Stokes stokes an interest in the ancient world for students |

Stokes stokes an interest in the ancient world for students

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

John Stokes can start a fire in about a minute, without a match or a lighter.

He can make a hollow piece of wood vibrate with a mysterious sound that fills a gymnasium, and he can keep an entire elementary school enchanted with stories and music.

Stokes has been in Aspen for the past week, teaching locals some of the skills he learned with Aborigines Down Under. He is director of The Tracking Project, a New Mexico-based nonprofit that aims to reconnect people with nature.

Stokes was brought to Aspen by Jody Cardamone to teach some classes at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. He visited Aspen County Day School on Wednesday.

Stokes lived in Adelaide, Australia, for seven years during the ’70s and ’80s, teaching at a community college attended by many Aboriginal people. He spent time with the Pitjantjatjara tribe, learning techniques of outdoor survival, self-awareness and even musical ability.

For ACDS classes, he played the didgeridoo – a traditionally Aboriginal instrument made with a length of a eucalyptus branch hollowed out by ants. The deep, vibrating pitch that came out of the instrument awed the students, and Stokes could sustain long notes using a circular breathing technique he learned from tribal elders.

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“The older men liked that I had white skin,” he told the students. “They wanted a white man to know about their skills so I could speak for them in the world.”

When Stokes returned to the United States, he began visiting Native American communities, where tribes asked him to show them what he learned in the Australian outback. Impressed with his understanding of the natural world, they asked Stokes to help teach their own children, and he began his own nonprofit in 1984.

The Tracking Project teaches a sort of environmental literacy, or ecological awareness, Stokes said. That means everything from storytelling and dance in the tradition of ancient cultures, to tracking animals in the wild and surviving outdoors with only the sweater on your back.

It’s all part of what Stokes calls “the arts of life,” and the fact that human beings are capable of many things, including some abilities that must be taught and others that are intuitive.

With The Tracking Project, Stokes said he hopes to help people of all generations learn more about those abilities. As with tracking animals in the wild, he said it is imperative to pay attention to not only every small detail around you, but to yourself. That skill translates into everyday life, he said.

“The quality of attention you bring to your life is the quality of your life,” he said. “It’s a new way of seeing the world, where you pay attention to everything from your dreams to the quality of how you speak.”

When Stokes speaks, people listen. A crowd of ASCS children were enchanted as he showed them how to cup their hands to their ears to listen closely while he whispered at them from a distance.

Taking the kids outside, everyone knelt in the grass as Stokes and his partner used a “two-man hand-drill technique” to create a tiny coal with two sticks. Flames leapt out of Stokes’ hands after blowing on the coal for 30 seconds.

“He is very busy going throughout the world, being invited by indigenous people to bring the old ways back to their kids,” Cardamone said. “And he really has a way with kids – he has a certain humility with nature, and he’s an amazing storyteller.”

Cardamone hopes Stokes and his group can come back to the valley to help set up a mentoring program in which kids are connected with elders to become a strong part of the community.

For more information on The Tracking Project, visit

Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is