Teachers in the Wild and the Magic Within Us - A Conversation with Jon Turk

“I met Moolynaut in 2000.  A year later, she entreated the spirit of a great black raven to help mend my injured pelvis.”

This is part of Dr Jon Turk’s introduction to his book, The Raven’s Gift, in which he describes the transformative experience of being healed in the middle of the wilderness and finding magic. Ahead of Jon’s appearance in Missoula as part of Cartography Comes Alive, we sat with him to understand more about the magic inside us and how to bring it out.

Who Is Jon Turk?

Brought up in Connecticut, Jon felt he was on a trajectory toward academic life as he was studying for his PhD in chemistry but soon realized that was not the destiny he felt drawn towards. One day, out walking the dog, he had a profound experience that would link his life to nature in a unique way. As the dog smelled the ground and took in the first fragrance of spring, Jon was called to do the same. That was the start of his life as an adventurer, driven simply by the statement, “I have to be able to smell the earth.

But he didn’t simply turn his back on academia and change his life completely. In fact, a structured approach to setting goals, advancing methodically, came from his life as a chemist. He set about going into the wild, becoming ever bolder, and coming up with new challenges to help him keep “smelling the earth.” As he became more successful in his expeditions, adventuring became Jon’s career and many unique stories grew out of that. You can read about them in books like “Lions, Myth, and Wilderness in Samburu” or “Crocodiles and Ice.”

A key moment in Jon’s adventures was his successful circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island with Erik Boomer, leading to a National Geographic nomination as one of the top ten adventures of 2011. He has since studied theater and dance, produced podcasts, given TEDx talks, and inspired people around the world with his insights and experiences. 

Jon Turk And Erik Boomer sitting on a Kayak in Alaska.

A Transformative Experience

An adventurer’s life has its perils, and Jon picked up various injuries throughout his time in the wilderness. It was when he explored Northeastern Siberia, however, that these past injuries and an accident would collide to bring him in front of Moolynaut, the grandmother and shaman of a remote village, who would change his life. As Jon recounts, it was the moment he realized that his power was not external but came from the magic he held inside.

After injuring his pelvis during an icy journey through the tundra, further complicated by a previous avalanche accident, Jon was unable to walk. It didn’t seem like a quick fix and he was nowhere near a hospital. Yet, a meeting with Moolynaut would heal him - provided he believed. In her hut, the grandmother summoned Kutcha, the raven from the netherworld, and asked him to heal Jon. The only prerequisite was that Jon would believe in this spiritual approach to healing - not the easiest feat for a scientist!

Looking back on the adventure among reindeer herders in the tundra, it may all seem surreal and illogical. All Jon could do in the moment was to be honest and promise that he would try to believe with all his heart. The very next day, he was able to walk and even ski. So, of course, questions arose: how was this physically possible? What was the spiritual-physical connection? And what was inside Jon that helped him connect with Kutcha and the spiritual world?

Read more: You can get more details about the journey and Jon’s experience in the Siberian tundra by reading his book, “The Raven’s Gift.

The Magic in Us

Having a background in science and vast experience across multiple types of wilderness worldwide, he could accept what happened but needed to explain it. Looking to make scientific sense of an unexplainable concept, he set about looking at anthropology and the way that we developed as humans. It turned out that the way we think about evolution - with humans developing tools that helped us dominate the world - may be flawed. In his talk, “Big Brains, No Tools,” Jon shares how, tens of thousands of years ago, humans were becoming a “failed experiment” due to increasingly large brains, way before starting to use tools in the way we’ve learned. 

Instead of becoming extinct, however, humanity thrived. And this wasn’t because of what we learned about growing food, hunting, and developing our societies. At least not at the start. Before we had tools, we had art. We're used to thinking of the cave paintings in France (c. 30,000 years old in Chauvet and c. 17,000 years old in Lascaux) as the earliest evidence of human artistic expression. But the dating of these pieces of evidence doesn’t exclude the possibility that we started producing artwork (as we know it today) much earlier than that. In fact, recent anthropological work suggests that it’s simply the lack of physical evidence and a certain prejudice that keeps us from accepting the idea that we had art before we had “science” as we would categorize it nowadays. 

According to Jon, it’s this connection to artistry, spirituality, and - ultimately - nature that has helped humans survive and thrive. This seemed to link in with his experience in the Siberian tundra, getting better by strong belief and a spiritual connection. It’s what led him to think “If you lose the magic in your life, you lose your power.

Jon would go back to Siberia to express his gratitude to Moolynaut and try to find Kutcha the raven. The latter was a quest in itself, governed again by believing in the huge black raven who came back to listen to his spirit and allow him to say thank you. Jon spent several years learning from Mollynaut, connecting with his inner power, and becoming a changed man.

With this new understanding of power, he felt ready to take on his biggest adventure yet - the circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island, a feat that he had long believed (and was told) was impossible. At the age of 65, he found power he didn’t know he had, thanks to his learnings from Moolynaut and Kutcha.

The main learning that allowed him to kayak through epic ice and adverse conditions was that, yes, training, preparation, and kit were important for this expedition. But, ultimately, without the mindset, without the magic, one couldn’t succeed at it. “If a barrier is too high, you won’t succeed by climbing over it,” Jon remembers being taught. “You have to imagine the barrier doesn’t exist.

Jon tTurk - National Geographic Top Ten Explorer dragging his kayak across the glacier ice in Alaska.
Photo Credit:  Erik Boomer 

How to Embrace Magic in Everyday Life

What does Jon’s experience teach us about listening to our inner magic and connecting with the universe? There are two key takeaways: firstly, don’t see obstacles and hardships as a reason to stop or a barrier to climb over, but rather try and imagine they’re not there at all; and secondly, find your teachers.

Scientists have great ideas, but they need to be implemented with spirit and magic. Politicians may promise exciting prospects, but how do you know which ones to trust? When you look out over the Grand Canyon or Arches National Park, you can take an amazing picture, but what can you sense? Which parts of these experiences and the information you take on become your teacher?

We carry a lifetime of being conditioned to listen to others and to chase after the tangible. However, if we sit and let nature speak to us, it will change our mindset and allow us to connect to deeper truths. Jon urges us all to try a meditation practice - it doesn’t have to be huge, just put your phone away and listen to the birds, watch leaves turn, and breathe in the smells of the forest. You can do this in the wild, or you can do it in Central Park in the middle of New York City. It doesn’t matter, as long as you do your best to turn your mind off for a short while. And in time, this will show you the magic within you and your true teachers. 

You can never take the complete journey, but you can try with all your heart - which is what Jon did to be healed by the shaman and what brought him to where he is today. 

Cartography Comes Alive 

Jon Turk’s storytelling reminds us why we need a deeper connection to our ancient wisdom and the natural world. It’s a means to address contemporary technological challenges, discover who your teachers are, and connect with your inner magic. As both a scientist and a man who’s welcomed the magic of the spiritual world into his life, he teaches us how to find that same magic within us and in the surrounding world. 

Come to the Xplorer Maps Missoula Store (1245 S 3rd St W) on May 15 to listen to Jon talk about his explorations, his encounter with Moolynaut the shaman, Kutcha the raven, and his pursuit of adventure and magic.