New Year’s Message 2013: What IS Deep Nature Connection

New Year’s Message 2013: What IS Deep Nature Connection

By Jon Young


Thank you for your support of nature connection mentoring in all of its varied expressions. My wife Nicole, and I, and all of the staff, advisors and friends of 8 Shields nature connection work have been looking back over the past years, as this is the season. We—at 8 Shields Institute—really want to learn and grow, and move forward more effectively, and with more connective results in the year(s) to come. Deep nature connection is a varied and complex world serving the very basics of nature experience, to mentoring others effectively, to creating supportive community structures, and to profound and healing processes that bring out our passions, gifts and visions. As I like to say, “the fullness of healthy culture serves everyone from before birth to after death, and, and at all ages and stages of life between.”


The last year, 2012, was filled with various challenges and with really great blessings, too. For all of this, we at 8 Shields are thankful to be sure. We have gathered together in a variety of conversations starting last November and continue to do so now. During the last five years, there has been a lot of planning, consulting, research and soul-searching done with many great consultants, advisors, elders and community members from all over the world. We are also grateful for everyone’s contributions to this important legacy offering tools for bettering our lives, deepening our connections with nature, people and ourselves.


In the following article, I will look at deep nature connection from a few points of view. First I will look at cultural models and leveraging the support of cultural mentoring tools to further the effects of deep nature connection. Next, I will look briefly and in summary about helpful reflections on human nature that point to why culture and mentoring might work.  After this, I will share how “deep nature connection” relates to the fields of people interacting with nature: nature information, nature experience and nature connection—as a continuum towards depth. Strategic models support the deepest outcome in nature connection; deep nature connection does not happen “by accident” except in the most ancient, traditional, hunter-gatherer societies. Further on, I will touch on the attributes that define deep nature connection as our ultimate objective.  The last piece of the article will look at some of the things we are offering this year to serve this objective.


Throughout the last years of research, we have been working hard to understand what “deep nature connection” really means. In the following paragraphs I will attempt to share the story of how we got to this understanding, and what we will do with this understanding in the coming years. Ultimately, we will continue the development and sharing of scalable models that help communities worldwide facilitate nature connection using a whole-systems approach.


Deep Nature Connection & Cultural Mentoring

Thanks again for taking a little bit of time to read this newsletter. If you are new to this work, or an experience mentor, it is not easy to introduce what we do through the 8 Shields movement. As a global best-practices project, we are still in the final stages of research and translation of this complex topic into laymen’s terms and into fully functioning organizational structures that can serve our communities effectively.  In the meantime, stories really help us explain what we do, in the absence of a field of literature and a formal sense of organization. It is my hope that the following reflections on our self-analysis process will be helpful to you.

Introduction to 8 Shields Cultural Mentoring

Deep nature connection is best supported through a process we have come to call “8 Shields Cultural Mentoring”. These are practices and processes that are derived from cultural models, and cultural elements, that are shared throughout the greater human family on at least three continents, and used for the purpose of peace. If you read my article on the Kalahari in this newsletter, you will see more deeply into the original questions driving the research that led to this collection.


Why bother with such complexity? There are very important reasons to do so, as we have discovered over the past thirty years. For instance, there are threads of almost invisible influence that move through time, from generation to generation, grandparent to grandchild, and they probably have since the emergence of human beings. The emergence of the earliest humans could be as far back as two or more million years, and even further back in time depending on what you classify as human. That means that many tens of thousands of generations have passed things down to the next generations! This natural and mostly unconscious ability to regenerate culture tell us that there are very powerful things operating in these invisible structures we call “cultural elements” and how they affect people both in the positive and negative.


Working with and facilitating these invisible structures with intention and awareness can have a very positive impact on the work of deep nature connection, and these tools will help facilitate stronger bonds with family, friends and other people in our lives and work. This is the main work of 8 Shields Cultural Mentoring. Author Jared Diamond’s newest books called The World Until Yesterday, really gets at this point. He states that we can apply certain cultural practices from traditional societies to our own lives to solve certain problems with positive effect. He further states from his decades of research that some of the problem solving from ancient cultures seem better solutions to what the modern, Western approaches offer.


The late elder, Jake Swamp said similar things to our mentoring network over the years, and predicted that these things would catch on more and more: sometimes because they are more effective, and other times because they are more cost effective—being less expensive. There’s a lot of emerging evidence building that this is truly the case. People are empowered and can use their own creativity to solve certain problems within their own families, communities, organizations and other spheres of influence.


Well, really the bottom line for most of us who work directly with cultural mentoring in communities—research aside—is that this stuff works to help connect people to nature, people to themselves and people to each other. From our own internal consulting process, we have come to see that this is where we need to focus.


