A couple of posts ago in the “Traditional Scouting 101” series, I talked about how true Scouting centers around outdoor expeditions and how these expeditions should always be challenging. In the next post after that, I showed step-by-step how to create Troop meetings and camping programs according to this principle. Now in this post, I want to show how the spirit of discovery is what makes the challenges of the wilderness meaningful.
It sounds like a pretty simple idea, but I want to really peel back the layers of this concept. This is a long article, but if you read all the way through it, I know it will get you as fired up about the wilderness as I became when I first caught the Scouting spirit. So let’s get started!
Chapter 1: The Wilderness is a School for Life Skills
We Scouts have exploration in our blood. The unexplored calls us; the unknown beckons us. There is danger, adventure, and opportunity in the unknown. This draws us continually to the Scout camp in the wilderness.
A common purpose and theme for early Scout Patrol camps was simply to explore. Pick a piece of wilderness, and discover it’s secrets. This kind of exploration is great at developing many important meta-skills: things like observation, decision making, resourcefulness, ingenuity, and etc.
Let’s take a look at one of these for an example. Expert observational skills, in particular, are very important for Scouts to develop. One of my favorite quotes by Baden-Powell is on the subject of observation:
“Woodcraft includes, besides being able to see the tracks and other small signs, the power to read their meaning, such as at what pace the animal was going, whether he was frightened or un-suspicious, and so on. It enables the hunter also to find his way in the jungle or desert. It teaches him which are the best wild fruits and roots for his own food, or which are favorite food for animals, and, therefore, likely to attract them.
In the same way in inhabited places you read the tracks of men, horses, bicycles, automobiles, and find out from these what has been going on. You learn to notice, by small signs, such as birds suddenly starting up, that someone is moving near, though you cannot see him.
By noticing the behavior or dress of people, and putting this and that together, you can sometimes see that they are up to no good. Or you can tell when they are in distress and need help or sympathy—and you can then do what is one of the chief duties of a Scout, namely, help those in distress in any possible way you can.
Remember that it is a disgrace to a Scout, when he is with other people, if they see anything big or little, near or far, high or low, that he has not already seen for himself.”
This is such a cool quote! He’s basically saying that Scouts can and will develop the same skills we enjoy reading about in favorite fictional characters from Sherlock Holmes to Jason Bourne. What guy doesn’t want to have these skills? The kind of camp exercises and games in the traditional Scouting program are specifically designed to develop them! They work, too. In wartime, Baden-Powell trusted his life and the lives of his men to these exercises.
One of the most simple and most popular games for the boys at Brownsea was called “Deer Stalking”. Here is how Baden-Powell describes it:
“Patrol Leader acts as a deer—not hiding, but standing, moving a little now and then if he likes. Scouts go out to find him and each in his own way tries to get up to him unseen.
The moment the Patrol Leader sees a Scout he directs him to stand up as having failed. After a certain time the Patrol Leader calls “time”. All stand up at the spot which they have reached, and the nearest wins.
The same game may be played to test the Scouts in stepping lightly— the umpire being blindfolded. The practice should preferably be carried out where there are dry twigs and gravel lying about. The Scout may start to stalk the blind enemy at 100 yards’ distance, and he must do it fairly fast—say in one minute and a half—to touch the blind man before he hears him.”
I’ve played this game with Scouts in my Troop, and I know first-hand that it’s just as fun to the boys of today as it was to the Brownsea boys 100 years ago.
Observation is just one example of the elemental life skills that can be trained through wilderness camping. The many games and activities (woodcraft, lifesaving, first aid, pioneering, jujutsu, etc.) all develop different basic life skills like decision-making and ingenuity. They’re not impractical either. Remember the whole game of Scouting is carried out in the context of being real and valuable to the everyday work of the peace scout.
Baden-Powell’s boys were training to be real scouts – one of the highest and most exciting callings. Today, the wilderness still offers us all of the opportunity for discovery and learning that it did in the past. The wilderness is not a place in history; we can never go back in time. The wilderness is a foundational state of uncivilized earth; it takes us out of our comfort zone into a raw environment where the spirit of discovery can be gratified. In the process, there are so many new and universally useful skills to be learned. This is something we, as Scouts, always can and should go back to.
