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How can the next generation grow up grounded and powerful? (#3)
As a mentor at a rewild camp, I'm astounded by the magic of play, skimming rocks, campfire stories and shrieking wild swims. The camp came just before our own "Camp Mama", Gina, won Alone Australia.
Last week, I was a mentor at a Bluegum Bushcraft rewild camp. After a hectic few months of climate campaigning, I was reminded how it feels to relax and feel alive, inspired by the kids and teens and the land that held us.
At home in the wild
As a mentor at a Bluegum Bushcraft rewild camp, most of the time I feel like I’m not doing much.
I am just being an edge in a human container of present adults that allow the land and the river to unravel the children and put them back together again, different – more joyful, more sparky, more wild.
I am grateful to be back on Budawang country, in southern NSW, under the watchful eye of Byangee mountain.
Our magnificent “Camp Mama”, Gina Chick, is newly famous, starring on Alone Australia on SBS. Around the campfires, people joke about selling her autograph. She confesses she prepared for the survival challenge by putting on 24 kilograms.
The kids pepper Gigi with questions.
“What were your ten survival items?”
“Did your possum skin coat keep you warm enough?”
“Did you win?”
Gina is sworn to secrecy on the survival show’s outcome, but she tells the stories she can. Like the time she licked something she found in the sea and her tongue filled with barbs.
She challenges the kids to build a smokeless fire so they could be invisible. The first step, she says, is to build a tiny fire the size of their hand and keep it alight for 30 minutes.
I feel my lazy adult scepticism that they would be interested in doing this, but I’m wrong.
The idea lights a spark in their brains, and several kids run straight to the woodpile, even though it’s raining.
Every morning, we take the kids from their parents for four hours to secret places in the bush. The next day out at “bush camp,” a frenzy of children strike ferro rods, sparking sparks into bundles of scrunched-up stringy bark they’ve harvested from a tree.
Kids focus on the stringy bark like a dog on a ball it wants you to throw, willing it to transform.
When the stringy bark ignites into a fierce baby fire, they pile on wet twigs, killing their new flame. Or they realise they forgot to gather twigs and run off to get them, leaving their bark to smoulder and vanish.
Undeterred by dozens of failed fires, they collaborate on who will strike and who will get smaller twigs and how to gently breathe the fire into life.
A tiny fire gets going. Four kids squat around it, intently feeding in little twigs, restocking, tending and chattering. As 30 minutes approaches, they shout for a countdown.
Who says kids can’t concentrate?
A quiet group of girls keep their small fire alight for two hours and 15 minutes.
Inspired by their focus, I become captivated by a spinning bow drill. Friction and leverage make smoke and dust, but there’s no ember yet to place in a tinder bundle.
I remember the half-made bow drill kit from last camp in my backpack. I conspire with a ten-year-old boy to find the right kind of tree to harvest a bow.
By now, I’m getting used to the cycle of passion and disappointment when I don’t get it done, but a few months later I know I’ll come back and try again.
Gigi teaches us her song inspired by Byangee. It’s an earworm. I wake every morning under the mountain’s cliffs, singing hommage.
I feel its stability and presence in the background all week – and the powerful line of mountains from Bulgan to Byangee to Cooyoyo. A tiny fraction of their energy feels like it’s running through me – more timeless and grounded than I can ever hope to be.
Slowly, everyone unravels into the trees and stones and mist and mud and circles of humans. The parents, who arrived looking slightly stunned, their cars packed full, begin to break up and ease into their cups of tea.
There’s no internet or phone coverage.
In the crucible of nature, kids and teens came alive. Their eyes look vibrant and clear.
I sit up in the forest where I can see both a mob of eleven-year-olds throwing rocks in the river and the girl who’d rather be alone sitting quietly on the edge, listening to the magical sound of a whip bird.
The abundance of stones, sticks, nooks, crannies, paths, trees and flowing water give every child millions of options. They make up the rules of their games.
No fights are triggered by a scarcity of toys. For every beautiful stone with miraculous ochre, there are hundreds more just a fossick away. For every perfect flat skimming rock, there is another five if you look hard enough.
With one mentor for every two or three kids, the usual sad scarcity of attention is transformed into a connected container where everyone can get their needs met. For every random idea a kid blurts out, there is someone nearby with ears to hear it, and laugh or nod or comment gently.
It’s magic. And after a while you start to wonder what’s really going on.
A large group of five and six-year-olds arrive at our stony river beach, and the eleven-year-olds adjust, absorbing them in. In half an hour there’s a full day spa operation, with little girls scooping up mud packs, and rubbing colour off wet stones to paint the older girls’ faces.
Kids build a shelter. The dream of being sheltered and having the power to build a home takes a fierce hold of two boys. They lean big sticks against the ridgeline created by a tree that has fallen against another tree, making an A-frame.
I feel that yearning too. It’s so deep, like we will literally die if the shelter is not built. I’m shocked how intense it feels. Then it gets all mingled with some foolish thread of heartbreak about who I might share my shelter with.
The kids scurry back and forth dragging sticks and bracken to fill in the shelter roof. They make a thick bed of leaves and ferns. They want to sleep out all night. I wish so hard for the shelter to be cosy and dry. I fret about the holes.
I ask the boys if they think it’s ready yet to keep out the rain.
It rains for two days. The boys sleep in their tents with their parents. The river rises.
I leap into the cold, swift-flowing Bhundoo with a gaggle of freshly disintegrated, giggling people. Ecstatic, we gasp and shout.
We count down from ten, then let go of each other and the trees.
We’re all swept swiftly downstream, shrieking. The cold water sucks out our tension and stuckness and worry. We emerge into the flowing, deep pools, floating on our backs as the sunset sky colours break through the grey clouds, all yellow and peachy peach.
Freezing from the river, we stand, jiggling and chattering incoherently, way too close to a massive fire. We shiver with cold and cover our legs which sting red from the heat at the same time.
I sink into the daily circles of people sharing where, again, it seems like not much is happening. The mentor meeting. The village morning circle. The mentor debrief. The nighttime fireside catching and telling of stories.
And somehow out of the circles emerges coherence, wholeness, insight and support. Tears. Love.
And achy-cheek laughter.
I’m astounded, as I am every time, as eventually, the mentor circle drops in deep. Something about the basket woven here means people start to feel things.
When you start to feel maybe you belong and it’s safe and this culture is healthy, it’s just two more breaths to feel the heartbreak that maybe you don’t actually belong, or it’s all lost, and that you have to go home now and maybe it will never happen again.
And as the evening becomes dark, the melatonin kicks in hard. The resonant sound of campfire songs fades out. My eyelids blink closed as I stare at the fire.
The chaotic rabble of children, spun into a trance by Lee’s wandering stories, are suddenly silent in their tents.
The teens try hard to stay awake until the adults leave the fire, talking in low voices near the glowing coals, fighting the irresistible urge to curl into sleep even though it’s barely nine.
I give up and walk across the dark, wet field to my tent.
I let the soft insect chorus sing me to sleep, cradled in the dark for dreaming hours, until the 360-degree surround-sound bird orchestra eases me back out into dawn.
I acknowledge the sovereignty, knowledge and care of the Budawang people of the Yuin nation, Traditional Owners of the land.
Where do you get to experience connection, shelter, abundance or flow? What makes you feel alive and curious? Leave a comment.