Living off the Grid

Local author and self described “feral homesteader” Miles Olson thrives on the outskirts of civilization

The Grade 4-6 students who take part in the Challenge program, <a href=

viagra buy under the leadership of District Gifted Education Teacher Jocelyn Bystrom (third from left). Students were asked to choose one item that represents what they value in their learning environment to hold in the picture. ” src=”https://www.infocusmagazine.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Challenge_Class_inFocus-5143-602×436.jpg” width=”602″ height=”436″ /> The Grade 4-6 students who take part in the Challenge program, under the leadership of District Gifted Education Teacher Jocelyn Bystrom (third from left). Students were asked to choose one item that represents what they value in their learning environment to hold in the picture.


Say the words “gifted education” and you’ll likely be met with a range of questions, some of them curious, some skeptical, a few downright suspicious.

“What’s that?”  “Why do we need this?”  “Can’t they simply give the smart kids more work or let them skip a grade?”  “Why should we give extra help to kids who already have an advantage?”

Jocelyn Bystrom has responses to these sorts of comments and questions—and she gets plenty of opportunity to share them. Bystrom is the District Gifted Education Teacher, which means she delivers a special program—one day per week—for approximately 60 kids each year, from Grades 4 through 6, who, via referral and specialized testing, have been designated “gifted learners.”

These students leave their regular school programs once a week to spend a day with other gifted learners at Courtenay Elementary. Known as Challenge, this program has been offered by the Comox Valley School District for more than 25 years, and is currently one of the longest-standing gifted programs in BC.

“The Challenge program is a lighthouse beacon in the province,” says Bystrom. “There are very few districts left that are providing this. It’s on the chopping block everywhere. I am one of just a few full time gifted educators.”

Bystrom is a tall, articulate woman with a steady gaze who, when she talks about her work, radiates both passion and competence. Sentences pour out of her rapidly, one after the other, peppered with words that aren’t in most people’s daily vocabulary—differentiation, asynchronous. She’d be intimidating if she wasn’t so quick to smile and laugh, and so genuinely enthusiastic.

In answer to the most basic question about gifted education— “What’s that?”—Bystrom explains that there are many ways to define gifted. She cites the definition used by the local School District: “Giftedness is asynchronous development…” Here she pauses to explain: this means that a gifted child’s intellectual, emotional and physical maturity levels can progress at dramatically varying levels.

“So they may have intellectual and/or creative capacities they aren’t able to handle,” she says. “It’s like a five year old with the vision to be a great painter, but the five-year-old fingers can’t manipulate the brush well enough to keep up. This can cause all kinds of confusion and frustration.”

She continues with the definition: “… in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different than the norm.”

Giftedness is not purely about IQ, she says. “All the kids [in the Challenge Program] have the common core that they are cognitively gifted, but it’s much more dynamic than that. There’s a big difference between gifted and bright or talented kids.”

She pulls a handout from a folder while energetically quoting its contents: “A bright learner has good ideas; a gifted learner has wild and silly ideas. A bright learner knows the answers; a gifted learner asks the questions. A bright learner enjoys sequential presentation; a gifted learner thrives on complexity. A bright learner is receptive; a gifted learner is intense…” and more.

It is very hard to meet the needs of these kids in a regular classroom. Giving them extra work or getting them to help other kids can separate them from their peers, which can lead to social problems, or will encourage them to hide their abilities. Skipping a grade generally doesn’t provide all they need either.

“Acceleration is not the only way to help kids who need to go to a deeper level of synthesis and analysis. Research shows that clustering with like-minded peers is best. That way they have others to share in the complexity and intensity,” says Bystrom.

“You can see this dynamic with gifted kids at play. They’ll take an imaginary game into deeper and deeper levels of complexity, and the other kids won’t be able to follow and will get annoyed or drift away, leaving them isolated.” For such kids, the Challenge Program can be a huge relief.

“These kids already have an inkling that they are different. They feel it. When they come here and work with other kids like them, they feel, ‘Wow, there are people from my planet.’”

