The Institute for Wild Intelligence is a school, but there’s no building—just the 150 acres of the Orange Twin Conservation Community, located five miles north of downtown Athens. The woods make up the classroom here.
Well, technically the Institute uses a few buildings on the land—an outhouse here and there, and a former Girl Scout pavilion about half a mile into the woods from the clearing that doubles as a small parking lot. The pavilion is where Tommy Tye, registered forester, naturalist, storyteller and assistant director of the Institute, is headed one early spring morning.
Just like the children and adults who study year-long in these woods, Tye leaves the wider path that clearly travels across the property in favor of hiking a narrow, barely recognizable trail leading deep into the woods.
Off-trail sees a lot of action.
A trio of deer, white fluffy tails held aloft, dart by twice. There are stops to sample edible wood sorrel (sharp, lemony, with a nutty aftertaste), tender green briar shoots (“it’s like woodland asparagus,” says Tye, and he’s right) and redbud blooms (surprisingly juicy and sweet). Birds call overhead; the sound of traffic is another world away.
At the Institute’s after-school, homeschool and summer camp programs, children learn ancient skills—tracking, making fires from friction, building makeshift shelters. Adults gather once a month there for the Institute’s Athens Earth Skills Club, even in bad weather—during last winter’s snowstorm, they still met and built a debris hut made of branches and pine straw and other things they dug out of the snow and ice, and even slept overnight in it.
The environmental educators at the Institute have a simple goal: get children and adults to connect with nature, which leads to a greater care of a community and themselves.
“We really look at it like we facilitate a romance between people and the natural world—Matchmakers, you might say,” says Tye. “Once you fall in love with something, you take care of it…all I have to do is fire people up.”
Evan McGown founded the Institute in 2010 after studying wilderness survival, tracking, permaculture and arts-based education in Washington and California.
He was inspired as a teenager by the tracker and survivalist Tom Brown, Jr., whose “mentor, an Apache scout and healer, had so much common sense wisdom about how humans can live in harmony with our home, the earth and nature, rather than fight against it…I wanted to go on my own personal journey from being an alien in my environment to becoming a native again of the earth.”
Nature is “the original classroom,” he says, and it’s time to get back to it.
“If we can combine our modern technologies with the timeless wisdom of our ancestors and indigenous peoples who lived very close to nature, then we have the highest chance to not just survive as humans, but to thrive in an unprecedented state of peace and abundance,” he says.
Students at the Institute study eight core curriculum areas—hazards and awareness basics, animal tracking and the art of questioning, plants and aidless navigation, ecology and community/mentoring, re-skilling of primitive skills and permaculture, bird language and deep sensory awareness, social justice and diversity-bridging, and arts-based empowerment and activism—but the instruction itself has a freeform, student-led “focus on nature awareness,” says Tye.
Take the “art of questioning” part of the curriculum. When children saw a winged nutlet from the Carolina Silverbell trees that grow along the land’s two creeks, they asked what it was. Tye didn’t tell them right away, but asked them a series of questions that eventually led to the students figuring it out themselves.
“We’re less keyed on the result,” says Tye. “It’s more about the process of learning, to utilize all their senses fully. It’s a powerful skill but one that’s not very awake in humans.”
At the pavilion, there is a fireplace, a piano (Orange Twin is also a record label), bamboo that will become child-made bowls, plates and utensils and, nailed to a board, the drying skin of a fox that was found dead on the side of the road.
Tye sits on a stump outside the pavilion, near an outdoor kitchen made of stone and a well that he hopes will someday be bicycle-operated. He looks at the sun’s position in the sky, correctly guessing it’s now 10 a.m., and talks about “aidless navigation”—finding your way without compass or map. He talks about “deep sensory awareness,” and how it’s important to not just identify but also understand bird calls—if you know what the birds are saying to each other, you know what’s going on around you in the woods. He talks about “re-skilling” not just in terms of starting fires without matches, but learning how to get along in groups of people.
He mentions the notion of “coyote mentoring,” named for an animal often seen as a trickster who lives on the edges between worlds in Native American stories. Institute instructors get to know their students well, pulling them gently and gradually out of their comfort zones. Both adults and children who warily enter the program often end it completely happy to literally sleep (or roll) on the ground.
“We try to nudge them across and push back their boundaries,” says Tye. “It’s a subtle way to encourage growth.”