In our last post, Sensei Roemke told the story of his first lesson in Bird Language when he went on a hike with a local tracking expert, and how that helped him as a practitioner of the art of ninjutsu.
Spoiler alert...the tracker was a man named Jon Young.
To take a deeper dive into the art of bird language, we recently connected with Jon, a renowned author, tracker, naturalist, and mentor. Jon is a guiding force in bringing the practice of deep nature connection to the planet and is a pioneering voice in teaching the ancient art of bird language through his workshops and book, What the Robin Knows.
We sat down with Jon recently to pick his bird brain on the art of understanding what the birds are telling us and how this awareness can benefit a student of ninjutsu.
Pathways: Jon, can you describe bird language?
JY: Birds talk to each other. We can learn to understand them, and it's fun. And it's not just birds. It’s birds and other animals communicating with each other’s sounds, motions, and body language. Most animals, including birds, in the natural world cooperate in this shared communication. The exception today are modern human beings who have forgotten this important network. Wildlife all pay attention to each other because it gives all those involved in the conversation many more eyes and ears. This keeps everyone safe.
Pathways: Can you give us an example of bird language?
JY: An example of bird language happened here on the evening of March 16. As the sun was going down. There were some deer feeding in the yard peacefully. There were three adult male deer and two yearling males. The yearlings were being yearlings. They were playing with each other. They were going off a little bit too far from from their uncles who would coax them back to the herd. The five bucks were feeding peacefully out in the meadow. At one point, a young male wandered off into the forest, on the east side of the field. Then on the west side of the field, where there is a forest edge, something changed. Out of that forest edge came the alarm call of the spotted towhee slowly moving from south to north following something unseen on the ground.
The spotted towhee alarm caught the attention of the adult male deer, all three of whom raised their ears very high, piquing their interest and stared with total focus in the direction of the alarming towhee. The adult bucks stomped their front foot lightly—not to make sound but to show the young deer that there's danger. Both young deer came over and hung out with the three older deer.
The next morning, my partner Sarah went out to the place where the towhee was calling from to look for tracks and sign. Sarah found the tracks of a mountain lion. Later that afternoon, Sarah and I continued trailing that mountain lion for another 40 yards. The lion had traveled exactly where the towhee had been calling.
Pathways: Why should ninja’s learn bird language?
JY: Deer listen to bird language and it keeps them safe. A Ninja could learn from the deer to have awareness of bird language. If invisibility is what we're about as ninjas, it's very similar to the scout tradition of the Apaches, which is where my mentor, Tom Brown learned bird language from. He passed this scout skill on to me.
As a scout or a ninja, you have to move on the landscape and not scare the birds. This would tell other scouts or ninjas that you're there. Through bird language study, I learned to tell that a person is coming from two minutes away. That’s two minutes before they arrive to where I am in the forest. I know a person is coming.
What if you had two minutes to prepare for the arrival of you opponent?
The reason I can tell a person is coming is due to the fact that they're not paying attention to bird language.
The other day, I was in a Scout game that was offered to me by my mentor Tom. We were pretending we were behind enemy lines and had to get to a destination without alerting the Scouts on the other team. When I went to the destination, I made sure not to scare the squirrel, not to scare the robins, and not to scare the juncos.
When I arrived at the destination, the juncos were all feeding peacefully on the ground around me. This means that I managed to be ‘invisible’. If a scout or ninja had been looking for the approach of a human by the alarm that I created, they wouldn't have observed any alarm. I have a relationship with the birds where I pay attention to what they're saying to me. They let me know if I'm getting too close so I don't scare them. I'm always watching the birds, always trying to be careful not to disturb them when I'm moving around. That way I can get close to wildlife without them knowing I'm coming either.
Remember, the deer are like the ultimate ninjas. The deer are like the ultimate scouts. When deer don't want to be seen, they choose invisibility—bird language tells them where YOU are, and they can avoid you with plenty of room to spare.
Sometimes deer come out and feed in your yard. And, there’s other deer who just don't ever want to be seen. Bears don't want to be seen. Wolves don't want to be seen. All of them use bird language to keep away from us.
