Wild Earth rite-of-passage ceremony is captured by filmmaker

Documentary filmmaker Peter Ferland. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

“The future will belong to the nature-smart: those individuals, families, businesses and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world, and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”

— Richard Louv, The Nature Principle


Local screenwriter-turned-documentary-filmmaker Peter Ferland chose to focus his talents on capturing the rite-of-passage ceremony, sponsored by the Wild Earth Program, that led seven adolescent boys into the woods to individual spots in the Catskill Mountains to tend a fire and survive on their own for over 24 hours. The event was for boys, 13 years of age, who had been part of an ongoing wilderness immersion program called “Track & Sign.”

In the documentary Tending Fires, one of the young boys describes the 24-hour-plus overnight in the woods, alone, as something that “when you’re doing it, you never want to do it again. You want to run as far away from it as you can. But when it’s over, you want to recommend it to everyone you know!”


Fathers of the boys, who are from the New Paltz region, were also interviewed for the documentary and talked about this “challenging,” time in their sons’ lives. They mentioned the focus on “girls, cars,” the tendency for many of them to start “pushing back,” rebelling to slighter or greater degrees against their parents, siblings… “They’re small but they’re big, and they’re struggling with this transitional period; and I thought this was the perfect rite of passage to help and support my son through this critical time,” said one father.

To that end, two years ago the seven boys were dropped into a remote area in the Catskills while their parents waited in a base camp and their “big brothers” and “uncles” — both young men who led various aspects of the wilderness program or men who were not their fathers but were lending supportive roles — monitored them and brought them back into the “circle.”

“I worked with the Wilderness School, and knew many of these boys and their families and became close with them when they were 9 and 10 years old, running through the woods, learning how to use a compass,” recalled Ferland. “Suddenly, they were 13 and about to embark on this incredible journey. I thought that this was a real departure from anything I ever experienced growing up, nor had many of the other parents experienced anything like it. There was no rite of passage like this, and I thought it would make the perfect subject for a documentary. It was a threshold moment.”

Not only did the boys have to take on the challenge of going into the woods alone and having such an independent experience, but the parents had to allow it. “I found the parents as fascinating as the boys,” he said. “They were having parallel yet separate experiences. Adolescence is a time when you start to try and figure out things for yourself. What better way to do this than to frame it by a fire, deep into Nature, by yourself? They were left alone in the dark to tend a fire, listen to their own voices, hear their own fears, find their own courage.”

While this is an atypical experience in today’s society, particularly in the Western world, it’s something that people have been doing for centuries: tending fires alone, spending time in the wilderness, going through various rites of passage that vary from culture to culture, but certainly in most indigenous cultures that were Nature-based.

“To see the relationships they forged with each other, their younger wilderness counselors, the older guides and their parents and themselves, was incredibly moving. These parents saw a need, these wilderness guides created an event and these boys agreed to commit to a real adventure. It is a transformative event for all involved.”

The documentary gets into the heart of the struggles that adolescent boys face; the love and joy and fears that their parents have for them; the grittiness of going off into the woods alone and fending for oneself; and the return — the embrace back into their community and family.

After having lived in Los Angeles and working in Hollywood for years as a screenwriter for the TV show Frasier and other shows and films, Ferland noted the stark contrast between that life and the one that he’s now living in upstate New York, a father to two boys, particularly as he volunteered to work with the Wild Earth Wilderness School and began shooting the documentary. “In LA, the entire lifestyle is dedicated to avoiding Nature. It’s a manufactured world. Don’t get me wrong: I like being able to plug into my computer, to utilize the camera I have and to work in my office and edit this film; but technology has its limits. There is nothing more powerful than Nature…it is a patient listener.”

This force and magic is certainly captured in Ferland’s documentary, which he hopes to premiere at the Rosendale Theatre as early as this November or December as he puts the final touches on the editing. To see a clip for yourself of the trailer, go to www.kickstarter.com/projects/924623420/tending-fires-alone-in-the-woods-for-24-hours.

To learn more about the Wild Earth Wilderness School, which has widely popular summer camps for kids and teens as well as wilderness programs throughout the year for all ages, log onto www.wildearthprograms.org. The organization offers a plethora of programs, camps, events and courses that will delight Nature enthusiasts from the smallest to the biggest to the youngest and the oldest. The forest knows no age nor gender. ++

There is one comment

  1. Peter Ferland

    Unfortunately omitted from this article are the efforts of Charles Purvis, an Accord resident who planned and led the weekend documented in the movie. Not only did he create a space with the fathers of the boys to explore the meanings of rites of passage nine months before the weekend occurred, but he was also largely responsible for the Track and Sign wilderness program which the boys had been attending for 3 previous years. He was an example and inspiration behind many of the ideas and practices of nature connection that thrive now in this area.

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