Because living in the wilderness provides so many opportunities to live as primitive cultures once lived, Outback students expand their creative powers by making different primitive skills and tools. One particular teen was a fantastic artisan and poured a lot of effort into crafting moccasins, leather bags, slings, spoons, etc… One day I brought my wooden archery bow and some arrows to his group and began shooting distant targets. After he had a chance to practice shooting and became a fairly good marksman he approached me with an eager look in his eye. “I want to make a bow like this! Will you teach me how?!” This particular student was smart and talented and so most things came easily to him. But because of this, he was slow to engage in his therapeutic work, rationalizing to himself and others that, “I’ve learned enough to go home and not relapse.” I decided that this was a great opportunity for a wilderness intervention by using his desire to make a bow into his desire to make change in his life. I told him that making a bow was a long and tedious process filled with many failures before he would reach success. “I don’t care! I want to make a wicked cool bow like yours!” So, I agreed, looking hesitant on the outside but I was filled with excitement on the inside because I felt that this could reach him on a deeper level. I requested that he meet me before sunrise the next morning to begin looking for the right bow stave. He questioned, “But that is before everyone else has to get up?” “Do you want to make this bow?” I asked. “Well, yes…” “Then meet me at the campfire before sunrise and I’ll begin teaching you. I’m not going to force you through this process. If you don’t want to make this bow, I’m fine with that. In fact, it will make my life a lot easier if you just gave up right now rather than getting half way into it before realizing it is much harder than you thought.” I said this to test his resolve while at the same time hoping that he would push through the first of many challenges. “No! I’ll meet you here before sunrise. I want to do this.”
The next morning just before the sun came up we sat by a rekindled campfire with small flames while I explained in great detail the type of tree branch he was looking for. By the time I was finished, the sun had risen along with everyone else in the group and they were busily engaged in their daily life on the trail. We began our search for the perfect tree branch that had enough strength, length and consistency to make a great bow. He would find a limb that he felt was a good match to my careful description and would call me over to look at it. I carefully analyzed the limb he had selected and pointed out what was good and what traits were missing. After a few hours of this, he stopped calling me over so much because he had a better grasp for what he was looking for. While we took a break in the afternoon and ate lunch together I questioned him about his therapy work. He confessed that he didn’t think it was that important because felt like he could just go home and everything would be fine. I asked him what he was doing to set himself up for success, but he could not give any concrete answers. Because he wasn’t doing his therapy assignments I told him, “Well, if you think you’re in a wilderness program to learn how to make a bow, you’re wrong. As long as you’re not doing the basics, I will not teach you the advanced skills.” He was upset by this new announcement and asked if we could at least find the right tree branch before he did his assignments, but I refused. So, he angrily went to his shelter and began working on his therapy assignments. He came back 30 minutes later with his assignments hastily done and only partially completed. I looked at them and said it wasn’t enough. I explained that therapy wasn’t about writing words on paper, but that he needed to go beyond the superficiality he had just done and write things that are meaningful and relevant to his life. He angrily stomped off again and came back a few hours later with acceptably completed assignments. I reminded him that learning to make a bow was a privilege for those that were doing their work. He consented and then we resumed our search for the perfect tree branch.
His search continued all day without success. The next day we repeated the process, but this time we found the perfect tree branch for his bow and cut it down. He was ecstatic! He had searched and searched and then finally found what he was looking for. His anticipation to begin carving his bow was visible, but he was disappointed to discover that the first step to making a bow (after finding the perfect branch) is to wait. Fresh wood needs to go through a curing process that allows the moisture to leave the wood without cracking it and damaging the bow stave. He was devastated. “But you said you were going to teach me how to make a bow!” He argued. “And I will…next week.” “But this branch is six feet long and over 10 pounds! I will have to carry it while we hike every day until I see you again next week!” “True.” I said without argument, hoping the simplicity of my response would not be lost. He could see that I was serious and unaffected by the situation so he relented. I reminded him, “If you want a high quality bow like mine then you need to be patient. If you want to work just as hard for a bow that will break next week, then go ahead and begin carving.” He could see the logic in this but he was still struggling with his emotions. I left for the week and asked the staff to follow up with him to help steer him towards patience.
The following week I arrived to the group and the first person I saw was this student holding a tree branch above his head with both bands. His face held the remnants of breakfast but his smile was unmistakable. He was delighted. As I approached him I asked, “Are you ready to discuss your therapy assignments?” With the corners of his mouth dropping into a low smile he said, “But I thought we could just work on the bow for a while and then meet for therapy a little later in the day.” “Nope, you know my boundary. Work first, play later.” His smile disappeared, but his anger never came. He knew what was expected of him and so he went to his shelter and spent a few hours completing his assignments. Afterwards, we discussed his assignments in detail and continued to process the idea that he felt as if he didn’t need to try that hard in order to remain sober from drugs and to stop being disrespectful towards his parents. He felt confident that had changed enough by just being in a wilderness program. I said, “So because you found the perfect tree branch you think you have a bow?” He stared blankly back at me. I continued, “You have a lot to learn before that branch can shoot arrows with power and accurately, just like you have a lot to learn before you can avoid substance abuse and the defiance caused by your power struggles with your parents.” We spoke for a while longer but I could tell he had passed the pinnacle openness and was on the downhill side so I ended the session while he was still in a good enough place to ruminate on what had been discussed.
We began making the bow by using a string and a pencil to outline the rough measurements of the bow. After a few hours, he had carefully cut the tree branch into the general shape of a bow. Then, the tedious step of tillering began. Tillering is the process of thinning a piece of wood so it bends evenly without breaking. This requires small precision cuts, a lot of testing, patience, and a ton of work. As I explained the process I showed him by removing small shavings of wood, then stopping to check the taper, the thickness and the bend. When I was finished he gave a slight complaint, “But that is going to take me all day.” “Not if you do it right.” I said, “It should take you all week.” He let out a small sigh, then looked at the piece of wood he had already searched for all day, carried all week and spent hours cutting into the shape of a bow. “Okay…” He said in a low voice. Sensing his resignation to the process I threw in, “This bow is not too different than your life. Good things don’t come easily. They take time, hard work, patience, and countless adjustments. Your bow will not be finished today, and neither will your therapy work.” At first he looked back with resistance, beginning to see that this project had become a therapy assignment, but his face eventually softened as he could see the truth in what was said. Throughout the day I would check on his work, giving guidance, praise and correction. Because I would not be present with him for most of the week, it was important that he understood the concepts that I was teaching him with exactness. Even the slightest misunderstanding that was carried on throughout the remainder of the week could turn an amazing bow into a stick with a string on it.
When I returned the following week I found him shooting some rough cut arrows from a well-made bow that he had finished the day before. After I looked at his marvelous work and praised him I asked, “Are your assignments done? Are you ready to meet?” “Yes” he said with a smile. As we met we talked about the process he had gone through to make his amazing bow. He reflected on all the challenges he had to overcome, the patience he had to have, the hard work he had to put into it. He was proud of himself, and so was I. I asked, “Do you want to learn your final lesson about the bow?” “Yes…” he said with some confusion, thinking his bow was complete. “When you approach your life with as much dedication, intentionality and effort as you did with this bow, then you will find the lasting change you’re looking for. Until then, you’ll just have a stick with some string on it.”