Culture connects. To simplify the complexity some, it’s really helpful define culture by what culture does, as opposed to what culture is. When one seeks understanding of culture from what it is, it’s rendering in literature is mind-boggling, diverse and confusing. When one looks at culture for what it does—especially in the framework of deep nature connection—things get a lot more simple and direct. When cultural elements are held in a healthy and positive way, culture will connect people to people, people to nature and people to themselves. Again, when effective, culture connects.


Regenerative Culture

Some of the threads that move through time are at once amazingly resilient, regenerative and obviously important—why else would they last this long? What can we learn from this?


It is my belief—no, conviction really—that the longevity and tenacity of threads through time between generations teach us something about our very nature as humans. The 8 Shields Institute’s purpose and mission are supported by this applied understanding human nature with the ultimate goal: bring people to healthy deep nature connection. What guides and constrains our work in helpful ways is tracking elements of human nature and learning how they inform our processes. The following observations about human nature we have gained experientially through mentoring people in nature using both one-on-one methods and group models for the past 30 years:


  • People are biologically designed to respond to cultural models on an unconscious level; this responsiveness has worked through our ancestral past, and continues to work today
  • We repeat what we experience to a fairly large degree, so if we experience mentoring growing up, we will naturally mentor—the reverse being true as well, so if we grow up without mentoring we won’t, at first, know how to mentor others
  • People respond unconsciously to modeled behaviors that are naturally attractive, and that these same attractive behaviors and attributes have important survival and regenerative value
  • Mentoring is what we are designed to do, and we are designed with a deep expectation of mentoring on a subconscious level; profound disappointment when supportive culture is missing leads to mistrust and hopelessness—and, this can be reversed through applied cultural mentoring
  • Our make-up includes pre-determined, in-born and/or intuitive physical, mental, emotional, neurological and connective expectations that can only be met through repetitive, routine and therefore deeply influential patterns based on relationship with the natural world—a function, artifact or remnant of an ancient history of living with the earth and other people in a very specific and diverse range of village-based routines and processes
  • People thrive when they are connected to themselves, to nature and to other people in ways that support and nurture well-being as well as survival needs
  • Learning through immersion in the above-indicated settings and cultural models brings out some extraordinary and important aspects of our human nature—even in modern people
  • Whole-body, routine and full-sensory immersion in the language of birds combined with an almost-performing-arts level engagement with wildlife for long enough to build understanding and connection on a deep level results in consistent patterns of positive attributes as indicators of true well-being—as expressed by those who reach this point
  • The attributes that indicate deep nature connection include altruistic behaviors that support not only other living people, but a commitment to future generations, conservation and careful tending of resources for others to benefit from


In our world today, with headlines such as we see all to often now, that last bullet-point might really be worth re-reading a few times. Can we imagine a way where everyone on the earth has access to enough high-quality mentoring and positive cultural influences where these attributes can emerge in a critical mass of humans to make the shift towards a more hopeful future? This can be done, and has been done again and again within our global network over the past three decades. The work is done by committed stake-holders through the re-establishment of patterns of positive social interaction, individual support moving ever towards family and community support, and through building deep, caring and meaningful understanding of the natural world around us simultaneously, and strategies that include mentoring and culture repair.


That’s deep nature connection in a nutshell. There’s more, but I think if I was collecting together a set of parameters that define the movement of deep nature connection, it could be fully derived from the points listed above.


The Emergence of 8 Shields & Deep Nature Connection

Back in the early 1980’s I founded my first project based on two main influences. The first influence was that of my own childhood experiences with nature, subsistence activities related to family patterns, and mentoring from a variety of relatives and neighbors. The second source of inspiration for my project was research that I conducted at Rutgers University starting as an undergraduate. This was driven by total passionate curiosity that eventually led to a quest for understanding of best practices in mentoring, culture and activities. When I say “best practices”, I was specifically searching for patterns leading to a dependable outcome of understanding of nature.


The year I started my first project was 1983 and I was living in rural Monmouth County, New Jersey. Then, at twenty-three I graduated from Rutgers and began my first nature-based mentoring programs for high school youths and another to serve a collection of families who were home schooling a collection of mixed-aged children from nursing infants to pre-teens. At the same time, I had a part-time job working as an environmental educator for the local park system. This job took me to classrooms all over the county where I visited children in a variety of public and private schools, as well as all of the popular extracurricular clubs for youths.


One of the first things I noticed was the difference in the attributes that children possessed in the various educational settings. The home-schooled children, and the children in my after school programs were most definitely showing up differently than the children in the other settings. This was clear from the very beginning. The youths that first attended my afterschool programs didn’t start out different; they slowly but surely shifted from a more typical profile of attributes—like all the children I was seeing in all the various institutional settings. Interestingly, the afterschool participants began to share attributes over time with the home-schooled children. The particular group of home-schooled families that I was working with shared a common philosophy based on the research and writings of both John Holt and John Taylor Gatto—both highly effective educators in their own right who believed that people were naturally born to be learners.


