February 16 - February 22, 1995

[Out There]

Fox Trot

By Kevin Franklin

WE WILL TEACH your bones to hear, your flesh to see, your whole body to feel the living landscape." Or so says the flier promoting Peter Wolf's "Awareness Classes In The Desert." Wolf invited me to come along on his half-day course, and so here I am.

One by one the class of about 15 starts arriving in the parking lot of Tanque Verde Elementary School. Wolf also appears, driving a red convertible.

He goes off to meditate while we wait for the rest of the class. When he returns he borrows my tweezers to extract a splinter. There's a certain wry humor in a wilderness instructor needing my med-kit, but I refrain from comment.

Surgery completed, I ask Wolf what he hopes to accomplish with classes like these.

"What I'm interested in doing," Wolf says, "is planting seeds of awareness and a spontaneous sense of adventure, which, in our culture, has been deeply lost.

"The point is, we live in a flat, paved and televised society where we neither have to look where we're going nor perceive for ourselves, or, in some cases, even think for ourselves."

Wolf sees some aspects of what he views as Native American culture to be solutions to the deterioration of mainstream U.S.A. To become more in harmony with our surroundings and fellow humans is part of the key to turning back things like gang violence and unhappiness, he says.

"I don't romanticize native cultures," Wolf says. "There is plenty about them that isn't compatible with us today."

But Wolf sees key points, like rites of passage and self awareness, as being helpful to a modern culture.

"Whenever people are happy and fulfilled, what they do tends to be healthy," Wolf says. "When they're not happy, they tend to do things that are unhealthy."

The last students arrive and we leave the school parking lot and head to Tanque Verde Wash.

Here Wolf teaches us how to walk.

The average person marches through life with his head down, shoulders hunched and eyes focused on a hockey-puck sized area directly in front of him. That stems from a culture where the whole focus is on getting to meetings or from place to place while taking no interest in what's going on in the here and now, Wolf says. We're coming from the past and headed to the future without being aware of the present, he says.

And so Wolf says we should learn the fox walk. For a moment I panic, visualizing scenes from Saturday Night Fever, but he explains a fox's rear steps overlap its front steps and it tends to walk a narrow graceful line. Humans tend to walk with legs splayed, in great swinging motions that force the upper body to lean forward. Walking like this also commits humans to stepping on untested ground. In the city that usually works. In the wild, the uneven terrain causes people to trip.

It's better to walk by rolling onto the balls of your feet instead of slamming your heal into the ground, Wolf says. At the same time, keep your body upright and uncommitted to making that step. That way, if there is something sharp, hard or unsteady, you can pull back and find better footing.

Walking like this also allows you to take in your surroundings, Wolf says. He asks us to spread our hands to the sides of our visual fields and take in the entire setting.

We should enjoy the view while we can. After teaching us the fox walk, he says, we'll be blind-folded and asked to follow an obstacle course.

At first blindness it isn't so bad. Each student holds onto a cord with one hand and wanders around over uneven ground. I learn quickly to step gingerly.

But then the cord descends into Hell. There's a bamboo thicket bordering the wash and the course winds through it. Keep in mind none of us can see anything, so the entire world comes to us from the sense of touch and sound.

I see now what was meant by "flesh to see, your whole body to feel the living landscape." Those words are becoming less whimsical as I go along.

Proceeding through the jagged, insanely-dense thicket, my whole body certainly feels the living landscape--prodding, poking and stabbing. I can't help but curse Wolf as he monitors our progress: I wish he were struggling through this, too.

I learn to move even more gingerly. The ideal here is tortoise-speed, something a lot harder to do over a long period of time than one would think.

The exercise becomes frustrating, challenging and occasionally rewarding. A few times I manage to navigate through a thick tangle of bamboo by delicately feeling my way without getting jabbed.

At one point my blindfold comes off and it's remarkably disorienting. The picture of my surroundings I have in my mind only loosely fits what's really there. It's like struggling to read a foreign language and then having it suddenly turn to English. This small section suddenly makes sense, but then I'm back to the blindfold.

After what seems like eternity, but is really about an hour, the cord finally ends--so does the class after a few stress-releasing exercises.

Wolf explains later that he hopes to convey the value of slowing down to get in touch--sometimes literally--with the world around you; and, more importantly, the way you see yourself in that world.

He says the class is meant as a catalyst for thought.

"I act like a jumper cable to give people a spark," Wolf says.

"Nothing comes overnight," he adds. "Anything that promises to get you to your goal overnight is probably garbage for sale--possibly including good material--but it is a marketing strategy first."

Wolf and I talk past sunset, which means he has to take down the obstacle course cord in darkness. So, in a way, my wish for him to do the course without the blessing of sight comes true.

On the other hand, during the day I got a big splinter in my finger, so maybe we're even in the cosmic scale of things.

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February 16 - February 22, 1995

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