature.
Fast-forward to today, most of us spend 11 or more hours a day staring at a LED-lit screen. Most of us spend more than 90% of our lives in man-made buildings, breathing recycled, stale air. Most children today spend less time outside than prison inmates. Less than an hour outside. This is a dramatic departure from the conditions we evolved in. So, you could think about rewilding as a practice of going feral. So this is the idea that we’ve basically become domesticated. If you think about a domesticated dog or cat, this is a creature that is totally dependent on their master. They do not know how to hunt and gather anymore, they eat food that’s been processed and canned, they reproduce in captivity, they bear their young in captivity. They spend most of their time inside. They are totally dependent, and that really is the case for most humans today. We’re a domesticated version of our once wild ancestors who were responsible and capable of building their own homes, growing their own food, hunting their own food, taking care of their own medicine, knowing what plants are healing, and how to heal, and how to stay in good health by living in harmony with the natural world.
So, not to say that there aren’t all these tremendous benefits of modern life, not saying that at all, but to me, rewilding is about acknowledging that the bill of goods we’ve been sold with modern life is not all good, you know? We’ve lost a lot. It’s an acknowledgement that we are like… If you were to take a lioness from the Savannas of Africa, who spends her days in her pride, her community, hunting, feasting, providing, very much in and of the land, very alive, a life full of meaning and purpose, and you were to take that lioness and you were to put her into a cinder block square space, and give her kibbles and bits, and hook up Netflix in there so she can watch movies about the savanna or Zoom with her pride, she probably wouldn’t be a fulfilled lioness. Something really important would be missing. And I think that deep, unnamed sadness, as Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer sometimes has referred to it, is a big part of what I sometimes call domestication illness. This feeling like, there’s something really important missing, and I think a big part of that is our connection with our natural habitat, which is being outdoors.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, this domestication, I think we’ve all read about the ill-effects of modern life. Like you say, there’s a lot of benefits, like you and I we’re talking via the Internet right now, able to do this remote, but there’s like with prosperity, there comes… There’s diseases of prosperity. So physically, we all know about obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, cancer rate, but then there’s also… It seems like your focus with real wilding, there’s that physical part, but since you’re coming from a place of mindfulness and yoga, you’re focusing on how being out in nature can restore that spiritual or mental part of our lives.
Micah Mortali: Yeah, that’s right. There’s this one aspect of domestication illness referred to as sensory anesthesia, so it’s kind of a loss of the senses. And being out there, out on the land, whether you’re out in the snow or whatever the weather is, our senses get very stimulated. A lot of people are really into cold immersion these days, getting into a cold stream and the benefits of that, the Wim Hof method, things like that, walking barefoot, what’s called earthing or grounding, you know, just gathering pine needles and breaking them up and smelling the essential oils that are released, and awakening our sense of smell. All these things can be deepened through the practice of mindfulness. So, if before we go into the forest to walk barefoot on ground, we take a few slow, deep breaths, and transition out of the fight or flight response and into the rest and digest response, the parasympathetic nervous system, we’re gonna be able to experience walking barefoot with a greater sense of presence, with a greater sense of connection, so the mind will be able to rest more into the experience.
So, I try to help people to use their breath to help them come into the moment and elevate their sense of awareness before they go into these rewilding practices, whether it’s walking barefoot, whether it’s archery, whether it’s climbing a tree or birthing fire with a bow drill. All of these different practices are doorways of connection. Through these practices, we approach them with awareness, with gratitude, with reverence. They can allow us to access deeper and deeper states of connection that are also really fun and fulfilling as well.
Brett McKay: No, it seems like you’re carrying on a tradition that’s been in America for a while. You go back to the Transcendentalists. Henry David Thoreau, technically, this guy was in the Transcendentalists. There was like, Walt Whitman. They were all about this whole idea of rewilding, but being very mindful about the whole thing. So you know, Thoreau, his experience and the way he describes observing nature, it was almost meditative. He was being both a scientist, but also like he called himself a yogi, and he was trying to find something deeper when he’s looking at, I don’t know, a bug over by Walden Pond.
