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Oct 11
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Fox-Walking with Owl-Eyes

EWV Wisdom Wheel

EWV Wisdom Wheel

COLUMN: In Everyday Life

Investigating EarthWalk Vermont, A Mini-Culture Filled With Nature, Learning, Respect and Joy

by Cara Thornley

In 2005, Angella Gibbons, Shambhala practitioner in Vermont, started EarthWalk Vermont (EWV), a nature-based mentoring school, with five students who came one day a week. It grew so rapidly that a friend of Angella’s joked it should have been called EarthRun.

From its inception, EWV was accomplishing what it set out to do. Its mission is based on the belief that children who develop strong relationships with the earth and one another grow up to become powerful stewards of our human and natural communities.

“A gift to the world,” is how Duncan Tingle, a retired public school principal and EWV volunteer ‘Elder’ describes the school. “EarthWalk kids will go forth with a sense of caring for themselves, others, the community and the earth.”

Young boy tells about seeing wood pecker

Young boy tells about seeing wood pecker

Letters from parents of EWV children resound with appreciation for the knowledge of nature, caring and confidence their children are developing. (See more by clicking here.)

EWV’s success is widely recognized in Vermont, and nationally by activists concerned with the harmony and interdependence of human beings and the environment. Both Joanna Macy, and Richard Louv acknowledge Angella’s work. Today EWV serves over 300 families annually. Its programs are consistently filled to capacity. A milestone was reached in August when EWV was given a 3-year grant funding the year-round operation of its adult training program for persons interested in implementing nature-based education.

EWV’s core education programs for children, called village schools, are designed to be long-term, meeting once weekly throughout the school year, thus giving students opportunities to develop consistent and progressively comfortable relationships with the natural world, peers, mentors and elders of the community. Children come from both home school and public school populations. Details about all EWV’s programs, including summer camps, can be seen online here.

Entrance to Hawthorn Forest

Entrance to Hawthorn Forest

All the programs take place in Hawthorn Forest, and the fields and waterways of the Winooski River bioregion which EW rents from Goddard College in Plainfield, VT. Everyone, children and adults, enter Hawthorn Forest silently with awareness, fox-walking with owl-eyes, which simply means walking with careful, quiet steps, while paying attention to all the eyes can take in.

Angella Gibbons’s love of nature was cultivated in a childhood spent near Walden Pond with a mother who encouraged her to be outside. It grew on a mid-1980’s trip to New Zealand where as a member of Volunteers for Peace, she traveled by bicycle for 7 months. Since camping was permitted anywhere, she slept on the earth, on the beaches and in the forests, and “fell in love with it all.”

After her return, the other piece of the life of service to which she aspired fell into place when she got a job working as a naturalist with an organization in La Honda, CA, which enabled every inner city 5th grader to spend one week in the woods during the course of a school year. She discovered she loved working with kids. From then, 1987, until she started EWV, Angella taught children and teens in natural environments from the California Redwoods to the headlands of Lake Champlain.

Angella Gibbons with Day Camper

Angella Gibbons with Day Camper

When she decided to start EWV, the curriculum was based on the teachings of Jon Young, founder of the Wilderness Awareness School. Young tells an intriguing story about his 7-year mentoring relationship to Tom Brown, Jr. founder of the Tracker School in New Jersey; his subsequent study of Anthropology and Classical Natural History at Rutgers University; and his discovery of mentoring as the key to environmental education that works.

EWV is part of a network of over 100 Wilderness Awareness schools on 7 continents. Although each school has original ways it does things, the core practices that Young identified from his study of native cultures are always included. These practices sustain and enliven community life, and are also learning routines, which build patterns giving children strength in every thing they do. At Earthwalk these core practices are embedded in a 4-part daily structure based on a version of the traditional wisdom wheel that Angella has adapted. Each part correlates to a geographical direction.

The day always begins in the East, Angella explains, because the key in the nature mentoring movement is inspiration. “Child’s passions” is what we do here. They can be outside, go barefoot, crawl along the forest floor, sing songs, play hide and seek and other games using all their senses. They tune into the magic of being alive at the same time building a strong connection to the nature community. After the children get fully engaged in nature then, Angella says, “we can teach them real outdoor living skills. But to get them to the place where they have knowledge, we have to inspire them to come in.”

Making FIre With A Bow-Drill THey Built

Making FIre With A Bow-Drill THey Built

Mentoring is about relationships, whether it’s with nature or another person. Angella explains, “The key is to be tuned in and grounded. What is important is the depth and quality of the experience of being present.” That’s why one of the core practices at EWV is the Sit Spot where children are encouraged to let nature be the mentor. Each child has their own special spot which they choose and where they sit part of every EW day.

Sitting, listening, smelling, tasting, seeing – a child experiences and learns moment to moment, in season after season, what happens in their Sit Spot. Later each day children can share their experiences. I heard one child joyfully recount seeing a woodpecker in a tree above him and feeling the ‘pecked’ bark fall on his head.

Elder Duncan Tingle with EarthWalk Mentor

Elder Duncan Tingle with EarthWalk Mentor

Gerry Holmes, a graduate of Tom Brown’s Tracker School, and a student at Sterling college spoke about his experience of mentoring EW’s children: “Working as a mentor at EW is developing relationship with kids, finding places where we can work cooperatively and learn together. I learn something every day. There is so much to learn. They are my teachers. They bring their passions and interests. My job is to figure out where they are and to empty my cup to what they are interested in. It’s the 50/50 principle. I come with an arsenal, prepared for everything. But that may not be what’s needed. I learn to flow with their energies and go with them.”

Angella who has from her youth read widely and contemplated what makes a good human society believes that this whole mentoring journey of relationships, being available to others, is at its core. “I love the Sakyong’s view in the Shambhala Principle,” she says, “that society exists as soon as you have more than one person. That idea is so empowering!”

Clearly empowering children happens at EWV. Anna Crytzer who founded a nature based school in Craftsbury, VT after training with Angella, described EWV as a mini-culture filled with nature, learning, respect, and joy.


The author Cara Thornley, Sherry Ellms, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Naropa University and  Angella Gibbons at Earthwalk. July 2013

The author Cara Thornley, Sherry Ellms, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Naropa University and Angella Gibbons at Earthwalk,

lk July 2013

The empowering and inspiring energy at EWV can best be felt, short of actually visiting there by viewing the photographs at www.earthwalkvermont.org. For an illustrated look at an EW Day and its core practices, click here.

EWV currently has an opening for a co-director. For a job description and how to apply, click here. For questions about adult training through the EarthWalk Field Institute, or general information, write: EarthWalk Vermont, P.O. Box 21, Plainfield, VT 05667, or call 802-454-8500.

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2 responses to “ Fox-Walking with Owl-Eyes ”
  1. madeleine winfield
    Oct 25, 2014

    I seem to be having difficulty submitting this. I only want to say how happy I am that this exists and that I would like to visit, and may be some time get to be an elder. As an elder, I would wish to follow the child with gratitude, humility, and presence. Thank you. There are probably a whole other good group of words to describe being with.

  2. madeleine winfield
    Oct 25, 2014

    I am very glad that this exists and would love to visit some time and maybe some kind of elder…thank you.

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