EPNA Interview #2: Tony Deis, Trackers Earth

This is a new series of posts in which I interview Portland personalities that are making a difference in connecting children of this region to nature. Richard Louv, the premier voice in the children and nature movement, has written several times about our natureful city. In Last Child in the Woods, he remarked on Portland’s Greenspaces program’s “call for the creation of a regional system of parks, natural areas, greenways, and trails for both wildlife and people;” PSU students’ research on possible greenroof design in downtown; and the 40-Mile Loop. In The Nature Principle, Louv commented on research in Portland on the health benefits of nature (outdoor “prescriptions”); profiled a teacher who worked as an assistant for a study of small mammals in an urban green space (Marshall Park); described Mike Houck’s work to make room for nature in a big city at a time when the consensus was that nature and wildlife were elsewhere, not within where people dwell; and how the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge provides access to nature via the bus system. There are other mentions of Portland, too. Patrick, Catherine, and I feel lucky to live in a city that values what the Earth gives to it. Moreover, we feel privileged to share this city with folks who strive to not only instill a love of nature into its citizens’ minds and hearts, but in providing better access to that nature.

Please contact me at darwinsbulldog@gmail.com if you have a suggestion for someone to be interviewed for this series.

Today I talk to Tony Deis, an unconvential environmental educator, the brains behind Trackers Earth.

Hi Tony, welcome to Exploring Portland’s Natural Areas. Would you please share with us your background – education, jobs, etc. that relate to nature in some way? (all camp images courtesy Trackers Earth)

Ha, unconventional. Yes and… Actually my life in outdoor and environmental education has been a mix of unconventional and conventional experience. I’ve been a professional outdoor educator for over 20 years. Yet it begins before that, with my first year in high school.

I was a high achieving student but my self-righteous morality couldn’t reconcile how the public school system treated students. Some might say I dropped out of Rex Putnam High School (in Clackamas County), I claim that I rose out.

It came after reading Walden. Sure Thoreau was a little full of himself, and I’m not necessarily a soybean crop fan, but his ethos was so compelling to a teenager, who just sensed something was wrong with the modern world and the insanity of these four-walled temples of learning. And to boot, I always wanted to be a Jedi-Ninja-Monk, so escape to the wilderness and asceticism was definitely appealing to 15-year old me. Thus I blame Star Wars for my crazy life.

After I “rose” out of high school (sorry professional educators), the wilderness did a pretty awesome job of teaching me. Though I got to give my own parents credit. Irish-German and Italien Catholic somewhat conservative folks who said, “Sure, go figure out. We think the system lacks heart too.” They greatly supported my experimentation and searching through alternative forms of learning.

But my path was not “nature connection”, it was more “nature red in tooth and claw.” And I reveled in that. As a teenager I set about solo wandering the wilderness for hundreds and hundreds of miles. This was back before the internets, so I had to look everything up a Powell’s books and the Milwaukie Public library. I’m surprised and quite elated I never died on those first “expeditions” (except of that one time when I did die… but I got better).

As to how I got here today? Well, as an adolescent carrying a heavy backpack on week long wilderness trips, I was always looking for a better way (translation: lighter). I saw the ineffable lost and ancient skill set of “wilderness survival” as my portal into a whole new connection with the wild world. I tried taking a couple courses from outdoor schools but they never fit my idealistic “Jedi” view of what was possible.

I gleaned what I could from books and purported experts, but in the long run, it was really the wilderness that taught me (that and goofing around in the woods with my good friend David Jacobson, THE best animal tracker on the west coast).

After all these adolescent years sojourning, pilgrimaging and escaping to the Cascade Mountains and any pocket of greenspace I could find in SE Portland, my folks eventually thought it would be a good idea to obtain some form of gainful employment. At this point the only thing I knew about was the woods, gardening and comic books. The only real job such as person could get was a seasonal outdoor and camp educator. Or comic book shop guy.

The rest became another wake-up call. Me, the original high school drop-out (rise out) was now walking on the fringes of the educational system. I was not that much older than the youth and teens I worked with. I sensed a stark dichotomy to how I taught myself in the wilds and the pre-programmed science based curriculum I was expected to implement.