Micah Mortali: Yeah, absolutely. There is a long tradition of this. It’s interesting ’cause Thoreau probably was one of the first yogis in the United States. I mean, there weren’t many people reading the Bhagavad Gita in Massachusetts [chuckle] in the mid 1800s. Yeah, it is a tradition, and I think that it’s becoming more this way of being in relationship to the land through mindfulness, but also through hands-on connection. I think a big and very important aspect of this whole work for me is that coming in one sense from the mindfulness world, there’s this sense of deep, deep gentility. I’m walking outside, being very mindful, don’t wanna step on any bugs. And then there’s the part of me that is very much coming from the ancestral skills perspective, this sense that we actually are part of the natural world, and it’s not really possible to not step on a bug, right? Like, we are also going to become part of the Earth at one point ourselves, and how can we mindfully engage in a hands-on way with the land?
And so this is why it’s so important for me to bring in these hands-on skills, because I think many, many people in the last few decades have been taught that the only impact human beings can have on nature is negative. It’s like, we’re a cancer on the Earth, and so, when they go into nature, it’s like, “Stay on the trail, don’t touch anything.” And certainly there’s high traffic places where we want to definitely be very mindful of leave no trace, but I think there’s this unintended consequence to that approach as well, which is this idea that we don’t belong out there, that the only way we can help the planet is by not touching it. And I actually don’t think that that’s necessarily true. Before Europeans came to North America, there were 60 million people living on this continent, and they found a way to live in relative harmony, maintaining biodiversity and clean air and clean water. How did they do it? I think that’s what we’re called to remember in our time is, how can we as human beings live here in a way that’s generative, that’s restorative? How can we live in partnership with the forces of nature and not in opposition?
And so, practices like making a bow drill kit, of learning how to use a saw and a hatchet and a knife, mindfully, safely, carving a tool, getting to know the trees, engaging in this process of creating heat and friction and breathing life into a fire, this provides people with an opportunity to I think, number one, realize that there are ways to be in relationship with the trees, the elements that are sacred. And how can we hold the element of fire, water in ways that are really sustaining, and to build confidence in a sense that as we get to know one plant, one tree, one food source, as we begin to engage these ancestral skills with awareness, we begin to really bond with and connect with a place. And I think the more we’re bonded with and connected to a place, it’s far more likely that we’re going to be able to advocate for such places. If you really know the trees, and you know what invasive insects or species are threatening certain trees, then you actually get to speak for the trees in your area in a way that somebody who wasn’t going that deep into connection might have no idea. They might never notice the Woolly Adelgid that is suddenly on the hemlock in their little patch of forest. Whereas someone who’s a mindful forager would pick up on really, really easily.
Brett McKay: And you’ve seen with the people that you’ve worked with that cultivating this connection, doing these practices, just getting out into nature in general, really has a restorative, almost a healing effect on people. Why do you think… I mean, have you been able to put your finger on what’s going on there, like, what is the operative pathway in this process?
Micah Mortali: One way I try to make sense of it is, this idea that the things that we see outside, the things we experience in the natural world, they hold these timeless truths that I think we all really need access to. Because life is hard, and it can be painful, but when we spend time outside and we allow ourselves to have space and time to get quiet and to reflect and to just observe, we see that the things that we struggle with are very present all around us. In the forest, you can see death, you’re confronted with it. You can see renewal, it’s right there. When you sit by a stream and it’s flowing, and it’s raging in some areas, and then there are calm pools in others, and then those calm pools rage again, and then they find other calm pools. It’s analogous to life. And this is nature therapy, this kind of connection, this kinda counseling, this kinda teaching that I think modern people, any people, truly and deeply need.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s dig deep into some of the practices that you guide people in, and you mentioned one earlier, this idea of walking around barefoot, sometimes it’s called grounding. And you make the note in the book, for a lot of people that you guide through this practice, just taking your shoes off and walking on the ground, dirt, pine needles, etcetera, for a lot of these people, it’s the first time they’ve done it in decades. So, what goes on? What’s the experience like for people who are like, “Man, this is the first time I’ve done this since I was a kid,” and what are the benefits do you think that come from walking around barefoot outside?
