Book Review: Essentialism

I consumed this book three times before regurgitating. It is one of the most influential books that I have read this year:

This book review is dedicated to  those people who say “one day I will write my novel” while they are watching Netflix and eating ice cream.

I’m Working Hard and Loving It

I include a lot of my thoughts, feelings, and routines on a roadtrip to teach at the Monterey Bay Birding Festival. I talk about my growing conviction that this kind of work is part of my mission in life. I am working to build this mission into my own career and my own way of contributing to the world. This video is dedicated to Robert Laws and John Muir Laws my mentor. And even though I did not know Robert Laws personally If it weren’t for him and the lineage through Jack, I would not be half way as far along the path that I am on.

Wanting to BE good at something gets in the way of BECOMING good at something

Here is a short examination of a pitfall when learning any new skill. With a few easy exercises in your journal and a couple of useful resources you will be better prepared to deal with this common trap.

Our culture mostly values having skills while it mostly ignores the process of learning skills. The slow, repetitive, and often painful learning process of the beginner  is not as sexy as the virtuostic performance of the master.

To become great at anything you most learn to love the slow, repetitive, practice. You must learn to reframe the nervousness, the discomfort, and the uncertainty as excitement, challenge, and opportunity.

Setback or Opportunity?

Follow me in this video as I explain some of the ideas that have emerged while I’m dealing with recent surgery to my wrist. As an artist, writer, and nature journaler, any setback to my dominant hand is a big deal.
On my website I  share what I’m going through right now, my learning process, and my own personal challenges. As usual, email me if you have any interesting experiences or ideas around this subject matter. If you find this video helpful or valuable please share it with a friend.

Book Review: How to Change Your Mind

I listened avidly to the audiobook version of Michael Pollan’s new book   and finished it in two days ( I got it the day it came out). This book is worth a read (or listen) for anyone interested in the mind, philosophy, death, and the treatment of mental illness. The book is especially useful if you or someone you love is dealing with anxiety, depression, addiction, or the recent death of a loved one. Here is my review:

For more about Pollan and the book check out his site: here

Flashback: Eating Bidodiversity

In this article, I describe a typical armadillo-hunting expedition and some of my personal reflections around what it means to eat “exotic” animals. It is an excerpt from my blog in 2005 when I was living in Costa Rica.

 

November 2005
Eating Biodiversity

After several weeks of telling them that I was interested,  I went last night with the neighbors to go cusuceando, or armadillo hunting(cusuco is the name for armadillo here)

I went over to their house around seven o’clock, a couple of hours after nightfall. After getting everything ready we started out across the cattle pasture on the other side of the road. I went with Jader and Milton, two of the young guys from the Nicaraguan family renting the house bordering our farm. Me and Milton were carrying flashlights and machetes and Jader had a homemade light strapped on his head that was wired up to a motorcycle battery that he carried on his belt. I was really impressed by this homemade light that looked like something a coal miner would have.

We crossed the damp grass, heading towards the edge of the river, the four dogs ran out ahead of us, tails wagging excitedly. An erratic light rain had fallen earlier that evening, but the layer of clouds had already been replaced by the usual, clear, starry sky of the dry season.

Cusuco hunting has been one of those symbolic activities for me, that has really come to represent my time down here. I had my first experiences cusuceando when I used to come down here as a little kid during my summer vacation. I was always hanging out with the kids that lived next door when it was Doña Tomasa’s family that was renting the house there. So, not only did I go with them to keep the pericos out of the milpa, but I also went a bunch of times to look for armadillos.

A lot of the things that we used to do as kids, I think of as “hunter gatherer games.” We were always climbing in trees eating guavas, jocotes, mangos, and nancites or looking for other kinds of fruit or fishing, catching crawdads and crabs, or getting shellfish from the ocean.
These were the activities that took up the time that I spent down here, and for the rest of the year in California I would continue to think about these. In my mind they came to be especially symbolic of the things that I enjoyed here in Guanacaste. ( I think that there is nothing better for a kid than to pass hours climbing in trees and eating fruit or sitting on a river bank fishing, I am very grateful that I was able to do this so much.)

