Deep Nature Connection
Each morning I would rise early and listen to the bush sounds change from the loud “Brrrruuum” calls of wildebeest bull, to the soft “cheeets” of the shaft-tailed wydas and scolding of grey babblers. The sacred ibis would come off of his night roost on the dead snag and start hunting the shore for any creature that might fit in his long beak.
Robin I and might go tracking while the sun was still low and catch some signs left by the night-animals. We might see that the black-backed jackal was using the same hidden spot behind the buffalo thorn to drink, or see the massive cloven hooves of the giraffe.
We would meet the Bushmen for a morning session. For this we would walk through the bush, one direction or another. They would show us the stories in the sand: the tracks of a puff adder, the slow walk of the tortoise. When the time was right, they would show us some sort of Naro traditional technique. If we passed the tracks of a steenbok, Xiago might show us how they would make a snare for this small antelope. Then to make the picture complete, the Naro would act out the scene. One would play the part of the steenbok while the others played the hunters.
The acting was not just for our enjoyment, although we did like it. The acting puts the hunter in the place of the steenbok, letting him move down the trail—placing his feet like the antelope might. The more the hunter does this, the better he will know what he hunts. So by the time the hunter sets his snare, he already knows the steenbok is caught.
They teach and lean tracking in the same way. This is not unique to the Bushmen; many great trackers learned to feel how an animal moves by putting themselves in the mind of the game.
The Bushmen acted out many of the most important lessons, not only reinforcing the importance in their own bodies, but also making a lasting memory in our minds. I know I will never approach a warthog burrow from the front, now I have seen Guta pretend to be run over by an angry boar.
The Bushman live in family groups with grandparents, uncles, and aunts.
The children are taught primarily by the grandparents. The grandmothers teach the young-ones how to be safe in the bush—to listen, not just to their elders, but to the whole world. They are taught what the bird sounds mean, to be still and quiet.
When the boys are about 7, the grandfathers start teaching then to hunt. The aunts and uncles are there to help too, especially if the child needs correcting. Discipline often fall to the aunt or uncle, and the parents role is to love the child and fill their heads with stories. Stories to inspire the children to be the best person they can be. The Bushmen are too practical to keep something around if it does not work. They have refined these teaching practices over 20,000 years. They still seem very relevant today.
These teaching techniques are a large part of what has brought Jon to the Kalahari. Jon has spent his life trying to connect people to nature in a meaningful ways. Jon has started outdoor schools, and teaches and lectures all over the world.
Jon was taught nature connection from the man who may be the closest thing left to an Apache scout, Tom Brown Jr. He was also mentored by Ingwe, a man who was raised in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle with the Akomba people of Kenya, and by Gilbert Walking Bull, a Sioux elder who was taught the old ways by his grandparents.
Jon is very connected and aware of what is happing in the world around him, but he has not let that sever his ability to interact with the modern world and people. When you talk to Jon, he is as easy to intact with as anyone else you might meet, perhaps even easier because he is very aware of body language and can alter his style accordingly.
When not in Africa, Jon spends the rest of the year living in the hills outside of Santa Cruz teaching what he calls Deep Nature Connection. Deep Nature Connection is what the Naro have. It is knowing bird language; it is knowing how to read tracks; it is knowing what plants are in your area and how they can help you. There is really no closer connection then between you and your food, clothing, and shelter.
Jon had developed a distance mentoring model that allows him to reach around the world to teach others. So sometimes Jon has to go around the world himself to find those who can help teach him. He has found those teachers in the Naro Bushmen of the Kalahari.
So, I watched the Bushmen and I watched Jon. I walked in the tracks left by Hanama’s wise feet, felling the shape of his toes with mine. With Guta, I dug out the root-balls of the velvet raisin bush to make walking sticks. Fritz, a younger Bushman, helped me carve a digging stick.
Every time we stopped for any length of time, the Naro would build a fire. The fire helped straiten and harden the pieces of wood used to make many tools. The fire also added a center to the group. Stories and songs flow better when there is a fire to sit near. The fire helped slow time down, and let us be entirely in the moment.
We pass the week in this rhythm, sharing time and space.
The Bushmen have many challenges ahead of them as they try to mix modern and traditional life. There are fewer places where the Naro are allowed to hunt. Without a subsistence life style, the traditional skills seem less important. If no one is paying attention, in a few short years much of this wisdom could be lost.
The Naro around Grasslands Lodge have been lucky in some ways.They have found that there are people all over the world who are starving for traditional knowledge. The Naro have been able to turn this into a way to make a living in this changing world, and a way to keep the traditional values alive. They have become guides, helping modern people through challenging times by teaching the primitive skills that build a strong bond with the earth. I hope that more people can make the trip to visit the Bushmen and learn from them. I hope that the Bushmen can learn to balance the benefits of the modern world with their traditional values. I know I will think of them often: Guta, grinning pointing out a gemsbok trail, Xigao playing the part of an antelope, Hannama’s wise face as he squats, while setting spring-hare trap, and the sound of the women’s voices as they sing in the firelight. Now when I close my eyes I can still smell the dry straw of the savannah, feel the heat of the mid-day sun hanging in the north, and hear the red-eyed bulbul scolding a mongoose. Even though I have traveled thousands of miles since leaving Africa, I know the Kalahari will never be too far away.