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Naturalist Tom Mancke visits Golden Club
Golden Club
Naturalist Tom Mancke holds up a pot collected on a trip to Africa during a talk he gave to the Golden Club on Aug. 6. The trip included a stop in Tanzania where, Mancke said, he joined a group of African bushmen telling stories around a campfire. - photo by Gary Phillips

Many would call Tom Mancke a world traveler, but the good news is he has always come back to his native South Carolina with stories and artifacts to share from his travels. Mancke was the guest speaker at the Aug. 6 meeting of The Golden Club in Camden. He has taught Natural History at Hammond School in Columbia for more than 25 years. Mancke said he feels a strong philosophical connection to all things, living or not, and he shares his experiences with his students.  

“What does it mean to be a living thing in this world? What is my purpose as a human being? I’ve been playing with these things since the first moment I was born,” Mancke said. “The meaning of life is, all of us are together on a camping trip. We humans are here for the purpose of telling really good stories. The two answers dovetail into one another so beautifully. A camping trip generates amazing experiences, out of which arise all sorts of marvelous stories. Not only does a camping trip generate stories, but it is the perfect context in which to tell a story.”

Mancke recalled a trip to Tanzania in which his group joined a group of African bushmen.

“There they were, sitting around their campfire telling stories. What a perfect encounter,” he said. “We’re all on the camping trip together. A belief I have carried with me for a long time is, if you wish to live a sane, happy life on Earth, you need to be intimately connected to wilderness.”

Mancke said his philosophies include the human ability to expand our way of thinking and welcoming new experiences.

“We are just wonderfully designed, potentially, to be really good story tellers. We, among very few other living things have the ability to escape the prison of our own bodies and our own opinions. Using a creative mind we can stretch and at least imagine, if not discern, what the world looks like to that snake over there or that spider, what the world looks like to that other person,” he said. “What does the world look like to a piece of stone. How do you have a two-way conversation with a non-living being? You go outside and you pick up a rock and you try to transform that stone into a thin, fine-edged projectile point -- an arrowhead. The moment you start trying to shape that stone into something, that stones begins to tell you what that stone will and will not do. That stone starts expressing the stone’s opinions. All of a sudden you find yourself in a two-way conversation with this non-living being, trying to shape this thing into something you want it to be.”

Mancke said mentor Steve Watts advised him never to leave home without three things: a sharp wit; a sharp edge, like a knife; and the ability to make fire.

“These are pretty profound, basic tools that I try to teach my students every day, because (the) best tool kit we have is already built in to our bodies,” Mancke said. “Having the world come alive to people is exciting.”

Mancke concluded by saying how his life has been enhanced by his relationship with nature.

“These skills have allowed me to connect with living and non-living beings and to have some sense of their story that they have to tell,” he said. “This is an exciting world. We’re all part of this amazing mystery.”