The children of my home-schooled programs from the very outset were naturally curious, creative, funny (and prone to joking—always with a loving disposition, and a natural and innocent mischievousness that I found endearing), and really alive.


From time to time our small organization and supportive community would host gatherings. At these gatherings both groups would mix. This meant that the families of home-schooled children of all ages, and high school youths would come together and share activities including talks, games, music and potlucks. These gatherings were always a lot of fun. Looking back now, I can clearly see that during these gatherings, the younger and more “naturally alive” home-schooled children and families would rub off onto the high school youths who would show a side of themselves that was more naturally alive when they joined in with these younger children. The boldness of the younger children would definitely cause a kind of role-modeling force for these emergent attributes. At the time, I didn’t think anything of this, and went on teaching tracking, bird language and subsistence skills such as fire-making and tending, shelter building, natural cordage and fiber work, and other related things.


One thing I was aware of from the beginning was that the cultural elements such as greeting customs, codes of conduct and gratitude rituals—to name just a few of many—were consistently fostering an atmosphere and experiential environment highly conducive to the emerging attributes modeled by the home-schooled youth, and the more experienced high school participants in our after school programs. When youth in afterschool programs attended activities consistently for a few months, there were notable shifts in their overall well-being. In a way, I think I intuitively recognized these subtle changes as a sign we were all heading in a good direction. There were many people who began to recognize this shift in their children, nephews, nieces and neighbors. We were getting feedback to this effect.


In 1984, I was joined by an elder named Ingwe (1914 to 2005) who spent many decades living among the Akamba of East Africa, and San Bushmen. He was raised from early boyhood as one of the Kenya settlers living side-by-side with these indigenous communities still practicing their original ways of life, and modeling to Ingwe directly more best practices. When I was 10, I was mentored by a neighbor who himself was mentored in a lineage of such best practices. Ingwe and I compared notes and realized early on that the practices and processes of cultural mentoring were highly effective and consistent from culture to culture in many ways. We both saw the emerging changes towards the positive in the youth we served. We were therefore invited to serve an expanding population of youth including at risk youth in urban centers, group foster homes and in adjudicated programs as well.


Over the years, Ingwe and I began to train adults in this model of cultural mentoring. We were able to reach more and more people through a slowly-expanding core of experienced nature connection mentors who understood and demonstrated competency in facilitating cultural mentoring models. The most competent tended to be those with the greatest experience themselves in what we have come to call “holistic tracking” (as opposed to simple track and sign identification), bird language awareness skills, general naturalist knowledge and experience, cultural mentoring, respectful conduct and subsistence skills.


Of course, the most skilled at mentoring these skills had themselves been mentored. This was consistent with my own experience growing up with mentors including one from a traditional indigenous lineage, and Ingwe’s experience growing up among the Akamba and living alongside San Bushmen at various points in his life.


In 1994, I began to specialize in teaching the Art of Mentoring—bringing forward these concepts of cultural mentoring as they relate to nature experience, nature-based skills and nature-based knowledge. I pioneered a layered model that could help train multiple roles in a community at the same time, modeling or imitating a village and reaching toward the human nature hidden beneath the training of modern experience. This was, in a sense, the beginning of a “captive release program” for wild humans! I was working to re-introduce the native human back into his or her inherent human nature—with profound results. The results are not attributable to me, but to the ancestral threads of culture that we were and still are drawing from.


Understanding Nature Connection as a Continuum

Study the following diagram and think about how your own experiences link to the various levels of the illustration of nature relationship. We all experience all of these layers to greater and lesser degrees, depending on our cultural support systems, or lack thereof.

This diagram shows the layers and levels of nature relationship. The two top tiers are the most common experiences—and affect billions of people globally.

The bottom two tiers involve less people and reflect the realm of nature connection. The bottom two layers also largely give rise to “conservationists” therefore regenerating the land-tending ethics that the future generations depend on for their well-being. Whereas the top two tiers can be practiced without the support of community, the bottom two layers require containers of safety and cultural support.

The bottom layer—deep nature connection—is usually the result of traditional societies living close to subsistence, or more recently, is the result of strategic deep nature connection as facilitated in the 8 Shields movement. The layer of deep nature connection is where the future of conservation and community stewardship lies most predictably.


What is the goal of nature connection mentoring?

As mentors we are looking at fostering positive attributes that arise when individuals develop connection with other people and with the rest of nature. In the process, a person inevitably learns to connect better to one’s own self. As connections are opened, a person’s inner light begins to shine. An understanding of one’s gifts and vision develops, along with an appreciation of the interdependence of community.