This dynamic reflects some of the tensions inherent in the use of the word “gifted.” The truth is, “giftedness” doesn’t always feel like a gift. These students face a particular set of challenges and handicaps. Some of these come from within—inner intensity, awareness of complexity, relentless perfectionism—and some from without, as they deal with others’ jealousy and with being singled out, and they try to fit into systems that aren’t designed for people like them.

Bystrom sees her job as helping them negotiate this terrain. Her strategy—address it, literally, head-on.

In the first week of Challenge this September, Bystrom put a sticky note with the word “gifted” on each student’s forehead, and invited them to mill around the room, talking to each other about what that meant. When the bell rang for recess, she gathered them together and asked, “What are you going to do with that label when you go out into the schoolyard with the rest of the kids? You can’t get rid of it—it has to stay with you.”

The students chose to conceal the label in a pocket or in their shoe, says Bystrom. This wasn’t necessarily out of shame, but instead suggested a pragmatic, and perhaps appropriate, social sensitivity.

This exercise may not sound like “education” but it links directly to one of the Challenge curriculum goals—developing social-emotional intelligence.

“I offer them a tool kit of strategies to handle themselves socially and emotionally. Also, because often a gifted learner can be highly perfectionist, they can learn to make mistakes in a supportive atmosphere. We talk about taking risks, about being able to fail as part of the learning experience.”

Like the kids, some adults also need help coming to terms with the implications of the “gifted” designation.

“It’s so important that we demystify giftedness,” says Bystrom.

A common complaint is that the gifted program is elitist. In reality, gifted education is not about status at all. Gifted learners are found in all cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and socio-economic groups. Having a district-wide gifted program creates a level playing field for all gifted students.

“Also, people say it’s a frill, a perk for smart kids. But these students, potentially, are at-risk learners. They need mentors, people who understand their intensities and sensitivities.”

It’s not unusual for a gifted learner to be chronically unmotivated, to get low grades, and exhibit behaviour challenges, because their educational needs aren’t met. As well, some gifted students also have learning disabilities. These “twice-exceptional” students often go undetected in regular classrooms because their disability and gifts mask each other.

The bottom line, she says, is that every child deserves to have their unique learning needs met. And if gifted students get their needs met, they will then be able to share their gifts with their communities. If they’re shut down, their gifts get shut down too—a loss for everyone.

Bystrom started out as a regular classroom teacher. “I’ve taught every grade from one to nine,” she says. “I saw how some kids reached benchmarks much more quickly that I’d imagined. So I got curious. I saw there was this exceptional learning need. I started asking questions of other educators—how are you meeting these needs?”

At the same time, Bystrom and her husband had begun to notice that their children were reaching learning milestones ahead of their peers. The school had contacted them asking them to meet to consider various educational options for their eldest child. All this fueled Bystrom’s thirst to learn more about the needs of the gifted.

In 2007 she enrolled in a Masters Program in Education and Leadership at the University of Victoria, specializing in teaching emotional and social intelligence to gifted learners. She was in her element. “Some people like to go for coffee—I learn for fun! I love to be in situations where people are into inquiry!”

At the same time, she had what you might call an ulterior motive. It seemed likely that the Challenge teacher of the time would be retiring in a few years. “I had my eye on that job. I knew I had the thirst and the desire, so I put the fundamental pieces in place to be well-prepared. It worked! I sure did the big happy dance when I got this job.”

She hasn’t been disappointed. “I LOVE my job!” she says.

“I believe this program can be a life-changer. Because when you have opportunities to be in a community in a safe place, it’s an ideal learning experience. My job is to create an atmosphere that is conducive to this group. I’m not really the teacher; I’m the facilitator of the learning.”

No two days are exactly the same in the Challenge Program. Activities include logic puzzles, group check-ins, improv games, math challenges, plenty of field trips, hands-on science projects, and half an hour of SPA (Silent Passion Activity, when students work on whatever ignites their passion) daily.

This curriculum, Bystrom explains, is not based on content. “It’s not enriched in terms of subject. Instead, it’s about critical thinking, teamwork, listening skills, divergent and convergent thinking, goal-setting, and logic. And there’s the social-emotional piece, too.”

