New Lebanon, N.Y. — A series of winding dirt roads, meandering through the Shaker inspired Darrow School campus, converge in what appears for all intents and purposes to be untouched farmland. At the T-shaped intersection of Chair Factory and Abode Roads — a quiet and secluded enclave rife with Shaker history — Flying Deer Nature Center (FDNC) occupies land that, in the mid-19th century, belonged to the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village community. Formally established in 1787, the New Lebanon Shaker Society (renamed the Mount Lebanon Shaker Society in 1861) was the second major Shaker society formed in the United States. Participants in the programs at FDNC roam nearly 300 acres, leased from the Abode, where community living abounds. In a nod to the area’s rich history of simplicity and efficiency, FDNC is a wilderness school and community dedicated to mentoring children, youth, adults, and families in deep connection to nature, self, and others. On Saturday, June 17th, FDNC will present its annual “Flying Deer Day,” an opportunity to come together in celebration of nature and community.
I will be at Flying Deer Nature Day, as the proud Mama to one of 13 girls in Moon Tribe, the rites-of-passage program for girls between the ages of 11-13. The last time I was at FDNC was in May, on the weekend of the now infamous Nor’easter that slammed into New England dumping more than an inch of rain overnight in Columbia County, to celebrate Mother’s Day. I’ve celebrated a dozen Mother’s Days, most of which involved handmade cards, sloppy cups of lukewarm coffee brought to me while in bed, served with coupons promising deeds that rarely materialized after the novelty of the day wore off. This year was different; this year was powerful.
Moon Tribe is designed to support girls as they move through early adolescence, learning about themselves and the world and discerning their identities as young women. The program weaves community and consciousness around potent issues for growing girls and nurtures each girl’s innate strength in herself and in her relationships with the earth, her peers, women mentors, and the circle of mothers. When my then 12-year-old daughter and I packed our bags, despite the soggy forecast, we were cautiously optimistic if not a bit giddy. We were armed with giant, unflattering rain ponchos, tightly rolled sleeping bags, a batch of freshly baked zucchini bread, and coffee for the morning — when I arrived at the campsite and learned that someone had thought to bring half-and-half, the excursion was already a success.
What ensued, of course, far surpassed my expectations. And it was real. We foraged for wild edibles, finding more than 17 varieties — from ramps and garlic mustard to Bishop’s Weed and Sweet Cicely roots and leaves — that the girls made into spring rolls that we feasted on with stinging nettle soup. We joined forces, all 23 of us, to start a fire in a tug-of-war style bow drill demonstration that resulted in a single, glowing ember despite the aforementioned damp conditions. We gave voice, as mothers, to the challenges of raising girls — at this transitional age in these challenging times –and laid the groundwork for valuable connections with others on this similar path. We then slogged through treacherous footpaths, sang songs beneath a makeshift tent, braved the latrine in the dark, and ostensibly slept through torrents of rain that ran down the gently sloping campsite and left our sleeping pads floating come sunrise.
When I awoke in my soggy tent on Sunday morning, with no promise of a pedicure or conventional pampering in sight, I was greeted by the sounds of a gaggle of adolescent girls singing, “Happy Mother’s Day to you…” to the tune of Happy Birthday. It was lilting, and sweet, with just a hint of stifled giggles. After a breakfast that consisted of scrambled eggs cooked with the remaining wild edibles, myriad baked goods, and caffeine, I was presented with a hand-twisted grapevine crown and marked with a muddy thumbprint on the forehead by my oldest daughter. The weekend was delightful — but far from perfect — lest it appear I am leaving out some sordid details. We fought when trying to put up our tent, and I inevitably did many embarrassing things including kissing her in public. But the lessons — the valuable, take home lessons — are often less apparent in the moment and become glaring in retrospect.
For Tes Reed, who walked with her own daughter in the woods more than a dozen years ago, these programs are vital at this moment. “We’ve totally walked away from our honoring of our children becoming adults and letting them know we are standing witness,” she says. “We challenge and push these girls outside their comfort zone and provide them strong role models so that they understand what their journey is — what’s expected of them. Furthermore, when we walk ahead of them, making footprints, it is important to turn around and challenge them to do better,” says the FDNC Board Member, Chair of Fundraising, and co-director of Moon Tribe. “In honoring and connecting to the earth, these girls are connecting to themselves as women who are learning to honor and respect themselves in this female role. This then radiates out into the community for all to reap the benefits,” says Reed who has been affiliated with FDNC since it achieved nonprofit status more than ten years ago.
Michelle Apland and Devin Franklin have been running and directing Flying Deer Nature Center since 2001 under the guidance and encouragement of Leonard and Deborah Brown, the center’s founders and elders. Apland, Executive Director at FDNC, has a passion for the wild that led her into environmental conservation early in life. Michelle discovered Flying Deer Nature Center in 1999 and fell in love with the beauty of what she saw. She returned in 2000 to take a leading role in guiding its growth as a Naturalist Community. Michelle is passionate about working with children and families and specializes in leading Daughters of the Earth Programs, a concentration within FDNC for women and girls.
Franklin, Director of Programs at FDNC, has loved exploring in and learning about nature since early childhood. He discovered his thirst for the Wilderness Teachings in 1994 and has been walking the wilderness path ever since. He joined Flying Deer Nature Center in 1998, where he was mentored by Leonard Brown in the ways of Coyote Teaching and the Medicine Wheel. Devin deeply loves working with children and nature through creating the Naturalist Community that has been his home since 1998.
“Devin and Michelle have been walking this path since before they were born,” say Reed of her colleagues. She adds, “Now more than ever, in modern times, we’re becoming aware of our human effect on the earth. We are not living harmoniously, it’s become clear. We are users here, instead of sharing, instead of being guests.” This invitation, to find deep connection with nature and self, is the driving mission behind all of FDNC programs that range from adult, homeschool and forest kindergarten to school programs, vacation and summer camps.
Flying Deer Day will take place on Saturday, June 17th, from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. at the Abode Mt. Camp, 5 Abode Road, in New Lebanon. This year the focus will be on nature activities and will include archery, herbal salve making, bow drill demonstrations, skull identification, face painting, natural jewelry making, animal track casting, willow wands, bird language, and more. In addition, there will be live music, Olympic Games (Flying Deer style), a treasure hunt, and FDNC’s classic BBQ, salad buffet, and bake sale. Admission is $5/person, with children age 3 and under free; a portion of the proceeds from Flying Deer Day will go toward FDNC scholarship assistance which enables students to come to Flying Deer programs they would not otherwise be able to attend.
To learn more about Moon Tribe, the rites-of-passage journey for girls ages 11 to 13, join Michelle Apland and Tes Reed for an informational session on Wednesday, June 21st, from 5-6 p.m. at the Discovery Den. For more information visit www.flyingdeernaturecenter.org
Flying Deer Nature Day Schedule
11:00 a.m.: Firelighting and Year-End Celebration with Flying Deer Students
11:45 am-2:30 p.m.: Live Music and Nature Activity Stations: Archery, Herbal Salve Making, Bowdrill, Skulls, Face Painting, Natural Jewelry, Track Casting, Willow Wands, Bird Language, and more!
Noon: BBQ, Salad Buffet, and Bake Sale Open
2:30-3:30 p.m.: Olympic Games, Flying Deer Style
3:30-4:00 p.m.: Treasure Hunt