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This is my true vocation:

Greenwood Grove

Center for Sustainable Spirituality

and Holistic Living

A Prospectus

Thomas H. Harbold, Founder

February 2012

Vision and Mission

The Vision and Mission of the Greenwood Grove Center for Sustainable Spirituality and Holistic Living (a.k.a. Greenwood Grove, the Center for Sustainable Spirituality, or simply the Center) is rooted in, and expressive of, the personal vocation and vision of the Founder, Tom Harbold:

  • Our Vision is to do our part to help heal and re-weave the connections between and among the worlds of humankind, non-human Nature, and Spirit (the Sacred, the Numinous), which have been strained and torn by the stresses and demands of our contemporary techno-industrial society, and return to a sustainable, holistic mode of living.

  • Our Mission is to provide education, resources, and hands-on training to those who subscribe to the above Vision, by means of non-residential classes and workshops, residential retreats and extended workshops, and the provision of physical and internet resources to support, promote, and enable people to work toward the realization of the Vision.

The Center seeks to promote and model a holistic, integrated vision of healthy and interconnected individuals, in healthy and interconnected communities, in a healthy and interconnected world. We are somewhat unique in that we have chosen to give spirituality, one of the characteristics which distin­guishes human beings – so far as we are at present able to ascertain – from every other creature on the planet, a place of honor at the center of this process.

The Center for Sustainable Spirituality does not present any particular form or mode of spirituality or religious path as “the one true and only way,” but rather seeks to encourage people to find and practice the spiritual path which is most effective at sustaining them in their life's journey, and which allows for, encourages, and promotes sustainable living practices in the wider world, while respecting other paths. Without these components, a spiritual path cannot be considered “sustainable” in the present world, within the context and mission of the Greenwood Grove Center.


Among the resources which the Greenwood Grove Center for Sustainable Spirituality and Holistic Living hopes to be able to offer its community of seekers and practitioners are the following:

  • Regular (daily or at least weekly) opportunities for organized meditation in community, including Zazen (Zen Buddhist meditation), Centering Prayer (a type of Christian meditation), and Labyrinth walks (interior or exterior).

  • Regular opportunities for meditation-in-movement or movement arts, for health of both body and spirit, to include but not necessarily limited to Yoga, Tai Ch'i and/or Qi Gong, and Aikido. Some of these may also involve self-defense/personal protection as an added benefit.

  • Creative arts which have a meditative or spiritual component.

  • Seasonal, and perhaps more frequent if demand exists and availability of qualified leaders permits, rituals or opportunities for worship in a variety of traditions.

  • Classes, workshops, lectures, and seminars with spiritual leaders from a variety of traditions, potentially including but not limited to the following:

    • Christian (Celtic, Benedictine, Creation Spirituality, etc.)

    • Earth Religions

    • Shamanism and other indigenous spiritualities

    • Buddhism

    • Shinto

    • any other tradition which promotes sustainable living practices and is willing to respect other spiritual paths and their practitioners

  • Regular availability of holistic healing modalities to include but not limited to:

    • Therapeutic Herbalism
    • Reiki and other forms of energy-based natural healing

    • Acupuncture and related arts

    • Nutrition, from a natural and whole-foods perspective such as that of the Weston A. Price Foundation

    • Clinic(s) with a Holistic Nurse Practitioner, Naturopathic physician, or related

  • Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, to enable community members to not only have access to fresh, naturally grown vegetables, herbs, and flowers, but equally important, to participate in the process of growing them themselves – hands-in-the-dirt spirituality.

  • Classes and workshops in self-sufficiency, traditional arts and skills, alternative and renewable energy, “green” building practices, and related aspects of sustainable living

  • Residential weekend and perhaps week-long retreats, to enable community members, seekers, and practitioners the opportunity to explore some of the above areas in greater depth


The Greenwood Grove Center for Sustainable Spirituality and Holistic Living should ideally be located in an area of significant natural beauty, including forest (in keeping with the designation and them of “Greenwood Grove”) and areas of cleared land (for the CSA gardens, and other features such as an outdoor Labyrinth, gathering circle, etc.). Abutting an area of existing protected land (state or national forest, park, natural area, etc.) would be ideal, though not required. It should be far enough from major population centers to allow a sense of retreat or separation, but near enough for easy accessibility, and should include enough area (20+ acres) to avoid a sense of being hemmed in or constricted by its surroundings. It should be in an area which is accessible (perhaps with the aid of a snowplow, if necessary) in all four seasons, and it should be in an area which has all four seasons – preferably in the Northeast quadrant of the country.


In keeping with the theme of sustainability, it is the Founder's goal and intention that the Center should be as sustainable as possible, ecologically: whether newly constructed or renovated from an existing structure or series of structures (former camp, etc.), it should incorporate as much “green” technology in its construction, energy use, etc., as possible. Ideally it should be LEEDS certified, or at least certifiable. Among the specifics are the following:

  • Built or renovated as much as possible using local/renewable materials

  • Heated using wood (carbon-neutral, renewable, available locally)

  • As much power as possible (ideally all of it) provided via solar, wind, or similarly renewable sources

  • Composting toilets, greywater utilization, rain gardens adjoining impermeable areas

Furthermore, it should blend into its surroundings as much as possible, aesthetically: there should be a sense of continuity between the physical structure of the Center and the land on which it is located.


The ideal set of features to be sought for the Center, regardless of whether it is constructed from scratch or converted from an existing structure or set of structures, should include the following:

  • Space for administrative offices

  • Kitchen and dining area, which may be connected to

  • Central multi-use hall, for lectures, classes, movement arts, craft work, general gatherings

  • Chapel and meditation space(s), ideally at least two different spaces (may be connected to main hall, or be in separate buildings)

  • Possible additional classroom space(s), in addition to central hall (again, connected or separate)

  • Note possibility that additional classroom and/or meditation spaces could be added via yurts.

  • At least two dormitory areas, to allow for year-round accommodations with gender separation.

