My friend Robert Oetjen was a key member of our hosting team at Altmoisa. He brings a lovely capacity to the work, being the head of an environmental learning centre in southern Estonia, he understands the deep connection between human and world, and is a practitioner of the most ancient arts of human kind: tracking and fire building. He is a man who is a beautiful learner from his environment. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, USA, he moved here in the early 1990s as a Peace Corps worker, teaching English in the days in which Estonia was hungry to claim it’s relationship to the west. But like all good improvisers, he allowed the climate to change him, and he began deeply intimate with Estonian culture and language, married and Estonian woman and moved into becoming a steward of Estonian natural places. He speaks the language fluently and beautifully and Estonians, who are normally wary of outsiders, embrace him and respect him, and always forget that he wasn’t born of this land. I can imagine, after being here for only a week, how it must have happened that he became so quickly embraced here. The land and the people are reserved but when they open to you and you open to them, the embrace is deep and multi-layered.
Robert brought this consciousness to the beginning of our third day, leading us in a check in exercise on the land that taught so many things on so many levels. We simply stood for a while in the cold gloom of an early Estonian autumn morning. The air was very still, but an occasional light breeze reminded one that one still has bones. Robert invited us to first of all become aware of the extent of our vision, noticing how wide it extended on either side of us, and how high and low a soft gaze can perceive. From there we closed our eyes and let our ears open to the subtle soundscape around us. For me this was wonderful because this is my morning practice at home. here the soundscape is similar, but the sounds are totally different. Many birds were quietly moving in the trees and shrubs around us, among them bullfinches, bushtits, creepers and hooded crows. A raven called far away and a dog barked softly across the fields. Deepening into this sense of place, Robert invited us to smell the mud, and the leaves on the ground, the apples that had fallen from nearby trees and were slowly decaying, turning sweet and pungent on the ground. Our senses fully awakened, Robert then taught us how to walk again.
One foot softly in front of the other, gaze open, like a hunter becoming aware of every sound and movement around us. Each foot develops eyes of its own, feel its way on the land, so sensitive to what is underfoot that it’s is possible to walk without making a sound . You become a part of the landscape, joining it completely, becoming enmeshed within it, so that everything that happens happens WITH you rather than as a RESULT of you being there. This is a huge and important teaching about harvesting. As you learn to walk in this way – Robert called it “foxwalking” – you become a little quicker, a little more sure footed, you are able to move deliberately and yet not disturb anything around you. It was a powerful way to experience hosting and being hosted, joining the field and harvesting in the moment, becoming fully present.
And it was just the first of two morning acts. Following a walk on the land in this way, Robert invited us inside and proceeded to make a fire, using his tools of a fireboard, a firestick, a bow, a handhold and some dry moss tinder. He gave a beautiful teaching about the archetypal elements of this practice, the fundamental unity of male and female with the firestick and fireboard, the notch that allows dust to come into the space that is created by the friction to birth the spark, the notch is the womb and the spark emerges from the union, the bow that turns the stick through the four directions, gathering the energy of the circle to create powerful life. Such a rich practice, such a beautiful fundamental teaching about application. It continued to resonate through our final day. As I left Estonia this morning, Robert gifted me a set of these tools for my own, a deep invitation into practice and learning this ancient art, the first act of survival to build a fire out of nothing, and the primal act of community building. the spark begins the possibility of coming together.
The rest of the day flowed. Toke and I gave very simple teachings on application. I talked a little about the improv principle of “notice more and change less” speaking about the fact that what we had experienced is a more profound way to open to possibility than feeling that we need to change all the time. the world changes enough as it is. If we can simply stay still long enough in one place, everything we need will flow past, timing will present itself and pass away, the possibilities for action become expansive.
The group went into Open Space to work through their design questions for projects that they are deep within. We rolled and flowed and talked and drew and at the end of the day, ran a little intention grounding exercise that involved milling around and collecting questions on our next steps, and then we checked out with voices of appreciation and gratitude and an eager commitment to meet again in February when this cohort of learners will assemble for their final co-learning journey.
It has been a great pleasure to spend time with this group, to make many new friends who are cracking good work in Estonia, exploring the leading edges of participatory leadership in a country that is slowly coming back to life, and to remembering its deepest gifts and resources. Many stories, practices and inspiring thoughts are coming home with me, right into work with First Nations on the west coast of Vancouver who are reclaiming their own resources of cultural strength and the renewed use and management of the marine ecosystems on which they depend. My big learning is that the skills and practices of participatory leadership are all around us, deep in the ground of the cultural legacies we have inherited as humans on this planet. And when we can talk and learn and share between traditional indigenous peoples, we discover so many modalities that are from the same root.
Sad to be leaving, but happy to be coming home from four days of teaching, fuller than when I left.