Nature and Culture - the Wisdom of Learning

by Jeannine Tidwell

Nature and culture. What do they have to do with each other? Where do they overlap with authentic learning? Why does this matter to us in the post-modern era? To answer these questions, let's look into modern brain research, ancient indigenous wisdom, and our own experiences here at Twin Eagles Wilderness School and other similar organizations worldwide.

Nature and Culture

There is a lot of continuing brain research that reveals some important information about how the brain learns best. When we understand and make sense of how the brain learns we then have a larger framework for looking at our quality of life and the lives of those around us, especially when we ask ourselves if how we're learning is effective, holistic and powerful and if our learning then makes a positive difference in the world around us. Nature and culture are some of the most powerful contexts to support authentic learning.

There is also a pressing need that has taken shape in the form of a world wide movement for people to reconnect deeply with the natural world, and bring nature and culture back together. This need has been the catalyst for many organizations, such as Twin Eagles Wilderness School, to form worldwide with the focus on nature connection, wilderness immersion, cultural mentoring, regenerative community design, and inner tracking. We refer to this as the deep nature connection mentoring movement.

Modern brain research, indigenous wisdom, and our own experiences within the deep nature connection mentoring movement all agree on how learning happens best:

Authentic learning happens when humans experience two things, provided they have ample mental focus and plentiful sensory engagement: curiosity and edge experiences. From this the brain can gather information, make meaning of it (or what we might call form brain patterns from the information we gather), create from those patterns and then act on those patterns or meanings. Let's take a closer look.


Curiosity can also be thought of as wonder or awe. When people are propelled into a deep state of curiosity or wonder an open channel forms within them. The words curious and wonder literally mean questioning. A person really wants to know something, but first they live into the question and the unknown for a while.

After mentoring people of all ages for the past twenty years within a context of nature and culture, I've seen that when a person really wants to know something, when they're authentically curious, they're often willing to live in the uncomfortable unknown of the curious questions in order to then know regardless of whether they are consciously aware that they are in that uncomfortable unknown space

That is a simple statement but an important one. Learning happens best when an individual is actually in an internally uncomfortable place, despite that fact that we all have an innate desire for comfort in our life. So how do we guide people to willingly enter into uncomfortable states? Again, nature and culture offer the answer.


When we look all over the world at cultures who were in direct and close connection with the natural world, some of the best examples of culture and nature coming together, we see that there are challenges and rites of passage embedded into the culture as a way of providing people with edge experiences. Rites of passage and challenges are experiential models that teach humans how to deal with various aspects of life like loss, pain, the unknown and change.

Current brain research says the same thing. The brain learns best when confronted with stresses or high challenges because these things activate our emotions and our abilities for learning.

Here at Twin Eagles, we've seen time and again in students who consistently have connected and caring mentors guiding them through various challenges, initiations, and rites of passage, all in a context of nature and culture. These students develop the greatest resiliency, a strong sense of self, an ethic for both the land and people, and many more powerful attributes.

Mental Focus

This is one of two primary ways the brain receives direct input. What makes mental focus so powerful is what actually creates that focus. Edge experiences and things that trigger our awareness, curiosity, passion, and need are but a few examples. In our modern world it may translate a bit differently however it's basically the same thing. Time, deadlines and tests are a few examples. Think of your own mental process. What do you focus on in your mind, and why?

Sensory Engagement

Sensory input is the other primary way in which the brain receives its' main input. In essence, brain research and indigenous wisdom show that the best education and learning we can give ourselves is one of stimulating all the senses.

What is the smell of water? What is the taste of the inner pulp of a rose hip fruit? What is the feeling and texture of a butterfly wing? Our senses know the answers and wisdom to these kinds of questions and it is vital for the brain to learn about our world through the senses.

A story comes to mind to illustrate the power of deep sensory engagement. It is about a mentor and elder of mine who passed away in 2006. His birth name was Norman Powell, but I knew him as Ingwe, a name he received by many tribes he visited while living in Africa. Ingwe translates to "leopard" in the Zulu language, and Ingwe was identified among many for his connection with the leopard.