  • Appropriate restroom facilities.

  • Outdoor “rustic” camping area, with latrines

  • Space for CSA vegetable, herb, and flower gardens

  • Meditation garden (Zen-style?)

  • Paths for walking meditation and nature appreciation

  • Possible outdoor Labyrinth and Native American Medicine Wheel

  • Outdoor gathering area, with central fire ring and seating around same

  • Possible on-site lodging for Founder and/or permanent staff

Officers and Staff

The following would be the officers and minimal staff necessary to organize and maintain the Center:

  • Founder and Executive Director: responsible for visioning and overall direction of Center, as well as leading classes, workshops, services, and other activities as necessary or appropriate

  • Board of Directors: shared responsibility for visioning, long-term planning, and finance

  • Program Coordinator: this responsibility may also fall under the Founder/Executive Director in the early stages of the Center, but would eventually become a separate position

  • Administrative Assistant: answers phone, greets visitors, assists with administrative duties

  • Chief of Maintenance: primary responsibility for maintenance, building and grounds care

Contact is welcomed from anyone who shares the Vision and Mission of the Center! Contact is especially welcomed from anyone willing and able to provide financial assistance - either directly, or through fundraising ability - to bring this Vision into reality. Many thanks in advance!

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Greenwood Grove Center for Sustainable Spirituality and Holistic Living - A Prospectus by Thomas H. Harbold is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The end of religion as we know it?

 A recent column by religion commentator Terry Mattingly which appeared in the (Carroll County) Times pointed out that while John Lennon was vilified, when he was alive, for stating that Christianity would “vanish and shrink” from Britain, and that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ, he was ironically speaking no more than the truth. Mattingly points out that not only were the Beatles more popular than Jesus, by polls conducted at that time, but Frank Sinatra was more popular than the incarnate Word of God here in the U.S.

Furthermore, Christianity has indeed shrunk, to a startling degree, in the U.K., and is shrinking here in the United States. The website religioustolerance.org, in a survey of religious identification in the U.S., states that during the 20th century prior to 1990, the popularity of Christianity had been stable in the U.S., with about 87% of adults identifying themselves as Christians. The country then experienced a major change. Significant numbers of American adults began to disaffiliate themselves from Christianity and from other organized religions. By 2008, the percentage of Christians had fallen to 76% and is believed to be continuing its decline.

While 76% is still a solid majority, and provides justification for identifying the U.S. as a “Christian nation,” a decline of 11 percentage points in only two decades is significant. That is especially true as the site goes on to note that these former Christians do not seem to have joined new religious movements or other world religions; they mostly left organized religion entirely and became secularists. That is in some ways much more concerning, to those of us who believe that the religious impulse itself comes from God, and leads to God, than if they had simply sought a new way of finding communion with the divine.

Mattingly also points out that Lennon was far from being an atheist; rather, he was a man on a life-long spiritual quest. Mattingly suggest that he was “spiritual without being religious” long before that was a phrase commonly used to define a person’s theological orientation, and quotes traditionalist Anglican priest Fr. Robert Hart, author of an essay on the subject in the magazine Touchstone: “What he was missing in his life was the certainty of a specific, definitive religious truth. It’s not that he denied that this kind of truth existed, but he was never able to find it.”

How many of us, being honest, have found ourselves in a similar place? I admit that despite my strong intellectual assent, and deep emotional attachment, to the Anglican tradition of Christianity, I find myself sometimes regretting that I rarely experience the kind of soul-deep certainty, the kind of easy, uncomplicated, taken-for-granted faith that seems to have been experienced by my parents, and theirs.

The prologue to the Gospel of John makes it clear that the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ is the same God – and the divine Word who became incarnate in Christ is the same Word – through whom all things were made, and is thus to be understood in a cosmic, universal sense. But the way God is often talked about, and the Christian faith presented, both in other parts of the Scriptures and by many contemporary Christians, makes him sound a lot like the titular god of a primitive, tribal people. How is that God relevant, and how are we to take him seriously, in the multi-cultural, industrialized, technological world of the 21st century? This is a question without easy, obvious answers.

In the same issue of the Times as the Mattingly article was an opinion piece by Bonnie Erbe, entitled “Losing Faith in the Catholic Church,” in which she notes that that Church has clearly receded as a religious and cultural force, with 850 parishes nationwide having shut down since 1995. This is the same Catholic Church that has survived wars, plagues, insurrections, and crises of faith for two thousand years. So what does all this mean? Are we viewing the beginning of the end of Christianity, and perhaps of organized religion, in the U.S., and perhaps the world? Are we doomed to a secular future, stripped of transcendence – stripped of hope?

I don’t think it’s quite as dire as that. Christianity is more vibrant in many areas of the globe than it is in the perhaps over-educated and industrialized West. It is particularly alive in what some call the Global South: Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia. From there it may spread to the more-developed world, just as Ireland re-evangelized Europe during the early Middle Ages. But if Christianity is to regain its footing in the U.S. and Europe, it is going to have to find ways to touch a jaded, information-saturated, highly technologized public, which has been conditioned to believe that newer is always better, and that what is old is automatically out-of-date.

Whether it accomplishes this or not, one of my bedrock, iron-clad beliefs is that God is bigger in every way than any human religious expression, even including Christianity. Christianity may indeed stage a comeback, although the historical track record of fading religions does not offer too many positive models in that regard. But if it does not, God will find other ways of communing with humankind. The whole history of the Scriptures is of God seeking and finding new ways to reach a people who often seem not to want to be reached. The Creator will never abandon his Creation.

Following is my most recent post from "Greenwood Grove," another blog I run:


Updates in a number of areas of life today, almost six months after my last one!

Yesterday (Saturday) I performed my first act as a newly-ordained Minister in The Nature Church of York, PA, and officiated at the wedding of two friends and fellow members of said Nature Church. A number of people asked me if I was nervous, and although I responded honestly, "yes, just a little," what really surprised me was how non-nervous I actually was. It felt... natural: just a particular manifestation of my general vocation to ministry, that I am finally able to live out.

