Hazards: Following Fears, Gaining Awareness

smoky mountains

A deep need for humans is outdoor safety, the maintenance of life, and limb. This is a powerful connecting force with the rest of life! From the sparrow fleeing the hawk, to the caterpillar hiding from the wasp, all creatures share a desire to avoid dangers or hazards.

If you hook up electrodes to measure neural activity, you will see that human brains react to a video of a large animal behind bushes much more than they react to a similar-sized car moving behind those bushes. This happens even with people who have never had to really fear large predators — and who might have had some close calls with cars! The increased brain activity in response to potential predators seems to be an innate trait. As a mentor, I’m intrigued by whatever stimulates neural activity. Is there a way to shepherd those neurons into greater awareness of hazards, while avoiding terror or a “shutting-down” response?

The first step is to learn what the hazards of your area really are. There are many sources of information, from safety organizations, poison control departments, and local lore (taken with a grain of salt). What are the dangers in our own lives that require us to be aware? I received a potent lesson in this when I was in a very unfamiliar place — downtown Seattle. As I walked back to my car at night, my heart started thumping. Fear shuttered my vision as I gripped my keys. Then I paused and started to laugh. I had no actual reason to be afraid, no sensory input that said anything bad was going to happen. It was pure unfamiliarity that had terrified me. A few deep breaths, a quick tuning-in to what my senses were actually communicating, and immediately I felt comfortable walking down that perfectly safe street. I understood then the fears of people who are rarely in the woods, who imagine cougars, rattlesnakes, and other hazards lurking everywhere off the trail. This familiarity can be developed through a Sit Spot routine, where you get to know an area through all the seasons and times of day. Trust your own senses, combined with research, when it comes to outdoor safety.

People often have an inflated sense of what the hazards of their area really are. I often note on our Wilderness Awareness School field trips that the van rides are statistically more dangerous than anything we do as a program. While mitigating the real risks, the perceived risk can awaken people to what you want them to learn. “Hey, you can eat some of the red berries around here — but there are others that could make you sick, or even kill you if you eat too many. Want to know the difference?” I might play up the danger of certain red berries, like yew and baneberry, while letting the real risks go behind the scenes from the students’ perspectives. That is to say, most students do not come here to learn about van safety, so they do not see what we do to get safely in our vans from place to place. Plus, remember the experiment on brain activity. A story of the cougar that went right along the trail when the students were standing right here, catches the imagination more than checking tire pressure on vans. This could be reversed if I were teaching a van maintenance class, so know your students and your teaching goals.

Once you know your local dangers, how best do you can share that knowledge with others? Given the popularity of ghost stories, it’s easy to paint ghastly pictures for kids around a campfire. I have heard too many stories of petrified kids peeing in their sleeping bags for me to want to try that. I want the people around me to feel more, not less, at ease in the world . Not that there isn’t a time and place for some vivid images to illustrate a point. Did you know that cougar fangs are spaced apart just enough to slide between deer vertebrae? Or hear about the guy who went to the mountains wearing cotton clothes and was found days later, frozen to the ground? Use these tidbits sparingly, and with knowledge of your audience. One wilderness first aid instructor at a staff training day used dozens of dramatic stories to illustrate his points. It was the most engaging first aid class I had ever taken, full of a sense of how resilient people are — and how fragile we can be.

Sometimes it is enough to let people discover a prickly landscape on their own. Kids I am with in the woods get a reminder or two about what might happen if they touch stinging nettle. Then it is up to them! With some help from a soothing medicinal plant such as plantain, and acknowledgment of their “nettle medicine,” most children are able to overcome the ouch. People feel pride in greater understanding. First-hand knowledge of the nature of the world is precious, and while I do everything in my power to keep people in my care whole and sound, gentle exposure to the realities of the landscape seem to serve them well in the long run. From an adult student who has to leave a primitive shelter overnight because of hypothermia to a summer camper who learns the hard way about nettles, these “edge experiences” help us calibrate our bodies to the world around us. My own brush with hypothermia in Alaska taught me what care my body needs in order to function well.

Plus, any hardship is easier to bear when you can tell a good story about it. At the end of a summer camp day, I ask all those who have been stung by nettle to take a bow. You too can craft a juicy story from the perils you have faced. In fact, I am amazed at how what seemed like the most difficult part of a journey is often recounted as the highlight! Kids who feel lost and cold while forging a path through a swamp are bubbling with stories about the “swamp trek” at the end of the day. These cautionary tales also serve to teach others about taking care of themselves. Discomfort can take its respected place in the lessons the world has for us — right along with joy, gratitude, and discovery.

There are other awareness lessons available from hazards. When learning bird language, I imagined giant Cooper’s hawks in the sky, the size of small planes, ready to swoop down on me. This gave me an immediate understanding of why birds stick to cover in the ways that they do. Then, later I read a scientific article that noted how birds stayed markedly closer to cover when there was a hunting hawk in the area. Imagining those giant hawks piqued my awareness, enhanced the radius of my senses, and acted as a motivator, without producing any paralyzing terror.

There are many ways to develop common sense and outdoor safety, from knowing poisonous plants, to good first aid training, to having spent hours at your Sit Spot watching animals deal with weather. Find out about and respect your local dangers. They have much to teach, and your knowledge of them could save lives. Here’s to exploring in safety and happiness!

Wilderness Awareness School