-Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
Farcountry Press 2009, paperback with a new foreword afterword
Originally Published by St. Martin’s Press, 1999
On its initial hardcover release, Shouting at the Sky was celebrated as a moving portrait of a dozen teens, struggling to regain their center against the magnificent canyons and uplands of southern Utah. Now, for the new paperback edition, Ferguson has tracked down those same young people, seeking their thoughts about the experience some ten years later. Remarkably, for nearly all it remains the most significant event of their lives. “It changed my perspective about who I am,” says Jenna, now 26. “It changed my ideas about what it means to be human.”
“The middle of Utah’s Red Desert, two, maybe three in the morning. Light from a full moon is spilling all over the place—down the shoulders of Caineville Reef, across the long, flat sweeps of sage and rabbitbrush and greasewood, through a thin braid of dry, nameless washes, onto the faces of seven teenage girls scattered across the ground at the edge of a box canyon, hoping for sleep. Lisa and Jenna are having weird dreams again, twitching and mumbling, setting off on what seem to be conversations, passing off a slur of words and grunts, even instructions: “Not that way,” Jenna is saying. “Go left. It’s over there.” I’m trying to remember it all, give the words back to them in the morning in the off chance they might hold some kind of meaning.
Nature as few have imagined it. A windswept desert thick with spring—the flash of primrose, treeless hills shining in the sun.
And in the distance, all but lost in these great sweeps of rock and sky, a group of teenagers fresh out of suburban America, struggling desperately to build new lives.
Lives beyond crack and crystal meth, beyond sadness, beyond a pain that has brought many to the brink of self destruction.
In Shouting at the Sky, award-winning writer Gary Ferguson is once again bound for the backcountry, this time to spend a season in one of the country’s most remarkable programs for at-risk teens.
(originally published in the Tributary Magazine)
Noted author Gary Ferguson explores the world of troubled teens
Gary Ferguson is a man who believes in the healing power of nature. In his latest book, Shouting at the Sky: Troubled Teens and the Promise of the Wild, the Red Lodge, Montana author makes a departure from past works that have been largely personal reflections gleaned from the backcountry.
Ferguson admits that over the years his writing has gone through various incarnations. “For a number of years I wrote mostly about environmental issues—chronicles of the myriad ways that nature was being abused. From there I moved on to more personal, reflective pieces, trying to get at how and why natural places were so important in my own life. Finally, as of late I’ve been more concerned with exploring the tracks that nature leaves in other lives. One example is my book Through the Woods, in which I tried to recreate my own sense of connection to the land by hanging out with people who practiced the wilds on a daily basis: moonshiners in Appalachia, tribal elders, canoe guides, artists. Men and women who were linked to nature in ways not unlike those that existed when the country was young—a time when, despite fierce exploitation, wild places served as wellspring for patriotism, mythology, and art. (Pundits of the 1790’s loved to talk about how America would become the greatest nation on earth, as measured by the number of artists, musicians, and writers, because of the chance that existed here to rub elbows with the wild. Not by accident were the best nature poets of the 1800’s—Whittier, Bryant, Whitman, Emerson—equally celebrated as the best patriot poets.)
Ferguson offers this explanation of what led to his book: “The desire to see how nature influences other people’s lives (to see if 1950’s novelist Lawrence Durrell was right in claiming that “we are the children of our landscape”), left me primed to write Shouting at the Sky. One day while researching nature mythology at the University of Colorado I stumbled across a study done in the late 1970’s claiming that the better wilderness therapy programs were achieving success rates in treating teenage drug addiction that were significantly better than resident programs. What a thought! It’s one thing to accept the power nature has for those of us who seek out wilderness. But could it also have profound affect on people who absolutely didn’t want to be there?”
Kids in Nature
Ferguson began calling around the country, talking to therapists and education consultants and social workers to identify the best wilderness study programs. “I finally decided on the Aspen Achievement Academy in Utah for three reasons,” he says. At 8 weeks, it was longer than most; I figured that length of time would allow me to build a stronger relationship to the kids I’d be spending time with; second, It required parents to go through therapy at the same time, reflecting the notion that this isn’t about broken kids; it’s about a family system that’s no longer working; and three, this program, like all good wilderness therapy programs, turned on influence, not discipline. Of course safety was a primary concern. Still, kids were allowed to make their own decisions. The consequences of those decisions were provided by nature itself, by the challenges of living simply on the land with a group of people you may or may not like. Staff was there to guide, not to preach.”
I interviewed Ferguson about the experiences which followed.
Todd Wilkinson: Give us a brief character profile of, say, the typical troubled young person in your book and how they got there?
Gary Ferguson: The typical kid at Aspen was 14-17 years old, a veteran of every kind of treatment program imaginable, from lock-down drug rehab facilities, to psychiatric wards, to suicide centers. Drug abuse was a common factor in about 70 percent of them. Other problems included “oppositional defiance disorder” (acting out, running away from home to live on the streets), anger issues, depression, severe ADD. The program did not accept kids who were excessively violent, or had severe psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia.
TW: Some social wonks have asserted, in the wake of the Littleton and Conyers shootings, that American teenagers were less stressed when more of them came from rural environments and were less detached from nature? Do you buy that?
GF: If that’s true, it may have less to do with the rural environment per se, than with the simple fact that what they did mattered to a larger group, the family. I can’t tell you how many of the kids who I worked with tell me to this day that this program was the first place they’d ever been where what they did had value. At home, at the psychiatric ward or the drug rehab facility, they explained, you jump through the hoops for the therapist and then you go off and watch TV, play computer games, sleep. No one cares what you do.
