The Sound of Nature

exploring: Bird Language and Nature Connection
engaging: cultural elements, art of questioning, 8 Shields model for program design
learning: decoding nature means decoding life

08. May 2011 by Elke Loepthien

Our brain is wired for bird language as for our human languages – because our ancestors depended on it for their survival. And it is a blast once you got the hang of it. Have you ever tried to listen, really listen to your environment while walking over to your car or bike? What happens if your senses sharpen like a razor blade? Can you filter out all the motors and machines and hear the sound of nature? You suddenly get trillions of stories of living, loving or dying that are happening to your birdy neighbors all the time!

playDUcation Elke Nature

I took the chance to volunteer with Jon Young and his team of nature connection mentors, who helped me and a bunch of other guests to enter nature’s communication system: The Language of the Birds. It was a five-day residential program held in a retreat centre nestled into the Californian coastal hills about two hours South of San Francisco.

And this is how it works: Enter a room full of 80 or so people from two to 82 years old. More than ten of them are program staff, half of which are volunteering. Another ten are keen learners from past years. Another ten people have been working on bird language for the past eight months in a different program that is run nearby. They all show up because they had so much fun the last time and because there is no end to the book of nature – there is always so much more to find out.

Bird Language playducation Elke

Stacking the Deck

There are only two designated “teachers” in the front of the room, so most of the newcomer guests have no idea that they will learn the most from being mixed into a salad bowl of different levels of expertise. In fact, you have no chance to not learn this stuff. The principle is to make sure that enough people who already have knowledge and experience are present. They are mentoring you as playfully perfectly as a ten-year-old boy would mentor a six year old.

Bird Language playducation Elke

Causing Connection

The more you get to know nature, the more nature opens and shows itself to you. This is especially true for bird language. As long as we’re preoccupied with thoughts about our agenda, we tend to create enormous ripples of disturbance in nature. It takes a while to turn the busy mind down and tune in to your senses and be outside in a really peaceful way. This is when connection to nature happens. It is very nourishing, can become an essential source of wellbeing in kids’ as well as adults’ life and it is contagious.

Bird Language playducation Elke

Sticking it Together

The dressing for the human salad consists of so called “cultural elements” – things to do or install that foster community and thus more learning. It spreads connection between the individual humans like a viral infection. For instance, one cultural element is “Games”, like the “Jedi Training Game” on the picture below.

Jedi game

Big Meal – Big Bowl!

The learning meal mix is prepared in a big bowl, an underlying structure that holds everything together. This is called the 8 Shields or directions model, which actually looks like eight pieces of cake of which each represents a wealth of things. This complex yet very intuitive model was developed and tweaked collaboratively with participants during the 80ies and 90ies. It creates a natural feel to the flow of the programs. You can see a simplified version of the model below:


After a couple of days everything and everybody turns into a learning village, meeting in large and small circles, engaged in conversations that matter, setting free individual and group potential and creativity with yet another mentoring tool: The art of asking powerful questions to yourself and those around you,.

Bird Language playducation Elke

Learning Process Distilled

Now what does the actual learning process look like?

1. Sitting quietly on the land, listening, taking in, taking notes.

2. Harvesting observations in small groups of one area, creating a map overflowing by the richness of many eyes’ sightings and many ears’ listenings.

playDUcation Elke Nature

3. Bringing it together in the large group debrief, were the stories of what the heck happened out there to our protagonists the birds, mammals and other creatures come to life again. They are revealing the universal patterns of nature’s communication system, that are – unlike our human languages – pretty much the same all over the globe.

Bird Language playducation Elke

Which is cool, since I am not living in the coastal hills of near San Francisco bay, but on a glacial hill in Eberswalde, Germany. And I can tell you – birds have a life just as exciting on this side of the ocean! The other day I was trotting home with my 4 year old son when we heard an alarm that made my hair stand up. “There’s a Sparrow Hawk coming”, I hissed, and motionless we watched until two minutes later the dreaded killer of many a songbird swooped by.

To me birds are great teachers that turn the former blur of chirps into endless riddles and  play, firing up my brain’s neuron activity and reminding me of the inter-connectedness of every little thing in nature, including myself. I also hear way more sounds and complexity in my favorite music now!

Bird Language playducation Elke

Got interested? Find out more about bird language, test your inter-species communication skills with dog barks or immerse yourself in a 5-day nature connection style mentoring extravaganza about the teaching methods and tools, at an upcoming “Art of Mentoring” workshop in Scotland this summer.

Many thanks for the pics to David Hage and Jason Kwong!

Elke Loepthien designs learning and community experiences in, with and through nature. She is an alumni of the Regenerative Design Institute in California and of the action learning based Gaia University International. Currently she is graduating in Holistic Environmental Education at the University of Applied Sciences in Eberswalde, Germany, with a thesis about Connection as an Aspect of an Ecology of Learning. Her favorite bird is the Starling.

Go back

blog comments powered by Disqus