Chapter 2: The Wilderness is a School for Character
As we experience new environments and face unforeseen challenges, we learn more about ourselves as well. You may live a thousand lives in your mind and still not know what you’re really made of. You can read books, play video games, or see the world through the lens of a camera, but you yourself will never have to react.
However, when you’re out in the woods fighting to stay awake as sentry or eating a ruined meal as the rain starts to pour down or dealing with a fight in the Patrol… you have to really make decisions of what to do with the situation you’ve got and live with the consequences of those decisions.
The Scouts at Brownsea operated according to the Patrol System. I’ll be talking a lot more about that in the next post in this series, but the main point I want to make here is that the challenge of the wilderness discovers and grows character. This provides the optimum environment for the Patrol System to flourish.
In a Scout camp, the Patrol Leader’s responsibility is real, not just a title. There is a huge difference between leading a Patrol in the comfort of a meeting with the security of a nearby Scoutmaster and leading a Patrol out in the discomfort of the woods. This latter kind of camping is the kind Baden-Powell envisioned.
When Scouts are away from civilization, they are completely dependent on themselves and the other members of the Patrol. If there is nothing to stop a Patrol from going hungry or getting lost if they don’t work as a team, it has a powerful effect of bringing the Patrol together.
The absence of civilization’s conveniences also builds character in the form of self-reliance. It is very empowering to know that you possess the woodcraft skills necessary to make yourself comfortable far away from the nearest grocery store or restroom. It strengthens an individual’s responsibility.
Baden-Powell said in “Scouting for Boys”:
“And even there, in the city, he [the Scout] can do very much more for himself than the ordinary mortal, who has never really learned to provide for his own wants. The man who has to turn his hand to many things, as the Scout does in camp, finds that when he comes into civilization he is more easily able to obtain employment, because he is ready for whatever kind of work may turn up.”
Chapter 3: The Motivation for Discovery and Self-Improvement
A lot of emphasis is put on how much Scouting should be fun. After all, Baden-Powell often referred to the whole Scouting framework as ‘the game of Scouting’. However, he didn’t sell Scouting as simply something to do for fun’s sake. He always kept the bigger picture center-stage:
“You will find that the object of becoming an able and efficient Boy Scout is not merely to give you fun and adventure but that, like the backwoodsmen, explorers, and frontiersmen whom you are following, you will be fitting yourself to help your country and to be of service to other people who may be in need of help. That is what the best men are out to do.”
Scouting was training for boys who wanted to serve others and do something meaningful. This bigger picture is what allows a Scout to get through the tough times. And there always will be tough times: arguments in the Patrol, disappointing camping trips, etc.
Keeping this bigger picture in the front of each and every Scout is absolutely vital to running a true Scout Troop. At the end of the day, a game is just a game. The craving for ‘fun’ only goes so deep. However, the craving for making a difference and doing something meaningful is a much deeper craving that touches the soul.
Working on fanning this craving into a flame is one of the most elusive aims of the Scoutmaster. There are no two identical Scouts, and the approach will always be changing. But that is why the wilderness is the center of true Scouting. The spirit of the wilderness is the spirit of discovery. The spirit of discovery is search of significance. This is the spirit of Scouting itself.
Some of you may think I’m reading too much into this topic. I don’t think so. I have searched long and hard to find out what made Scouting such a revolutionary movement in the beginning and how we can recapture that today. I have seen with my own eyes these principles at work in the modern world. They change lives. This is reason I started writing about Scouting over three years ago. Scouting isn’t just a nice thing. There are profound implications behind the framework of traditional Scouting, and I needed to explore them.
To recap, here are the main ideas in this article:
1. The spirit of discovery is what makes the challenges of the wilderness meaningful.
2. The many games and activities of the wilderness Scout camp all develop different basic life skills like observation, decision-making, and ingenuity. This is the first part of discovery.
3. As we experience new environments and face unforeseen challenges, we learn more about ourselves and grow in our character. This is the second part of discovery.
4. The motivation behind this spirit of discovery is to enable us to do something truly meaningful in this world.
If this is your first time visiting this website, welcome! I hope you will read the rest of this series and some of the other articles I’ve published on different aspects of traditional Scouting.
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