We were stood around a roaring fire, watching the sun set over the loch we’d returned to, after five days of leaving it for a self-sufficient adventure living wild in the wilderness of Knoydart, Scotland.
As a group made up of professional leaders, teachers and young people we’d reviewed our initial reflections on our remarkably powerful experience publicly as the flames warmed our hands. The usual generically lovely stuff had come out, “I loved spending it with friends”, “It was a challenge”, “I have learned…” and everyone had now broken into little groups, some hugging each other for warmth, some heading down to the waters’ edge to skim stones, and some now huddled together beginning to speak their truth to those closest to them. It was then, as I sat alone watching the flames, enjoying the quiet post-adventure buzz that comes at these moments when I heard it:
“D’you know what it is? Out here, it doesn’t matter what we have, what we wear, where we’re at at school, what phones and socials are doing… here we’re just here, we all look the same, we’re all grubby, we’re all talking, we’re all really here, and we can only be ourselves. I can smell it, I can hear it. I feel so alive, so me, so close to everyone, so free”.
(While not a verbatim recollection, the above is pretty close.)
I was recently asked to reflect on my experience working with young people in wild places around the world for the last 12yrs, and why I felt so passionately about it’s importance. It was this experience that sprang throbbing into my memory. I remember how I felt hearing that statement (I actually overheard it so I felt a little shame) but I also felt, and still do in the remembering, a glowing sense of gratitude, hope, and love.
So what is it about wild places and our connection with them that I believe to be so important? Well, if you’re looking for a top 5 list of nailed on generic reasons borne from surface level reflection, you can probably stop reading. As with all things wild, it’s a bit simpler, and a bit more complex than that. If you’ll indulge me, I’ll let you make what you will of a couple of happenings I have borne witness to, that in their occurring demonstrate exactly why I feel young people accessing wild places (and their people) is so important.
In the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, removed from all humans except the occasional semi-nomadic purveyor of fermented milk (that’s another story), surrounded by all that that vastness entailed (epic trees, raging rivers, huge birds of prey, humbling towers of rock) an understanding happened. 18 individuals set out, a collective returned, no less individual as people, but stronger for their inter-dependence.
On day one the most (as determined by the world from which they came) successful individuals strode out, individually determined to shine, and conquer the day. It didn’t take long for the “team” to fracture and realise it was only this in name. Over the next few days conversations began to take place among this group of people that by their own admission would not be able to happen due to time restrictions, social norms, and expectations in the world they considered “normal” up until that point. Values were discussed, ideas of success and the meaning of the journey they were on took place while walking surrounded by humbling peaks, sitting quietly by rushing rivers, and while hiding in the shadows of evening fires. These of course happened alongside less romantic but no less real, and no less valuable arguments, physical challenges, and culture shock.
On our final day of 7 on our trek through this true wilderness the biggest individualist from day one shared that in the beginning of the adventure they understood that success was about individual achievement, that hadn’t always been fulfilling, and hence they had felt a constant sense of “striving”. They then shared that while they didn’t know what this meant in their life yet, the experience of being connected with people in this way, in a wild environment to which we as people must adapt, had enabled them to find an understanding of success that felt far more fulfilling to them.
"At that point in their journey, they shared that they felt success was something that was best felt when understood for each person, and when the experience was shared as a team."
In the mountains of Nepal, I witnessed a young team member wake early, find their seat and watch the sunrise every day. At the end of the day they would leave the group for a while, find their seat, and watch the sunset. They would often be joined by locals, who sat or stood with them for a while, often silent, but most certainly connected in some way.
After a few days witnessing their habit, and the sense of calm it appeared to generate within them, I asked what it was all about. They answered that it feels like part of them – they consciously wake up in wonder as the sun rises, and they consciously wind down in wonder as it sets.
"The team member told me that regular practise like this (not always this but if they can get outside mornings and evenings they will) helps ground them and feel their place as part of nature and all that it is at that time. And that most of the time, as a result, they feel better able to show up for others in the world."
In Dartmoor National Park, an often ignored, or weirdly mis-communicated place of incredible beauty and natural/human (they’re not separate by the way!) history, a bunch of young men were adventuring for the first time since the Covid-19 Pandemic, and as a result, for the first time without their parent’s and guardians.
For three days these young men bounded over rocks, howled as wolves into the space, swam in cold rivers (safely facilitated of course), slept in bivvi bags under frosty canopies of stars, and toasted marshmallows on fires. One of the young men was described by the world from which he came as “naughty”.
Out on Dartmoor he bounced, swam, smiled and articulated his sense of being alive throughout. In his final reflections this young man shared that he felt to be in these environments was a privilege, one he had only just understood, and one he wanted to explore more in terms of his own enjoyment, and his own sense of responsibility to protect them.
In these three anecdotes, and the fourth described in the introduction there are myriad examples of the value of young people (all people!) spending time in, and remembering their place in, wild places. I will leave the finding up to you…
To summarise my own reflections based on my experience so far in this space, as the poet Baba Dioum so beautifully articulated:
“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”
This we know is relevant to ourselves, to our connection with each other, and to our relationship as part of the natural world. It is for this reason I will continue to love and believe in the value of young people being supported to access wild places and the symbiotic benefits it provides. These experiences are our greatest teacher.
It is due to all of the above, and more, that we at The Living Project are passionate about providing the John Muir Award for young people, and if you’re keen to explore us working with your school or young person’s organisation in this space please don’t hesitate to reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org
We are currently seeking funding to provide access to wild places for young people who currently feel excluded, for whatever reason. If you’re reading this as someone who is willing and able to engage with us in this space, please get in touch with me at: email@example.com to start a conversation.