The Commons: How to Spend a Gap Year

The Commons: How to Spend a Gap Year

A Year, a Mountain, and Five Young Women

Courtesy Earth Seasoned #GapYear / Wandering Wolverine Productions

I have always been passionate about the value of time spent in nature and the belief that nature belongs to all of us, regardless of gender, race, or income. While I don’t believe that time in nature is the panacea for our ills, I have witnessed over and over again how it helps, heals, and gives us the spiritual leverage of connecting with something bigger than ourselves—especially for kids. Just think of the messages our kids are bombarded with: “You can’t afford college, without which you’ll never get a good job!” “The environment is already ruined, and natural disasters will keep getting worse!” “Another mass shooting has occurred, this time in …” It’s one horrific detail packed on top of another in a seemingly endless drone of negativity.

I also know that an antidote to all that negativity can be found in simple things: learning to make a fire from friction, learning to build a warm shelter, and learning the tracks of animals—and how to follow them. These are some of the skills taught at the Coyote Trails School of Nature (, which my husband started 16 years ago. We’ve found that even a brief time in nature can give kids the space to find both outer and inner strength and worth.

The culmination of our trainings is the “gap year” Caretaker Program we started in 2011, where a group of young people live semi-primitively for a year in the Cascade Mountains of southern Oregon. This year in the woods allows for unbiased self-assessment: “Who am I? Who do I want to be? What am I truly passionate about?” Questions that each of us faces, yet very few have the time, or encouragement, to figure out on our own.

I think the quiet, away time is especially important for girls, for whom the negativity gets so personal: “You’re too fat!” “You aren’t pretty!” “You talk too much!” The barrage of personal criticisms is largely out of their control and the onslaught so pervasive that many conform at any cost—and end up in situations that are not healthy, to say the least. I know that I was shaped by what people in power (or perceived power), especially men, told me about what I was or wasn’t good at—and most of it was wrong. My own time in nature taught me that.

So, in 2014, when I learned that our gap year group consisted of five young women (ages 18–23) and no boys, I knew it was something I wanted to track. What would they learn? How would it change the way they saw themselves? How would they get along with one another and resolve disagreements? What would be the upshot of not having electricity, soft beds, or the Internet? How would their daily lives change away from the outside world? And how would nature and solitude help change the way they viewed themselves? To find out, we gave them video cameras to record one another, and set up a private “journal cam” to record themselves. We also sent in a professional camerawoman one week each month for an outside view.

Building their shelter proved the biggest source of friction, but they had to get it done. Rather than shutting down or screaming at each other, they made a pact to meet once a week and practice civil discourse that involved active listening and practicing empathy. And while all problems may not have been solved, each problem became easier to talk about, find common ground, and compromise if need be.

Each of the girls grew stronger physically and mentally over the year, and each experienced a boost in self-esteem. Also, trying new things and failing, then figuring out another way to achieve the goal, instilled less fear of failure and more creative problem solving, individually and collectively.

Ultimately, awareness of their surroundings and fitting into the ecosystem created love and gratitude for wild places and a desire to save them. Essentially, love and gratitude for self, for others, and for Mother Earth was the greatest gift this year gave them. So, while I don’t believe that nature is a panacea … Well, maybe I do.

What you can do

  • If you have 5 minutes: Sit outside, just noticing the world around you.
  • If you have an hour: Watch a nature show. It will decrease stress, increase calm, and improve cognitive performance.  
  • If you have a week: Read The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, by Florence William
  • If you have $150: Buy the screening kit of Earth Seasoned (with 20 skill-teaching lesson plans) for a school or group, age 10 and up. 

A Review of Earth Seasoned … #GapYear

At one level, Earth Seasoned is a filmed, poignant meditation on humanity’s lost communion with the natural world, and how restoring it can revive our sense of wholeness and purpose. If it did only that, it would be worth watching over and over. But Earth Seasoned is also an implicit condemnation of how our dominant social systems, and especially education, can generate deep problems of personal identity and belonging for which our children too often blame themselves. In school, Tori was diagnosed with ADHD, was bored, and had trouble retaining information. On the mountain, she buzzes with vitality and enthusiasm, showing a detailed understanding of the habits of animals, plants, and insects and an impressive talent for explaining them to others. In school, she was ostracized by her peers and was lonely and depressed. On the mountain, she becomes a cherished and vibrant member of a close-knit team that works together for the common good.

At both levels, Earth Seasoned has essential messages for educators, parents, and policymakers about talent, compassion, and community and about the real conditions for human flourishing.

—Ken Robinson

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