Lessons # 6/ April 2013

Follow the Deer

Deer are amazing animals.  They take leaping bounds at 40 miles an hour.  They can jump 9 foot high fences.  And they can even swim 13 mph (I wonder who clocked deer swimming).   They’re also great teachers.

Picture this.  You’re hiking through a wooded area and you come to a broad meadow with a stream running through it.  The shortest way across the meadow is a direct course straight ahead.  But, you notice a deer path that seems to follow the tree line in a broad circle around the meadow.  Should you take the direct path or follow the deer path?

Here’s another scenario.  Again, picture yourself hiking through a wooded, hilly area.  You arrive at a ridge.  The shortest way to get over the ridge is to head straight up the hill.  But, you notice a deer path that angles up the side of the hill.  What to do, follow the trail or go straight?

And yet one more situation where you’re bushwhacking through woods with lots of low brush.  Again, you have a choice.  You can follow a deer track that winds through the forest or you can take a much straighter course as you continue to bushwhack.  What to do?

Returning to the first situation, trust me, follow the deer trail.  Or, discover for yourself why you should have trusted me and followed the deer path.  It only took me half a dozen repeated “discoveries” before I accepted deer as my teachers.  Those were the times I ignored their path, a path that most likely dated back hundreds of years, to take the shortest route to my destination.  In every one of those situations,  the meadows turned out to be soggy messes that took forever to get through.  No wonder the deer skirted the tree line where the ground was still firm.

In the case of the ridge facing you, you do have two choices.  You can take the direct route straight up the hill which will also require the most energy and stamina.  Or, you can follow the deer trail and know that you are walking precisely on the path of least resistance – though longer. 

And in the last situation, please, PLEASE, follow the deer trail.  Here’s why.  Many parts of the country have hornets that make ground hives where thousands of the stinging critters live.  Step on one of those hives and you’ll discover just how many hornets are there and how much it hurts to be stung by them.  But, hornets never make hives on deer paths.  I guess they don’t care for the animals walking over them.

Are there lessons for life here?  I think so.  Here are a few that occur to me.

1.   We love shortcuts.  We love to cut through the woods, find shorter ways to drive to our favorite places and figure out how to achieve life goals in the shortest amount of time.  You know from your own experience how many times “short cuts” end up being very long, tedious paths.   Deer teach us to skirt the areas that are going to bog us down – whether physically,  mentally, emotionally or even spiritually.

2.   If you have the energy to confront something head on, directly, go for it.  But, if you don’t have the energy or know that you will need to conserve your energy, take the sideways path to achieve your goal.  It doesn’t matter if you get there an hour a day a year longer.  What matters is that you make it to your goal and have enough energy and sanity left to take advantage of it.

3.   Don’t walk on hornet nests.  And we all have hornet nests in our lives.  Most of the time we can avoid hornets but sometimes we just lose our minds and plow right through them.  Of course, we get stung.  When hiking through the woods or pursuing your life goals, do your best to locate the potential hornet nests and avoid them if you can.  If you happen on one and get stung, know that you will live and the hurt will go away with time and little care.  Don’t let some hornets stop you.   


Predators and Prey — Parents and Children


Lesson #5 — March 2013

Predators do not waste energy.  They would much rather lay in wait for their prey than have to chase it down.  It’s not surprising to find predators at watering holes or along active trails and holes.   Quite simply put, if there is food to be found then there are predators to be found.  What do we learn from this?  More a reminder than a lesson – human predators also go to the “food” source.  Take child predators, for example. You’ll find child predators where there are children – at play grounds, in the Boy Scouts (what about Girl Scouts?), on sport teams, in organizations set up to help children in need.  Pathetic but true.  And this is why it’s so important to keep an eye on one’s children.

And this brings me to the courage shown by mother birds. Once my daughter, Ashirah, and I were fox walking silently as possible through a lightly wooded area when we came around a small hill and happened upon a turkey with her young ones.  OMG – what a racket she made.  Within seconds, the little ones that had been wandering around scurried under her wings.  She took off running away from us for a short distance where she must have deposited the chicks with instructions for them to stay there and “shut up.”  We didn’t hear another peep from them.

