Jelle Cauwenberghs was my roommate and classmate during the International Wilderness Guide education. I asked him to share his experience of the school with us, to give another perspective on the education.
Besides being a good friend, Jelle is also a writer and ace wilderness guide. He has lived in Belgium, France, Finland and Scotland, and has traveled to Canada, the USA, Poland, Norway and Russia. He currently is currently is writing his first novel while looking for his next challenge. If you're a publishers or a fan of his writing, then you can contact him via Email
I was asked by Hendrik to write an article about my experience of the International Wilderness Guide course in Kuru; the reason why he asked me was two-fold. First, he said, you’re a writer and second, I’m biased and you’re not. Or less so. Arguably, I’m a writer. What I knew for certain was that there could never be an unbiased examination of the merits of the course.
This got me thinking about themes that crossed my mind several times over the course of this year, often in those moments when my situation as a guide was summed up in gratifying gestures: a gulp of air, a finger on the map, the flickering fire, a paddle slicing the water soundlessly, the crunch of snow under my skis: when, in other words, wilderness was unclouded and without judgement. When the course receded and left room for something infinitely more genuine and short-lived.
I tried to think of ways to erase this ambiguity regarding the course and come up with an objective account. But what lay in front of me was the entire body of literature dealing with something that has troubled mankind for centuries, if not millennia. What is wilderness? Better writers have turned to the wilderness for clarity and found only a darkness staring back.
The most interesting conclusions about this course are complex. Of course I enjoyed the expeditions but there is no need to talk about the joys and regrets of wilderness adventures. I think they are things of the moment. Their significance slips away as swiftly as the accuracy with which we will remember them. I could mention the physical failures and mental victories or vice versa but these small “conquests” of body and mind teach us nothing. We hopefully develop the capacity to see that nothing has been conquered. We know that we know nothing. Wilderness guiding is mostly doing and doing again; not knowing. To know the wilderness is to disappear completely. I wouldn’t be writing this if I knew the wilderness.
I could see how this could be an irritating statement. Since I was invited to post on this blog in order to give you an accurate picture of the course, it seemed stipulated that I should try to become a silent witness.
Book-keeping wouldn’t cover it though. Should I address employability? Curriculum? Structure? Ultra-light backpacking? It would be nice to wrap it all up and call it a day. I leave it to you. I invite you to have a look at the program and make up your own mind. It doesn’t mention ultra-light backpacking anywhere. Don’t expect to find any. Nothing that I can say can convince you. You have already made up your mind.
Your precedents inform you. Your preferences drive you. You are preconditioned. I could describe this year as a sequence; a logical passage from point A (that would be me minus the wilderness skills) to point B (me plus the wilderness skills and a disturbing diet thanks to Finnish supermarkets). Leaving out the homesickness.
But wait. There was a lot of disorientation. And should I be surprised? Interpretation is everything. There is no universal key to the wilderness. How to design an education that is interpreted by all uniformly? It’s a fabrication, a permanent tension between students and teachers, institutionalized and institutions. And all fall under the same umbrella of a compressive society with its limitations and regulations that we must abide by. The intangible gear list of civilisation. Perhaps I should say the untouchable gear list.
The lucid observer is asleep. Perhaps there is a silent witness at work, the watchmaker’s apprentice dozing off while the watchmaker breathes life into the clockwork. Only in the muddle of the apprentice’s dreams, we can find traces of the unseen clockwork on the workbench. My description is guesswork.
I love learning the names of animals but naming a living thing is not the same as owning it; move five hundred miles and a farmer will point at the same bird and call it a parrot. Trying to persuade you of the worth of spending ten months in Finland would be the same. Its worth is your own judgement. Your own speculations would resist my description. Observations without opinions do not exist. Neither is there such a thing as a receptive audience. And similarly, an institutionalized education will never be suitable for all. Especially when it comes to land use. I cannot think of a more irresistible arena for the audience to rush into and bite the lion tamer’s throat.
As in all writing, these questions aren’t fruitless; we are writers because we are able to see these questions not as distractions but as guiding principles.
So I finally saw what made this wilderness course so conflicting for some, if not most, of the participants. The core conclusion that justified this lack of cohesion we criticized: we were different. Wow. There it was. In one sentence, the entire course lay exposed. A writhing body of uncertain origin. Tentacles in all directions, incapable of clear speech. And was it the nature of the beast? No. It was the eye of the beholder. Mine.
