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Data Users Guide to the Natural World

Imagination is the wilderness of the mind, but it is this imagination that lures some of us, almost with no choice, out to the wilds of the real world; and once “out there,” the infusion of wilderness greens our imagination, so this is a complete loop, the infinite loop we wish for our students and teachers.

Let’s go on a surf trip!

You pull your surfboard off the car, grasp it balancing under your arm, and set off barefoot down the cliff trail, caroming off each switchback like a little dance as you pick your way down to the sand. The tawny color of the bluff and the gradation of blues in water and sky are soothing and you stretch out little, opening the hips, extending the long muscles. You walk into the surf zone, the stones testing every footfall you make, a little nervous about finding a paddle-out time between the wave sets. You thrust your board over an inside breaker, dive on top, take a few long strokes. A wave lifts you up and now you can see an outside set is rising, threatening. Do you turn back or stroke harder to try to make it out? You go for it, paddling long and firm as a wave lifts up and up, the lip starts to pitch out nearly sacking you but you make it over with a sense of relief. Now you see the next wave welling up and it starts to dredge and crest before you get to it. You feel your back and neck stiffening and you paddle firmly into it, narrowing your vision as you can sense the cold slap of the winter water on your forehead before it even happens. You grasp the nose of the board and push down, feeling the shoulder blades flex, as the wave collapses and carries you down under in the agitation. You know to relax now, not fighting this nearly infinite power source, allowing the buoyancy to bring you up in its own time, and then you scramble back on your board and resume paddling.

Dr. Stuart Grauer surfing in Encinitas, California

Dr. Stuart Grauer surfing in Encinitas, California

Once outside the break zone at last, the first set wave arrives from the northwest, you swivel, the wave gathers you up, you jump to the back of the board and drop straight down the face till you have gained enough momentum to sling the board just into the curl, and you head down the line staying just ahead of the peeling right-hander. The wave opens up wide and fat, so you lean on your back foot for a left-hand fade until the wave steepens quickly and then you lean in, accelerating right; and finally, you power your right foot hard down on the tail with a twist till the front of the board smacks through the crest and an involuntary smile comes on your face. What is that?
You paddle out again feeling the long glide of each paddle stroke and any mental interference you may have had is evaporated with the rhythm of the strokes, your breathing which slows to match it, and the alpha wave sound of the ocean. Sitting for a moment, your eyes drink the light as your peripheral vision scans even more than 180 degrees at a glance, and you hold your palms up and note the light offshore breeze as it smooths the wave faces and your own face. A bit like a hunter or tracker, you stalk waves for a while from their first hint far out on the horizon. You slide into a few more that come in at unpredictable times, the last one ending up in turbulent whitewater, challenging your balance and footwork, as it bounces you towards the shore. You carry your board to the beach, where a wavy top whelk is washing about in the tidal zone, and you decide to leave it.

The beach has been scoured by winter waves and there is a one-yard, vertical sand embankment running along the high-tide line. You scramble up it, then impulsively jump on the cornice and slide back down the sand face; it’s random play, and you scramble up and ski down on your heels again, and again, feeling the weightless balance, the proprioception, and finally make your way back up the switch-backed bluff towards your car. Your thighs are working in all directions and your breath deepens. Another session is done, and you look back, eyes lighting on the horizon from this ageless vantage point.

Grauer surfer Kai S. '20 competing in bodyboard finals - January 12, 2019

Grauer surfer Kai S. '20 competing in bodyboard finals - January 12, 2019

Driving home, the music on the radio is somehow a perfect soundtrack for everything you see en route. Of course, you could be driving home from a trail run in the mountains or forest, to just such a soundtrack, WHICH IS your brain on nature. And now you pull into your driveway and note the routine has taken you one hour. You exit the car and your skin feels taut, clean and warmed in the early sun. Your neighbor is leaving for work and says, “How was the surf?”

You never had any goal in mind, so you just reply with a grin and he relates back, “I know, I just had an intense workout in my garage: pumped out five miles on my treadmill.”

It’s a data paradox. Treadmill running is not the same as running in the wild and fast food is not the same a full course meal of fresh picked ingredients. The treadmill may get you by, but very different things are going on in your mind and body. As Ratey notes, “Short sighted, single-factor fixes[ and practices]--especially those that ignore the evolutionary design of our bodies—often create more problems than they solve.” Natural and wild exercise, along with age-old creative practices like ballet and dance, engage a far wider range of muscular groups, joint stresses, neurological and cardiovascular activity, and even emotional responses than single-factor exercises. And think about the difference in quality of air (in most locations) and feast for the vision (long-range, colors, and peripheral), for the ears which can be our beta blockers, all when we’re outside.

Grauer surfer Case C. '21 competes at a surfing competition - January 12, 2019

Grauer surfer Case C. '21 competes at a surfing competition - January 12, 2019

Wild is not easy, comfortable, predictable or programmable—these are its worthiness. The Chinese definition of the term wild translates as, “self-maintaining.” A wild plant or animal, in other words, knows how to take care of itself, to adapt, and this is its fitness. Does a human? If not, then what good is a treadmill. We have, as humans, the extraordinary, ecstatic potential for mind and body integration. We keep learning, and ignoring, the simple fact that our bodies are extensions of our imaginations, however wild they stray. This mind-body integration is the highest purpose for a “whole” education—without this integration, there can be no ethical attachment to larger, external purposes. We cannot teach one of them well without the other, though we keep trying.

(Bonus video: The Nature Fix - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0fnixkRUCo )

Dr. Grauer loves to hear from his readers. Please click on the "Comments" drop-down box below to leave a comment about this column!

Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

Dr. Stuart Grauer surfing in Encinitas, California

Dr. Stuart Grauer surfing in Encinitas, California

Grauer surfer Kai S. '20 competing in bodyboard finals - January 12, 2019

Grauer surfer Kai S. '20 competing in bodyboard finals - January 12, 2019

Grauer surfer Case C. '21 competes at a surfing competition - January 12, 2019

Grauer surfer Case C. '21 competes at a surfing competition - January 12, 2019


Fearless Teaching Book

Fearless Teaching is a stirring and audacious jaunt around the world that peeks—with the eyes of one of America’s most seasoned educators–into places you will surely never see on your own. Some are disappearing. It is a bit like playing hooky from school. You will travel to the Swiss Alps, Korea, Navajo, an abandoned factory in Missouri, the Holy Land, the Great Rift Valley, the schools of Cuba, the ocean waves, and the human subconscious—oh, and Disneyland.

There you will find colorful stories for the encouragement, inspiration, and courage needed by educators and parents. Fearless Teaching is not a fix-it book—it is more a way of seeing the world and the school so that you can stay in your work and focus on what matters most to you.

Grauer’s writing reminds us that
"Great Teaching, singular, rare, unusual, is something that should be sought after and found. Thank you.”
Richard Dreyfuss, Actor, Oxford scholar, founder of The Dreyfuss Initiative

Click here to order Fearless Teaching today