Momma bird was not done.  She turned and began to run straight at us making a loud ruckus.  When she got 30 feet away, she began to circle around us, still squawking at the top of her little lungs.  When she had circled half way around us, she started away from us.  That’s when I suspected that she was trying to divert our attention away from where her babies were hiding.  She wanted us to come after her.  Instead, we ducked behind bushes and also became totally silent, barely even breathing.  In less than a minute, momma turkey had returned and it was clear she was trying to find us.  When she concluded that we must have left, she let out a bird call and headed back to her chicks that again became visible. 

I was totally stunned by her courage and had the opportunity only once more to witness something like it.  I was walking behind the old flagpole at Camp Alonim (now a new dining room), when I spotted what looked like white rocks with black spots on them.  They looked very similar to the rocks lying beside them – except much larger, egg size.  And it turns out that this is what they were.  I had only taken a few steps toward the eggs when a bird flew out of a bush and landed a few feet away from them.  She began to make an odd sound and limp and drag one wing on the ground.  By all appearances, she had injured her wing and was unable to fly more than a few feet in the air. 

I’ll admit it.  At first I was totally, 100% fooled.  I truly thought she was injured.  Each time I approached her, she hop-flew a few feet further from me.  I could not get closer than 10-20 feet of her.  After a few minutes, I realized that she had lured me away from the eggs, now 50 feet away.  That’s when I realized what was going on, the infamous “Broken Wing Ploy.”  Momma bird pretends to have a broken and wing and not able to fly so that any predators going after her eggs will come after her instead.  I “chased” mom for 15 minutes before I had to get to where I should have already been.  She took me away from the flag pole, behind the art building and up a small hill toward the horses.  When I finally stopped, I was at least 100 yards from the eggs. 

Then I am struck by the way human mothers watch over their young.  Grant you, many do and there’s no problem with that.  It’s the ones who don’t that need this reminder.  I was with my grandchildren for several weeks during which time we went to 2 indoor play areas and 3 outdoor playgrounds.  Typically, parents sit on the side and pay attention to THEIR CELL PHONES.  I don’t.  I play with the kids (as grueling as that can be).  So what happens is that at least 3 other kids will come up to me and say, “Will you chase me too?”  I tell them “no, or your parents will have police chasing me – and don’t talk to strangers.”  Not once did I see a parent watching.  Had I been a predator, well, good thing I’m not. 

And keep your eyes open.  Predators of all kinds are excellent at camouflage.  Don’t look for the scuzzy guy wearing a large overcoat ready to flash someone.  Correct that – if you see someone wearing a long raincoat on a sunny day – be on your toes.  But, all you have to do is watch the Date Line NBC sting operations of men seeking out underage girls for sex to see that predators come in all shapes and sizes.  Can we spell Jerry Sandusky? 

Winter Lesson – Letting Go of the Fear

Lessons # 5 / December 2012

Winter Lesson – Letting Go of Fear

Winter’s classroom is filled with lessons and one of the most powerful ones I learned took place in a patch of woods owned by the Case Western University in Cleveland, OH.  My daughter, Ashirah, and I had learned to construct wilderness shelters that fall and were eager to put out skills to the test.  It so happened that the Case Western University owned a large piece of land in the country that included softball fields, picnic areas and a 100 acre patch of woods with large beech trees.  We spent several days before the first snow constructing debris shelters.  These are essentially large leaf piles dumped over tent-like frames of sticks.  More leaves are stuffed inside each shelter to provide ground insulation.  We were also able to make a lean-to from the large strips of beech bark stacked against uprooted tree.

We had to wait until late in December before the weather got very cold and snowy.  It was still snowing when we hiked in after dark.  We put our sleeping bags in the shelters and retired to the lean-to to heat our evening meal.  We talked, made notes in our journals and sat by the fire watching the snow fall outside.  I was uneasy.  It suddenly occurred to me that the shelters may not work the way they were supposed to.  These were our first shelters.  What if we didn’t make them right?  What if we went to sleep and didn’t wake up?  But we didn’t have much choice.  My wife had driven us to our hike in spot and she would not return until the next day.

