When the fallen hero Chris McCandless of Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into the Wild was found dead inside an abandoned bus in Alaska, readers were heartbroken – but not shocked.
No preparation? No previous experience? What was he expecting?
The story of McCandless, who tried to survive entirely off the wilderness, illuminated the schism between modern day society and a more ancient, primitive way of relating to life. In this fast-paced world where technology teaches us more than, say, a hunting spear, it’s rare to find anyone who lives entirely off the mercy of Mother Nature.
Maybe McCandless was hoping to turn out more like Doug Simons.
Simons, 51, also wandered into the wilderness 30 years ago. But instead of tragedy, he has not only lived to tell the tale but also teach the lessons learned from his experience.
“Simons truly walks his talk,” herbalist Michael Murphy says, “He didn’t read a book to learn the edible and medicinal plants of the Southwest – he lived his questions by surrendering his life to the wilderness.”
Intrigued by plants from an early age, Simons grew up with a gift for plant identification and communication. He spent more than 30 years (off-and-on) wandering around the Gila and Sonora deserts with nothing to eat other than what he found along the way. When he needed fire, he used a bow drill; shelter, a canvas tarp. He didn’t have a back-up plan, either – when he was in the wild, his survival depended completely on his acquired physical skills and a deeper spiritual alignment with the rhythms of nature.
“Living off wild foods doesn’t give you the benefit of, say, a supermarket, where you can plan your meals in advance,” Simons says. “A lot of times I lived from meal to meal, and it tested me a lot. When I was hungry and tired, I had the choice of living from faith or letting the fear overcome me. It was more productive when I trusted that the land would provide.”
For Simons, survival and spirituality are inseparable. He exemplifies a shamanistic path. Defined as “one who walks in both worlds,” shamans are credited with the ability to translate between the spirit and material realms.
“The truth is, we can talk to plants, but we were never taught that in this culture,” Simons said. “It takes a while to remove the layers that block us from believing that.”
Just as we learn the codes and etiquette for communicating with people, Simon believes we can learn the codes to help us connect with plants.
In a world of weed eaters and pesticides, the concept of communicating with plants may sound inconceivable. But Simons reminds us that most native peoples facilitated the relationship between plant, human and spirit.
From a young age, Simons has studied and participated in rituals with such tribes as the Lakota, Tarahumara and Navajo. “Sacred rituals remove mental blocks and help us move into a place where we hear more clearly,” he said. “It’s also about developing our voices to speak back to them, have our questions answered, and be prepared for the answers they give us.”
After 10 years of wandering, Simons felt a calling to teach. Deb Buck, a Durango herbalist and friend of Simons, began encouraging him to teach after they met three years ago. Buck remembers giving Simons his first car ride in 10 years.
“When I met Doug, he was just transitioning from living in the desert. I immediately saw the gifts as a healer he had to share with people,” she recalls.
The two began monthly seminars around the Southwest. Combining ceremony with well-researched field facts makes his workshops special, Buck says. “He is incredibly well-read and researched. But he relates to everyone and tells great stories,” she says.
His students often refer to him as a humble presence with an incredible talent for turning his workshops into creative learning environments.
“It’s not an intellectual wisdom. Mother Nature has really tested his survival skills. Because of this, he has a reverence and down-to-earth perspective,” Murphy says.
When Simons teaches, he shows people that the plants come first. “We have to relate with the plants as living people with the same kind of respect that we have for other humans,” he says.
Feeling awkward about sweet-talking your sunflower? No matter, says Simons.
“Humans are here to learn to be better relatives to all living beings. The more we are willing to reveal all of ourselves to them, the better off we will be. It’s a joke to suggest that the plants don’t already know what’s going on in your mind.”
In addition to learning how to “speak” with the plants, Simons also teaches thorough plant identification, medicinal harvesting and edible preparation. He teaches slowly, thoroughly, and specifically about each plant. After all, we don’t want to end up like McCandless and poison ourselves with mysterious berries.
Simons grew up in Colorado, so coming to Durango is a sort of homecoming. He is particularly excited to see his “relatives” – the elderberry, valerian root, monkshood, spruce, willows and yarrow. August is a high-time for mushrooms, too, which excites Simons. “I’m very taken by the people of Durango … many people here carry their own enthusiasm; they take responsibility for their happiness. Also, the outdoor enthusiasm lifts up the energy of the whole town.”
Simons teaches all over the Southwest and sees some reoccurring ailments, such as over-stressed kidney and adrenals. Simons works with specific herbs to replenish and hydrate.
Buck, who co-facilitates his workshops, notices that more and more people from all walks of life are looking for a deeper connection to themselves through plant communication.
“When it comes down to it, Simons facilitates that connection and teaches life-ways so you can live outside and have fun,” Buck says.
If you feel called to meet the wilderness (or just your back yard) with a bit more finesse, you can meet Doug in person this week. He’ll give a free workshop at Durango Natural Foods on Thurs., Aug 11, 6-8 p.m. He will also be giving a three-day intensive workshop in the mountains near Durango from Aug. 12-14. In addition to plant identification and harvesting, Simons will instruct in basket weaving and run a sweat lodge. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Simon’s website, www.chanchka.com.