An intact mentoring system helps a person’s light to shine in all ages and stages of life – there is always a positive role to play and ways to be involved in the life of the community. As we “repair” our modern cultural experiences, we can rebuild meaningful ways for people to connect with and support each other.


The Attributes of Deep Nature Connection

When there is enough time and support, and exposure to a strategic array of experiences and processes, a person will emerge with the attributes of deep nature connection. These attributes are identified and described by several key fields of research today exploring nature connection, empathy, education, genius, health, well-being, creativity, play and vitality. Through the approach of 8 Shields cultural mentoring we bring these attributes together in a predictable and repeatable way. Our collective experience in the global 8 Shields movement strongly suggests that the results of deep nature connection include:


Personal Well-­being:

Deep connection to nature can lead to health, happiness and vitality.

Sensory engagement leads to the quiet mind, creativity and deep listening.


Community Well-­being:

People with deep nature connection attributes can also experience more empathy, appreciation for life and compassion.

This connection leads to commitment to tending to the natural world—as well as the other people in their lives.

However, we learned from 30 years of experience, from testimonials, and reports from focus groups that the 8 attributes are not “a given” with just any outdoor experience.

  • Strategic mentoring and cultural support is required to reach the full complement of deep nature connection attributes.

This is largely unknown and unexplored in the literature of environmental education, conservation and even the emerging discussions of nature connection.


The Attributes of Connection

There are eight “Attributes of Connection” that awaken as the connective process unfolds. Whether we are working on our own personal development or are actively mentoring others, these attributes serve as a helpful reference point for growth.


Summary of the Attributes

In short, the Attributes of Connection include:

●      The quiet mind and a sense of being fully present in the moment, which deepens access to one’s inner creativity

●      Inner happiness and joy;

●      Vitality and energy flowing in the body;

●      An instinct & commitment to help others and make the world a better place;

●      A deeply empathetic and sensitive connection to the natural world;

●      Being truly helpful to others proactively, and in alignment with one’s gift and vision;

●      Being fully alive and able to give oneself fully to chosen endeavors & actions;

●      The ability to forgive and love others and oneself in a real and meaningful way.


The qualities and description of each attribute go much deeper than this short list.

Even a glance at this list shows that a person with the attributes of deep connection has the ability to be fully present in the moment, with awareness, compassion and empathy. This leads to the ability to be truly helpful and effective in sharing one’s gifts and talents with the world. These qualities can enhance our ability to navigate through life’s challenges and enjoy each moment of our lives to the fullest. And, regarding these attributes, I love to say,


“Wouldn’t it be nice if all our neighbors had these attributes along with us? What kind of a world would we then have?”


To that end, this year we will be working offer mentoring in the various layers of supportive community processes. We are now identifying key stakeholders in regions where conservation partnerships are forming. We are bringing together our most experienced trainers and reaching out to find people in their regions who want to help build art of mentoring structures and processes home. Our leadership team members are developing training pathways, evaluation processes and codifying this model for distribution through higher education masters and certificate programs.


Our offerings this year that will be really critical to this effort are:


1)    Mentoring with me, Jon Young, aimed at the more experienced leaders of deep nature connection and or cultural mentoring, with a focus on stakeholders who want to lead their regions with a philanthropic dedication and commitment


2)    Group mentoring pathways that include:


  • Training in facilitating and mentoring deep nature connection as a core process, with specialty certificates for service to different age groups,
  • Training in the support of families and parents whose children are involved in deep nature connection offerings,
  • Training in community facilitation—to provide anchoring, support and general understanding of culture repair and village building as a modeling concept,
  • Help with advanced training in deep connection leadership as understood through the lens of various traditional and cultural healing models.

Receive updates about future opportunities for mentoring with Jon Young.

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3)    Village Talk, an on-line and on-phone group conference call with break outs based the layered strategies of art of mentoring that meets weekly on Thursdays in three time zones covering the globe.


4)    Tribal Breath, a five-quarter program that supports participants to hold events in their region that are fun, and light introductions to cultural mentoring.


5)    The Origins Project, where we currently travel to Botswana in Africa (and in future other destinations) to explore traditional cultural mentoring in context with indigenous people. This year we will be focusing also on bird language and tracking with expert guides. And, we will be working with an internationally acclaimed film maker who is an expert on African wildlife, culture and deep nature connection himself: Craig Foster.


6)    The Art of Mentoring, a one-week long immersion into a mentoring village with layered culture. These happen in numerous locations globally.


7)    Bird Week, an art of mentoring based week-long immersion into bird language learning in a profoundly effective group model.


8)    OWLink Media products with an entire range of reading, viewing and listening for your learning journey!



Well, Jon Young here signing off for now. And I hope to see you in some of these wonderful training community circles. Thanks for reading. Wishing you a healthy and happy new year!

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