I came up with a secret plan (I didn’t want Ashirah to know how worried I was).  I’d let Ashirah go to sleep first and I would check on her to make sure she was okay.  I walked her to her shelter, helped her slide into it, said the Sh’ma with her and told her good night.  I returned to the lean-to, waited 20 minutes and walked back to Ashirah’s shelter.  I called out to her.  She awoke and answered.  I told her to go back to sleep.  She did.  I went back to the shelter and put on a warmer hat and gloves.  The temperature had been dropping from the time we had arrived and was in the lower teens by then.  The wind had picked up adding to the wind chill.  I returned to Ashirah’s shelter and woke her again.  This time she was less patient and told me to go to sleep.

And this is when I discovered that I was in nature’s classroom.  I turned to go back to the lean-to and saw a female deer standing a dozen feet away.  She was just standing there looking at me.  I looked at her and the first thoughts I had were, “She’s not wearing a down jacket.  She doesn’t have on Gore Tex gloves or Sorrel boots and she’s not shivering.”  She doesn’t have a thick layer of fat to keep her warm and her fur is not nearly as thick as a bear – or even my dog for that matter.  But there she stood in all her “deerness” without an apparent care in the world.  What quality did the deer and my daughter share that made it possible for them to accept the cold.  Only one thing – the lack of fear

The only difference between them and me was that I was afraid of what might happen.  Fear can bring about pain that’s not real and sharpen pain that is real.  Fear magnifies the bad and obscures the good.  My fear was amplifying the effect of the cold.  All I needed do was let go of the fear.  And I did, at least enough to go to my shelter and stop bothering my daughter. I wish I could say that I went to sleep that night as soon as my head hit the leaf pillow but that didn’t happen.  It’s one thing for the mind to realize something and yet another for the heart to act on it.   It took 20 minutes before my body could heat the inside of the shelter.  The leaf pile worked.  The heat stayed in.  And 20 minutes later I was unzipping my coat and taking off my gloves.  At last, I slept the sleep of the peaceful.

Let go of fear and the cold isn’t as cold, the pain doesn’t hurt as much

And the Anger dissipates like the mist in the morning sun.

Electing a President – Moose or Goose?

Lessons # 4 / November 2012

Changing Leadership – Moose vs. Goose

Thank God the elections are over and we know who will be our country’s leader for the next four years.  I voted for President Obama and I take joy in his winning.  Now that it’s over I feel like I just got married again.  For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or good health, we are stuck with each other for four more years.

I was walking by the Allegheny River when I saw a flock of geese (first flock I’ve seen since leaving CA).  The birds were flying in a classic “V” shape with one of the legs of the V slightly smaller than the other.  The birds few west and soon disappeared over the wooded hillside but not before they got me thinking about two models of leadership transfer in the animal world – the Moose Model and the Goose Model

Moose (also rams, elk and deer) assert leadership by battering their antlers together.  These antler games can last hours but (I’m told) they rarely result in either the losing moose or the winning moose getting hurt.  There just comes a time when one animal still has stamina and is able to ram the other animal harder.  Somehow, both animals know when the battle is won/lost and simply stop their charges with the winner taking center stage and the lose slinking off in search of better hunting grounds.

And this pretty much describes the way we elect a president.

Geese do it differently.  They don’t confront one another or peck each other.  Their transfer of leadership is much easier.  When the lead goose gets tired, he (and I’m pretty sure the leaders are male) simply drops to the back and another goose takes over.  When that one gets tired, the process is repeated.

Goose or moose.  You decide.

Together We Stand, Divided We Fall

 Lesson #3 – November, 2012

Bittersweet Vines and Twigs

I encountered bittersweet in the Delaware River Valley of northeast Pennsylvania.  This plant starts small but within a few years can completely envelop full grown oak and maple trees.  The bittersweet is definitely an invasive species that, inadvertently, can cause great damage – especially the added weight in winter time.

What amazes me about bittersweet is the way it grows.  The vine isn’t particularly strong.  It’s fairly easy to break it by hand.  But, the individual pieces of vine twist around each other and the resulting “braid” is nearly indestructible.  And when I see it, I can’ help but think of an experiential lesson my mother taught me many decades ago.

When my brothers and I would fight, she would take us aside give us a small twig to break.  Then she would give us two twigs together to break, which was a little harder.  And then she would put three twigs together (one for each of us).  Try as we might we could never break the three twigs.  After we struggled for awhile, mom would say, “Individually, a lot of people can beat you but if you stick together, no one can beat you.”

