outdoor skills

Aboriginal Skills and the Path to Undistractable Attention - Jim Robertson

I always go back to square one: Where am I coming from? What is my intention here? My intention is to come from the best place possible, which is coming from my heart, from that pure place; that place that as I choose to see it, we all have.... And the choice, the big choice in life, is: Do we want to listen to this, do we want to pay attention to this, do we want to feed this, do we want to nurture this? Or do we want to ignore it?
— Jim Robertson

In our world of endless consumerist and technological distraction, “undistractable attention” is about more than just shutting off the social media; it’s about tuning into the guiding voice that’s inside each and every one of us. One pathway to that voice may be meditation or yoga, but our most fundamental route—as I learned in this life-changing conversation with Jim Robertson, an aboriginal skills instructor and naturalist based in Santa Monica, California, who coined that term—is via our eons-old home in the natural world. As Jim explains here, the absence of that connection in our modern-day lives has led to an epidemic of physical and mental illness, and left us struggling to fill that void with one mind-numbing addiction after another.

Jim has worked as a naturalist for the Santa Monica Mountains and taught aboriginal skills and wilderness survival training to nature-bereft urbanites for over a decade. But remarkably, Jim didn’t come to the world of aboriginal skills until he was well into his fifties. It isn’t often in our modern world and culture that we have the opportunity to sit and absorb the wisdom of our elders, and Jim, 78 years young, held me rapt as he unfolded his captivating life history over the course of this conversation, including a moving look at his struggles with physical and emotional pain that brought him to his current path. Whether you want to learn more about plants and the fun of primitive campouts, seek inspiration on how to live more deeply and fully every day, or simply want to be enthralled by the wisdom of one of the most delightful human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing, check out this episode! 

Here’s the path of our conversation:

  • Innate “primitive skills” and Jim’s childhood spent outdoors in 1940s California

  • How Jim discovered aboriginal skills in his fifties

  • The health challenge (and the psychic!) that led Jim to become a naturalist for the Santa Monica Mountains

  • Immersion in the outdoors as the ultimate medicine

  • Jim’s earlier decade-long struggle with profound emotional and physical pain, and how he ultimately came to the other side

  • The practice of what Jim calls “undistractable attention” (or "indistractable [sic] attention," as we refer to it a few times in the episode!)

  • Gail Sheehy’s book Passages

  • “I don’t think there’s anything better than being as sensitive as we can possibly be; because we want to feel deeply, we want to see deeply, we want to hear deeply, we want to live deeply and more fully”

  • The Shawshank Redemption and the place within that cannot be harmed

  • Playing pre-professional baseball, surfing and spearfishing at the beach as a teenager in 1950s Santa Monica

  • Discovering yoga while working in insurance in the late 1960s: “Here I was a business guy, with my styled hair [and] a tie”

  • Personal transformation in a time of monumental social upheaval (both then and now)

  • Trump

  • The necessary role of aboriginal and indigenous skills in the age of materialism

  • What it means to co-create with Mother Nature: Plant identifying, basket making, bow and arrow making, fire making

  • Jim’s aboriginal skills classes

  • “Full primitive” camping

  • Shooting a bison with a handmade bow and arrow (and “making everything imaginable” from that bison -- “from the hair to the bones to the intestines”) at Utah’s Boulder Outdoor Survival School

  • Jim’s thoughts on hunting and his day-to-day diet

  • The acronym Jim lives by (in the wilderness and everywhere)

  • A recent campout gone awry in the eastern Sierras

  • The deficit of nature in modern life and its connection to our epidemic of addiction

  • How to tap in to undistractable attention in your everyday life

You can learn more about Jim and his classes via his website, Meetup group, and on Facebook. Have a question for Jim? Reach out to him directly: jimrobertson[at]aboriginalskills[dot]com.