My ordination in the Nature Church, which was coming up soon already, was accelerated slightly to enable me to officiate at the marriage of Shane and Traci - itself also accelerated, so that she could have an expensive dental procedure under his insurance. I was deeply honored and thrilled to have been asked to officiate!

And yes, this does mean that I am available to officiate at other weddings in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and probably other locations as well (although thus far I've only researched the requirements in MD and PA). So if you're looking for a wedding officiant, or know someone who is, feel free to contact me... I am also available to assist at other rites of passage, and to provide general spiritual guidance. Let me know if I can be of service!

In my previous post to this blog, I basically ruled out the likelihood of attending Sterling College for their year-long program in sustainable agriculture. I hope those words are tasty, 'cause I may be eating them! There are a number of reasons for this possible re-think, although some of the reasons why I thought that (including a painful and not fully functional right shoulder) remain in place.

I am currently in the process of taking the "Fundamentals of Human Physiology" prerequisite to Tai Sophia Institute's M.S. in Herbal Medicine, and my plans had been (and "officially" - e.g., until otherwise formally altered - remain) to start that program, the first and only fully-accredited graduate-level program in clinical herbalism in the U.S., this fall.

That was before I received my financial aid award letter. The short form is, $30,000 in student loans each of the three years the program requires means graduating with a student loan debt of $90,000. I don't think I can justify doing that, given an uncertain economy (to put it mildly) and the fact that an herbal practice would require being built from the ground up, and would take several years before being really remunerative.

Consequently, Sterling College is back in the mix. Adding to my inclination in that direction is C____, who when I broached the subject to her responded "I could hit you!" and reminded me that she'd been sad when I switched focus from farming to herbs! She also liked my "secret plan" of insinuating myself into the Sterling College community in hopes of eventually landing a teaching job there.

All of this probably will not occur this year: what I would be more likely to do would be to try to find more remunerative work, even if it's not in "my field," and save up some money (if possible), as well as get my condo in shape to be put on the market. Then, depending on whether I were to start the Sterling program in the summer or fall of next year, either next spring or mid-to-late summer I'd sell this place and move to Vermont with C____.

There we'd rent (unless I could land a place for both of us on campus) while I attended classes, and simultaneously look for our new place... a place where we could farm together, run an on-farm store to include not only the produce of our land, but also books, herbs, and related goods, and perhaps also offer sustainable-living classes and spiritual retreats. Who knows, maybe even wedding packages...?

That at least is the current plan! As the saying goes, "Want to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans for the future!" But this at least seems like a more workable plan than spending 3 years going nearly $100K (probably very close to it, with miscellaneous expenses) in debt. And it would also push up the date at which, if we're as compatible in person as we seem to be via long-distance, we can get "hitched" ourselves, and start to think about beginning a family...

What will happen next remains to be seen, but unless something fairly miraculous happens to generate non-loan funding for Tai Sophia, it appears that my journey leads north to Vermont, in the next year or so!


One thing is certain, and that is that I cannot continue at Cunningham Falls for much longer. Even if I were working there 40 hours/week, at $10.25/hour, it's still not enough to pay the bills. And since I'm usually working 32 hours/week, with an hour each way of commute added on to it, and taking a class, I don't have the opportunity to have a "side job." Unless I wanted to work all seven days each week, or a night shift on top of my day job! And that I simply can't do. I have enough trouble getting done all that needs to be done as it is. So I need to find something else, something more remunerative. And I hope I find it soon!
Well, the economy caught up with me. Spoutwood Farm Center, where I was employed (albeit part-time) as education coordinator, has let me go. Income has simply not been keeping up with expenses there, either. So if you're looking for, or know somewhere that's looking for, a guy who can write well, speak publically and not make a fool of himself, teach a wide range of subjects – especially natural and cultural history, sustainable agriculture, and some outdoor/primitive skills – and who is committed to caring for the Earth as well as all its inhabitants, human and otherwise, please let me know! Many thanks.  :-)

Back to the Primitive: One Seeker's Story

Back to the Primitive:

One Seeker’s Story

Tom Harbold

Childhood and Youth

I am a pre-Columbian artifact. That is to say, I grew up in the area of Howard County, Maryland, now occupied by Columbia, but in an older neighborhood: I grew up, not so much in, as surrounded by “the New City” of Columbia, a planned community which is a year or two younger than I am. Therefore, despite living within reasonable walking distance of Columbia Mall and the rest of Town Center, I also grew up surrounded by a lot of remaining forests and farms – now mostly gone, but then a vibrant part of the world in which I grew and learned and developed.
Read more... warning: LONG!Collapse )
As I look at myself, spending hours each day sitting in front of the computer, it’s not difficult to figure out what went wrong (ironically, of course, I must sit at my computer to write this essay). The trick is figuring out how to fix it. The obvious answer is to get up and out, to move, to break the pattern of a sedentary lifestyle. But it’s a little more complex than that: how to break it, or to put it another way, with what pattern to replace the sedentary pattern, is the issue. During my stint as an educator at the Carroll County Outdoor School, I was leading two if not three hikes a day, but that was the exception to the rule; when I was working three or more days a week in the field at Spoutwood Farm, I was burning calories, too, but now I’m in an administrative role, even there.

And I am not a “gym rat.” I have tried the gym route several times, and in fact my membership in the local “Y” is still active, but that is not me. I just cannot keep focus and motivation as one of the faceless herd, expending energy on machines that get you nowhere, accomplish nothing of intrinsic, tangible value. If I am going to walk or run or ride a bike (which, by the way, I never learned to do because while the other kids were riding bikes, I was hiking in the forest), I want to go somewhere, see something besides a TV screen or the sweating masses surrounding me. If I am going to lift a weight, I want it to be a rock or a log, preferably/ideally with some practical end in view. And I want it to be fun. Going to the gym is not my idea of fun!