Think about how that might come in handy for you if you were in a ninja game or a real situation where you had to be invisible, but there might be a scout or a ninja who knows bird language on the other team.
Pathways: How does learning bird language affect us?
JY: Bird language really helps our brains. Also it opens up our awareness of the three dimensional space and has deep neurological benefits that brings us to the quiet mind. In the quiet mind, we’re able to hold silence and not be stressed out by the anxious thoughts that run through our head. Awareness of bird language allows us to be present in the moment. Of course, it allows us to see a lot more when we are moving around.
There's other benefits that emerge as you build relationships with the birds and wildlife right outside your back door.
Pathways: How can someone begin to learn bird language?
JY: Place a chair just outside your door. Simply sit outside several times a day in the same spot and get to know the birds that live right around you. Watch how they are with each other get to know them as individuals. Get to know them as friends over time. You'll learn that this particular junco has a different personality than another one.
Watch how the birds and wildlife interact with each other. You'll see a lot of really interesting things. This has great benefits to your three dimensional spatial problem solving capabilities, and will really sharpen your intuition—this can be really helpful to ninja. This will bring you a greater sense of peace, and this makes you and me function a lot better.
Pathways: Anything else we should know?
JY: The only other thing I would say is practice bird language everyday by going out into your yard to watch birds and wildlife in their routines. Watch as they move between a state of relaxation—when they're feeding, singing or doing other maintenance behaviors—versus when they look tense and nervous. Learn to understand why they're doing that, and eventually you'll figure out “Oh, they suddenly got nervous and all flew away and then a hawk arrived!”
You'll actually learn to see things in advance.
If you want to go even deeper into the practice of Bird Language, I highly recommend Jon’s book, What the Robbin Knows.
One practice that we use with our Ninjas in Nature program to introduce the concept of bird language is to make a sound map while outdoors in nature. This activity works for any age. And, like training in ninjutsu, you learn much more if you can do this skill with partners, where people are scattered across a landscape and then compare notes at the end.
Check out the short video below that shows how to make a bird language map.
The more you practice this skill, the more you will start noticing patterns. Before long you will be on your way to detecting stalking mountain lions and sneaky ninjas in the forest.
One thing that Sensei Roemke and I share in common is that we both used to go on patrol in nature as a job occupation. Another thing we have in common is that we both eventually had our minds blown by the language of birds.
In the video below Sensei Roemke shares a technique for moving through nature silently in a state of heightened awareness called Shinobi Yoko Aruki. This skill will come in really handy if you want to move invisibly through the forest. And, the technique relates to birds and ninjas.
Full disclosure…I used to be a “bird nerd.” Okay, actually once a bird nerd, always a bird nerd. It’s impossible not to notice them once you start paying attention.
I was a professional ornithologist for the better part of twenty years. I began as a ranger patrolling the Brooks Range in the Arctic of Alaska. While on patrol, we were supposed to record all the birds we saw. I was new to Alaska at the time and was unfamiliar with the local birds. So, I started with the easier, big birds…first learning to identify the eagles, then gradually moving to smaller birds such as ravens, owls, hawk owls, and falcons. Eventually I learned to identify the LBBs (a.k.a. the Little Brown Birds).
I then moved to Hawaii where I had to learn an entirely new suite of birds as a wildlife biologist. These birds were sometimes really tiny, lived at the top of the dense forest canopy, and often made quiet "whisper" songs. In other words...they were a real challenge to learn.
Eventually I figured those birds out too. At that point, I thought I knew a lot about birds.
Then I met people who new about the ancient art of “bird language”. Mind blowing stuff.
What is bird language? In short, the birds are communicating to each other about all the threats that are moving through the forest, including us. Learn this, and you have the keys to moving "invisibly" through nature.
But I’ll take a Shinobi Yoko Aruki step or two to the side and let Sensei Roemke take over to tell you his story first about meeting someone who understood this language.
Tag. You're it Sensei…
When I was in the army we were taught to use our sense of sight, smell and hearing to try and detect the enemy when on patrol. My martial arts awareness training complimented this military training. Through years of martial arts training, I learned how to heighten my awareness.
I thought I was pretty good at finding ambushes and booby traps using my senses until the day I went on a hike with a tracking instructor.