Micah Mortali: Yeah, so [chuckle] the way I like to think about this is… Well, first of all, I’ll say, so years back, I remember we had a neighbor, they had their grandkid over who is… I don’t know, this baby was maybe 10 months old or a year old at the most. And the baby had New Balance sneakers on, and I just remember thinking, how strange that you would put sneakers on a baby that can’t even walk yet. But I think that’s very common for many, many people, especially a lot of kids today, and I see this with kids that I know, friends of my kids, who… You know, they’ll come over and maybe they’re afraid to walk on the grass barefoot, maybe their parents are worried they’re gonna step on something and cut their foot. But think about it… This is how I think about it this way. Imagine that you got a puppy and as soon as the puppy came in your house, you put slippers on its paws and the puppy never went outside without wearing its slippers. That would be so strange, wouldn’t it? And imagine what it would feel like for that puppy or that dog to in mid-life take the slippers off and allow its paws to feel the ground.
And that’s how it is for us. Like, our feet are our paws, it would be like if we wore gloves all the time. Can you imagine, if you wore gloves all the time and your hands never touched anything, what it would feel like to take the gloves off and feel the surface area of a tree or sand at the beach? This is what we’re talking about for people today. It’s really strange that we wear shoes all the time. It’s really strange. And they’re comfortable and they protect our feet, and there’s times when we really, obviously really need to wear them. You don’t wanna be in a construction crew or something, [chuckle] and not be wearing steel toe boots, right? But to have them on all the time creates a disconnect between our bodies and the land. And even back before rubber and modern rubbers and synthetics, most shoes were made of leather, and so, could still conduct an exchange of electrons between our bodies and the Earth. Whereas these rubber soled shoes really ground us, so there is no transfer of free electrons between our body and the Earth.
So we are literally from an electrical level disconnected. So, not only is there a sensory sense of connection, but there’s also an actual electrical exchange that happens when we’re bare feet, are on the ground. And it can be just very exquisite as anybody knows, just going to the beach, how good does it feel to put your feet in the sand? I mean, it feels so good. And those are the kinda… I mean, it is very sensual. Our feet have a lot of nerve endings, so there is a lot of rich sensory experience to be had with our feet on the ground. And being a big Tolkien fan, hobbits always were barefoot, right? And Tolkien writes about how… I know this is fantasy, but based in reality, how quiet hobbits could walk in the forest. And of course, we know most earth-based indigenous cultures generally barefoot most of the time, or wearing leather moccasins or some kind of covering that’s very, very simple, but allows us to move very quietly.
And of course, the more quietly we’re able to move, the less of a disturbance we create on the land and the more part of the landscape we feel, the more wild life we see, the more we can move in Earth time, sort of that slow pace of nature, which is also something that many people haven’t experienced.
Brett McKay: So how do you recommend people who haven’t walked outside barefoot for… Since they were a kid? I imagine you need the kind of on-ramp to this, you don’t wanna just like, walk five miles…
Micah Mortali: Right.
Brett McKay: Your first time. Is there like a process that you would recommend?
Micah Mortali: Yeah, sure. So, the main thing you’re looking for is a nice soft ground. So, I will often say, find a trail that is well established, and maybe there’s a patch of trail where you’d have a lot of pine trees where the ground is… Might have a carpet of pine needles, can be very soft, so you might start there. And again, you’re gonna look for a place where the ground is soft and easy walking, and you know, you might just go with flip-flops, this is a great way to do it, just wear flip-flops. And when you get to the trail head, kick them off and pick them up. Just take 20 steps nice and slow, and just allow your feet to feel the ground. And if you get to a patch where the ground’s a little harder, you can pop your flip-flops back on. Another thing to do is, if you can go to a beach, whether it’s a lake or the ocean, you can walk very easily on the sand, and the idea is to just kinda bring your mindfulness to it.
Another thing you can do is, even if you’re wearing hiking shoes and you hike into a place where there’s a stream or a water source, and then when you get to that place, take your shoes off and let your feet go into the water, put your feet on the rocks, and let that be a meditation or a mindfulness practice. Five or 10 minutes just letting your feet be bathed in the water can be really, really like a beautiful, enjoyable experience, cooling and connecting.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Something you do throughout the book, is you walk people through… I mean, so any of these practices we’re talking about, they can be turned into a meditative practice, but sometimes you take people out to the woods, to the wild, just to meditate. So, just to sit and meditate like you would do a meditation session indoors on your rubber mat, in your… With the wooden floor. But is there something… Does the meditation change when you’re outdoors, because you’re surrounded by so many… Like, so much sensory input? ‘Cause like when you’re inside, just basically, it’s gonna be very plain and sterile almost, so you can just focus on the breath. When you’re outside, does the meditation change?