Well, in September of last year – 2008 – I had a myocardial infarction: a heart attack. Thankfully, I realized quickly that something was wrong and got my sorry butt in to the emergency room! As a result, it was nipped in the bud, and my heart muscle itself escaped largely undamaged. However, I now sport two stents in my right coronary artery, and am on four medicines plus aspirin: Plavix, to thin the blood (minimum of a year after the stents were implanted, potentially for life), aspirin as mentioned (ditto), Metoprolol, for high blood pressure, Lisinopril, an ACE inhibitor, and Simvastatin, one of the highly controversial statin drugs, intended to lower cholesterol and combat inflammation leading to heart attacks. Ick. My cardiologist, despite medicating me to the gills, gave me some good advice, which I fully intended – still intend – to heed: looking at my over-weight, under-exercised self, he barked, “You’re a young man. Fix yourself!”

Well, I was a good kid, or as good as it’s in me to be: I really did try to eat a low-fat diet, cutting way back on the breakfast meats which I love so, and even on eggs – even the good, orange-yolked, high in beta carotene and omega-3 eggs I get from my friend Andrea’s free-range chickens; I attended cardiac rehab classes and then transitioned into the YMCA under a post-cardiac rehabilitation program. I lost some weight: not a lot, but some. And I started walking, around my neighborhood, and hiking, mostly at Hashawha Environmental Center – a lot. Still, despite lifting weights 2-3 times a week and doing 30-45 minutes of cardio each day, I could feel myself first plateau-ing and then, distressingly, beginning to come back up in weight.

Then came the day, about a month ago, maybe a bit more, when I was setting out for a hike at Hashawha. An instantaneous bad decision, a half-step, half-leap at a wooden step which turned out to be wet from recent rain… an explosion of pain in my ankle, and I was down and rolling. Thankfully, even in my damaged, disoriented, and out-of-practice state, my old martial arts training did not wholly desert me, and I fell as well as could be expected. But I lay there for a while, flexing various parts of my anatomy, before deciding that I probably could drag myself to my feet and hobble back to my truck. I inherited a good deal of plain old toughness, from both sides of my family.

I am still unclear on whether something actually broke, or whether it was just badly jammed, but it still swells after any significant activity – a long walk, much less a rigorous hike – now, more than a month after the event. And for several weeks it hurt to walk on it at all, especially on uneven ground. Needless to say, my activity level plummeted… and my weight rose. At my regularly-scheduled primary care doctor’s follow-up, he informed me that I had to get my weight down, and he was willing to be “creative” in how we managed that. He recommended a low-carb, low-sugar, high-protein diet, “relying on the statins to get the cholesterol down.” 

I’m not too crazy about that last, but I agreed completely that something needed to happen to drop my weight, and I’d sure rather do that in a diet which allows me to eat meat, eggs, and cheese than one where those things are anathema. He declined to give me specific guidance, other than noting somewhat noncommittally that the South Beach diet, which I mentioned, was a “safe” way to go about it. Instead, he gave me the freedom to do my own research. And that was the beginning of what I hope will prove to be a new phase of increasing health and strength in my life!

New Discoveries

The internet is a many-splendored place. Like a great wetland, it can get you mired in the much till it seems like the more you struggle to get free, the deeper you become imbedded. But it can also sometimes-startling, sometimes-wonderful new discoveries. My researches, since being sent on this quest by my doctor, have led me to three closely inter-locking concept-programs that make wonderful intuitive sense to me, given my proclivities from youth up. They are the Primal Blueprint, Exuberant Animal, and barefooting, as exemplified by Walking Mountain.

Getting Primal Once Again

The Primal Blueprint is a lifestyle more than a diet: conceptualized by Mark Sisson, he claims it will “reprogram your genes for effortless wight loss, vibrant health, and boundless energy.” I cannot but take that “effortless” with a grain of salt, unless or until proven otherwise, but on the whole, I like the projected outcomes… and more than that, I like the process. After discussing “The Original Primal Blueprint – Rules of Living 10,000 Years Ago” (the “poster child” for the PB is a notional “caveman” named Grok: a word which interestingly enough means “to intuitively graps the essence of something” in the “Martian” of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land), Sisson goes on to provide a very logical, rational, and extremely holistic/comprehensive “Modern Primal Blueprint – The Rules of Living Today”:

1. Eat lots of animals, insects and plants.

Focus on quality sources of protein (all forms of meat, fowl, fish), lots of colorful vegetables, some select fruits (mostly berries), and healthy fats (nuts, avocados, olive oil). Observe portion control (calorie distribution) week to week more than meal to meal. Eliminate grains, sugars, trans- and hydrogenated fats from your diet.

2. Move around a lot at a slow pace.

Do some form of low level aerobic activity 2-5 hours a week, whether it is walking, hiking, easy bike riding or swimming. Ideally, and when possible, find time to go barefoot or wear as little foot support as possible. Low-level activity is necessary (especially if you find yourself chained to a desk every day). The combined effect will be an increase in capillary perfusion, fat-burning and overall integration of muscle strength and flexibility.

3. Lift heavy things.

Go to the gym and lift weights for 30-45 minutes, 2-3 times a week. Focus on movements that involve the entire body and in wider ranges of motion – not just on isolating body parts. Emulate the movements of our ancestors: jumping, squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling, twisting, etc. This will stimulate your genes to increase muscle strength and power, increase bone density, improve insulin sensitivity, stimulate growth hormone secretion, and consume stored body fat.

4. Run really fast every once in a while.

Do some form of intense anaerobic sprint bursts several times a week. This could be as simple as six or eight (or more) short sprints up a hill, on the grass, at the beach… or repeated intense sessions on a bicycle (stationary, road or mountain bike). These short bursts also increase HGH release (HGH is actually released in proportion to the intensity (not the duration) of the exercise).

