Origins Project – Interview with Nicole Apelian
Who is Nicole Apelian and What does she do?
Dr. Nicole Apelian is a scientist, mother, educator, researcher, expeditionary leader, safari guide, herbalist and traditional skills instructor. A leader in the field of transformative nature education, Nicole is excited to share her knowledge and expertise of nature connection, indigenous knowledge, natural wellness and survival skills with the world.
Nicole’s first exposure to true wilderness living began while working as a field biologist in Botswana. Following a job as a game warden with the US Peace Corps, she began tracking and researching lions in southern Africa. Nicole immediately fell in love with the African landscapes and the San Bushmen’s way of life, and later, while working with the San Bushmen, Nicole completed her doctorate, focused in Cultural Anthropology within the field of Sustainability Education. Years of visiting the San Bushmen and developing strong relationships within the tribe allowed Nicole to learn many of the primitive skills and ways she practices and teaches today.
In this interview, Nicole explains her passion for nature, and her dedication to the San people, and her vision of a future where the wisdom of the San can be shared with people from all walks of life.
I teach wilderness living skills to people. How to live in harmony with nature. How to live in the present moment. How to live in a psychologically and physically well way, and that comes back to connection. Nature connection. Connection with self. Connection with others, if you talk about being in a healthy culture. I do that for people a lot who are ill, who have various ailments, and I work with them in different ways through diet, lifestyle and herbal medicine in order to allow them to live the healthiest life they can.
I’m a herbalist, and an anthropologist to the degree right now that I do teach part-time at Prescott College, but I really love working with the San Bushmen and our work over there [Botswana] with the Origins Project. That really is paramount for me and to me is probably the most important thing that I’m doing, is that work as well as teaching. I love teaching preparedness and wilderness living skills to people because I love to see a fire that’ll turn on in their eyes and to see a light come on in them, and all of a sudden, the awareness of the world around them as far as nature is concerned. Once they’re tuned in to that, once they’re tuned into the world around them, the natural world around them, all of a sudden, they have a shifted perception and a shift in a way that they walk in the world. I love lighting that passion and fire in people.
Nicole’s experiences in nature connection
Growing up, my stepdad was my biggest mentor and always would take me outside and we’d bring our field guides and we’d go on adventures together. He really connected me to nature though I was sort of born that way. I was always the kid who was running around, couldn’t get me in the house, and had a collection of … a bug collection, a shell collection and a bird nest collection and anything to do with outside. A stamp collection, because I love to travel. A coin collection. I just loved collecting these things from different places and all over the world. Always had my fingers in the mud and growing older I decided to go into biology because it seemed a natural fit for me: my love for wildlife and the natural world.
After I finished my Masters degree, I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Africa where I worked as a game warden and then joined up doing lion research for a few years, and lived in the bush there. Living in the bush there really transformed me because I lived in a tent in the middle of nowhere and I had to all of a sudden have awareness. I had to have good tracking skills, I had to have good bird language skills, I had to get really good awareness skills about what was around me because there were lions and mambas and things living in my environment. I was living in their home essentially.
I didn’t name it. I didn’t know that I was learning bird language or wilderness awareness skills or anything. I was just doing it, kind of like the Bushmen. When you ask them if they know bird language, they say no, but then you ask them what just happened and they tell you six different birds that called and six different things that were going on because they know what the birds were saying. It was that sort of natural awakening that I had.
I fell in love with Africa, and my work there, and the land around me, and when I moved back to the States I didn’t have a sense of place here in Oregon. I still felt my sense of place was back in the Kalahari Desert. I consciously had to make a shift to make this my sense of place. What I did was I took a lot of the lessons that I learned over in Africa, all sorts of awareness skills as well as the hard skills I guess you’d call them. Like, fire making and shelter building and those sorts of things and really applied that here in the Pacific Northwest. Through that and through community, I was really able to change my sense of place to be where I actually lived, which is here in the Pacific NW.