Micah Mortali: Yeah, great question. Well, one of the reasons why I love to introduce folks to this idea of nature and meditation is that it’s really different, and I think in a lot of ways from formal meditation that people might be familiar with. The idea of being really willfully holding our attention, let’s say, on the breath, like we might do in a seated practice, which for many folks who maybe have been focusing all day trying to focus on tasks and then maybe going to a meditation course at the end of the day, and then sitting there and then again, trying to hold their minds still can be, I think… And sometimes it can be demoralizing, where people could feel like, “I’m not doing it right.”
What’s wonderful about nature and meditation is that the idea is not to hold your attention on anything. I try to guide folks into what is called fascination attention. And this comes from the whole theory called Attention Restoration Theory, which is this idea that when we try to hold our focus for prolonged periods of time, our brain gets really tired and our productivity can diminish and we might feel like we can’t get our work done. The antidote to that is what’s called fascination attention, which is where you look out the window and you allow yourself to notice movement, let’s say. So this is the kinda practice I like to weave into nature meditation. So, we’ll go outside and maybe there’s a stream, so I’ll say to folks, “Hey, let’s have a seat by the stream, and for the next 10 minutes or so, just allow your awareness, your eyes, your sense of hearing and sight to follow whatever is moving and fascinating happening with the water.”
And in that situation, it is much easier to kinda be with the water, because the water is moving, it’s changing, it’s making sounds, it’s alive, it’s active. And our awareness can sort of become fascinated by the movement, it’s mesmerizing. Another example would be fire meditation, where we just kind of rest our gaze in fire. And so, in this way it’s like watching TV, right? But it’s a natural organic process. So, we’re kinda going into a trance, the movement puts us into a trance. And a trance is sort of a high band alpha brain wave state, which is moving us out of a beta brain wave state where we’re very conversational, we’re logical, we’re linear and moving us into this meditative, liminal state where we’re just kind of in the moment, flowing with what’s happening.
So, what’s amazing is that this really is, I think, our natural state of being. As hunter-gatherers, we’re sort of always in that state, moving across the land, noticing movement, reading our environment. And those kind of really hard-focused type of times are less common, because it’s more important to really be tuned in to everything that’s going on. So, these kind of practices of listening to and watching the trees as they flow in the wind, the water, fire, or a bumblebee pollinating a flower, we can be drawn into these things and it feels… It can feel effortless in a way that is really enjoyable and awe-inspiring I think as well at times.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s funny you mentioned the water and the fire meditations. I mean, I think people just… When you’re outdoors, you have a tendency to naturally be drawn to that. My wife and I went backpacking with a friend of ours in Colorado, and there’s this river, we just stopped by and we just… Without anyone saying anything like, Hey, we’re gonna stop here and just sit, everyone just sat and we just listened to this river rush down the mountain. And then that night like, fire, I love… There’s just something about a fire, it does put you in a trance-like state and it’s funny, you’ll… No one has to say anything, everyone just kinda… Everyone didn’t know… Just to realize like, yeah, we’re just gonna stare at this fire for a little bit, don’t… No one say anything. It’s not deliberate, but that’s kind of like how we naturally wanna go.
And I think another practice you could do outdoors. It’s funny, so I think you hear all these mindfulness apps, they use the analogy of like, your thoughts should be like clouds in the sky, just like, “Don’t focus on them, just let them pass like clouds in the sky.” Well, you can go outside and actually look at actual clouds and just look at the clouds and not think about [chuckle] your thoughts and watch those actual clouds pass in the sky.
Micah Mortali: Yeah. Yeah, so, I love that analogy, and I think, you know, I just… It makes me remember times as a kid where, after school, I would just lay down outside and just do just that and… It’s that simple, right?
Brett McKay: Yeah. And so, I think it’s a lot easier too. I mean, I’ve done like those meditations like, “think of your thoughts as clouds in the sky,” but it’s very… It’s cognitively taxing, ’cause you have to like… It’s like, you’re doing this abstraction, right? You feel like you have to imagine clouds and like my thoughts are [chuckle] clouds and then like… And you’re so focused, it’s actually… My God, this is not enjoyable, but when you go outside and stare at a cloud, you’re not even… You’re just looking at the… Like the meditation is externalized from you, right? So, it makes it easier in a way.
