Quillwood Podcast

QP1: Two Stories

December 21, 2021 Eric Garza Season 1 Episode 1
Quillwood Podcast
QP1: Two Stories
Show Notes Transcript

In this first episode of the Quillwood Podcast, host Eric Garza tells two stories that explore its motivations, values, and goals. The first story expands on advice Eric was given by a courageous black-capped chickadee in 2009. The second explores a case of mistaken identity in a northern Vermont forest in 2016, and the learnings that arose from it.


  • 00:00 - 01:10 — Introduction
  • 01:10 - 06:07 — Learning from chickadees
  • 06:07 - 11:58 — Barefoot walking as a core practice
  • 11:58 - 16:39 — Origins of the Quillwood name
  • 16:39 - 21:22 — A crisis of sense making
  • 21:22 - 22:03 — Episode wrap up

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Every journey begins with a single step. The journey this podcast will take you on is a very particular one. It is a journey that entails learning to navigate the rapidly changing world in which we live.

I am Eric Garza, host of this Quillwood Podcast. I will use this first episode to introduce the podcast. There are many different ways I could do this, of course, but I will do it by telling two stories, both of experiences that were formative in my journey in life and that led me eventually to produce this podcast, and also found Quillwood Academy, with which it is closely associated. The second story that I will tell explains the origin of the Quillwood name, and I am telling that story because it sheds light on the podcast's values and goals. The first story that we are going to start with explains the podcast's soundtrack. Let us begin.

You are listening to the sound of me walking barefoot through a forest not far from my home in Northern Vermont. My decision to use this as the podcast soundtrack emerges from an experience. I want to share the story of that experience not just because it is fun, but because it has something to teach us.

I was bow hunting on a piece of land maybe 30 minutes north of my home back in October of 2009. I was still relatively new to bow hunting at the time. I was very good at archery, but I had a lot of room for improvement in field craft, which is that suite of skills that involves moving through landscapes quietly and attentively, and being able to set yourself up for a good ethical shot.

I was walking around looking for tracks and sign—I was deer hunting at the time—and found myself surrounded by alarming chickadees, little songbirds here in the Northeast that are quite common. They are probably quite common in other areas of the US as well. Bird alarms are the bane of hunters' existence. Each individual species has its own unique alarm call. Many oftentimes have alarm calls specific to particular types of threats. When not just birds of that species but birds of other species, hear a particular alarm call, they understand what threat the birds that uttering it are seeing, and they know how to act accordingly. It is not just birds that can interpret alarm calls. A lot of other animals throughout the forest can do this as well. And when a deer hears the alarm call of a particular bird, it knows to quietly walk the other way. And when a hunter is walking through the forest and birds start alarming at them, that means that they are probably not going to see any deer because the deer they might have been after, or the bear or whatever other game animals, are probably going to be long gone by the time they reach their destination.

When the chickadees I encountered that morning started to alarm, I stopped and I waited and I was hoping that they would quiet down and eventually move on. But they would not. They would not leave, and they would not stop alarming. Birds alarm—and I alluded to this earlier—because they perceive a threat. And the fact that all of these chickadees were alarming at me meant that they were perceiving me as a threat in that moment. And knowing this, I asked them, "What am I doing wrong? What is it that you want to see me do differently?" And my humility, I think, is what quieted them down a little bit. And one of the birds finally offered a suggestion: "Take off your shoes."

Now when I say it offered a suggestion, obviously chickadees do not speak English. What happens is that I will get impressions, mental impressions that feel to me like they are coming from, in this case, an animal. But I also sometimes get these from plants and fungi as well.

At any rate, I was confused by that particular request. And so I asked why, "Why do you want me to take off my shoes?" And the chickadee explained, in the suite of mental impressions and images that it sent back, that shoes allow me to walk through that forest with footsteps that are much too heavy, they allow me to walk far too fast, and too carelessly. And in my carelessness, I was not showing the regard to the land, to the place, that the chickadees felt was appropriate. And that was why they were perceiving me as a threat.

When the chickadee explained this to me, I totally understood what it was getting at and realized that it was right to make that specific request. So I sat down, I took my shoes off, and I finished hunting that morning barefoot. And I did not have any problems with chickadees, or any other animals, alarming at me the rest of that morning.