5. Get lots of sleep.

Get plenty of quality sleep. Our lives are so hectic and full of things to do after the sun goes down that it’s often difficult to get enough sleep. Yet sleep is one of the most important factors in maintaining good health, vibrant energy and a strong immune system.

6. Play.

Spend some time each week involved in active play. In addition to allowing you to apply your fitness to a real-life situation, play helps dissipate some of the negative effects of the chronic stress hormones you’ve been accumulating through the week.

7. Get some sunlight every day.

Contrary to the “Common Wisdom” dispensed by dermatologists (who suggest you shun the sun), the Primal Blueprint would insist that you get some direct sunlight every day. Certainly not so much that you come close to burning, but definitely enough to prompt your body to make the all-important vitamin D and to support the mood-lifting benefits. A slight tan is a good indicator that you have maintained adequate Vitamin D levels. Natural sunlight also has a powerful mood-elevating effect, which can enhance productivity at work and in inter-personal interactions.

8. Avoid trauma.

Eliminate self-destructive behaviors. These concepts are self evident to most people (wear seat belts, don’t smoke or do drugs, don’t dive into shallow water) yet so many of us live our lives oblivious to impending danger. Develop a keen sense of awareness of your surroundings.

9. Avoid poisonous things.

Avoid exposure to chemical toxins in your food (pesticides, herbicides, chemicals, etc) and on your skin. But also try to avoid the hidden poisons in foods like sugars, grains, processed foods, trans and hydrogenated fats, and mercury in certain fish.

10. Use your mind.

Exercise your brain daily as our ancestors did. Be inventive, creative, and aware. If your work is not stimulating (or even if it is), find time to read, write, play an instrument and interact socially.

As with the Original Primal Blueprint, this list is very general, designed simply to allow you to understand that everything our ancestors did can benefit us as well. Except that we can do it having fun, enjoying every aspect of the lifestyle and without worrying about our survival! In future blog posts (and to a much greater extent in my book) I will be going into much more detail as to how and why these behaviors work and exactly what foods to eat, what exercises to do and how to otherwise find ways to allow your genes to recreate you in the healthiest, fittest way possible.

There are some of these that I’m not quite ready for yet… I’m out of practice lifting heavy things, and my injured ankle is not up to sprinting, by foot at least, at this point. But in general, these are simple, common-sense things that anyone can do – and the dietary portion is one that is appealing, that I think I can actually stick with on an extended, hopefully lifetime, basis. As much as I like chocolate chip cookies, brownies, and fresh-baked bread, not to mention tortilla chips and mashed potatoes, if there’s one category of foods that I can eliminate from my diet without undue angst, it’s starches. As long as I can have my meat and eggs, I’ll willingly ditch the potatoes, pasta, and bread. And, as I say, this diet is only part of an overall holistic, comprehensive plan for living a good, healthy, and low-stress life.

Return to Exuberance

It was while perusing the forum on “Mark’s Daily Apple” website, the site dedicated to the Primal Blueprint, that I came across a reference to an “Animal Stick,” a rustic aid to exercise consisting of a hand-carved wooden staff with a large rock tied to one end. This deceptively simple tool led me to “Exuberant Animal,” which is what this website, concept, and program suggest that humans by nature are and ought to be. Sporting slogans like “Change your body, change the world,” and “Play as if your life depends on it,” not to mention cool graphics like the one above, Exuberant Animal is the creation of Frank Forencich, and

“is both a philosophy and an organization. As a philosophy, we promote health, positive physicality and physical happiness. As a company, we offer seminars, workshops and training for individuals and organizations. Our training events are suitable for a broad range of individuals and abilities: from beginner-exuberants to body professionals.”

Exuberant Animal also offers “The Antidote: Proven counter-measures to the challenge of the modern world.”

In a age when conventional medical solutions are failing all around us, it’s time for practical action and preventive care. The human body is in a state of crisis. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and depression are at epidemic levels.

Our bodies evolved over the course of millions of years, much of that time on the semi-wooded grasslands of East Africa. We are well-suited to a life of vigorous movement in natural surroundings. But now, our bodies are challenged by the demands of the modern world: sedentary living, fake foods and chronic stress are taking a tremendous toll.

The Antidote is a set of general principles for healthy living that will increase your vitality, health and exuberance.

Here it is: 

That this is immediately and inherently compatible and complementary with the Primal Blueprint is obvious from even a cursory glance! The Primal Blueprint says “Play,” while Exuberant Animal teaches how, with a whole series of games which, the site points out, are

not only fun, they are extremely valuable for building community and physical vitality. These games are highly adjustable and are suitable for a wide range of participants, from children to world-class athletes.

Our games provide a host of fitness benefits that you’d expect to find in a gym; the difference is that they’re fun. These games build muscular strength, endurance and physical intelligence. Not only that, these games are specifically designed to promote core strength and total-body integration. You’ll laugh and sweat your way to improved fitness.

That suits me, I’d far rather laugh and sweat my way to improved fitness as an “exuberant animal” than I would grit my teeth and sweat my way to it, as a human gerbil on a wheel in the gym, mindlessly running like crazy to stay in the same place on a treadmill (ironic how apt are the connotations evoked by that word!) or elliptical. One of the training tools used in Exuberant Animal is, of course, the “Animal Stick” referenced earlier: a primal tool if ever there was one!

Walking Like A Mountain

One of the trainers and spokesmen for Exuberant Animal is Mick Dodge, also known as “the Barefoot Sensei” (sometimes the “Barefoot Bard”). One of the few who truly, and literally, walks his talk, Mick brought his feet – and his soul – back to health through walking and running barefoot. He is currently on a 1,000 mile walk to bring “The Antidote” (printed on cards, but also as a living concept he himself embodies) to people and places throughout the Pacific Northwest. He is also the driving force behind Walking Mountain yoga, a form of yoga immersed in the natural, the outdoors – the Earth.