Micah Mortali: I agree, I agree. Yeah, it’s very effortless.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Okay, so there’s some just simple… When you’re outside, some meditative practices you can do, you can even make walking a meditative practice when you’re… If you’re barefoot, just like, focus on what it feels like, our goal is to get that fascination focus, like, open focus, don’t focus on one thing, just kind of be open to anything to catch your attention. You also talk about getting outside so people can develop what’s called Topophilia, or a love of place. What sorts of things do you encourage people to do to develop that love of place?
Micah Mortali: You know, there’s so many things that one can do to deepen your connection with a place. So, one of the practices that’s great for that is the Sit Spot practice, which is basically for many folks who have a morning ritual, making your coffee or your tea, you can make your beverage, sit on your porch, sit by your window, and allow yourself to have 15 or 30 minutes to just watch whatever is going on out there for that period of time. So just putting your attention on the land. And what’s great about that is, you’ll get to know the trees, the plants, the animals, the weather, movement of the air. It is a practice that helps to deepen intimacy with a particular place. So I highly recommend the Sit Spot, it’s a great practice. Other things that one can do are to plant the garden, something about eating, you know? I think eating is one of the most powerful sacraments, right? It’s like the earth goes into our bodies and it becomes us, and there’s an exchange.
So, whether it’s starting a garden and planting seeds and eating the food, or whether it’s hunting or gathering, these are practices that mindfully approached, can help us to deepen our sense of connection to place in ways that are incredibly, incredibly life-changing and powerful. So, just getting to know, what is edible around me? What can I eat? What are the native plants? Or are there any invasive plants here? That whole process can be very powerful for really loving, loving place. Yeah, there’s this old Bill McKibben quote that I often read, and I’ll just paraphrase it for our conversation, but he says, the mountain, he says, You live in a particular place. Even if it’s just a square mile or two, it took me many years to learn its secrets. Here there are blueberries, here there are bigger blueberries. I pass 100 different plants along the trail, I know maybe 20 of them. One could spend a lifetime getting to know a small range of mountains, once upon a time, people did.
You know, and when I read that, one could spend a lifetime getting to know a small range of mountains, and once upon a time, people did, it just really hit me, you know? I was writing Rewilding, I set up my desk by my window in my house, and I could look at my little window, and we have a small mountain right behind our house, and I could kinda look out on the mountain. And as I was writing, I would get fatigued and I would look up and I would see the wind, I’d watch the seasons, watch my children in the backyard, watch the birds come through during the spring migrations, watch the mallard, the pair of mallards that would come into our little brook in our backyard every spring. The great blue heron that would feed in the yard in the summer. The squirrels gathering nuts in the fall, looking out and noticing the tracks in the snow of a Bobcat in the winter. It doesn’t take a lot, I think it just takes a willingness and a desire to be in relationship.
And whether you live in a city or suburb, there’s ways to connect with the earth anywhere you are. You can look up at the sky and the clouds as you were just talking about Brett, or just feeling the movement of the air. There’s so many different ways to deepen that love of place. And the last thing I’ll say on this subject is, I think another really big and important one for me has been to learn about the history of the place. And in particular, the indigenous history, who are the people that are indigenous to the place where I live? Where are they now? Maybe those are my ancestors, depending on where you might live. Or I mean, your ancestors. Learning about those things can be very enriching to help deepen a sense of connection with a particular place.
Brett McKay: So, let’s shift over to some of these ancestral skills, like, survival skills. So, one thing you take people through is building a fire and it’s not with matches, they are using materials they find outside, so it’s bow drill or a plow. How can this be turned into a meditative practice?