What bothered us as students was the fact that we – as individuals – were not able to resist appropriating our “own” education and trying to put our mark on it; and so we should. We paid for it. What is the point of education if not the discovery of ourselves? It’s not a pleasant process when an institution is in charge of a romantic idea: we’re at the mercy of someone else’s vision. Not completely ours. Never ours. I wonder if such a vision can even exist and survive in education. Perhaps it’s time to rethink education. The pilgrim’s progress of our century is a blatant lie. We do not learn from mistakes, mostly because we aren’t really remorseful. At heart, we all believe we’re right. And there is nothing to convince us of the contrary.
You see. I’m biased: a business opportunity is to me equivalent to a clear cut in the forest, a direct attack on my wilderness. To teach me to see is not the same as giving me sight. It’s only one blind leading the other into a value system he calls reality.
Let me emphasize. Wilderness in the hands of a nation-state can only shrink. To give you a sense of the complexity of teaching young men and women what wilderness is for, I would like to go back to a man who was this complexity embodied.
"Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?” he asked.
In 1949, Aldo Leopold`s A Sandy County Almanac was published posthumously and soon became a reference work in the field of conservation and recreation. He was a hunter and a conservationist; he was, perhaps, a guide. He wasn’t simple; he didn’t go to nature with an empty mind. He liked to mention the blanks on maps; but there were none to his liking. Every blank is coloured by precognition.
Damn you Leopold. Preacher and sinner. He also worried about the worth of wilderness. We all do: we are obsessed with value; each gram must be accounted for. Why do we learn? What am I learning for?
Welcome to our times. Hunters walk among us. Conservationists walk among us. Several billion consumers walk among us and they like the idea of wilderness. And what are we to be as guides? Pillagers, protectors, pawns? This is the 21st century and Leopold is alive. He kills wolves and blesses the water. He leaves meadows intact and shoots at intruders. He promotes national parks and bemoans the excesses of tourism. He is biased. He likes to quote to his advantage the laws he loathes.
One thing I retain from Leopold’s writing is that intentions matter in spite of their implementation; often we will fail. And I feel the same about this course. My intentions are intact. I don’t think the course is imperfect. I think it reflects the imperfections of wilderness guiding as an industry exactly and therefore, it cannot be blamed.
It’s crucial to be aware of the importance of the choice you make when turning a hobby into a career; and Leopold had something to say about that too. “A hobby,” he said, “is a defiance of the contemporary. It is an assertion of those permanent values which the momentary eddies of social evolution have contravened or overlooked. If this is true, then we may also say that every hobbyist is inherently a radical, and that his tribe is inherently a minority. This, however, is serious: Becoming serious is a grievous fault in hobbyists. It is an axiom that no hobby should either seek or need rational justification. To wish to do it is reason enough. To find reasons why it is useful or beneficial converts it at once from an avocation into an industry–lowers it at once to the ignominious category of an 'exercise' undertaken for health, power, or profit.”
The point I’m making is not that outdoor recreation as a career is wrong but rather, that it’s always going to be a sacrifice. Weigh your expectations. Understand the economic climate. Something will always remain illusory; and there is not a single education in this world that can repair it other than to be reborn as a child each day. True wilderness can only be learnt first-hand; and there was some on this course; and there is a lot of it left. I didn’t emerge from these ten months as a specialist on wilderness. Each person brings his or her own map to an area and explores it according to his or her own inner landscape. We only finds echoes. I certainly heard my own. And what I heard was not always pretty.
Our immersion in wilderness is only self-induced and not reciprocal; our intimacy is none other than our own isolation and not the great communion often promised; there is no call of the wild; the wild is not calling; what is calling lives inside us and is ever-changing. Be watchful of that voice. It knows more. It wants more. And wilderness can never completely meet its demands. We always need to be reminded of its worth. As guides, as people.
All of us students answered the same inner call and initially, we all believed it. I still do. But thankfully, the call is now a chorus. I cannot distinguish the one true voice from the other voices. That’s because there isn’t one and the only valid message resides in its multi-vocality. It’s a salutary convergence of birds, a scrambled song. And we can only be liberated by this realization; that we could never complete pin the wild down. It will always sing for its own sake, even defeated.
We are imbalanced; this is at least my own opinion, that at the root of any wilderness experience lies a self-fulfilling prophecy; often, we must persuade ourselves of the relevance of time and place and take new bearings. To do so, we request from ourselves that extra ounce of confidence required to complete the journey; and this course gave me that extra ounce. In spite of it’s ambiguity, or perhaps because of it, it bred that acceptance of a futile mission. Ask for nothing. Regret nothing. No journey shall ever be straight line. No issue one-sided. We can improve wilderness guiding because ultimately, there is no standard to steer by, no star to call a constellation.
"We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive,” Leopold warned.
This is the world. This is wilderness.