Thank you Bittersweet Vine and twigs.

Change Perspective to Find Meaning

Lessons # 2 / August 2012

Animal Tracking and Changing Perspective

Animal tracking is very exciting.  My Native American teachers taught me that every track reveals up to 4,000 different pieces of information about the animal that made the track.  Tracks can tell us the sex of an animal, whether the animal has recently eaten, if the animal is still able to bear young ones and so forth.

Some of these signs are easy to “read”, such as, the sex of deer.  Deer make a track that has a “V” shape (most of the time), the result of its split hoof.  When a deer walks, its back foot doesn’t quite fall into the exact spot of the front track.  Instead, it will be a little to the outside of the front track (meaning further from the body of the animal).  Or, the track will be to the inside of the front track meaning that it will be slight closer to the body of the animal.  If you spot a deer track where the back foot falls to the outside of the front foot, it means that you are looking at the tracks of a female deer whose hips are wider than a male for the purpose of giving birth.

But, the lesson for this installment is the benefit of changing perspective.  You see, if you attempt to look at any tracks with the sun behind you and the track in front of you — you may see 10% of the track.   You may not see anything at all.  But, if you step around the track, placing it between you and the sun, all of its detail pops out as clear as day!  How is this possible?  Shadows.  With the sun in front of you, the light hits the track’s ridges and troughs making distinct shadows.

And the next time you find something in your life or in Jewish tradition that just doesn’t make sense, step around to the other side, pull a 180, and look again.  You might be surprised at what you find.

What My Dog Taught Me

Lessons #1  June 2012

My Teacher, My Dog

I have a large German shepherd named AMEE.  She’s been a part of my family from the time she was a tiny pup.  And I have learned many lessons from her.  One lesson in particular stands out for me and this is the lesson of how to begin each day.

It’s a question you might ask yourself.  How do you start your day?  What are your first thoughts and actions upon awakening?  Do you immediately turn on the computer to check your Facebook page or email?  Do you click on CNN to catch the first news of the day?   If something is troubling you, do you find yourself thinking about it right away?

The start of my mornings is completely intertwined the start of AMEE’s day.  It begins around 5 AM while I am still in REM sleep.  There comes that inevitable moment when I become aware that AMEE is heavy and persistent breathing.   This signals she has awake and is standing next to my side of the bed waiting.  Only a fold-out gate prevents her from licking my face.   If I open my eyes or make any obvious moves, she will leap onto the bed in the expectation of belly rubs and egg pull.  I do my best to pretend that I’m still asleep but I can never fool her.  Maybe my breathing pattern changes or maybe she is just psychic but she knows when I’m awake.  I hear her tail begin to wag, beating against the side of the dresser as rhythmic as a metronome.

No more pretending.  I get out of bed and look at her.  Her ears are playfully tilted sideways and she has a look of utter joy that comes from knowing she is about to go outside for her first walk.  She leaps and bounds and runs in circles.  She has done this day after day for 12 years.   Whatever unpleasantness has marked her previous day, whether getting shots from her vet or yelled at for chewing a shoe, the past is completely forgotten.  She knows only the joy of awaking to a new day.

Judaism’s “wagging tail” is called the Modeh.  This is a prayer of thanks for being alive that we can say each morning upon waking.  You can say the traditional words or make up your own.

Here’s the traditional version:

I give thanks to Thee, everlasting King, who has mercifully restored my soul within me, Thy faithfulness is great. 


Thank you AMEE.

Lessons from Nature

WELCOME TO Jewish Nature Lessons.  My name is Gabe Goldman and I have been blessed to learn from the greatest teacher in the world – NATURE.  She is totally patient.  She will repeat a lesson as many times as needed.  She treats everyone with equal indifference. (as the best teachers know to do).

What can nature teach us?   Almost everything – from what to eat when we’re hungry to new ways to understand our ancient Torah stories.  In many ways, nature teaches us the meaning of “being human.”

And, I hope you’ll share with us your own lessons from nature.  I’ll email to me and I’ll post them to the blog with your name.  Enjoy.


Dr. Gabe Goldman

Director of Outdoor Jewish Classroom