Walking Mountain offers a movement practice and personal quests that create a powerful connection with the earth and its creatures. The Walking Mountain tribe inspires and supports people to rediscover the wild in themselves; to connect with wild nature; and to bring wisdom back into the community...

This physical practice focuses on the body while exploring, cultivating, and developing the integration of eight sensory roots of touch.

In current cultural society we have been cut off from this tactile stimulation and this affects our story's walking and talking posture. With walking mountain yoga practices, you will ignite your motivation and desire through movement in DANCING WITH THE FIRE, build endurance through breath work with QUESTING WITH THE WIND, develop strength disciplines in order to ground into the core of the body as you EMBRACE INTO STONE. Learning balance, pose, stretching with root and branch postures. Training in tree pose with the trees, mountain pose with the mountain, grounding into the root of alignment with your seven sacred tones or chakras as we BALANCE AS THE FLOW WITHIN. Through strength, disciplines, postures, breath and movement your mind, body, and spirit will integrate into a complete alignment. This practice is fun, it is simple though challenging, it is rewarding, and life changing for those who want to remember their strength and freedom and where it all began.

Walking Mountain yoga uses not only poses – in the outdoors, and barefoot, wherever possible – but also staves (staffs), sturdy ropes or 2” wide strong cotton straps with hand-holds (to enable tree-walking and hanging), and stones as part of their practice, and roots the whole thing in natural walking postures:

•    STEP IN OR STEP ON: Getting a feel for the natural and cultural walking postures
•    DANCE WALKING: Awakening the dance in your walk
•    WALKING THE CHAKRAS: Walking the senses into alignment with the chakras
•    WALKING TO MAKE SENSE - THE QUEST: Rediscovering sensory contact with the land

There are direct implications for me in this concept of barefooting. For one thing, if I had been hiking barefoot – or with barefoot awareness, at the very least – during that fateful hike at Hashawha, I would not now be dealing with a damaged ankle: it would never have occurred to me that I could slam my full 250+ lbs weight down on one foot-heel-ankle, with the added momentum of a downslope added in, and not do damage. That’s avoiding stupidity (or in PB terms, “avoiding trauma”). On a more positive and hopeful note, I have heard that barefooting corrects the postural problems that lead to lower back pain: a recurrent issue of mine. And hopefully it will help to rebuild strength in my ankles, both the recently-damaged right one and the left. Not to mention help me in my constant quest for connection with the Earth herself!

Once again, the connection between and among these disciplines, programs, concepts, and practices is or ought to be self-evident. One challenge is that of the three, two – Exuberant Animal and Walking Mountain – are based in the Pacific Northwest. But they do seem to have practitioners and teachers in other areas of the country, my own included: thanks to the prompt and personal intervention of Frank Forencich himself, I am in contact with two “Exuberants” living in this area, one in Fairfax, Virginia, and the other less than an hour away from me near Baltimore.

But what I like best about these programs is not only that they’re complementary and compatible, but that they’re all primal. That is what my heart is telling me I need to get back to: the ways of my own youth, and the ways of the youth of the human animal, before we were civilized and urbanized to within an inch of our lives, sometimes literally. I need to be not only eating primally,  but I need to be out on the Earth with my shoes off, learning to walk again, playing energetically with sticks and stones and cordage straps, letting my body recalibrate, inside and out, to life the way our primal, paleo ancestors lived. The sedentary, indoor, civilized life is killing us – is killing me, and I do not wish to die.

Furthermore, they’re all fun! There’s no grim, do-or-die, no-pain-no-gain, my-way-or-the-highway attitude in any of these. I’m not sure that it’s possible to be primal and remain grim, based on what I’ve come to learn, over the years and decades, about primal peoples. They had, and have, a realistic attitude about life, but despite or perhaps because of that, both Grok and his modern-day descendants also had and have an attitude of joy, of wonder, of playful exuberance. And I’m pretty certain it’s not possible to go barefoot on the Earth and remain grim (as long as you’re careful not to step on too many sharp rocks)… the Earth herself flows her spirit into you, literally from the ground up, and brings happiness and release from stress.

The three inter-related concepts I’ve discussed above are all about living life in health and in joy, and that suits me just fine. I wish to live, and to live exuberantly, primally, and freely on this Earth, in health, in balance, and in joy. So may it be!
This essay appeared as my weekly column in the Carroll County Times on Tuesday, April 14th, 2009.