Micah Mortali: Well, I think inherently, it is a meditative practice. So, the bow drill, for instance, is a skill set that is kind of complex and daunting. It’s a difficult skill to master, because it involves knowing the right kind of wood to use, making sure it’s well-seasoned, making sure that the proportion of all the different components of the kit are carved and fashioned properly. There’s rope or cordage involved, there’s knot tying, there’s a particular physical form to bringing all the pieces together and how to hold them, and a physical process of spinning the spindle back and forth with the bow. So, one of the things I love about this practice in particular is that so many things in modern life come easy. Modern life tries to make everything convenient and come quick. And I think it’s… As I’ve gotten older, I value sucking at things. When I confront a skill set or something that I stink at, I’m like, “Good, this is good for me.” It’s good to be a beginner, it’s good when something doesn’t come easy. Because we learn so much from having to be humble and apply ourselves and not give up with attaining something.
Now, when you’re talking about something as important as fire, having the experience of struggling and sucking at bow drill, and working at it and working at it and developing the skills, that moment when you breathe into the palm of your hand and a flame springs out of your tinder bundle, and the aroma of the dried cedar dust is like the most beautiful and wholesome incense you’ve ever smelled, and you’re sitting there covered in sweat, exhausted, and you’ve just brought forth this living element, that is one of the most impactful, technological leaps in human history. You’re connected with humanity through time. For me, it feels like you touch eternity in that moment, an eternal now through this experience.
And as you do that process of spinning that spindle, you can’t but help but go into a state of kind of a trance. Now, the way that I learned this skill was from Tom Brown Jr., at the Tracker School, and Tom learned it from his teacher, Stalking Wolf, who was Apache. And that lineage with that skill set, I’ll never forget that what Tom and his teachers taught us in my standard course down there was every time you come to one of these practices, whether it’s making a bow drill, or carving your own bow, or making an arrow, or making pottery, you come to it from a place of gratitude and thanksgiving. You come to this, the materials in your hand, you treat it like it’s an offering to the sacred gift of life. So I try to come at it from that place.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about shelter-building. What is it about shelter-building… Like what are you hoping your students get out of the experience of building a shelter out in the wild?
Micah Mortali: I think one of the things that a lot of people love about camping or backpacking is, you know that experience when you’re tired and you’ve hiked for many miles, you’re cold, it’s been raining, maybe you get a little wet, and you get that experience of getting your tent up and making a little fire and getting dry, putting dry clothes on, and sitting down, having a cup of noodles or having some food, and you’re there by the fire with a friend, and all your major survival needs are met: You have shelter, you have water, you have fire, you’ve got companionship. That is the bare necessities of life. And it’s one of those things that people, myself included, I think, really love about those kind of experiences is that you feel grateful because everything just got… Life just got reduced to its bare essentials. And when you can feel that sense of, “Oh man, I was just so cold and so wet, and now I feel warm and dry,” that’s a very wonderful feeling. And modern life in a lot of ways removes us from having those enjoyable experiences. I think Herman Melville wrote about this in Moby Dick a little bit. He talked about how the wealthy of his time don’t have that exquisite experience of lying in bed and having their face be cold but their body be warm and cozy under the covers.
But it’s just that experience we get when we’re camping. And so teaching people to build shelter is a part of helping them to have that experience of knowing that they can provide themselves with something as elemental, as basic, as fundamental, as important as shelter. And one thing that is really cool about the process, and a lot of times we’ll make a debris shelter which is like a little lean-to with a big pile of leaves over it, when you make a nice debris shelter, there is something about it when you look at it, when you’re in it, when you sit next to it that is very healing psychologically. You go out to a place in the forest and there’s just trees, and in the course of a couple hours you create a place for yourself, which is very much of the land but it’s not totally because it’s a human nest.
And when you see that human nest and your little fire wall in front of it for your fire pit that’s gonna reflect the heat back toward you there, all of a sudden, in this wilderness, you’ve created a home, and that is a very special feeling. And many people don’t know how to provide themselves with that sense of safety, comfort, reassurance in those kind of environments, and it can be pretty life-changing.
Brett McKay: So another practice you lead people on is animal tracking. And if someone’s a hunter, they’ve done this before, but this is a practice you can do even if you don’t plan on hunting, you just wanna follow an animal, maybe take a picture, not even take a picture, just find where the animal’s at. How do you bring mindfulness to this animal tracking?