As I learned about different medicinal plants, I learned about them alongside the elder women in the Kalahari with the Bushmen women, then I would also learn those things here and then started teaching that, and so I could share that passion and that information with others. Really, through teaching, it kicked my learning in even more because the more you teach something the better you learn it. The more people ask you questions, the more you learn. So that really is what sparked my, I guess my … To say it more clearly, my spark started when I was a kid through mentorship, continued in Africa with the skills of outdoor wilderness living, and then continued here in the Pacific Northwest to solidify my sense of place here. Now I go back and forth much more easily, and it’s much more fluid. I’m able to really feel grounded wherever I am.
Overcoming multiple sclerosis
I got multiple sclerosis at age 30 … I’m 48 now. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and went downhill fast. I couldn’t walk, couldn’t function, was using a cane, a wheelchair at night. I was really, really ill, both physiologically and psychologically.
Finally, after a few years of being non-functional, going down hill very quickly, and feeling like my life was essentially ending, which according to the doctors, it was, I decided to change my way of living. I decided to switch to natural wellness and so I focused on a holistic point of view. I changed my diet. I started living in closer connection to nature. I changed my psychology, went off all my conventional medication and spent mindful time outside. I also ate whole foods and started looking more at herbal medicine and I also tied more into family and community.
A lot of it was really a psychological shift because that mind-body connection is so important. When people get told they’re sick, they automatically get sicker. It’s not hypochondria, it’s that we have such a strong mind-body connection. I think that’s one of the reasons you don’t see psychological illness impact intact indigenous communities like the Bushmen for example. There was this Harvard research group that did a study in the early 70’s. They essentially found no mental illness and very little if any physical illnesses throughout the traditional indigenous communities they studied.
I feel in our culture, we’re in such disrepair and it’s so fragmented that it’s not really a culture, it’s a non-culture, so people get ill really quickly, and I think that this disconnection from nature and community is what is at the heart of all of that.
Eating processed foods and being in front of your computer all the time and not spending good healthy time eating wild foods and being in nature for example. You actually become ill and I think that’s the source of a lot of anxiety and depression and physical ailments. I am living in the present moment and eating well and trying to keep connection. If I don’t feel well, I go to the woods and I automatically feel better. When I lived alone in the woods for two months only eating wild foods and living solo in the wood, I felt so healthy – both psychologically and physically. I think that that has a huge impact on who we are. I practice holistic medicine and natural wellness. That means I’m healthier than most people I know my age who don’t have MS. For me it’s really been a journey of wellness.
It has been a blessing. I wonder where my life would have gone had I not had MS. If I hadn’t had that challenge presented to me, and such a big challenge, I wonder what direction my life would have taken. Through my journey with multiple sclerosis I have found ways to feed my mind, my body and my spirit. The life I’ve created now, I feel like I thrive. I don’t know if I would have been my best possible self if I hadn’t actually had to go through such a horrific illness and been so shut down all of a sudden when I was in my prime.
Wellness and Mindfulness from contact with San culture
The time that I spent, that we spent with the Kalahari bushmen is one of the biggest things I think that helped me on that island (In the reality TV show Alone). The time I spent with them allowed me to learn how to live in the present moment, which was essential to living on that island [Vancouver Island] because that’s all you really have. If you’re on an island and you’re thinking about past regrets, or you’re worried about the future … You can’t live like that. You have to have a clear mind and really live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It forces you to live in the present moment because you have to have firewood, you have to have food, you have to have water, you have to have your basic needs met on a daily basis – get your shelter, make sure it is thick enough so you don’t get cold. It did kind of force me into living in the present.