Innately I felt many degrees of both freedom and excellence were missing. In my role as teacher the field expected me to monkey a bureaucrat park manager, activist, children’s show host or wildlife biologist. I instead craved an odd mix of Thoreau and Obi Wan Kenobi.

Of course I am intentionally weaving this tale into the hyperbole of my teenage angst (stories a big part of any good education style). I believe many of the outdoor education organizations I first worked and sometimes volunteered were leading for their time.

Nevertheless, back then environmental education was pushing to become science education. I wanted outdoor ed to be as real as I felt when walking mountain ridge lines hundreds of miles with minimal gear (or none). I wanted it to be about finding yourself in the rite of passages where you face little deaths of ego and your innermost fears. I wanted outdoor ed to be the real wilderness, the one where I tracked deer through an edge of life understood by few humans in today’s world.

But outdoor and environmental education was not that. And I eventually learned there were reasons for the limitations. So I taught myself to create a middle ground. This was my proto-version of Trackers Earth and our Rangers, Wilders, Mariners and Artisans Guild.

Describe for us how you connect Portland kids to nature. Tell us about your programs.

I founded and run an outdoor education organization called Trackers Earth. It used to be Trackers Northwest, or TrackersNW, or TrackersPDX. But our Bay Area office was like, “Hey! We’re not in the northwest.” So we changed it from Trackers Northwest to Trackers Earth. It also better reflects our goal of world domination (I jest… sort of).

And I think that’s how I connect Portland kids to nature. With a sense and humor and empathy for what they really crave. I always tell our staff we are not here to create “hippie nature day camp” (something I have been guiltily of in the past). Instead we are here to facilitate truly compelling experiences.

Trackers thus has a track record of both delighting and offending. Like any good theater, the majority of people love what we do. A select few vehemently hate us. That’s part of the challenge of pushing the envelope into the realm of what is truly compelling.

When I meet a kid that’s been to camps (others and ours), I always ask the innocuous question, “How did you enjoy your week at camp?” From a young age we’re trained to answer politely about anything that seems school like. So I watch the body language, not just the words.

If they say, “It was good, the instructors taught me to start a fire without matches.” And their full body is not laughing or completely immersed in the memory, I know that is only a polite response.

If they say, “Oh my god! It was crazy. I love it. But it was hard. But seriously we were working the bow drill forever, I thought my friction arm was going to fall. Jamey told me ‘pain was weakness leaving the body.’ But I finally got fire! I brought it home. Actually it’s in my backpack. I’m still working on it.”

That’s a win. Their story is compelling because they had a compelling experience.

Yet it’s important to recognize educators cannot accomplish by painting by numbers. There is a real art to it. It begins with incredible sincerity on the part of the instructor, guide, mentor, whatever you want to call it. They have to be rooted in real experience. Not simply cue cards from a teaching box or academic theory form degree.

Kids will sniff out if you’re real. If you’ve earned your chops. They’re also looking for Obi Wan, yet our camps to often give them the proverbial Red Shirts.

This the hardest thing about running Trackers. Finding educators that step forth from truly wild outdoor experience. I get tons of resumes from educators touting how many years they’ve taught in the classroom or how they know tons of outdoor games that they learned by being a counselor for 4 years at Glue and Glitter camp. And you can’t deny this experience. But they lack the outdoor chops in authentic outdoor lore. So what do you do?

Keeping kids safe is our priority, so we focus on those people with real outdoor education experience. Not necessarily just those folks good at the primitive skills (people that show up for the interview in pants from roadkill buckskin are often amusing but not the ones we hire). So how do we take an environmental educator and turn them into a bad ass survival skills expert that seems to have stepped from the primordial soup of our Rangers Guild?

We rebuild them. Better. Faster. Stronger. First you start with experienced teachers and guides in touch with that inner desire to be a Ninja (it helps if they/re Joss Whedon fan). Then you enmesh them in a community of practice. A crew of people obsessed with elevating how outdoor lore is represented in camp. Our adult programs are actually training grounds for better educators of ancient skills (not necessarily environmental science).

And welling up from these roots, the culture of Trackers is also meant to be compelling. We don’t play outdoor games just to buy our time. When I’m told a person or a program are deft at “storytelling and/or games”, in spite of their marketing, this is often reflected in their on the ground focus as a field games facilitator and circle ringmaster (look at me, look at me). Not someone invested in an arc of authentic skill and experience.