Ingwe was born of British descent however he was raised in Africa and lived among the Akamba people for many years in his upbringing. Ingwe had a keen ability to use his senses in a powerful way, which he developed by being mentored by the Akamba, a tribe that had a powerful connection of nature and culture. From an early age he was taught to train his senses and use them on a daily basis.

Ingwe had a particularly intimate emotional bond and connection to springs. This came to light once while taking a wilderness trip with some of his students here in the United States. When everyone stopped at the site where they were to camp and got out of their vehicles, Ingwe immediately sensed a distant spring. He gave specific land directions to one of his students, Matt, to go gather some water from this spring.

Matt was blown away that Ingwe was telling him all this, because Matt knew that Ingwe hadn't been here before, and Matt couldn't detect any signs of a spring being anywhere close. In fact, Matt wasn't even sure if there was a spring at all. How did Ingwe know this? Was Ingwe just pulling his leg? Yet sure enough, Matt found the spring Ingwe spoke of and brought back some fresh spring water for Ingwe to drink. Ingwe of course was delighted as the cold, clear, refreshing spring water splashed down his throat.

What this story speaks to is the fact that it's possible for us to train all our senses to develop deep connections with the natural world at any age of life. It also says that by exposing ourselves to sensory experiences over and over again in new and ever changing ways through our lives we form deeper neural pathways in the brain and thus authentic learning deepens.

As a result our awareness expands to include richer textures of life that may seem impossible to achieve right now in our current world view. Indeed, our sensitivity and connection to all of life increases. We've seen this hundreds if not thousands of times here at Twin Eagles.

Cultural Mentoring

Mentoring is the process of an individual facilitating another person's learning through a variety of ways and means. Direct transmission of knowledge and role modeling are a couple of obvious examples of how this happens, but there are many more ways.

Culture is a way of life. In a basic sense it includes traditions, customs, and mores especially within groups, but even more so culture can include more subtle elements in its creation. Culture is inevitable. It will happen whether we help create it or not because it's all around us all the time. It is the water we're swimming in. Cultural learning can often be unconscious, because we humans are affected a great deal by peripheral influences and subtleties.

As a very simple example, consider the background music in an elevator transmitting lyrics and song that contain messages, values, attitudes and ideas to us whether or not we are really tuning in to the music and listening or not. There is a part of the brain that is taking in that music whether we are aware of it or not.

Consider nature and culture. You can personally learn about nature or even teach about nature to others on a basic mind focus or intellectual level through books or even a nature walk. On a nature walk you might have stayed on the trail or even ventured off of it or with books never even set foot on bare earth. Appreciation, connection, and some knowledge might result, or it might not.

However there is a whole other way to learn about nature that it involves a conscious cultural approach including sensory input, edges, mind focus, and curiosity. This happens through the guidance of a mentor who themselves are deeply connected with nature and culture. Through mentoring, the learning journey of the brain takes huge leaps forward in its' growth and development.

This is what we refer to as the Art of Mentoring, which brings together nature and culture. I'm talking about understanding how to craft innovative and complex learning opportunities for someone combined with understanding how to create adaptive and powerful cultural learning environments simultaneously. We need mentors to help us connect with nature by the way of guiding us through obstacles, sensory engagement, and edge experiences.

What's possible is to create a culture that is rich and stimulating that offers cohesion, peace and constancy for our relationships to take root and find new forms - relationships with people, the natural world, and our self. I know of no better place that provides these things as an optimal learning environment than nature.

If you combine this with skillful mentors who themselves have been mentored to craft a powerful cultural learning environment, bringing together nature and culture, you turn out lifelong learners who discover who they are in the most powerful sense. Resilient individuals who have deeply rooted self-confidence, authentic gratitude, and genuine care for the earth and people. People who are truly health and happy, people who are fully alive and connected with their passion and purpose in life.

Our earth based ancestors knew this all along by their designs of living including nature and culture, and that is our collective vision here at Twin Eagles Wilderness School.

Interested in being personally mentored in Nature Based Mentoring, on a transformational journey of connection to nature, community, and self?

Check out the Twin Eagles Wilderness Immersion Program.

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