I really love being a student and am always seeking new teachers. When I met a local tracking instructor, we soon realized that we had a common interest in the natural world. He was interested in ninjutsu, so we decided to trade skills with each other. He would take me tracking, and I would teach him ninjutsu.
He took me to a trail in the nearby redwood hills near where I live in Santa Cruz. A few miles into our morning hike we stopped. He turned to me and said, “Let's just stand here for a minute and tune in.”
We stood there quietly for a few moments, paying attention to the sounds of the forest.
All of the sudden, a large group of birds flew down the trail over our heads. The instructor turned to me and said,“There's going to be two people coming down the trail in about two minutes. Start your watch.”
I looked at my watch, and we waited.
Then, in exactly one minute, fifty-nine seconds, two people came hiking down the trail.
“Good morning!” they said with smiles on their faces. I stood there looking at them in disbelief.
I just had my mind blown.
I learned more in those two hours of training with my tracker friend about sensory awareness than I did from all of my training in the military.
What I learned was that the birds can teach you so much. They give you an understanding of what is around you.
That morning made me think about the ninjas of old times, and how they could use their observations of birds to tell where people were. I have heard Hatsumi Sensei say, “Go back to nature to learn.”
He wasn't kidding.
It really helps to have a mentor or instructor to help guide you down the path. I feel lucky to have met a lot of great teachers in my life.
But I know what you are thinking…
“Lucky you! You had a tracking instructor living near you.”
Yes, but not to worry.
If you don’t happen to have one on your street corner, we have one lined up for you in the next blog. Master tracker and naturalist Jon Young will be dropping by in the next blog to give us some tips about learning bird language.
Until then, if you want to move silently through the world, and not freak out all the birds (who are more than happy to give your location away), I have a skill for you to practice.
It’s a silent walk that the ninjas developed called Shinobi Yoko Aruki, or “silent sideways walking”. This move also allows you to avoid looking at your feet so that you can expand your awareness around you. I also include a technique that we used in the military to spin 360 degrees while doing this move.
I hope you enjoyed this one. This video is part of our White to Black Belt training series at Ninja Training Tv.
If you want to hear another bird language story, checkout another previous post The Sword and the Whisper Song.
Bird language is amazing stuff. Get ready to have your mind blown in this series on the birds and learn what it truly means to become invisible in nature.
Recently I was sitting on my back porch, watching the sunrise, and tuning in to the language of the birds around me. Bird language is a little different than typical bird watching or bird identification by song. Bird language is a three dimensional practice of being aware of not just who is out there communicating, but what the landscape is telling you through the soundscape. Among other things, it teaches you how to detect alarms in the forest of approaching danger, well before you actually see or encounter it.
Most people have heard of the four basics needs for survival: shelter, fire, water, and food. Let's zero in on one of them...water.
I remember one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had with fresh water in the wilderness. I was about a week into a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. One day of the trip, we went for a five mile hike up into the desert canyon. The temperature was over 110 degrees F. The dry desert landscape showed little sign of fresh water. That changed as we rounded a bend in the trail that put us at the base of a 500 foot high red wall limestone rock face. Hundreds of feet above us an enormous spring roared out of the rock wall face from a cave, landing in a large pool at the bottom of the cliff. It was the only time in my life that I have ever swam and drank the water at the same time. I can still hear the roar of the water fall. The dramatic contrast with the parched landscape surrounding this spring highlighted the value of this amazing resource.
As summer approaches, much of the northern hemisphere starts to dry out, shifting the water dynamic. Depending on the landscape, you only have a few days that you can survive without water. Less than 1% of the Earth's water is suitable for drinking. Over 3.6 million people die every year from diseases from drinking unsafe drinking water. Unless you find a spring where the water is coming directly from the ground, it is generally not safe to drink directly from most streams, lakes, ponds, or rivers. You have to purify the water.
One way to purify water is by boiling it. One way to boil water in a wilderness situation is by doing a rock boil. In this method, you heat stones in a fire, then after brushing the ashes off of them, you drop them into your container of water. You need to make sure these stones aren't "wet" stones, meaning that they aren't gathered from places like streams, or from underwater. Wet stones can be like a sponge and explode when heated.
