Two Coyotes summer camps

I spent July working as a lead and co-lead mentor for Two Coyotes Wilderness School summer camps in Newtown, CT. It’s been an intensely exhausting, fulfilling, fun, and challenging month. My heart feels like it’s been broken, repaired, expanded, composted, and reseeded infinite times each day, of camp. Here’s a few stories/ highlights from each week.


Forts and Shelters week
"I love photographing leaves," I told my student today. He's one of those kids that gets passionate about all the things I love. He calls me over, "Jiling! Jiling!" each time he sees a beautiful mushroom. The forest has lots of them, right now. I showed him how to make basic cordage, then he came up with his own technique for making it, and started experimenting on plants I'd never tried making cordage with, before. Yesterday, he found a rope in the woods, used knots that I'd shown him earlier in the day, and made himself a bracelet. He brought in a show and tell item this morning, which was more rope, tied intricately into a "Chinese staircase," which he proudly shared with the class, and we used as a talking object. He collects beautiful, complexly patterned, colorful leaves as we walk down the path. "What will you do with all those leaves?" I ask him. "I don't know," he answers. We discuss a few possibilities. He's fascinated by the possibility of pressing leaves and flowers, and has a sharp eye for beauty, composition, and subtle details that form such. This is just one of the 13 kids that me and my assistant work with this week. All of them are special, with unique gifts, quirks, and stories that accompany each of them. My first week of camp winds down in just two days. Today was the middle of the week. I'm already thinking about how to tie this bundle into a beautiful bow, at the end of the week. I feel exhausted at the end of each day, but also somewhat enamored with my young and enthusiastic gaggle of small fairy-like humans that have endless energy, expansive imaginations, and loving hearts, with just the right dash of trouble to keep me dancing on my toes.

On the last day of class, we hiked straight up to our shelter area, to finish our shelters. Our group had split into three different groups: the cool-boys group, the girls’ group, and the focused-boys group. The cool-boys’ leader loved telling everyone what to do, but didn’t do much work himself. The members of his group eventually joined the focused-boys group. The girls’ group tried making an experimental structure, which toppled over, so they went and joined the focused-boys group. The focused-boys group had an unofficial leader, who worked as hard as the rest of his group, who all worked together. While walking up towards our camp area, which we named Coyote Cliffs, I stopped the group. “It’s our last day of camp today,” I said, “and we need to finish at least one of our shelters. A big rain is coming.” My assistant and I were prepared to dump a bucket of water onto one of the shelters. The students discussed what to do about the divergent groups: lack of shelters, lack of group organization, etc. This led to a discussion about leadership. “A leader is the person who’s in charge,” said the leader of the disintegrated cool-boys group, who spoke first. We went around the circle, sharing our thoughts. The focused-boys group leader, now the unofficial leader of most of the group, spoke last, “A leader does what everybody else does,” he said, “but everyone respects them, because they respect everyone else. They help you when you need it, and don’t tell you what to do.” The group decided to work together on the focused-boys’ mostly-finished shelter. They worked until lunch, when us instructors transformed into coyotes, and they all crawled into the little shelter. We dumped water on the shelter, which went through the roof (still not enough leaves), while the students, all piled together into one well-constructed-yet-not-well-constructed-enough-but-well-loved little debris hut shelter, screamed and laughed as one voice.

Feather, Fur, and Fin week
Some students bring me humbly to my knees in gentle, beautiful, and magical ways. Others make me wonder why I do this work at all, as I question not only my skill as an instructor, but also my abilities of navigating the world as a human being. The week started off this way. I led the kids on a lost-proofing/ navigational wander on the first day of class, which took us to less traveled regions of the land with no trails or buildings. One of my gripes with our camp location is that it’s an old farm, which is somewhat cluttered with buildings and roads. It’s still beautiful, but not nearly as wild as I’d prefer. So, I was excited and delighted to go far uphill and explore the periphery of the forest, past all of the other areas we’ve ever been, perhaps where no group has gone, before. This was lost on our rather disorganized group. A clump of boys were rude to my face, and more than half of the group complained the whole way up and down gorgeous hillsides covered with twisting plants of all shades of green, and all manner of dramatic rock formations. By the end of the week, I gave them a 15 minute fire challenge. “Do you want to light this with hand-drill, bow-drill, flint-and-steel, or matches?” The group voted on bow-drill, and got straight to work. Students split themselves into groups: gatherers of tinder, smaller sticks, larger sticks, and the bow-drill crew. I stayed with the bow-drill crew, in the center of the circle, right next to the fire pit. The “challenging” boys stuck with me, for bow-drill. We took turns partnering up, sometimes even two people applying downward pressure hand-hold above the primary bowing person, while two other people, on opposite sides of the primary bow-er, drew the bow back and forth, and everyone else clustered around in a tight circle, singing. It was quite a project. We ended up spending about an hour and 15 minutes drawing the bow back and forth in different squeaking configurations, the whole group singing rotating fire songs, and collaborating in creative ways to create a fire, which finally manifested as a fat coal that burst the tinder bundle into flame, with a perfect fire to create delicious bread-on-a-stick flour experiments after lunch, then wild edibles pizza for the final day challenge.

