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Natural Transformation: Wilderness Rites of Passage for Adolescents

natural transformation: wilderness rites of passage for adolescents

by Michelle Apland

Author Richard Louv coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder to describe the lack of wilderness experiences in the lives of children today. According to nature educator Michelle Apland, it’s not only in childhood, but also in adolescence, that nature can play a powerful and irreplaceable role. In this article, she discusses the ways in which wilderness rites of passage can create a meaningful transition into adulthood, along with a sense of purpose and belonging that can last a lifetime.

I stand at a quiet turn of the Missouri River. Autumn olive bushes ripe with tart pink berries line the shore, their leaves shimmering silver in the mid-afternoon breeze. In the thick heat of a South Dakota summer, I stop to pick a berry, and a crane fly alights on my hand. She is long and lithe, her body like a slim dragonfly’s, with a lengthy threadlike tail. After admiring her intricate body, I try to place her on each shrub I pass. She resists all attempts, holding fast to the back of my hand.

The cranefly’s intriguing stillness soon gives way to a slow and rhythmic writhing. I wonder if she has come to me to die. To my amazement, I realize that she is moving out of her old skin, creating distance between head and forebody and the protective covering that had held her. Slowly she works her way forward, leaving behind the thin translucent shell shaped like her head, body, legs, and wings. With great effort, she emerges, the fine filament of her tail moving out from the husk that had contained it. She rests, fragile from the exertion. To my further astonishment, she is much longer than she was moments before. Offering her shelter on a nearby bush, I walk on, full of wonder at this glimpse of transformation. How could a two-inch tail fit into a shell one-half its size? How can something emerge larger than the container it was in?

I have come to know that this biologically programmed renovation has much in common with the evolution of the human adolescent, whose blueprint for transformation lies within. Adolescence is a time when youth are full of energy, potential, and passion, and stand on the brink of endless possibility. They are ready to transform. Body and brain are changing rapidly, and there is an innate need to push the edges of what is known. As with the cranefly, there is a biological need to shed the shell of the child-self and emerge anew; larger, stronger, more capable than before. Humans have an innate need for transformation. However, perhaps because of the complexity of the social, mental, and spiritual realms, the human adolescent seeks external support for this transition. Phenomenal growth is possible here, as well as self-destruction.

Adolescents need to test themselves and the ways of the world, ideally with the support and guidance of wise and loving mentors. To live the fullness of the human plan for transformation, adolescents need to know they are moving toward a future filled with inspiration, connection, and purpose greater than self. Traditional cultures counted for their very survival on the emergence of their youth as valiant young men and women, and understood the need for strong mentoring and guidance for the transition into young adulthood. Aboriginal peoples often employed rites and rituals rich with human mythos and personal challenge to support adolescents through this passage, and help them emerge with clarity about their gifts and their role in the health of the human and earth communities.

In the United States today, adolescents come of age in the midst of cultural conditions that pose great challenges to their healthy maturation. They need support and guidance as they navigate through our culture’s mixed messages and often misguided ideals, during a stage when cultural indoctrination is at its peak. Without appropriate, intentional challenges stretching their physical, emotional, and/or spiritual capacities, adolescents are left feeling deflated. With this, their intense energy—meant to drive transformation and lead them to fly into new realms of life—may implode and cause self-destructive behavior.

Looking to the ancients for guidance, we can create contemporary rites of passage that are both community- and nature-based. Here, adolescents can find needed guidance internally and externally for a truly fulfilling journey toward adulthood. The natural world is a great teacher, and an ideal arena in which to explore the self apart from our contemporary culture’s constant barrage of impossible ideals. Nature offers a perspective on life that invites self-knowledge, interdependence, and the understanding that each life is part of a greater story.

Through the lens of nature, everything looks different. The magic of the heartbeat, the shivers that arise from hearing the howl of the coyote, the exhilaration that comes from physical exertion to keep warm or to build a shelter, all remind us that we too are animals. In nature, we remember our animal needs: water, food, shelter, fire. Sometimes, we see death, unencumbered by human ideas or involvement—a bird-kill site with feathers and blood strewn about; a short-tailed shrew motionless in the path; a squirrel hit by a car on the side of the road as it was merely trying to survive. Death is present, and so is life—blue jays squawking and chickadees singing, countless trees and plants continuously converting our carbon dioxide to life-sustaining oxygen. There is beauty in intricacy and uniqueness—perfectly formed frost crystals lining the veins of the beech leaf; the opening of a tulip flower and the universe of beauty between an opening tulip’s bright petals; the graceful silhouette of the locust tree as its branches dance toward the open sky.

Adolescents’ rites of passage in a wilderness setting can provide a palpable understanding of the relationship with the earth, and a connection to a story that is so much bigger than any individual human drama. The knowing of deep, meaningful purpose is a need that is hard to fulfill in our society today, and it can be found as the earth draws the senses outward and invokes a sense of mystery and belonging that help attune our beings to a richer reality. Wilderness rites of passage help create a relationship with these gifts of the natural world, and help adolescents learn to navigate through the complex world in order to be more alive, joyful, self-loving, and purposeful beings.

Adolescents need deep “soul recognition” from their peers and mentors, and a vision of a future infused with inspiration and purpose greater than self. This is a time when youths become familiar with their gifts and passions, and grow to understand the necessity of offering these in service to their community and world. Weaving a culture that illuminates joyful interdependence, and supports youth in utilizing the potential and passion inherent in this life stage, wilderness rites of passage can transform our society. They do this by fostering the growth of young men and women who know themselves as powerfully, inextricably connected to nature and to the world community.

Michelle Apland, MEd, is a Kripalu Yoga teacher and codirector, with her husband, Devin Franklin, of Flying Deer Nature Center in New Lebanon, New York, an organization dedicated to fostering connection between individuals and the earth, each other, and their authentic selves. She has led rites of passage and community-oriented nature programs for 10 years.

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