Trying to live simply on the land, on the other hand, setting and breaking camp, moving several miles a day, cooking with a bow drill fire—that absolutely requires a high level of involvement. Sit by the trail for hours on end if you like. But that means we get into camp at eleven o’clock at night, probably too tired to do much of anything but toss down some cold food and hit the sack. In the beginning a kid starts communicating to the larger group, starts pulling his or her weight simply because those things are keys to being comfortable. In the end, however, they also do it because it leads to a sense of belonging to something bigger. And that, they say, is incredibly satisfying.
It’s nothing new for teenagers to be full of angst. There are a hundred years worth of anthropological studies where researchers would go into a culture, either modern or primitive, and ask what it was like to be a teenager. The answer was always pretty much the same: it’s a time of feeling misunderstood, isolated, disempowered, full of creative energy, a time of intense desire to leave the mundane world behind and live a more dramatic existence. In other cultures (and at one time, in our own), adults were around to help a kid figure out what to do with that chaotic energy, a group of people committed to providing experiences that would ultimately lead kids to a sense of personal empowerment. These days, though, in America a lot of kids are left to deal with that crazy energy on their own. Combine that isolation with the kinds of options they have for trying to feel empowered—drugs, gangs, violence—and adolescence becomes an incredibly dangerous time.
TW: Among the romantics in our culture, wilderness is presented as an instant balm for the soul, yet many of the kids in your book viewed it, initially, as being exiled to a prison. Describe their transformation.
GF: I’m hesitant to even bring up the term “rites of passage,” given how many people are quick to blow off such concepts as the stuff of New Age hucksters. (A rather amazing perspective, given that rites of passage are the oldest tool known to humankind for promoting transition, for creating the sense of new identity that psychologists have long recognized as fundamental to growth.) At any rate, one of the primary tenets of the world’s rites of passage is the need to remove yourself from the familiar, to be wrapped in a non-ordinary place and time. Most of the intense dislike kids had at being out in the sticks was based on a fear of the unknown, and that actually passed fairly quickly. Once they learned how to be self-sufficient—build a bow drill fire, cook their food, make camp—that fear actually gave way to a tentative sense of freedom, especially for kids who had been in lock-down drug rehab facilities.
With the fear out of the way, other benefits of the natural world began to take hold. For most kids this was the first time in their lives they had been in a place relatively free of distractions—noise, television, traffic, classroom bells, etc. This sense of calm (along with a lack of drugs) seemed to prompt them to go within, to look at the choices they’d made in their lives, ultimately to make peace with the young man or young woman inside who was struggling to get out. Curiously, we had a lot of kids with severe ADD—to the point they couldn’t hold a conversation for thirty seconds without spinning off in all directions. Yet I never saw even one of them who, after two or three weeks out there in the wilds, wasn’t showing just a fraction of their original symptoms.
Here’s another fascinating shift that happened. As odd as this may sound, when kids first came into the program, say it would rain or snow on us, most would conclude that such weather was somehow tied to them personally—some kind of payback for being a jerk. After a few weeks, and with no prompting whatsoever from staff, they would suddenly come to the conclusion that “hey, it’s just raining. I don’t like it, but it doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
With that idea in place, many of them took it to the next level: Maybe the fact that my dad’s an alcoholic, or that my mom doesn’t want to see me, or that my brother killed himself last month, is just a lousy thing that happened. It isn’t about me. They started to build new stories about the world and their place in it. They began to remythologize their lives. It was an incredible thing to witness.
TW: The experiences you chronicle are moving but when these kids go back into their communities which are full of distractions and daily pressures, has the wilderness experience given them enough to set them on the right path?
GF: About forty percent of the kids I followed after the program did great for about two months, and then “fell off the wagon”—went back to doing drugs, stealing, skipping school. In the thick of that trouble, though, many of them came to the conclusion that they didn’t want to be that way any more. One boy described the wilderness experience as having “ruined my high. I knew too much. I knew there was another way.” At that point he, like many others, started to climb out of the hole, leaning on what he’d learned out in the wilds about the importance of communicating, about the value of a good support network. The climb out was made harder by the fact that many of the kids, having seen how thrilled the adults in their lives were when they first got out of the wilderness program, didn’t communicate their troubles for fear of disappointing them. Actually, while this program does go to great lengths to help a kid and his parents create a healthier environment at home, I think they could do even more to prepare both the kids and the parents for what to do in the face of a relapse.
My experience hardly qualifies as a scientific study, but roughly sixty percent of the dozen kids I stayed in touch with were doing very well a year later. Traditional rehab programs, by the way, have a success rate of around thirty percent. These kids tell me that while the wilderness therapy experience wasn’t a magic bullet, it was a fundamental part of what finally allowed them to turn their lives around. Here, in no particular order, is what they say was most powerful for them: a) finally learning to communicate with their peers—a skill gained from necessity, brought about by the demands of living outdoors; b) having adults around (especially the field staff) who were willing to listen to them, who acted as if their opinions were worthwhile; c) alone time in a quiet place; d) the physical challenges of hiking, climbing mountains, etc. (For nearly all of the kids the physical challenges led to feelings of accomplishment. For others, though, especially kids wrestling with depression, the physical demands, combined with peer support, became a powerful tool for dealing with their depression, something to lean on besides prescription drugs.
A number of these kids still use solos as a way to manage their lives during times of stress, often asking their parents take them to a state park or forest near their home so they can spend a day by themselves—slowing down, being quiet, getting back in touch with important notions about who it is they’re trying to become.
Todd Wilkinson lives in Bozeman, Montana and writes about the environment for several national magazines and newspapers. He is author of the critically-acclaimed book, Science Under Siege: The Politicians’ War on Nature and Truth.