All of the kids my age in Doña Tomasa’s family that I used  to play with have moved to Alajuela to work, so I have not been cusuceando in a really long time. I knew that the current neighbors went often, so I told them that I wanted to go next time they went. When I came down to Guanacaste this year, on my list of things to do I was hoping to get in  at least one armadillo-hunting excursion.

The majority of the day armadillos spend underground in their tunnels, so cusuceando is best done at night when they come out to root for food. What you do is you get the dogs all riled up and excited, running around following their noses through the grass. When they scare a foraging cusuco it starts running through the grass and brush. The dogs also scare out other animals, including skunks and opossums.
I can still remember the first time I went cusuceando how surprised I was by the distinctive ‘buzzing’ sound that the armadillos make as they run. This sound and the exciting chase that follows are the most memorable and also the part most resembling a “real hunt,” the majority of time actually being spent slogging through monte and digging in the mud.

The cattle pasture was  about a hundred yards wide where we crossed. Within 10 yards of the river we came under the canopy of the tall trees that grow on the banks. Like the beaches here, the river can not be privately owned, and the trees along the edges are supposed to be left. Unfortunately, what often happens is that the river carves away at the banks and the forested margin falls into the river little by little. Eventually, there is no barrier of vegetation left, and the cattle pasture extends all the way to the river edge. This erosion continues, with more and more of the cattle pasture being washed away in the river every year. This process results in the loss of the forested buffer that protects the edge of the river and provides vital riparian habitat.

It seems to me that it is exactly this riparian habitat that the cusucos are very fond of. Almost all of the times that I have gone cusuco hunting has been in the corridor of tall trees along the river. During the day you can see the many dens in the tangle of roots on the river banks; you can also see where they have been rooting for food in the leaf litter.

After walking through the open pasture, the transition to tall trees and vining undergrowth was dramatic. I no longer felt the cooling dry breeze, and the light of only a few stars made it through the swaying leaves and branches above. Jader and Milton suggested that we cross the river and continue the search on the other side so we waded across a part that was about knee deep. We walked through slowly, shining our flashlights down and scanning the water. Many tiny, pink, shrimp eyes reflected back at us from the sandy bottom and silvery minnows darted in and out of the light.

We sloshed out on the other side, Milton and Jaders rubber boots squeaked comically as we climbed up the steep bank. The forested margin was wider on this side of the river. We continued walking along the river edge, following the dogs. At one point we stumbled upon a bunch of cows, hanging out under the trees chewing cud.

Less than ten minutes after crossing the river, one  of the dogs started barking loudly, it sounded as if he already had something trapped. We hurried over to where the sound was coming from. When we got there, we saw the dog with the front half of its body stuck down a hole and its butt sticking in the air, tail wagging wildly. The other dogs were circling around barking and sniffing.

Jader pulled the dog away, and we all got on the ground with our lights straining to see into the hole…and listening for the sound of armadillo claws digging. There was no sign of anything but Jader assured me that the dog, called capitán, never lied. Milton started digging away at the hole as I held the flashlights and Jader went off and started chopping a tree branch. He came back and quickly fashioned the branch into the handle for the shovel that we were carrying. I was really impressed by this logical ingenuity because I would have probably hauled along a shovel with the heavy, long, awkward handle instead of just making it on the spot when we needed it.

After a couple of minutes of digging with the shovel we could see the armored tail of the cusuco. Everyone was glad because we had just been telling stories of other trips in which the digging race with the armadillo has lasted for hours. Milton noticed that there were a couple of nearby holes that might be escape routes, so he covered these up as Jader slowly started to dig away the top of the tunnel where he calculated the cusuco’s shell would be.
The dry dirt gave way sooner than he was expecting, crumbling down around the many-sectioned shell of the armadillo. Uncovered suddenly in its hiding spot, the cusuco shuddered its armored body, turning around and pushing quickly through the pile of loose dirt in a final attempt at escape. Milton, predicting the manuvuere, shouted a warning to Jader, who hurriedly pinned the armadillo with the shovel.  He reached down, grabbed it by the tail and lifted it into the air, holding it away from his body. The cusuco went into its furious “escape shake,” where they thrash back and forth violently trying to get free. You have to be careful when picking them up because of their strong legs and sharp digging claws, it is hard to hold on as they shake.