The public persona of the Obama administration is to assert that there’s been a change in Washington, as the new President jets around Europe, Turkey, and the Mideast, burnishing America’s tarnished reputation abroad. His actions on the economic front may be debated by pundits and taxpayers from Wall Street to Main Street, but at least no one can claim that he’s sitting by and doing nothing while the economy crumbles. And the capture of Merchant Marine Captain Richard Phillips by pirates and his subsequent rescue by Navy SEALs conveniently provided Obama a chance at a minor but photogenic military victory early in his presidency.
Out of sight of the cameras, though, the new Obama administration has been behaving in a way that makes the Bush administration look like a model of freedom and openness. I am talking about Jewel vs NSA, litigation by the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) against the National Security Agency for the warrantless wiretapping of what the EFF calls “countless Americans.” Most will remember the furor that was raised when the Bush administration was caught illegally spying on Americans by using the powerful and super-secret NSA to conduct warrantless electronic surveillance.
According to the EFF website, the Obama administration is going beyond anything ever claimed by the Bush White House. Like the Bush team, Obama’s lawyers are arguing that the very case itself represents a risk to national security and should be thrown out. This, the website points out, “is a blatant ploy to dismiss the litigation without allowing the courts to consider the evidence.” This, after then-candidate Senator Obama blasted the Bush administration for “invoking a legal tool known as the 'state secrets' privilege more than any other previous administration to get cases thrown out of civil court.” Now that the ball is in Obama’s court, that exactly what he’s doing.
But the Obama legal team is going further yet. The EFF points out that Obama’s Department of Justice (DOJ) claims that the U.S. Government is completely immune from litigation for illegal spying – that the Government can never be sued for surveillance that violates federal privacy statutes. That is a truly frightening claim. Let me repeat that: the U.S. Government is claiming that it can never be sued for surveillance, even if that surveillance violates federal privacy laws. That is breathtaking in its implications.
Under the Bush administration, the Justice Department claimed that it possessed “sovereign immunity” from suit for electronic surveillance that was illegal under the FISA statutes (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act). Now the Obama Justice Department has added the Wiretap Act and the Stored Communications Act as statutes which it can effectively ignore at will, with no penalty, using the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act as its justification. Essentially, the EFF points out, the Obama Adminstration has claimed that the government cannot be held accountable for illegal surveillance under any federal statute. That’s another way of saying they cannot be held accountable, period: an arrogant and un-Constitutional assertion that the government is above the law.
I, for one, was counting on President Obama to follow through on the promises made by candidate Obama: to clean up abuses of executive power, to engage in transparent and accountable governance, to reform the PATRIOT Act, to free American citizens from the specter of warrantless (and therefore illegal) surveillance, and in general to reign in the power-hungriness that characterized the Bush White House. That would have been, as the campaign slogan put it, “change we can believe in.” Instead, Obama’s DOJ is making claims for executive power and prestige, under cover of the PATRIOT Act, that even the Bush administration never dared make. This is change for the worse.
One advantage to not knowing what to expect is that you go in with no preconceptions. That was this case this weekend, as I headed down to the Gaia Healing Center in Mount Airy, Maryland, for “The Way of the Shaman: Basic Workshop,” the 2-day initial and prerequisite class for Michael Harner’s “Core Shamanism” program. The class is subtitled, “Shamanic Journeying, Power, and Healing,” and core shamanism itself is described as “the universal or near-universal principles and practices of shamanism not bound to any specific cultural group or perspective, as originated, researched, and developed by Michael Harner.”

Before I get started on the workshop itself, I suppose I should take a few moments and address some of the issues that come up whenever one begins to discuss the subject of shamanism.

The first has to do with the issue of cultural expropriation: that is to say, of Westerners “stealing” elements indigenous practice, particularly when they are then offering this “native wisdom” for pay. My understanding is that Harner has received the permission of the primal peoples with whom he has worked to share this knowledge. Some of them believe that it’s essential that this information and training gets out to the wider world, which, they believe (with some justification!) needs it desperately. Or, with respect to information garnered from other, earlier scholars such as Mircea Eliade, the information is already “in the public domain,” as it were. The fact that core shamanism emphasizes “universal or near-universal principles and practices” is further insurance against any the cultural expropriation of particular indigenous peoples.

Others would go even further and suggest that since the word “shaman” is from the Tungus tribe (a member of the Finno-Ugric language group, closely related to the Saami, or “Lapplander” peoples, and part of the circumpolar cultural complex), no one who isn’t Tungus should use the word. Well, no one who’s not using Kleenex®-brand tissues should ask for a Kleenex, either, but an awful lot of people do. The fact is that certain words become common parlance because they are useful in getting an idea across. The word “shaman,” and the constructed term “shamanism,” have become such words.

There is a certain “toolbox” of common techniques relating to spirit communication and journeying, trance-induction through drumming, healing and accomplishing other desired purposes through alliance with certain animal and other spirits, and so on, that are “universal or near-universal” among a particular type of primal peoples. These peoples, whether they are Tungus, Saami, Huichol or Amazonian Indians, or whoever it might be, recognize each other’s traditions and techniques as being basically similar in function, even if different in cultural context. A hammer is still a hammer, whether it’s being used by me, or someone in Europe, Africa, or Asia.

Finally, there is the question of who is a shaman. The Harner folks teach that no one in his or her right mind would call him/herself a shaman. Even many indigenous shamans of long practice don’t. The tale was told of one such elder, 93 years of age, who has been practicing shamanism for more than 70 years, addressing the spirits as, “I am not a shaman, I am just a man asking you for help with my friend, here…” That is indicative of a deep and appropriate humility. At most, one may be a shamanic practitioner, or a student of shamanism. The title “shaman” is one to be given, or withheld, by the recipients of one’s efforts. The proof of the pudding is in the eating… the proof of the shaman is in the, shall we say, shamanizing.

These preliminaries out of the way, the next post (or series of posts) will deal with my experiences during the weekend itself.

Recent visits to Hashawha

Recent days – by which I mean, mostly yesterday and today – have finally turned toward the pleasant. After a remarkably raw beginning to April, it finally appears that Spring has sprung after all! Certainly the Spring Peepers think so, trilling vigorously, even vehemently, from their wetland homes on the far side of the parking lot from my condo. I visited them yesterday, and enjoyed the first (careful) bog-slog I've had quite some time.

Later that evening, around sunset, I ventured forth to Hashawha, my old stomping grounds from my Outdoor School days, and both before and after. It's frustrating to me that it's now a half-hour's drive out there, which means it not only takes a good bit of time, but uses a fair amount of gas to get to it, but it's still well worth visiting. Although the understory is beginning to leaf out a bit, the trees are still in bud, and the evening sky through their branches is a study in line-drawing it would take a skilled artist to match, if indeed he or she could.

Gazing westward into the sunset's afterglow, I saw movement on one of those branches in the middle distance, which resolved itself into a squirrel, tail flicking as it worked its way down the branch. Lying back on the wooden bench, I relaxed into the evening, enjoying the night-noises of small furtive creatures scurrying and scuttering about in the leaf-litter and, shortly before dark, a pair of Canada geese honking their way in to a nosiy, splashy touch-down on what I call the Wood-Duck Pond. As the first star appeared through the tracery of branches, I decided it was time to return to my car, and as I hiked back to it, was treated to the squalling bark of a fox off in the distance.

