When I first started making compost, I took delight in throwing peelings from our vegetables and fruit into the compost bin. For months I was frustrated by the transition of fresh fruit and vegetables into a slimy, sour morass. It was only after a visit from a friend of mine who is a horticulturist that I learned that compost is only formed through the addition of a solid and frequent addition of horse or cow manure. Then you get solid compost, and from this you can create a vegetable garden – the cycle ne’.
How does this relate to mountains and young people?
On all our programmes we practice a “leave no trace” ethic. Essentially what goes in leaves with you. For young people from city environments this oftentimes creates a degree of shock and disbelief.
We introduce them to our good friend Dug, a lightweight shovel and provide them with ziplock bags to store the usedtoilet paper.
It is all part of the process.
Any group who joins us in the mountains is invited to bring the fullness of their own unique story. Most often people shed the defences and scales of persona; allow the wild space to enter their soul, to heal, to transform and to clarify a way forward. This is a courageous journey, one we hold in awe. On occasion we get a group, who walk with us who chose rather to stay protected and defended. Their defence is one of “everything is cool, we have it all together.” Yeah right!
This is a story about a latter group;the “we are all together and can speak volumes about harmony and honesty etc” type of group.
Reuben and Linda are running the final wilderness programme for a group of students from a tertiary education institute. These young people are the final students of a larger group, who have who specifically asked for our wilderness programme to develop their leadership ability.
These young people however, are complacent, a sense from the facilitators of not being fully engaged. This group use plenty of words pertaining to trust, respect, “show-up”, integrity and the like. Yet under the surface it would seem that darker and smellier stuff is lurking.
But time in the mountains, will bring its own maverick to the party – mountains willteach on subjects that are not always within the expectation of the student or ours for that matter.
Morning after a twelve hour solo, participants have been in the mountains, alone from sunset to sunrise. They are walking back, a time to tell stories, bring trauma from the past to a place of rest, equanimity.
After breakfast they gather in a cleared area adjacent to the tents. Linda notices what appeared to be a newly built cairn of rocks, possibly symbolic, she had thought. Closer inspection reveals a different truth.
This is not carefully arranged pile of rocks, no, someone has dropped a pile of sh*t and bog roll then covered the fragrant package with stones. Not exactly creating an ambience conducive to process work or narrative therapy.
The conversation that followed went something like this:
Reuben: “Uh guys, who has done this?”
Linda: “So let’s allow this person to clear the mess then we can move on.”
Linda again: “Hey – are we not a truthful group, did you guys not say that you are friends who stand together, work together, support each other. Are we not standing around a pile of human faeces that belongs to one of this very same group?”
Reuben: “Ok so let’s go around the circle, and repeat after me, I do solemnly swear that I did not leave this deposit so help me God.”
Twelve iterations of this follow.
No confession, no honesty – compost in the making!
According to Reuben and Linda, things got pretty emotional, blame and accusations follow, two participants reduced to tears, blamed victimised – no one takes responsibility – I promise this wasn’t me.
And then there was silence, only the wind through the Fynbos. A voice, quiet from one participant: “Hey guys, we don’t trust each other, we do lie – we aren’t so cool together.”
Linda’s voice: “Maybe that is as good as it gets for now, our truth in this moment – question is how do we move forward?”
The two participants who are to lead the day, stitch the group together, a little humour, buckets of care, participants are fragile – I thought we were ok. Thought we were friends, it seemed so cool, what does that pile of sh*t in the middle of our circle mean to who we are, to who I am. (And of course who did it in the first place?How do we really trust each other again?)
The course continued to its closure, less pretence, more quietness, rawness – vulnerability. The participants depart from the mountain with confusion in their eyes.
One young woman’s last words to Reuben: “you just can’t pretend in these mountains, can you?”
When we take people to the mountains we don’t walk as teachers, the mountain is the teacher – we can only guide, gently and truthfully. Even around an illicit pile of faeces. The mountains however, will reflect truth and bring us lessons that will test us and grow us. No matter how much we smile or speak subtle words of ambiguity.