Micah Mortali: Yeah, so tracking is a deep skill set. There’s so much to it. The way I approach tracking is people are often very interested in seeing wildlife. They’re curious about what kind of animals are around and… I think many people are dealing with what Dr. Kimmer calls species loneliness, like this deep sense of disconnection from animals. And so, I’ll often offer tracking as a way to connect. Now, the thing about tracking is that it can be pretty simple, it can be pretty complex. I’ll oftentimes try to help people get into it simply by pointing out what’s called sign tracking, which is like, how do we read the landscape to get a sense of where animals might be? For instance, I might be in a place where there’s an apple orchard next to a forest, and just might point out like, “What animals do you think might like come here and eat these apples?” People say “Oh, deer.” “Right, right.”
And as we’re walking through the woods, I might know that there’s a deer run that goes down the hill to where the stream is for the water, and I’ll say, “Hey, there’s water down there. What animals do you think might be drawn to the water and why?” People start talking about, “Oh well, yeah, they might be… To drink.” “Right.” So then I’ll start to point out just animal trails, runs through the grass or through the forest, and how to look for the disturbances in the leaf litter of just steps, footprints moving through. So starting at the macro, and then very gradually coming into then individual prints and the different substrates and things like that.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I know from my experience, the few times I’ve been hunting, the part that I enjoyed the most was just learning how to recognize signs of the wildlife, like when you see a tree, it’s like, “Oh, it’s a deer rub.” And I was with someone who’s showing me, he’s like, “If I didn’t have someone showing me, I would have no clue. I’d just go, ‘Oh, that tree just doesn’t have any bark.'” Or he’d be like, “Oh, look at this sort of grass indentation. This is where some deer were laying down.” I would have walked by that before and said, “That just looks like impressed grass. I don’t know what happened there.” Or the deer run, you see spaces in grass. That was the most enjoyable part, just being able to… It’s like you’re able to see a code that was foreign to you, but then once you know what to look for, this whole ecosystem opens up to you that was basically a secret, before you learned the secrets.
Micah Mortali: Absolutely. You’re reading the book of nature. And it’s amazing to begin to see those things, and how many layers of awareness are there. It’s kind of an endless journey, it’s so cool. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: So how can people make this stuff, this rewilding part of their daily lives? Some people, they live in the suburbs, they don’t live in a city. They can get out to nature maybe once a month. But let’s say they wanna incorporate this into their daily lives, what are some small things that people can do to get started with rewilding?
Micah Mortali: Yeah, I mean taking your shoes off at the end of the day and putting your bare feet… Even if it’s on the concrete, getting your bare feet on the ground below you. Concrete is conductive, so feet on the grass, go in the backyard, take your shoes off, do your sit spot, take that 10 or 15 minutes a day, either in the morning or in the evening, and just sit and just watch the sky, watch the land, allow yourself to slow down enough to just connect with place. So those are two things. Now, other things you can do are get a little garden going, grow some herbs. Just putting seeds in the ground and watching them grow and spending a little bit of time every day to check on them and water them, that’s rewilding.
There might be different ancestral skills that you’re drawn to. You might feel like, “I’ve always wanted to weave a basket,” or “I’ve always wanted to carve something.” I would encourage folks to try to just think about those things you’ve always wanted to do that are outdoor-related, and just start, and even if you’re no good at it, [chuckle] you have no skill, just start somewhere. Maybe it’s archery, maybe it’s throwing stick, maybe it’s climbing a tree. The thing is, is I think with rewilding, I really encourage folks to do what Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss.” Think about those things maybe you did outside as a kid that you really loved to do, and do that. Maybe you love just sitting by a fire. Get yourself a little solo stove or a little fire pit, and if it’s safe to do where you are in your area, let that be a practice. Maybe once or twice a week, you just make a fire, and rather than watching Netflix, watch the fire.
Brett McKay: Well, Micah, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Micah Mortali: So you can go to micahmortali.com and learn about rewilding, learn about programs I’m offering, I’ve got a blog there, get on my newsletter list, learn about the School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership at Kripalu Center, where we train people to become mindful outdoor guides. You can learn about the rewilding programs that I offer as well. So, pretty easy to find. I’m also on Instagram, Micah Mortali, and you can follow me there.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Micah Mortali, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Micah Mortali: Thanks so much, Brett, really happy to be on the podcast with you. Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today is Micah Mortali. He’s the author of the book, Rewilding. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, micahmortali.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/rewilding, where you can find links to resources and you can delve deeper into this topic.
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