This afternoon I returned to Hashawha, in part to experience some areas of the place I hadn't visited in a while, but also with the specific intention of finding the "grapefruit-sized rock" I am supposed to bring to the shamanic workshop tomorrow. On my way to the area of Bear Branch stream where I hoped to find such a rock, I crossed the boardwalk between the created wetland and (also-created, and rather grandly named) Lake Hashawha. On the way, I enjoyed the croak of bullfrogs – still somewhat half-hearted, or perhaps they're just young frogs, this early in the season – and the liquid, warbling "konk-kereee" of Redwing Blackbirds.

I was particularly excited to see evidence of recent repairs to the beaver lodge nestled against the shoreline: fresh-cut sticks, some with the leaves still on them, others carefully de-barked by the industrious aquatic rodents, and nearby, the sites of those cuttings among the shoreline bushes. I am quite fond of beavers, having had the chance to study them "up close and personal" as both an educator at the Outdoor School (at Hashawha) and naturalist at Piney Run, so I am very glad to see that they're back in the area. I've missed them, these last few years!

Continuing on the section of stream I had planned to visit, I was somewhat startled to find a suitable rock sitting in the middle of the stream, all by itself, as if waiting for me. I am quite serious about this! Here I had come with every expectation of searching long and diligently for the perfect rock, and and here it was presenting itself to me at first glance. In an obscure sort of way, I felt almost let down! But neither was I about to refuse an obvious gift of the spirits... I did, however, decide to carry it about with me as I continued to look – perhaps not as whole-heartedly as I might otherwise have done – for possible alternatives.

Before long, thought, it was quite obvious that this was the one, fitting into my hands quite perfectly and all but vibrating with companionable energy. So, I did a short, impromptu ritual, thanking Mother Earth, Father Sky, the spirits of the stream and woods, and this particular representative of the Stone People its (her?) self for coming to me, and assuring them that I would use the rock respectfully, as a partner in my shamanic journey. I pushed three copper coins (pennies) down into the earth at the foot of a nearby tree as a thank-offering, and then, on impulse, as I cross the stream, paused to shape some of the stream-bank clay into an oval form with eyes and a smiling mouth, and left the manikin-head on a rock above the normal level of the stream: symbolically leaving a representation of myself, as well as a creative offering, at or near the place I had taken the rock.

On the way back across the boardwalk, I paused at the beaver lodge to carefully lift away one of the de-barked sticks, again with apologies and thanks, and left the offering of a coin (a quarter, as I had exhausted my small stock of pennies) in thanks to the beavers. This tooth-marked stick, or part of it, will become the handle of my rattle when I make it, in lieu of the stick included, so that I am putting something of myself and of this place – this segment of Turtle Island, known to its human inhabitants as Carroll County – into that rattle.

As I walked back to my Blazer with my two newest prize possessions, my rock and my stick, I felt a deep sense of peace and serenity, a sense which accompanied me all the way home. Its vestiges remain, even now... I am quite comfortably sure that attending the workshop tomorrow is the right thing to do, and I am very pleased with my preparations: a combination walking meditation and ritual, along with the attention of all my senses – inner and outer – directed to the natural world, to the specific place in which I was "on walkabout," and to the heart of Mother Earth. It was the right thing to do, the right place and time to do it, and I am grateful to, as the Lakota say, "all my relations," and to the Great Mystery of all life, for their presence with me and gifts to me today.

Daily Ogham: Thursday, April 16, 2009

I've decided that for my ordinary daily readings I shall draw a single few as an omen for the day, and guide for the immediate future, reserving the more detailed three-few reading for weekly guidance. Today I drew Ailim, which can represent either Elm or Silver Fir, depending on the interpretation (I should note that the physical few provided by Spirit of Old looks much more like a branch of fir, to me, than a branch of elm).

The Druidry Handbook has this to say about that few:

Ailim (upright):  Insight, transformation, expanded awareness; change for the better; the ability to see things in perspective; peak experiences, dreams and visions.

Another table of meanings elaborates as follows:

Ailim/Silver Fir:  Fir is a very tall slender tree that grows in mountainous regions on the upper slopes. Fir cones respond to rain by closing and sun by opening. Fir can see over great distance to the far horizon beyond and below. Fir indicates high views and long sights with clear vision of what is beyond and yet to come.
Physical:  In this issue you can see what is beyond and what is coming. You have the perception to see and to understand from the point where you stand. Take long view point and foresee the future.
Mental:  Receive from the past and present strength and healing from which to draw insight and knowledge for your future.
Spiritual:  Be aware of your progress on your spiritual voyage.

At the moment, I have to confess, I do not feel all that far-sighted! But this is an encouraging drawing, nonetheless. I shall strive to make my choices and decisions worthy of that which has been drawn.

I’m sure everyone by now has heard of “sexting,” in which high school (and sometimes middle school) teens send each other racy or explicit pictures of themselves via cell-phone cameras. Apparently Vermont was considering prosecuting such offenders under child pornography laws, resulting in lifetime listing on the state’s internet sex offender registry. I hope I’m not the only one who finds this an absurdly excessive and draconian response to what is, after all, basically kids fooling around!

Fortunately, legislation newly passed by the Vermont state Senate and pending in the House would remove the most serious legal consequences for teenagers who engage in sexting. 13-to-18-year-olds who engage in sending or receiving such messages would be exempt from prosecution for child pornography, so long as the image transmitted was of the individual him- or herself. However, the bill would not legalize sexting. Offenders would still be liable to prosecution under laws regarding lewd and lascivious conduct, and against disseminating indecent materials to a minor, according to news reports.

I would hope that prosecutors use caution and discretion in leveling even such charges against teens, especially those on the younger end of the spectrum. It’s not that I support sexting, or would like to think of (for example) my 14-year-old niece engaging in the practice! But neither do I think that every activity that I think is unwise or even wrong should be prosecuted under the law. Provided that, as Vermont points out, the images are limited to the individuals in question, this is a personal and moral issue, not a public and legal one. Such issues are better handled by grounding and removal of cell phone privileges than through legal actions.



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