Jader stunned the armadillo hitting it sharply on the head with the dull side of the machete. He then slit its throat and we waited for the blood to drain before starting to walk back.

As usual, I felt a tinge of remorse in the last minute, or maybe that is not the right way to describe it. Not exactly remorse, but a thoughtful moment in which my mind grapples with meaning, the meaning of the whole thing. What this animal means and what it means to be killing it. Sitting at the computer, removed from the situation, I reflect on the different, often conflicting perspectives that I use in my attempts to make meaning out of the cusuco hunting that I participate in.

One of the foremost reactions that I can identify is the almost automatic association of hunting as something ‘bad.’ Combined with this is a sort of built-in, not necessarily well-founded tendency to think that “eating wild animals is just not right. (especially ‘exotic’ animals that seem more like something you would see in a zoo.)” Surely, a lot of people reading this have a similar first reaction. This is not only a semi-automatic tendency, I also have been trained to question the sustainability of what humans do, and I believe strongly that this is something important to question.

I always wonder about the ecology of cusucos and the impact that human hunting has on their local populations. I start to think: “should I really be eating these things?” But then I can also wonder about how much forest is cut down and turned into pasture, planted with non-native grasses, and permanently dedicated to cattle; what kind of impact does that have on cusuco populations?.  So…I can also ask myself: “should I really be eating and drinking milk products and beef?”

Why would it be so easy for me to label armadillo hunting as ecologically damaging even without all the research necessary to show that this is actually the case? I could probably pass it off as destructive while drinking a glass of milk and eating cheese, and the guy I was talking to would probably agree that the cusuco populations need a break while he eats his hamburger. The point I am trying to make is this: even in myself, I notice that I am likely to first be critical of the ecological impact of eating wild animals and only afterward reflect on the ecological impact of eating domestic animals.
I think that the reason for this sort of double standard has a lot to do with culturally built-in ideas of what is food and what is not food. The result is that we are likely to say “Looks delicious!” when offered a steak, but when offered a steaming plate of fried armadillo we are more likely to say “are you sure these things aren’t endangered?”

A lot of the questions that come up in my mind are equally applicable in other instances of eating biodiversity, such as fishing and crawdad hunting in the river, collecting shellfish from the rocks and tidepools.

If anyone knows anything more about armadillo ecology, or has something to contribute about the relative sustainability of eating domestic meat or eating bushmeat please contact me, I am very interested in the topic.

For all those still lamenting the death of the armadillo, don’t worry nature will get its revenge. please read my next entry, when biodiversity bites back!

 

 

I plan on sharing some more of these old articles and I will come back to this particular subject in a future post. I’m still thinking about the ethics of eating biodiversity twelve years later.

IMG_3965

The cranium of a cooked monkey I was served in Amazonian Ecuador in January. Primates are not at the top of my most-want-to-eat mammals list but they are also no longer on my never-eaten mammals list now either. In some rain forests monkeys are an important source of food.

Sketchers Learn Faster

There was once a ceramics teacher who did an experiment with his students. He told half the class to make as many pots as they could over the course of the semester, focusing on quantity not quality. He told the other half of the class to put all their energy and inspiration into making the single best pot they could. He told the first group they would be graded solely on quantity and the second group on quality.

At the end of the semester the teacher compared the pots of the two groups. Guess which group had produced the best pots?

Those students who had focused on producing as many pots as possible were free to practice without fixation on a finished product. They were able to learn and improve their skill. Ironically, the group that was told not to think about quality ended up producing finer pots. It appears that we learn better and faster when we are focused more on the practicing then on the outcome, a concept beautifully described in the book “The Practicing Mind.”