As a way to contribute to this article, third year Challenge students were invited to answer some questions about the program, and about being gifted. As our society explores, ever more deeply, what it means to embrace diversity, the term “gifted” will continue to bring up questions, some curious, some suspicious. Voices such as these provide authentic answers, straight from the source.

Here’s a sample of their responses:

“Some kids in our classroom are gifted mathematicians, some can solve Rubik’s cubes, some are very good at making friends and holding those friends close to them, some are charismatic. All of us are creative. Me too. But also I’m just a normal person. I do the same things as normal people; I laugh like normal people, but apparently I’m gifted, and I like to be gifted. And then again everyone is gifted, but only a few get into Challenge,” writes one student.

“The Challenge Program made my life turn around because when I was in the regular class I was discouraged by my teacher and that made me feel really bad about myself, but when I got into Challenge it all changed and I feel really good about myself,” writes another.

“What I love about Challenge is that Mrs. Bystrom pushes us to the limits and it’s a really fun, creative place. Everyone can be their selves and celebrate their differences. I really like SPA. It’s that break you need from all that craziness… I’m a bit confused about the term “gifted” because I believe everyone is gifted in their own way, but being in Challenge is great,” notes another student.

“The Challenge Program is a beautiful, beautiful place, a warm welcoming environment, a small pool of learning in a chaotic school system, a small ray of sunshine in the dark,” says another student. “Challenge opened up a new world for me. I could blog my poems and receive constructive criticism from more than just three people. The activity I cherish above the rest is called “Mind Benders,” a series of complex puzzles that are constantly frustrating me.

“In a regular classroom, when I would excel at things, people would look at me like I was weird, and call me the teacher’s pet, which I wasn’t.  I was just doing my best, which is what we’re supposed to do. In Challenge, you can be yourself and no one will hate you for what you are.”


For more information visit: www.challenge71.edublogs.org

“People are craving a connection to the land—it’s both a practical necessity for sustainability and a deep heart craving, <a href=

” says Miles Olson. “I see as fundamental to the problems of the world that we are not connected to ourselves, to nature, to solid reality; that we don’t have a beautiful connection to life.” Photo Lisa Graham (Seadance Photography)” src=”https://www.infocusmagazine.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Miles_Olsen_inFocus-4928-602×906.jpg” width=”602″ height=”906″ /> “People are craving a connection to the land—it’s both a practical necessity for sustainability and a deep heart craving,” says Miles Olson. “I see as fundamental to the problems of the world that we are not connected to ourselves, to nature, to solid reality; that we don’t have a beautiful connection to life.” Photo Lisa Graham  www.seadance.ca

The day I’m supposed to interview local author Miles Olson, his home is being destroyed. So we meet at Serious Coffee instead of his hand-built cabin, which I’d wanted to see because it plays a central role in his book.

Olson had warned me in an earlier email that this might happen: “I suppose if my home has been bulldozed, I’ll just send you an email and we can meet up elsewhere :)” he’d written, smiley face and all.

That Olson is unfazed by the loss of his property does not entirely surprise me, having recently read his book, Unlearn, Rewild. His equanimity reflects a relationship to survival and to the material world that is markedly different than what prevails in Western society.

Olson is a self-described “feral homesteader” who at age 28 has been living outside the norms of civilization for the last 10 years: hunting and trapping, foraging, hand-building his home on squatted land out of salvaged materials, buying almost nothing, and learning the old ways to survive—or rather, he would say, to thrive.

Eventually, although he hadn’t planned to, he wrote a book, which was published in 2012 by Gabriola Island’s New Society Publishers. Unlearn, Rewild presents his reasons for choosing this life, and passes on some of the survival skills he’s learned. It is divided into two sections: “Ideas” and “Skills.” The result combines philosophical musings with practical instructions on gutting and skinning deer, political analysis with recommendations for good plants to use as toilet paper, and poetic reflections on our place in wild nature with suggestions of how we can use road kill as food.

The book changed Olson’s life. Where once he lived in semi-secret on the fringes of society, he is now a blogger, a teacher, and a public speaker. The week of the interview, he’s getting ready for an upcoming trip to Pennsylvania, to speak at a university and give some workshops. And he’s losing his home.