I also had that boost from having learned from the Bushmen. I think one of the biggest things that impacted me from my time with the Bushmen was that they helped me … By living with them and realizing what’s important to myself and what’s important in life, they helped me move through a lot of things in my life. For example, trance dancing. All the times we’ve gone and done multiple trance dances with the Bushmen, that alone helped me move through a lot of grief and physical and psychological healing. When you are alone for two months on an island, if you haven’t dealt with any of your stuff, that stuff comes up. That stuff didn’t come up for me because by spending all that time with the Bushmen.
Even just being with them and the way that they are I was able to process the grief I’ve had in my own life. I’m not just talking about real acute grief, like the loss of somebody, but also just the grief we have from our daily living and our culture and the way that we’re forced to live because we’re really designed to still be living as hunter gatherers and evolution of course hasn’t caught up and here we are living in these nuclear houses and it’s very hard for us. I don’t think people realize what a weight it is until you leave it, then you realize what a struggle it is to live in today’s society. People don’t even know what life could be like. By being with the Bushmen, I had the realization and I’ve been lucky enough to know what real living is, and how happy and joyful it can be.
So when I was on the island, I didn’t have to go through huge trauma. I didn’t have to relive traumatic events in my life and work them through. I came out of that experience after two months on the island alone realizing that I had peace and joy in my heart. That was my biggest lesson out there. I had peace and joy in my heart, I’d worked through my stuff and I’m at peace as a person. And sure, stuff always creeps up that you have to deal with again, but I’m able to do that because of the knowledge I’ve gained from spending time with the Bushmen.
Their simple way of being has translated into my body and allows me to be a more whole person here even back in our society living in our modern culture.
Learning from the San bushmen
This knowledge I am talking about is more like an internal shift that happens. Like there’s a crack and you shift. Then once you’ve shifted there, you have this new realization. It’s not knowledge. It’s like your mind and your body have been restructured somehow. Like your cells have realigned back to what used to be.
I think it’s how people feel the healthiest and I’m not just talking about physically. I’m talking about mentally too. I feel like I’ve been rewired, but I’ve been rewired back…again it’s that “used-to-be”. I’ve been rewired in the way that I was already wired. I think you’re born with the correct wiring, and then our culture rewires you, and then by spending time with the Bushmen I’ve been able to re-rewire myself.
I’ve been able to get that back again by spending time with the Bushmen and by spending time outside, but it’s both. It’s not just spending time in nature, it’s also spending time with them and seeing how they interact with each other and the world around them, and with themselves.
And how they pass knowledge on to one another, and how important that intergenerational knowledge is. I feel like as children, kids get it. Then society and schooling sort of changes them, and then we grow up into these adults that have been rewired in a negative way. In a way that doesn’t work for us. Especially, look at my journey with multiple sclerosis. Literally my nerves were not firing properly. By being with the Bushmen and spending time with them, I’ve actually been able to rewire my body back to my original potential.
San Culture heals and connects
I know people that we bring over [to Botswana] feel the love from the Bushmen so acutely and intensely and that they are pure love. There’s an openness. People close down and shut down so much. When you’re with the Bushmen, all of those individuals in that community, everyone is open and warm and has their arms open and their mind open to you. When you’re with that, you can’t help but open yourself up and I’ve seen time and time again, we’ve seen people literally crack open, work through their emotions and come out the other side as functional, functioning human beings again. I think love has a lot to do with it.
Also connectedness. There’s something about being out on the land with people who are so connected that they know what every bird song means, or bird sounds mean, I should say. They’re able to read the ground like the morning newspaper and know what’s happened in their land. Their sense of place is huge. I think westernized people are lacking that as well because you don’t have a connection with the land around you and nature and you’re not out on it, and you’re living in a house with walls and door all the time so you need to spend time outside of the walls. The Bushmen have that in spades.
And their lack of ego. We’re so ego driven in our culture, and it’s really hard not to be. The Bushmen are completely ego-less. We know they squelch ego all the time. They don’t even have chiefs, they’re egalitarian. They squelch the ego so that, instead of one person starting a fire, which one person could, four people will start that fire and they’ll take their time with it, so one person’s not the fire person as that would elevate that person to a higher status. That’s really important in a community not to have one person sort of elevated above others.
