In a field next to the ruddy red barn of the Black Creek farm owned by Margaret Douglas and Fred Hinz, a group of children with nature nicknames like Short-Tailed Weasel, Cooper’s Hawk, Douglas Squirrel, and Pileated Woodpecker gather with their instructors from the Fianna Wilderness School.
This day, the children listen to the story of Finn McCool and the Salmon of Knowledge, an ancient Celtic tale about the gifts of self-knowledge and insight, and about the teachings that nature provides. The story sets up the theme of the day, and then the children and their teachers begin the morning’s many farm activities.
Depending on the season, they could be tending dairy and beef cattle; making yogurt or cheese; haying; tending fruit trees; saving seeds; canning, pickling, or preserving food; drying herbs for tea; planning and planting a garden; harvesting; amending soil; composting; or maintaining fences and farm boundaries.
In the afternoon, the group will move into the nearby forest for bushcraft and nature-based activities.
Fianna Wilderness School co-founders and lead instructors Stephanie MacKay and Kes Reid explain that the school is named in honour of the Fianna warriors, who, in the oral tradition of Ireland, were guardians of the land, trained in the arts and deeply in tune with nature.
For many years, Stephanie and Kes have been studying with Indigenous teachers and with teachers of nature-based traditions from Indo-European cultures, infusing their practice with tracking and wilderness awareness. Fianna’s programs are also rooted in the 8 Shields mentoring model that promotes sustainable living according to the seasons, with the teaching themes of inspiration, imagination, reflection, celebration, motivation, commitment and perspiration, relaxation and growth, and integration.
The Fianna farm school experience integrates the bushcraft of the Fianna wilderness programs to show, as MacKay says, “the relationship between the wild and the cultivated.” My daughter has been a participant in the Black Creek Farm program for two years. When I pick her up at the end of every farm-school day, she tells me about the milking or the harvesting or the planting they might have done. But she also tells me about the shelter that she and her mates built in the forest, the animals they tracked, the birds they identified, and the wild edibles they tried.
Stephanie MacKay loves helping kids develop a stronger connection with the land: “We see them deepen their relationship with nature, deepen their relationship with the rural environment, and deepen their relationship with food. And they gain an understanding of where food comes from.”
Programming at the Fianna Wilderness School has grown over the years. Along with Black Creek Farm, Innisfree Farm in Royston and Greenhaven Farm on the edge of Courtenay also partner in the farm school program, while wilderness school programs are offered in Cumberland and other locations in the Comox Valley, on Gabriola Island, and on the Sunshine Coast.
MacKay, Reid, and their team of instructors have been grateful for the long-term mentoring relationships they have built with children through weekly, monthly, and summer programs. Fianna has hosted potlucks with families, held grandparent visit days, and drawn in guest speakers from the community, such as a master basket weaver.
“We are growing a community of families connected to the natural world and the roots of their food,” says MacKay.
Visit fianna.ca to find out more about their farm and wilderness programs for children and teens.