Since that experience walking barefoot has become one of my core practices. And not just while hunting. I do this in a lot of contexts, and I get a lot of benefits from it. Walking barefoot demands that we slow down and that we take care in the placement of each of our steps. I remember this being very unnerving at first because we are used to going fast and relying on shoes' thick, rigid souls to protect us from that quickness. Walking barefoot in this way interrupts that normal habit of moving quickly and invites us to move with greater care.

The reason for this, of course, is simple. Walking barefoot makes us vulnerable. It makes us vulnerable to the realities of the train that we are traveling on. In forests, where I was hunting that day and encountered the chickadees, in forests there are rocks, there are sticks, there are thorns. These are some of the "natural" hazards, but there are a lot of man-made hazards in Vermont's forest and fields too. Back in the 1800s most of the state was clearcut to make way for sheep pasture. A lot of that forest has grown back, but I still find remnants of that agricultural operation throughout the state: Barbed wire in places where I would not expect to see it, discarded pieces of metal, nails, screws, broken glass, all kinds of other junk that could cut for puncture skin.

While walking barefoot I am vulnerable to all of these things. But animals are vulnerable to these things too. The way they get through life without suffering constant punctures and cuts is that they use a full body awareness to perceive the terrain they are moving through. This full body awareness helps to keep them safe. Learning to feel safe while we are walking barefoot on a piece of land and in a particular place requires that we, as people, reclaim the same full body awareness.

Learning to feel safe in a rapidly changing world requires much the same of us as barefoot walking does. We need to learn how to slow down. We also need to be aware of hazards as we make critical decisions. Barefoot walking is a good practice for this. It is good preparation for it. It allows us to receive feedback from the landscape. If we wear shoes, those shoes would normally block all of this feedback. They would dull our perception, and they would allow the muscles of our feet to atrophy. Shedding those shoes allows our feet to strengthen over time and become the conduits of information they were designed to be.

I noted earlier that walking barefoot is an expression of vulnerability. This is certainly true. And I think there is a tendency for people to think that vulnerability is a drawback. This is not necessarily true. Yes, when we are barefoot in a landscape, we do open ourselves up to injuries from sharp rocks and barbed wire and that sort of stuff. But we also open ourselves up to the opportunity to become stronger. Our feet will become stronger over time as they learn how to carry the weight of our body again. And as our feet become stronger, we also develop poise and confidence moving through that landscape. We develop balance, and we develop stamina. All of those qualities are valuable.

Here is a quick story within a story: Years ago I was invited by a woman I was dating at the time to go hiking with her. She wanted to go to the top of Mount Mansfield, which is the tallest mountain in Vermont. I agreed to go, but let her know that I was on a barefoot kick, so I would be hiking barefoot with her. She was fine with that. I certainly moved a lot more slowly than she was able to—she was wearing shoes. Despite the miles of trail and the very rugged terrain, including a lot of sharp rocks as we got up towards the summit, I made it. And I tell that story just to make it clear that when we commit to something like this, when we commit to barefoot walking as a practice, over time we can develop the strength and the stamina to do things like summit mountains, much in the same way that if we commit to expanding our full body attentiveness, and our awareness more generally, we are going to be able to better learn how to navigate the changing world that we live in, regardless of what kinds of challenges it throws at us. I invite you to experiment with walking barefoot outdoors, if this is something that is not already part of your lifestyle.

So that was the first story I wanted to share in this introductory episode of the Quillwood Podcast. The next story is one where I explain where Quillwood comes from.

This word is not in the dictionary, at least not as of the moment when I am recording this podcast. The other place that shows up is in the name of Quillwood Academy, a learning institution that this podcast is closely associated with and that I founded back in summer of 2020.

The name comes from an experience that I had, also while hunting but a lot more recent. This experience was back in October of 2016. I spent that morning bow hunting, ironically enough on the same piece of land in Northern Vermont where I encountered the chickadees many years earlier. I did not see any deer that morning, so I went for a walk through the forest looking for tracks and sign, looking for clues where I might spend some time and have a better chance of seeing my quarry. I saw plenty of that, but while I was walking through a grove of beech trees I also saw a tuft of mushrooms growing on a small rotting log and the mossy ground right around it.

I am not an expert on mushrooms, but I recognize most species in my area simply because I see them over and over and over again and I spend a lot of time outdoors in various seasons. I had never seen any mushrooms quite like these though, so I walked over, squatted down, and took a closer look. Each of the individual mushrooms were very thin, maybe an eighth of an inch thick at the most. They were white. They basically looked like really thin stalks, stems. They had a little bit of black at their base, and they had no caps. Some of them had little nubbins that gave me the impression that a cap might have been there, but there were no caps on the ground suggesting they fell off, and none of the mushroom stems had any caps on them.