If you enjoyed this show, subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss the next one (and don’t forget to leave a rating and review). The theme music is by Paul Damian Hogan. Want to chime in on this episode or have an idea for a future show? Connect with me via my Instagram page, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Learn more:

Naturalist Training in the Santa Monica Mountains
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Boulder Outdoor Survival School

Apprentice of the Wild - Sean Critchfield

sean critchfield uncivlize podcast.jpg
The city has become [the] survival environment, because if you don’t have money in a city, typically you perish. But in the woods, it’s all there; we’ve just forgotten how to listen and how to receive it.
— Sean Critchfield

When I first came up with the idea for the Uncivilize Podcast, I knew that my first interview had to be with veteran outdoorsman Sean Critchfield, lead instructor for the Wisdom Keepers School Apprentice of the Wild program here in Los Angeles, via which he teaches ancient and wilderness skills to more than 200 children, including my own two kiddos. My girls and I began taking Sean’s classes last spring (adults accompany younger students plus he teaches adult classes, too), and since then we can’t imagine life in LA without him. He has become a much beloved mentor as our family transitions from mere outdoor enthusiasts to people with a true outdoor skill set.

But it is also Sean who undoubtedly inspired this podcast, because he has opened up a world of possibility by doing what so many others in the wilderness / primitive skills movement wouldn’t dream of doing: choosing to reside in the midst of a megacity while he pursues a life immersed in the natural world and the fundamental skills of self-reliance. As a result of that seemingly paradoxical choice, he is not only living proof of the idea that nature is not, in fact, “somewhere else,” but an essential facet of the human existence with which we must all find a way to make our home; he has been able to share his knowledge with so many. 

Whether like me, you’re just entering the exciting world of plant identifying, animal tracking, fire making and shelter building and are overwhelmed about where to start, or you’re a veteran outdoorsperson struggling with navigating the realities of our hyper-modern world, I know you’ll appreciate the urban rewilding wisdom Sean brings to this interview. He’s also a gentle soul and a gifted storyteller (you should see this man hold rapt a dozen-plus otherwise rowdy kids in the woods), and I promise you’ll find yourself mesmerized by the profundity of his thoughts on nature, on learning, and on using the circumstances of our reality to more fully connect with the world around us, wherever that may be. 

Here’s what we delve into in this first episode:

  • Navigating urban life and finding pockets of beauty everywhere

  • Sean’s work on the East Coast with renowned forager Carmen Corradino: “I now look at the woods differently”

  • The city as the “survival” environment

  • Sean’s childhood as an Air Force brat and learning bushcraft skills from his father

  • Fly fishing, rock climbing, summit hiking, backpacking

  • How Sean came to primitive skills and wilderness survival

  • “I don’t care who you are; The more you learn, the less you know”

  • Modern learning versus ancient learning: Transference of ideas versus a transformation of lives

  • Becoming a Nevada Naturalist

  • The rabbit hole of interconnected skills and Sean’s advice for getting started

  • Meeting Chris Morasky and the importance of finding mentors

  • Why “the only perfect survival shelter is in a survival guide”

  • Learning to make a coal with a bow-drill fire kit (and what is a coal, anyway?)

  • “There is a presence that we’re unaware of that is demanding gratitude and respect”

  • Teaching wilderness skills to young kids and failure as a tool for learning

  • Why discomfort is OK

  • An encounter with angry wasps

  • The risks that come with nature versus accepted risks in the modern world

  • Rock climbing and accepting the circumstances of your reality

  • Why Sean lives in LA, Apprentice of the Wild and how he balances the natural and modern worlds

  • Sean’s thoughts on technology and his vision for the future: “It’s the only ending I see that works”

You can follow Sean’s work or check out his workshop/class offerings via the Apprentice of the Wild page on the Wisdomkeepers site, learn more at the Apprentice of the Wild Facebook page or reach out to Sean directly at apprenticeofthewild[at]gmail[dot]com. 

If you enjoyed this show, subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss the next one (and don’t forget to leave a rating and review). The theme music is by Paul Damian Hogan. Want to chime in on this episode or have an idea for a future show? Connect with me via my Instagram page, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Further reading/watching:

The Nevada Naturalist program
The California Naturalist program
Steven Pinker’s TED talk: The Surprising Decline in Violence