“I’m in a phase of transition right now,” he writes in his email, understatedly. The guy who walks into Serious Coffee at the appointed interview time isn’t immediately identifiable as a wild man of the woods or a burgeoning writer and international speaker. With straight, chin-length blond hair, a woolly sweater and jeans that, while not new, are reasonably clean, Olson looks, well, pretty normal.

But he has not made normal life choices. I begin by asking what started Olson down his path.

“I grew up in a completely normal way, very much a regular North American kid, disconnected from the land. But I had a constant questioning, for as long as I can remember. This is not uncommon—most people have that in the background. I was just really bad at ignoring it,” he says with a laugh.

“In my teens I picked up a couple of books that sparked ideas that what I saw in the world was not all there is: [Herman Hesse’s] Siddhartha, and [Thoreau’s] Walden.
Olson had a high school friend with a cabin on remote Maurelle Island, north of Read Island. When he was 17, after dropping out of Grade 12 at Vanier, he went there for the summer to live alone.

“I thought that was the Holy Grail in terms of getting the world to make sense. It turned out to be a terrifying experience. Being all alone, you don’t have any distraction from your own shadow. Really, it was a classic vision quest, although I wasn’t planning that. It was a hard-core experience of purging and cleansing and gaining clarity. I came out of it with a purer vision of myself and of life.”

After that intense experience of solitude, Olson knew that he wanted human interaction, society and friendship to be part of his life. This took the form of finding an unoccupied piece of land in the woods near Cumberland, and moving in. Thus began a great adventure—still living off the land, but closer to human society.

“If you were to call me a modern-day Thoreau, that would be insanely accurate,” he says and laughs. “I am living on the edge of a small city, just like he did on Walden Pond.”
Olson’s first task was to learn enough skills to build himself a cabin out of scavenged and recycled material. Also, he was looking for partners. A group of six others joined him in his project.

By intention and necessity, Olson and his friends were deeply engaged, on a daily basis, in learning skills for self-reliance. This meant reading books, talking to people, and, above all, trying things out. And where there was trial, there was also error. For instance, a winter spent trying to keep warm with green alder taught Olson the value of seasoning firewood. And he witnessed some friends learn the hard way not to eat cascara berries. “They are a violent laxative so they ended up suffering gut-wrenching agony with extreme diarrhea for a week.”

Living close to the land knocks your ego down to size. “You are humbled, again and again… and again ….” He laughs, and continues: “And that’s a good thing. It means you get grounded in reality.”

Life in the bush means persistent effort— hauling water, starting and tending a fire, finding and preparing food, and more. “It’s enough to make most people cringe, but for me it soon became not such a big deal. Actually it’s really wonderful, in so many ways.

“Sure, on the one hand it’s an annoying difficulty to have to wake up and go outside to chop wood to start a fire, but on the other hand, it’s enlivening. It makes the blood in my veins pump faster, it connects me to something that requires focus, and it’s, in a sense, very beautiful,” he says.

Another big challenge, and a source of beauty, came from sharing the land with others. “Really, the physical skills are superficial things you can figure out, but the complexities of living in a tight knit group that is interdependent—really interdependent because you are living on the land with each other— that’s huge. There was a tremendous amount of learning that took place. I had to learn to be open and receptive to my own faults,” he says.

The group eventually disbanded, but has stayed friends.

Olson has loved the whole experience. “The best part of it is having a dream that seems to be outside the realm of possibility and giving that dream form. Even though it might turn out a lot different from what you expect. To come from knowing nothing, to feeling incredibly competent, with knowledge and skills worth sharing… that’s pretty sweet!”

And people are eager for those skills and that knowledge.  It seems that Unlearn, Rewild has appeared at just the right cultural moment. Humans, clearly, are realizing they desperately need to reconnect with nature. We live in a time when educators and psychologists hold conferences on “nature deficit disorder,” when people consider it life-changing to complete the David Suzuki Foundation’s 30×30 Nature Challenge (spend 30 minutes outside per day for a month); when urban gardening is taking over backyards and rooftops. The Globe and Mail just last month identified “rewilding” as a cultural movement.