Then the interaction with the natural world; that humans are not above everything else. They are a part of it, Instead of apart, they are a part of it. They’re included in what’s around them, on equal level with the plants that are giving them medicine or the gemsbok that wanders through the savanna. They are not looking at life as a power struggle. A lot of people like power and like money and like what comes along with that, but there you see the simplistic beauty of living without ego and without power and without all that money does to society. You see people living simply but fantastically and enjoying their life and not holding things back either. If there’s an issue, they bring it up and they talk about it and don’t sit on it and hold bitterness and resentment because you can’t hold resentment and bitterness living in a community that small. It would break apart.
Then there’s all these rituals like the trance dance for example, and other rituals as well that allow people also to shed whatever problems they have and to bring people back together. People are touching each other. Healers and other people are going around and twisting people’s backs and touching them and providing a physical contact. That in itself brings people together and allows the community to stay strong. Here in our modern culture it’s so hard. Everyone’s living in their own households and we’re trying to bring up children by ourselves and we don’t have this wonderful thing of, your only job is to love your children and other people will discipline and teach them. What a freeing thing that is if you only had to love your children.
The interaction with the children and the intergenerational interactions as well. Here we stick elders in nursing homes and we take them out of society. There they’re respected and they’re an integral part of the society. Little ones wouldn’t be learning if it wasn’t for the elders who were around. They’re respected and they counsel and their wisdom is taken into account. Here we shove them away into a hospital or into a room and we shut the door and we don’t include them anymore. How sad that is. Not just for the elders but for our whole society because we’re taking all of that really great wisdom that people get in their older years and we’re locking it away and pretending it’s not important. Not even having access to it anymore.
Why the Origins Project is important
We can all read about things in a book, look at things on TV, talk to people and hear a story, but experiential learning is the way that we really learn. Only by going over and experiencing the Bushmen, this intact community of Bushmen, live can you really understand what they have to offer and integrate it into your own life. I know for me, integrating what I’ve learned from them over the years into my own life has been so beneficial. Everybody who’s gone on our trip, I don’t think there’s anybody you would ask that says they had a negative experience. Every single person who’s gone with us on our trip, they’ve had transformation in their life. You can’t get that kind of transformation anywhere else. Not in the short period of time we go over.
We’re over there for 10 days and people come away transformed for life. They’ll even call me two years later and say … I’ve had many calls, or I see someone three years later and they even say, “Alright here’s another thing that’s happened in my life, and how I’ve been transformed.” Then they’re able to bring it back to their community and share it with their family and their friends, and there is a ripple effect from that. That’s important as well because you can bring that information back and share it. But, it’s not the same as going over and experiencing it yourself.
I’ve seen the transformations and I’ve seen the before and after of people and the after is so much more engaged, people who are engaged in their full human potential in new ways. Even if they were switched on before, they’re switched on even more and they’re able to live fuller, better lives because of their interactions with the Bushmen.
Helping the San regenerate their culture
Then the other aspect is for the Bushmen. They have this self determination, this cultural pride, this resurgence and the young people staying or coming back to the community, and now raising their children the way that their grandparents were raised, and wanting to do that, and feeling very proud of being Bushmen. Whereas, before they’d been marginalized and put down, generation after generation, hunted almost in areas to extinction and certain tribes actually have been wiped out. All of a sudden, now they have this cultural resurgence where they realize that they are the first peoples. They’re all of our common ancestor. They’re our living ancestor, and what they have to offer is actually needed in the rest of the world. They also now have a sense of purpose as well, not just in their own culture, but realizing that they have something to offer us that we’re lacking very, very desperately, and that we really need.
Putting on a Bushmen mind, this is a quote from one of the Bushmen men, “We realize that your culture is sick and that our culture can help you get better.” It’s as simple as that.