The Record-Review – The official newspaper of Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York

 
By MARY LEGRAND
PHOTO COURTESY CLAY FOWLER

Pound Ridger Clay Fowler and Luke O’Neil of Westport, Conn., group leaders of Outward Bound Center for Peace and Search for Common Ground’s 10-day expedition in the Velebit Mountain region of Croatia.

 

Pound Ridger Clayton Fowler, known to many as chairman of the planning board, has had an ongoing affiliation with Outward Bound since his college years. A 1972 graduate of Princeton University, Mr. Fowler, who is chairman and CEO of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners, is enthusiastic, to say the least, in his praise for what Outward Bound experiences can do for individuals and groups of people, no matter their age or circumstance.

His first job after college was as an Outward Bound sailing instructor on Hurricane Island in Maine, and he also instructed at-risk youth sent to Outward Bound from juvenile court.

For all who participate, he said, “Being outdoors in the wilderness, or as ‘wilderness’ as we can get today, is very powerful, especially when you’re with people you don’t know and are doing tasks that are unfamiliar and physically, socially and emotionally demanding. It can be difficult working toward a common goal, but for those who succeed — in 95 out of 100 people — learning about the outdoors and overcoming those challenges is a life-changing experience. It improves people’s lives.”

Mr. Fowler’s most recent Outward Bound trip took place in May, when he and co-expedition leader Luke O’Neil of Westport, Conn., traveled to Croatia to head up a group of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims, all men in leadership roles in their respective religions.

The trip was co-sponsored by the Outward Bound Center for Peace and Search for Common Ground, another nonprofit Mr. Fowler enthusiastically supports. “The idea was to take the concept of putting people in challenging outdoor environments and letting nature and their reactions to nature form learning experiences,” he said. “Putting this principle to work with combatants in political and religious conflict, to see if they could bond and understand each other’s points of view, can further peace in those areas. And what’s more noble than world peace?”

The expedition to Croatia which, as part of the former Yugoslavia has seen more than its fair share of political and religious conflict, was planned quite a bit in advance, Mr. Fowler said. This spring’s 10-day expedition to the Velebit Mountain region of Croatia was the fourth such peace-building initiative sponsored by Outward Bound Center for Peace and Search for Common Ground. “This was the most difficult of all the peace-making expeditions, frankly,” Mr. Fowler said. “First off, we had to modify our course program for prayers on the part of both the Muslims and the Jews. The men were not necessarily fit, and there was less time for hiking and other fitness-related activities and more time for contemplative activities because of the prayer.”

The men ranged in age from 28 to 52, with most in their thirties and forties. The group was overwhelmingly Muslim or Jewish, but there were two Christian Palestinians.

“The whole idea is to have these people do this experience together, bond and form friendships because of the nature of doing tasks together, taking a real view of each other back to their homelands and building on it in terms of networking and possibly meeting later when they are in positions of greater authority,” Mr. Fowler said. He added that earlier groups whose members shared common experiences through Outward Bound and Search for Common Ground have “indeed bonded. They’re now self-sustaining” and communicate regularly.

“This is having an impact,” he said. “Yes, it’s relatively tiny right now, but over 10 or 20 years these people will remember the bonds.”

Mr. Fowler said the men who took part in the Croatia expedition were highly respectful of each other’s religious practices and “saw themselves as instrumentalities, if you will, for furthering peace,” he said. “If nothing else was achieved, that was the purpose.”

As a follow-up, the men who trekked and camped together in Croatia met in Cyprus earlier this summer to do a peace-building workshop that was “more specific, now that they can talk to each other,” he said.

Mr. Fowler was nervous before heading to Croatia. “I’m approaching 62 and was going hiking with a big pack on my back,” he said. “I did some training, watched my diet and did exercises and some backpacking in Vermont. I carried 20 or 30 pounds of rocks in my pack and walked quite a bit. Mentally, I was very concerned about being in a group of people who were so strongly religious, as I’m anything but religious in a formal way.”

Initially worried about being uncomfortable during the Jews’ and Muslims’ respective prayer times, Mr. Fowler said he became “rather fascinated” by them.

“In many ways Islam and Judaism are more alike than they are different,” he said. “All the participants were highly inquisitive about learning how the others practiced their religions. The Muslim prayer leader had a spectacular voice, and when he prayed and sang his prayers it was incredibly beautiful. The Jews sang their prayers, too, and they were equally enchanting.”

There was no such thing as a typical day during the week and a half the group spent together. “There was so much prayer,” Mr. Fowler said, “and we also stopped everything for about a day and a quarter for Shabbat. Most days we’d wake up around 5:30 or 6 a.m. and prepare breakfast, mostly hot water for tea and coffee, with soy milk for granola. All food was prepared to satisfy requirements of the Jews’ kosher diets.”

Each day’s leaders “assigned tasks to the functions that needed to be taken care of: navigation, food packing, tent building and breaking down,” Mr. Fowler said. “That didn’t take a lot of time after the second day. These were men, so they were highly motivated. We would decide where we were going, then hike for whatever amount of time and distance before stopping for lunch and again before dinner. There was a lot of talk, and it took a lot of time for group discussions about how we were feeling about things. We were not there to solve problems but to build relationships.”

Rock climbing and an overnight solo experience were among the highlights of the expedition, while weather-related complications such as a late-spring snowstorm stood out as well. The men had been told to bring their own outerwear and were not equally equipped for cold weather camping.

“This was very challenging, particularly to the Palestinians,” Mr. Fowler said. “We should have gotten everybody the same foul weather gear. It was a divide between the ‘haves’ in the Israelis and the ‘have nots’ in the Palestinians.”

The night of solo camping “in their own little patch of the wilderness” was a “deep experience for most of the men,” Mr. Fowler said. “They’re not in societies where they’re often alone.”

Mr. Fowler used the time when the Israelis and Palestinians were praying to write a diary, which is available online by going to outwardboundpeace.org/clays-journal and typing in the password clayfowler.

During the time when the men were challenged to climb a steep peak, Mr. Fowler wrote in his journal, “We arrived about 10 a.m. and quickly set to breaking out harnesses and helmets and getting on station and learning to climb. Two rappels were set up as well as 2 climbs of moderate difficulty. Most everyone tried either the rappel or climb and at a brief debrief session, several expressed their fear of trying, elation at success, and their thought that they never would have imagined doing what they did.”

The result, he wrote later in the day’s diary entry, “is trust between the belay team and the climber, the bond being strong, the analogy to life obvious.”

Fundraising for similar expeditions continues, Mr. Fowler said. “I feel so strongly about the past impact and the future possibilities of this program that I shall not be shy in saying that in addition to intensive individual efforts of the program’s leaders, all of this costs hard dollars and there is always room for more help,” he wrote in an email to supporters. “If you wish to know more or to donate, please go to www.obcp.org and click on ‘support our work.’”


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august 31, 2012
Finding peace through shared outdoor experience
‘Pops, Patriots and Fireworks’