“People are craving a connection to the land—it’s both a practical necessity for sustainability and a deep heart craving,” says Olson. And it is far, far more than a trend.  “I see as fundamental to the problems of the world that we are not connected to ourselves, to nature, to solid reality, that we don’t have a beautiful connection to life and aliveness,” he says.

Unlearn, Rewild articulately identifies these world problems—climate change, over-population, exhaustion of the earth’s resources, the increasing gap between rich and poor, war, the build up of environmental toxins in land and water, deforestation, desertification, species extinction, and “general ecological annihilation.”

He identifies the root of these problems as civilization itself, which he calls “a failed 6000-year experiment.” He sees the advent of agriculture as ultimately destructive and asserts that the only proven models we have for existing sustainably as humans are hunter/gatherer societies.

While many people might consider Olson’s analysis and life choices radical, he is also remarkably nuanced, and blessedly free of dogma. Olson isn’t pushing a specific course of action on anyone. He defines rewilding broadly (over the course of a 10-page chapter) and invites people to discover what it means for them.

“To fully embrace the concept of rewilding is to relinquish your judgement and preconceptions. You really celebrate the diversity and unique gifts and attributes of every living thing. Wildness doesn’t fit into a box. It’s not humans wearing loincloths and making bone tools.

“Wildness is the life force fully expressed. That could be me living in the woods. It could be Michael Jackson dancing on stage. There are a bazillion things you can do immediately to reconnect to the living world, to yourself. Without this real sense of aliveness, life is crap.

“Really,” he adds, “my whole shtick is about having a sacred relationship to life.”

Olson has done some hard thinking about where all this fits into the big picture of a world in trouble. So he doesn’t seem surprised when I ask him how tanning hides, making pemmican or dancing like Michael Jackson, no matter how authentically wild that may be, can fix the world’s problems. Isn’t there a need to address political and economic structures directly?

“To someone who feels like the world is falling apart, what I’m doing doesn’t seem to address the problem,” he answers. “But in a really deep way it actually does! Because if we just change [political and economic] structures, we are just changing the superficial workings of the world. Our internal conditioning remains intact and we will still treat life like crap, treat ourselves like crap, and we still feel like crap.

“Political action is incredibly valuable; it’s part of taking control of your reality, having agency in your world. But there are multiple layers to reality, and change has to happen on all of them.

“We can unplug all the bombs, get rid of all the guns, and all of that, but we’ll still have these brains that make us act like jerks. Revolutions are called revolutions because they go in a circle. The only true solution is a much more nuanced, complex, individual, slow process of reconnection and re-awakening.”

As he writes in his book, “It’s time to evolve.”

Evolution, he says, may happen in surprising ways—as it has in his own life. Olson now finds himself moving from the fringes of society to a more central place, which brings with it a number of paradoxes.

“Writing the book has necessitated me doing less on the land than I used to. And now I have to think about marketing and self-promotion. It definitely is funny and ironic. Years ago I would have been a proud ideologue and cringed at this, but the end result—sharing—makes entering into these ironic realms totally worthwhile.”

Olson is currently writing a second book entitled The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook. “It’s about hunting from a reverent perspective. Apparently hunting is the ‘in’ thing at the moment. It’s a more visceral expression of the local food movement,” he explains. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of talk about how amazing and beautiful and sacred that whole thing is.”

He’s also considering where to live next, but not with any sense of urgency. He’s a guy who can survive alone in the woods; he doesn’t need a house, let alone modern amenities, to feel secure. He knew, when he chose to live as a squatter (he developed a cordial relationship with the landowner, who has now sold the property to someone ready to build on it), that this home was destined to be temporary, but notes that many of his friends who have been renting have moved far more often than he has.

And change, including loss, is a core characteristic of wild nature, as Olson explores in a chapter called “Succession.” It is essential for health, and indeed for the continuation of life. Perhaps this is why Olson, as a “rewilded” man, isn’t fretting about a change in his living situation. Instead, he’s curious.

“I’m in limbo, vagabonding around, looking for somewhere a bit more legit than where I’ve been so I can facilitate this phase of my life. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens,” he says, with a smile.

For more information visit: www.milesolson.net



One Response to Living off the Grid

  1. […] Check it out here! […]