I looked at these little mushrooms for a while and just could not recognize them so I resigned myself to picking a few of the stems and taking them home. And then when I got home later that afternoon, I could sit down on the web and see if I could figure out what these were. So I reached down to pluck a couple of the stems, and as soon as I touched that first one, I realized my mistake. I realized that these were not mushrooms at all! What I was seeing were actually porcupine quills embedded in the wood!

That inspired me to wonder, how did this little mat of porcupine quills get here? I stepped back and looked around. I already mentioned I was in a grove of beech trees. Porcupines will climb beech trees sometimes and browse on the cambium, browse on the buds. It is not too surprising if a porcupine to be doing this at that time of year to fatten itself up, getting ready for the long winter. And when I looked up, I noticed that maybe 15 or 20 feet above me there is a branch, a pretty sturdy branch, that had reached out across where the porcupine quills were that came from a nearby beech tree. So what I suspect happened was that there was a porcupine walking across that branch and, for whatever reason, it slipped and fell, landed on its side or on its back, and left a bunch of its quills embedded in that rotting piece of wood and the mossy ground around it. And that was the mat of quills that I found. I did not see any evidence of the porcupine's demise, so am left to believe that it probably shook the fall off and waddled off into the forest.

So the word Quillwood comes from that experience of finding porcupine quills embedded in wood and mistaking them initially for mushrooms. Now, why would I name an institution of higher learning, and its associated podcast, after this experience? To discern this reason, maybe it is useful to look at the broader pattern of what happened and understand the importance of being able to recognize that pattern.

So what happened is that I saw something unfamiliar—porcupine quills embedded in the ground, which I had never seen before—and rather than perceiving clearly what I was actually looking at, I initially misidentified it as a mushroom. And that misidentification, that mistake, became my reality. And I held onto it until evidence forced me to let it go.

Now, in this case, the mistake was innocuous. There were no significant consequences to me making that mistake, except for the fact that it took me a bit longer to figure out what I was actually looking at. Individual people, as well as societies writ large, make similar mistakes all the time. And while sometimes the consequences are equally innocuous, sometimes the consequences of these mistakes can be huge. And this leads, I think, to a question of how should we respond to this? We live in a time—I am recording this in September of 2021—we live in a time where we face many converging crises, but really the one overarching crisis that sets the stage for all the others is a crisis in sense-making.

How we make sense of what is happening influences how we react, and it influences which solutions we gravitate to. One of the solutions can be willful ignorance, or denial.

Sense making is a skill. It requires us to be able to critically examine our understandings of how the world works, how things came to be the way they are, what the future holds, as well as other aspects of our worldviews and our paradigms. I mentioned the word paradigms—Donella Meadows, who is very well known in the realm of systems thinking, years and years ago wrote an essay called Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. That essay eventually would become a chapter in her book, Thinking in Systems. In that essay, as well as in that book chapter, she looked at and ranked some of the different ways that people can intervene in systems in an attempt to make change. The most powerful intervention that she identified is learning to see our paradigms, and learning to change our paradigms to more accurately reflect how the world works.

We need to be able to see our paradigms, our worldviews—I use these two words interchangeably; I actually prefer worldviews, but a lot of other people prefer and use the word paradigms. We need to be able to see our paradigms and our worldviews for what they are: constructions of reality, our understandings of how reality works, and not reality itself. We need to build the capacity to interrogate these paradigms, and we also need to build our capacity to accept feedback on whether or not they are accurate, regardless of how that feedback comes. Two things that are integral to this endeavor, and that will form the foundations of this Quillwood Podcast moving forward, and also for Quillwood Academy for that matter, are the values of critical reflection and discernment, and also the goals of sense making and sense giving—not only being able to make sense of the world for the benefit of ourselves, but be able to articulate how we make sense of things and being able to help others make sense of things as well.

This podcast is brought to you by Quillwood Academy. Quillwood Academy offers learning opportunities to help inquisitive folks just like you navigate our changing world. I encourage you to head over to the Quillwood Academy website. You can find it at Quillwood.org. 

That is all for this episode, this very first episode, of the Quillwood Podcast. The next episode will drop on October's new moon. I will leave it to you to look up the date. Until then, this is Eric Garza, signing off. Walk softly, and take good care.