Check out this short demonstration video where we show how to boil water with rocks.
It might just save your life some day.
I remember staring down at my hand as the reality of the situation sank in. Literally.
A hawk’s talon was sinking into the center of my palm. I had eight additional puncture wounds on my hand that were bleeding.
I gripped the back talon, the most powerful of all the toes called the halux, with my finger and tried to slowly pull the small dagger out of my hand. This only caused the hawk to resist and tighten its grip. The searing pain was intense. After a brief struggle I was able to wrench its grip loose. In a flurry of wings it whirled and retreated to the back corner of the modified dog kennel and jumped on its perch. I slammed the door quickly behind it.
A few minutes prior I was assisting with putting a radio transmitter on another hawk at a table in the forest. We were a team of biologists working with the endangered Hawaiian Hawk, or ‘Io as it was known. We were also studying and trying to save a critically endangered bird called the Hawaiian Crow or ‘Alala. The problem was that recently the endangered hawks had started to eat the critically endangered crows. One component of trying to solve this problem was to assess the situation first, which involved learning about where the hawks lived, moved, nested, and other natural history. Thus our reason for catching hawks that day.
My friend Peter who was a master falconer at the time with the Peregrine Fund was finishing the stitches on the harness of a hawk.
“Ken, can you go get the next hawk out of the kennel and bring it here?” he asked.
Being new to working with this bird of prey, I was more than eager. “Sure!” I said.
I looked at Peter and noticed that he was bare handed as he finished working with the current hawk, which had a falconer’s hood on its head to calm it down.
Hmmm. Well if Peter doesn’t need leather gloves, I guess I don’t either.
When I arrived at the kennel, I slowly opened the door and eased my bare hand in towards the bird that was sitting on its perch to grab it.
In an instant, there was a blur of feathers and lunging feet. Within a couple of seconds it had lashed me with its talons multiple times, one of which sunk into the center of my palm.
After I removed the halux, I stared at my bleeding hand that day and thought of two things:
#1 The swiftness of its feet, and…
#2 The power of the talons from a bird of that size.
I returned sheepishly to Peter and asked, “How did you get the bird out of the cage bare handed?”
Peter laughed and said, “What, are you crazy? I wear leather gloves for that. I take them off after I get the hood on the bird.”
I still have a faint red dot in the center of my palm that reminds me of that day.
But what does this story have to do with a ninja blog?
One- there is a history of ninjas or shinobi as master falconers.
Many ninja clans or families were falconers that were closely embedded with emperors, daimyo lords and shoguns. Falcon masters were known as Takasho or Takajo who had intimate knowledge of inner workings of people of power.
They also often had the ability to move freely outside of their homeland, something few people were able to do. These abilities allowed them to develop relationships with spies and shinobi. The Takasho could roam the territories, take in information, and report back to their superiors.
There is a recent book that details this that I highly recommend by Sean Askew titled Hidden Lineage: The Ninja of the Toda Clan. This is one of my favorite books on the history of shinobi.
The second ninja connection is the video we have for you today.
Today we have a video by Sensei Roemke that incorporates this feeling and action. It is called Shun Soku, or “footwork swift like a falcon” from Gyokko Ryu.
Get your katana ready for this one!
When I practice this move I like to imagine myself as that hawk in the kennel that day with lightning swift feet, taking on a giant 20 times my size, feathers on my back, fresh mouse in my belly.
Ok, maybe not the mouse.
(Here's a blast from the past- a pic of me releasing an 'Io into the Hawaiian forest.)
I might as well get this out in the open early in this blogging series. I’m a banjo player.
I know what many of you are hearing when I say that.
The Dueling Banjos song from the movie Deliverance.
I know it’s hard for many of you to block that out of your head. It’s like saying “whatever you do, don’t picture a pink elephant right now in your mind.” It’s impossible not to.
What does Dueling Banjos and the art of ninjutsu have in common?
Henka. Stick with me here. It’s not about a battle or even a duel.
I picked up a banjo over 40 years ago. I was obsessed with learning at a young age. I learned the basics- key songs that everyone played, scales, fancy “licks”, and all the foundational elements that most banjo players learn.