Simply put, sketchers learn faster.

Let yourself scribble, jot, sketch. Just fill up the page. Just keep your pencil moving and your eyes observing your subject. Just let your brain ask questions about what you see. If you do this regularly, you will learn much faster, you will improve. Ironically, you will begin to produce the superior images whose elusive promise inhibited your learning in the beginning.

 

This learning principle applies to most physical and intellectual pursuits that I can think of.

Try it out. Leonardo da Vinci did.

Learning From Kids: Part 2: Taking Risks

 

The little feet are a blur of motion as the six year old boy runs down the treacherous, steep, gravel path. “No running down the hill!” calls a camp counselor in vain. The little boy makes it safely to the bottom of the hill, a defiant and exhilarated look on his face. No injuries this time but 1 in 5 kids eat dust when they try running down that same hill. Looking around at the high incidence of scrapes, cuts, bruises, bee stings, and poison oak suggests that kids are either accident prone or have a propensity to take risks. Now, look around at a group of adults: how many of them have cuts, scrapes, bruises and road rash on their knees or hands?

I would argue that the propensity for risk-taking and boundary testing that we see in children is actually a learning strategy. This strategy seems to be highly effective and can be observed in the young of other animals, especially the more intelligent ones such as canines, corvids, and primates. The next step in this logical progression would be to devise ways in which adults can selectively employ risk-taking to accelerate our own learning process, cognitive flexibility, and to break through mental obstacles.

What is the benefit of risk-taking to learning?

What are the dangers of risk-taking?

When was the last time, as an adult, that you pushed yourself beyond your comfort zone and were rewarded by the experience? When was the last time that you regretted not taking a risk?
Taking risks and testing boundaries is an essential learning strategy. Without it we would become fossilized in our ways and unable to learn. As adults we have the chance to practice our metacognitive awareness and try to push ourselves to take risks in a strategic way. It might not come as naturally to us now as it did when we were kids but we can still use this powerful and often exhilarating strategy to boost our learning.

Have fun!

Learning From Kids: Part One: Beginner’s Mind

If your mind is empty, it is ready for anything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki

 

The zen master Shunryu Suzuki deftly summarizes the concept of beginner’s mind in the above quote. The concept is familiar to many who have studied zen and is recognizable in many Eastern philosophies from Taoism to Kung-Fu.

However, in the West the idea that “knowledge itself is power,” a quote from Francis Bacon, has had more influence. This exaltation of the accumulation of bits of knowledge has become the dominant perspective in the modern world. People confuse this finding, memorizing, and reciting of information with learning, understanding, and wisdom. We marvel at computers’ ability to store countless bits of information and we apply a digital memory metaphor to the workings or failures of our own minds. This is a mistake.

The ancient philosophers of the East recognized that the accumulation of knowledge and expertise can lead to the fossilization of the cognitive processes. Humility, flexibility, and openness to observation are often hampered by knowledge. Thus, the concept of beginner’s mind was expressed as an antidote, an ideal, a teaching metaphor.

When a child is learning language for the first time their mind is not cluttered with preconceptions, social anxiety, or prejudices. They are sponges, sucking up learning in the most efficient and flexible way. Adults can emulate this, we can use the metaphor of beginner’s mind to help us refine our expertise and learn more while being careful to avoid the pitfalls of the over-cluttered and fossilized “expert mind” where possibilities are few and learning is stagnant.

Have you ever done really well the first time you tried a sport or art form only to lag and flounder later on? Beginner’s luck? Perhaps, but luck is over-rated; I think this effect is a result of beginner’s mind.

If you really want powerful cognitive abilities focus on learning not knowledge, observe children, enjoy the day to day wonders, practice humility and restrain your inner expert. For more on this idea, see my post on knowledge as an obstacle to learning.

Why am I obsessed with learning? See my post on learning how to learn.

shoshin

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