Jamie Black as a child in nature: An autobiography.
“Why can’t we build a fire here?” I would ask mom.
“Good question!” she would reply, and then provide space for hands-on learning to ingrain the awareness and the knowing that my actions have consequences, and that nature needs to be protected. Being nature aware is second nature to me because it was ingrained into my psyche through years of learning by doing and fun with a purpose in the outdoors. As I grew up mastering the skill of lighting a fire, I never imagined that I would get paid to teach this basic skill of survival to thousands of children who were deprived of this fascinating experience.
With a passion for nature, and years of experience sharing basic skills of wilderness survival, I see a correlation between what children need to know, and what society is allowing children to experience. What surprises me the most, is that most children don’t even know how to strike a match. I remember being five years old, when my mother was clearing the old stumps and debris on our property, and while she had a large bonfire roaring nearby, we were allowed to start our own mini fires. This leads me to wonder why don’t more children have the experience and skill to light a fire and sustain it, for warmth and safety, igniting a flame of curiosity and reverence? Are people afraid of nature, or of themselves?
My hope is that the children of tomorrow are allowed to freely play and explore nature in all it’s wonders. I hope that they develop a genuine appreciation and awareness of the natural environment through guided discovery and fun with a purpose. My hope is that children and families experience the rapture of being in nature for multiple days at a time. That the children are encouraged to roam, explore and play freely, the way I was raised. I have a vision that children will be nature aware. In that vision, I see myself supporting more children to get out into nature, and develop a true love for nature so that they will take care of it.
For the first two years of my life I lived in a tent. Yes, that’s right, a tent. It was four walls of clear plastic and an orange tarp over our heads. I lived with my mom, dad, sister who is two years older than me, and our dog Chevy. This is one of my favorite things to tell people about me. “Yes, a tent, for two years, all through the winters too!” I love the looks on their faces, and the responses they make.
I was born at 3am, on March 27, 1982 in rural 100 Mile House, BC, where most of my relatives currently live. I then moved to Vancouver Island by the time I was just three
weeks old, into the “Plastic Palace.” 100 Mile House is a wonderful place to be from, and yet it wasn’t until I grew older that I came to appreciate this raw natural environment that carved the character that I have become. Shortly after the Plastic Palace at the base of Little Mountain in Errington, we built our own log home.
Once we sold that place and my parents separated, we moved to a little piece of farm land in Qualicum Beach, BC. This is where I was raised and went through my schooling from grade three until graduation.
I asked my mother if we could look through her old photo album just recently, to help reflect on why I am the way that I am, and what is the source of my motivation. It was such a wonderful bonding moment, sharing memories and reflecting on our perspectives of our lives back then. Recognizing how much we have changed, and yet how we still have little idiosyncrasies that stick with us throughout our lives, like my gusto, and my need for attention and drama.
I have been known to be cheerful and optimistic, and have the Aries qualities of being spontaneous and adventurous. I am full of ideas, and love to make a difference in the world. I thrive in acknowledgement, and have a driving need for drama in my life. It reflects not only by the things that I do, but what I wear, and by my love for public speaking, singing and performing in front of large crowds (a trait that I did not inherit from my mother.)
I love to be in nature, and challenge myself. I am competitive, but I don’t care about the end result. Maybe it is the rush of the race, to reach my personal best, or the exciting feeling I get while being challenged.
I have been on or near the ocean for most of my life, and have fond memories of Toquart Bay near Tofino, BC.
This is a place where our family and close friends made a living off of oyster picking. My most fond memories of oyster picking was when we would ride in the boat, watching and hearing the waves frothing against the edge of the boat. I loved the wind in my hair and the smile on my family’s faces. Once I really understood my surroundings, I was awestruck by the humpback whales, dolphins and other marine life that crossed our path.
Night time was another particular favorite. Star gazing and challenging our senses. Then we would shine our flashlight in the trees and scare ourselves with all of the night eyes that were looking at us, scaring me so bad that I would nearly pee my pants. I was okay if I had someone else with me, but if I was alone I would get too scared and run back to mommy. I also learned from the night creatures that I had to keep my favorite snacks locked up in the cooler, or else the raccoons would snatch them right out of our campsite. I learned the hard way never to leave my food out again.
I am a very visual and kinesthetic learning. I can remember riding in the big metal skiff and be excited about the feeling and sound of the boat as it crashed and banged with every wave we hit. What I remember most is the wind in my hair, the salty sea air, the smile on moms face and climbing around on the barnacled rocks at the beaches. It was my job, when I was really little, to pick crabs and eat them… dead or alive.
Eventually when I got older, I gained a deep appreciation for animals. I found a spiritual connection with them from afar, and when they gave their lives to feed our family. Catching a fish, watched it being killed, then cleaning it was a visceral experience of self preservation, and honoring life and death. Feeling flabbergasted that we could catch a fish and then eat it that very same day, without having to go to the store truly made me appreciate the privilege of living in BC. We lived the phrase, “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” (Karl Marx)
Nearly every Christmas for as long as I can remember, my sister and mother and I drive for 11 hours to get to moose country, and the dry snowy climate of Grandma and Grampa’s house in 100 Mile House. It is like a gingerbread house on the top of 100 acres of rolling white snowy hills. I cherish the familiar act of getting out of the car after long hours of heat and air conditioning and having our nose hairs instantly cling to the insides of our nostrils from the dry, icy cold. The warm welcome of these annual relatives with cheers and stories warm my heart every year and give me something to look forward to. Bridge Lake is Mommy’s home town. She would tell stories of how they would play Cowboys and Indians. She would ride bareback on her horse, and they would collect salal leaves for pretend money, with forts and dungeons built across the countryside and play outside from dawn until dusk. The only rule was when they heard the dinner bell ring, they had to come home to eat. This was how we were raised with tree forts, dungeons and hours of free play outside, she would say.
One of my favorite stories about my mother’s up-bringing, is the one of my grandfather telling my mother and siblings that if they could start the engine to the motorboat, then they could use it on the lake. One day they got it running and they drove that boat all the way to the other side of the lake, little did they know that they needed gas, and when the engine ran out of gas, they had to row their boat all the way back home. I can just imagine Grandad chuckling to himself while watching them learn by doing, and you can bet that they never let that happen again! This story of my mother’s own experience in the wilderness is a good example of where she learned to parent me with her “Guided Discovery” approach. This very hands-off approach using words like “Good luck with that!” or “Good question!” without an answer, or saying “I don’t know?” even if she did know. What ever happened to this style of parenting? I wonder why this “learn-by-doing” approach is lost? What ever happened to natural consequences? What can I do to bring this back? I hear many people, especially my elders, tell me that this was how they grew up. Now children are too scared to go outside. Why?
In my life, mom was always there to save us from life threatening situations and yet allowed the bumps and bruises that it takes to learn how to navigate through life efficiently and effectively. This is where we would learn skills like problem solving, taking initiative, and decision making. Quite often I found myself left to my own devices to play “wilderness survival.” To thrive and use my imagination in the wild was such a breath of fresh air. I wonder how many children get that kind of experience these days?
My hope is that more and more children are exposed to the elements of nature, having to survive in tents for more than one night, and truly stay connected to nature, guided in a world of discovery and imagination. I find it such a privilege to be teaching wilderness survival; showing children how to strike a match, start a fire and how to keep it going. Now it’s only a matter of when this spark will be fueled and it spreads like a wild fire.
written for her Masters of Arts in Environmental Education and Communication at Royal Roads University in Victoria BC