Advanced Survival week
“How many matches do you want? Stick your fingers on your head.” I tallied up all the wriggling upraised fingers, then made an average: three. They chose to make a three match fire. I gave them fifteen minutes to do it. At the ten minute mark, they all clustered back around the fire circle, demanding their matches. One, two, three. Three different people tried, and all three of them failed for different reasons: the first was too eager to shove the match into the tinder bundle, and stifled the flame. The wind blew out the second flame, as soon as it was lit. The third lit the bundle, then blew it out again, with his over-eager breath. The group decided that they wanted three more matches. They would do whatever it took. They elected yesterday’s champion fire-maker for the task. “If he can’t do it, then no one can.” He however, also failed: a strong wind blew out his first match, and he stifled his second. Confidence can sometimes be faulty. “Let me try,” came an uncertain voice from the back of the group. This student was also with me last week, helping me carry everything from lunches to tarps up and down the steep hills that characterize our camp location. Other students objected, wanting to give yesterday’s champion a final chance. “No,” I replied, “Let’s try someone new.” The new challenger immediately broke his match, as he swiped it across the box. A clamor rose from the group, the fresh failure close to tears at the center of the circle, broken match in hand. “It’s not over,” I spoke slowly and quietly, using my deep voice that I save for rituals and other serious affairs, “hold the match at the base. Strike firmly, and remove your fingers when the flame comes. Protect the flame, but don’t stifle it. Let it feed for a moment, then gently give it to the tinder bundle.” We placed the tinder bundle into the fire tipi structure, and the student, broken match, broken spirits, and all, successfully lit the match, protected the flame, delivered it to the tinder bundle, and gently blew that fire, the heart and hearth of our camp, into flame.

Scout Tracker week
"This is the best day of my life," said my students, stuffing their faces with wine berries as we pawed, bear-like, through the prickly bushes. I got to explain compound leaves, leaflets, serrated margins, lobes vs teeth, glandular hairs, and other basic botanical nomenclature while we explored with our hands and mouths just what it means to be fully alive and on the land, in the height of summer.

“Thank you so much for helping me carry the hot tea down the mountain,” I praised a student. “It’s no big deal,” the student replied, “nobody else would do it. I like doing what nobody else wants to do.” I asked him why. “Well, then I get to experience what nobody else really experiences.”

Every so often, a student completely blows me away. Their sometimes surprising truth of expression and innocent open-mindedness inspire me to constantly re-approach the world with new ideas, reinventing myself, and re-sparking my imagination. To see the world through the eyes of a child as a well-traveled (and still traveling) adult is a precious, albeit oftentimes challenging, gift.


Working summer camp is like running a circus. Pros include sharing topics I’m passionate about in beautiful outdoor settings. Cons include general exhaustion derived from being “on” and high energy for most of the day, while managing complex yet childish interpersonal relationship issues. I don’t know if I will do this again, in the future. I want to work with adults in a more focused manner, centering around botanical medicine, embodied creativity, deep nature connection, and earth-centered spirituality. Children are an integral piece of the picture of my life, but I’m not so sure about summer camp. I’m honing my skills as an herbalist, acupuncturist, and Chinese medicine practitioner for the next three years of my life. What’s next? What’s possible?

I look around the closing circle in the final moments of the last day of camp, allowing my eyes to rest on each individual, memorizing the faces of all of my students, the other instructors, the forest, this circle. I inhale this moment into my consciousness. I want to--- and will--- always remember this feeling of being simultaneously full and empty, my heart a richly aching and pulsating rhythm in my chest. I’ve given so much that I feel totally drained. I feel completely full, for the same reason: I gave all I could. It’s like creating herbal medicine, or a piece of art: I give all I can while creating it. I surrender the rest to the great mystery: chance, fate, life, whatever you want to call it. I call it magic. And for all of this magic and more, I am so very grateful.