And then I started to play with other people, which evolved to joining bands, recording, performing at festivals, and teaching- typical evolution for an obsessed musician which also included having to learn to sidestep the brunt of all the banjo jokes.
One thing would often happen after “jamming” with people. Someone would ask me after a song ended, “How did you play that part you just did in that jam?”
I would often answer, “I have no idea. I just played it.” I was in the proverbial “zone”.
When I get in the center of an improv-jamming moment, there’s things at work…
Sinking in the “zone.”
Being present in the moment.
Awareness of myself relative to others around me (band members I play with).
Taking a basic concept and dancing with it.
And above all, playing and having fun.
Sensei Roemke began his training in ninjutsu about the time I picked up a banjo.
The first time I watched him demonstrate the concept of henka, I immediately thought of one thing…
And I heard Dueling Banjos in my head. Just kidding. My sincere apologies for bringing that up again for those of you who successfully removed that earworm from your head.
Henka is a Japanese term meaning a variation of a technique. There is a LOT that can be expounded upon this concept.
For a perspective on this concept, Sensei Roemke uses a technique called omote gyaku, or “outside wrist twist” in the video below. He teaches the “basics” and then shows examples of henka for this technique.
But if you watch closely you may catch a few things that happen in the video below.
He does a different variation every time.
And, he’s laughing and smiling.
And when finished, he says, “What did I do? I don’t even know. It was a blur.”
When I work on learning a new technique on the banjo, I’ll take a specific piece of a song and slow it down to analyze it part by part until I learn it. My daughter and I do this a lot with Sensei Roemke’s ninjutsu videos. When he shifts into henka mode in the video below, I highly recommend putting your video player in slow speed format. It’s fun to watch it this way to catch all of the little subtle things he’s doing
Check it out.
I’ll leave you with what Sensei Roemke has to say about Henka.
“My perspective on the concept of using “variations” of a certain skill in your life or as a student in the Bujinkan is that you will never know what is going to happen, and thus you have to be in the present moment. If you stay totally present and don’t think too much about what is about to unfold or happen, then something beautiful will emerge from the moment you are in.”
That idea can apply to so many aspects of life, even banjo playing.
Hope you enjoyed this one. This video is an excerpt from our weekly live online adult Ninja Training TV Live online class where you can request skills and get feedback from Sensei Roemke.
Here's to health and happy henka hunting!
When I walk through the forest and look at the trees I think...
Syrup (I live in the northeast and just finished boiling some sugar maple sap!) and...
Today let's talk about one of the oldest self defense tools, a big stick, otherwise known as a rokushaku bo, or full length staff. We have a couple training videos for you today that teach some of our favorite rokushaku bo skills.
My first encounter with this training tool occurred at 4000' elevation on the southwestern slopes of the volcano Mauna Loa in the wet forests of Hawaii. We were working on methods for catching one of the rarest birds on the planet, the Hawaiian Crow, or 'Alala. There were only about a dozen birds left in the wild at the time. But that’s another story.
We were hosting two guests from India, who were there to teach us some ancient bird catching techniques. Our visitors were an elder father and his son. The father was in his 80's and didn’t speak English. His son was our translator.
The father had been taught traditional ways to live-catch birds for food when he was a boy. At the time of their visit with us, they were employed by the government of India to live-catch endangered birds.
At the end of a day of teaching skills to our field crew, the son asked, "Would you like to see my father demonstrate some martial arts skills?"
I had been exploring local martial arts teachers on the island at the time and eagerly jumped up and said, "Yes!"
"Good. Go get my father a long piece of straight wood about this long," the son said holding his hand up to his head indicating full body length.
I ran off to a nearby patch of forest and cut a section of non-native bamboo and brought it back for his father.
Up to this point, the elder had moved slowly as we hiked about the forest. He spoke little, only occasionally talking to describe a technique. When I handed him the full length staff he suddenly became alive. He started spinning the staff at high speed to the front, sides, and back of his body. Then he spun it overhead. Then he started laughing while running up and down the meadow while spinning the wood. He looked like a human propeller.
Oh man. I really wanted to learn how to do that!
Only problem was that they left five minutes later, boarded a plane that day and flew home. I never saw them again.