Our style of outdoor education requires the depths of old school wilderness legends, the hawk eye focus of the ultimate sentry and the creative wiliness of the best Dungeon Master to guide the way. Camp becomes powerful by distilling “nature connection” rawest form. Gutting fish you caught is a compelling activity. Starting a fire to stay warm is compelling. Escaping through the wilderness and slaying a force of faux zombies with safe foam arrows, definitely compelling.

So how do I connect kids to nature? My mom once gave me sage advice as I embarked on my educational career, “Remember what it’s like to be a kid.” Unfortunately, people think they’re doing this but what they end up with is a version that is grossly caricatured, or academic, or pandering, or sickly sweet. Kids aren’t looking to be set up for success all the time. Nor do they want completely gentle and coddling parental figures. But that’s what outdoor and especially environmental education gives them nowadays. My cure for that would be to make all EE educators go read Calvin and Hobbes.

Do you have any moments in nature from your childhood that left an impression on you?

I could start with digging for dinosaur bones in back yard. Or delve into the awesome burn pile my Dad made for all the debris in our quarter acre garden in Oak Grove just south of Milwaukie, Oregon. Even more interesting would be fishing with my father (I really went for the doughnuts and hot chocolate). But I would have to say the best memory, that goes far beyond all my supposed self-imposed insane rites of passage, would be a camping trip I took with my buddy J.T. Nyquist to the Umpqua Valley when I was thirteen or fourteen years old.

J.T. had bought an awesomely big survival knife. We spent most of the week inner tubing and freaking out about mosquitoes. But one day we took a walk where we followed the river beyond the trail. We wander for what felt like hours. I just remember thinking, “I’m not on a trail.” Instead we followed the river to find our way back. Eventually we came upon the dry white desiccated carcass of a fawn.

In the dappled light of the tall grass, it was striking. I only knew death as a theory. I had family members that died and I saw their casket from afar. But the understanding that this creature had been completely at the mercy of a world fundamentally different than my suburban kid life. A way of being that was raw and wild. That stuck with me. I wanted in. The world of high school I was jumping into did not offer me any risk. I craved a sincere testing of myself.

So gain, I rose out of high school and I grew up pretty quickly.

Do you have children yourself? If so, tell me about their relationship to nature.

I have a son who is now 19 months old. He’s walking, moving and outrunning me already. I’m blessed to have my family live on our 3-acre farm up in Sandy, Oregon next to a huge wildlife sanctuary owned by the Audubon Society of Portland (who runs GREAT camps by the way; I suggest folks check them out). We have a neighborly agreement to play in their land which also connects to Camp Trackers, our own overnight primitive campground with a fishing pond, huge forests and an outdoor kitchen.

So my son Robin has his own 100-acre woods to wander in. He always demands to go outside (since we only give him boxes and books to play with inside). He recently figured out how to unlatch the gate on our deck. Thus, while I was working on the computer the other day, he went running by my window buck naked (he had been playing in his shallow pool on the deck), wildly swinging two sticks in his hands and cackling with wild abandon because he was temporarily free of dad’s oversight as he made a straight beeline for the trees.

I promptly ran and got him, we played with goats and chickens for awhile and then I put a carabiner on the gate latch. Let’s see if the little velociraptor figures that out.

I am big fan of making sure he grows up helpful on the farm. Even if it’s just carrying water dishes to the baby chicks or helping me split kindling from the wood pile. Then of course there is growing up in Trackers. I’m fascinated to see how that’ll work. I already insist he act in service to those that serve at camp. This is how human communities naturally work. Good ones cultivate children who grow into people who are truly helpful.

My favorite days are when I put Robin in the baby backpack and go bear tracking with him. Right now he has now idea what the wide U-shaped trails means, or that soft arc along five toes padded in the fir needle duff, but I know it’s soaking in. He is bizarrely comfortable in wild places. That fascinates me as I’m not sure how exactly what will come of it. I’ll probably end up with a bigger hippie kid than I ever was (groan of acceptance).

Describe for us something about Portland’s focus on nature that you think is valuable for the city’s youth.