Fast forward several years when I happened to meet a guy named Mark Roemke at a friend's house.
Before long I venture through the doors of Pathways Dojo.
On my first day training, Sensei Roemke pulled a rokushaku bo off the wall and began teaching us spins!
I'll let Sensei Roemke take it from here to say a few things about this ancient training tool...
"The rokushaku bo is one of my favorite weapons because when you start to spin it, no matter which direction you turn or go, you are in the center. The center of the rokushaku bo is one of the safest places to be. Once you understand the matrix of how to turn it, you will forever be in the middle.
The rokushaku bo has many other uses. You can use it to bound off a tree to reach the first lower branch in order to climb the tree. You can use it to carry pots of heavy drinking water or supplies. And you can use it to defend against wild animals such as an encounter with a mountain lion."
We've been gathering wood from the forests and making our own rokushaku bos for years with adults and youth in our Ninjas in Nature Program. We even use them to make survival debris shelters.
We noticed too that kids are magnetized by rokushaku bos. Have you ever noticed that kids are always wanting to carry a big "hiking stick" when walking through the forest? It usually takes less than five minutes for an empty handed kid to pick up a big stick on a hike through the forest.
Even Gandalf carries one.
The second video is an excerpt from our youth Ancient Ninja Training Tools Series
When we last encountered our unreasonably happy Dai Shihan, he was describing the origins of Pathways Dojo. Before that he told about how he found martial arts and the how he found ninjutsu.
Warning...Mark gets really excited about this topic in the video below, and it's not because of his favorite matte beverage.
There are a few key things in the video below that are worthy of hitting the pause button to think about. I'll save you the trouble by briefly breaking a couple down.
"We are pre-programmed to teach."
He talks about how this is so obvious in kids. As soon as we teach them something and they develop a competency, be it in the dojo or nature, they really want to teach the skill to others.
Boom...hands go up everywhere.
Or in nature..."Raise your hand if you can teach the knife safety techniques."
Boom...hands go up everywhere.
There is a flip side to this as well. I'll let you in on a little detail about Mark if you haven't trained with him. It's this...
You never know when he is going to call on you to teach something.
What's the effect of this?
It puts you on edge.
It makes you pay attention.
And ultimately, you learn so much more, about whatever art you are studying, when you are in the teaching role.
This philosophy is behind the vision of Pathways Dojo.
I'll cue the Dai Shihan here to explain this vision in his own words.
Welcome to part 3 in our ninja mentoring series called Becoming a Ninja. In this four part blog series, we follow the journey of how Sensei Mark Roemke went from a youth with no experience in martial arts to Dai Shihan, 15th Dan, one of the highest levels one can attain in the art of ninjutsu.
In other words...what's the secret sauce behind this process?
We also take a deeper look behind the scenes through the lens of the "ninja mentor" to see what's really making Mark's brain tick. It's not just mate, which we can vouch does get him excited before he teaches his weekly online classes. There's more to it. Trust me.
In the first installment, Dai Shihan Mark Roemke told the origin story of how he found martial arts in his youth and the effect it had on him. If you haven't checked out, not to worry. Here's that story portal.
Part 2 was about how he continued to train, and train, and train, and his first meeting with the Grandmaster Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi.
But now a death and origin story.
Mark died, technically speaking. No joke.
It involved a motorcycle accident. Fortunately, due to the technology of high voltage in the operating room, he was resuscitated.
Side note...Mark's a professional electrician. Hmmmm. Back to the story cliff notes.
In the short story below, when he returned to health, Mark found himself asking one question...
"What am I doing on this planet?"
The answer to this question laid the foundation for the origin of Pathways Dojo.
The answer to this question was about giving back, about healing, and about nature connection.
But I'll let him take it from here...
I hope you enjoy this short story. There's one final chapter to this. In Part 4 Mark talks about a vision that we all can be a part of.
One last thought...
In the video above, Mark talks about wanting to help kids. One way we are doing this is through our Ninjas in Nature Program. We've recently laid out a roadmap for connecting kids to the art of ninjutsu and the natural world in a short book that links to skills videos, games and more, called the Ninjas in Nature: Guardians Guide. These skills are like jumper cables for activating kids.