Multnomah County Outdoor School. I’ve written blogs about this. People do not understand the both profound and innocuous affect it has had on the core ethos of Portlandia. Every sixth grader visits, lives and learns at some of the most epic outdoors sites in Oregon. The program is a complex story and culture that is more than simply science education, it unintentionally (the best kind) nearly replicates living in a giant tribe or village.

I don’t even think Outdoor School itself fully grasps the actual impact they’ve had. They are saddled with looking at themselves as an agency and service (understandable). I see airs speaking of this, but a complete understanding of what kind of meme and social force they truly are is mute by what it could be.

If they did, they would be even more aggressive not only preserving but expanding. They need to go on the offensive and right now they are under siege as they as voters or officials to approve this or that.

If anyone has ever read Dune, they’ve been like the Bene Gesserit of nature education in Portland. By the way, I love Dune. The entire series has aspects of my own education and learning philosophy. Yes, I know, this is a tangent.

We are losing Outdoor School and nothing, even Trackers or its ilk will take its place. They need to go on the offense. Offense. Offense.

Is there anything missing that you would like to see happen in Portland?

I’d like to see parks and natural areas that actually let kids be kids. I understand and respect the need to manage our greenspaces to restore native species and we are also at risk of raising an entire generation of kids who think picking flowers is bad, catching fish is evil and going off trail gets you eaten by witches.

There are examples of parks that have actually integrated human use with management. It’s deftly complicated and not always successful. So I don’t blame folks for not trying. I am not looking the gift horse of our awesome parks in the mouth either. I know these folks. They are the hardest working people in Portland. They need bigger budgets and that’s up to us as stingy voters.

As a business owner, I’m saying, raise my taxes to pay for these kinds of parks.

Do you have any advice for parents looking to connect their kids to nature?

Don’t rely on schools, educators or camps (including Trackers) to get your kids connected to nature. And don’t go in with the mindset that it is simply nature connection. Make it about food, sleeping and heck, even “going” out of doors!

Kids love to get free stuff. Especially free tasty stuff. Berry and fruit picking, fishing and even hunting feed this need. Choose what works best for you and do a-lot of it. Seriously, sitting by a tree for an hour (people actually enforce this on kids as a nature lesson and call the damn thing a “secret spot”) doesn’t mean anything if it feels like homework. Instead it’s got to be compelling.

Grown-ups get a bad rap because everyone believes kids have richer imaginations. Nah, as you get older your imagination can get actually edgier, more honed, profound and powerful. You just got to flex the muscle.

Go play zombie slaying games and chases with other families, get into live action role-playing, start campfires when it is wet out, shoot archery at Washington Park or Blue Lake, throw knives, practice martial arts outdoors, hunt and gather, build a go-cart, make a trap, dig for dinosaur bones, get a metal detector, sword fight with sticks, fish, build a raft (dangerous), keep chickens, read Lord of the Rings, make a treehouse and, most importantly, read Calvin and Hobbes.

What is you favorite natural space in our city?

Elk Rock Island.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Tony! Patrick has had the opportunity of attending a birthday party that hired Trackers Earth for a program, at none other than Elk Rock Island, exactly one year ago today. Patrick recalls finding a fish skeleton. Here’s the group (Patrick in yellow with hat) exploring with a Trackers staff member:

Birthday party on Elk Rock Island with NWTrackers

Tony was recently interviewed for Parenting Unplugged, and you can listen to it here.

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This entry was posted in calvin and hobbes, education, epna interviews, outdoor school, trackers earth pdx. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to EPNA Interview #2: Tony Deis, Trackers Earth

  1. Dear Tony and Michael,

    Thank you both for this great interview! We are always looking for new ideas about how to get families to be active outside and connect with nature. We’re looking forward to more interviews about Portlanders making a difference in our community.

    Thanks,
    KEEN Recess Team

  2. Andy says:

    Thanks for this great interview. My family loves spending time in the outdoors and I love seeing programs that promote getting more kids connected to nature.
    -Andy

  3. Kim Silva says:

    Thanks, Michael and Tony for a fun and interesting interview! And, thanks for plugging Outdoor School!

    -Kim Silva
    Friends of Outdoor School

  4. Pingback: Pick Up Sticks: How Nature Education Gets Its Mojo Back | In the Big Muddy

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