Revisiting an article written for Blue Ridge Highlander – 2008
~ The first in a series of articles on survival skills ~
by Mark Warren
PRIMITIVE SURVIVAL SKILLS IN THE 21st CENTURY
The physicality of satisfying our essential needs today is virtually effortless – like strolling through the aisles of a grocery store or turning a knob to heat an oven. So why turn back history and roam forest and field to dig up edible roots? Why twirl a stick in your hands to near exhaustion in the quest for fire? Isn’t all that ancient lore outdated? No. And I will give three reasons why.
Whether seashore or woodland, prairie or mountain, desert or tundra, every personality of the land demanded competent survival skills of the first people to settle in it. Each discrete landform required its own specialized lore, because humans had to meet their needs not with resources they wished they had, but by using what was available. To one man, the building block of his home was snow or ice. To another it was grass or mud or animal skins. Some utilized logs. Others used sticks.
Here in the forests of these Southern highlands, caves were certainly appropriated for shelter, but of course caves could not be moved to the most favorable settings. (One etymological interpretation of the word “Cherokee” describes people from caves.) New tenants of the land simply took what they could find. But when early inhabitants of southern Appalachia began to look at choicer locations (and less dank living quarters), their first homes were comprised of sticks and mud and leaves (a wattle and daub hut with a thatched grass roof). These building materials were found in abundance.
Survival skills allowed paleo-settlers to get started in the process of staying put. In time, grander schemes replaced the raw hardscrabble tasks that were at first required. For example, a one-room hovel might be expanded to a more complex home with the space needed to perform a variety of chores. Now there was room to store water in the home, because free time had opened up for the making of vessels composed of clay dug from creek banks. This addition of crockery eliminated the constant going to and coming from a stream. In other words, a resource (water) had been harnessed, so to speak, by bringing it inside … within easy reach.
It was only natural that humans would strive to invent less demanding solutions to their basic problems. We all do that even today. In fact, one way to look at the history of humans is to follow the “evolution of comfort.” Within this story of water, anthropologists consider it an important chapter when humans stopped lowering their faces to a stream and learned to cup water in their hands and raise it to their mouths – a posture better suited to staying alert and alive (to see what predator might be approaching).
Consider where we are now in the story: channeling water through the walls of our homes by way of pipes and then again out of our homes once we have made use of the water. What yet-to-be-discovered technique might the future hold for making water available inside our homes?
Regardless, we are now enjoying a very comfortable juncture in the story. We rise from our chair, take a few steps into a nearby room, turn a handle and, voila! …water flows. It’s so easy. Why would anyone want to make obtaining drinkable water more difficult?
Here’s what the primitive approach would require: build a fire of dead hardwood and let the wood burn down to coals; burn out a concavity in a chunk of wood by using hot coals and a blow-tube (a hollow plant stem like Joe Pye Weed or rivercane) to superheat the coal; scrape the depression with stone and sand to produce a finished wooden bowl; fill the bowl with water from a stream; heat egg-sized stones on the bed of hot coals; at intervals, drop glowing-red stones into the bowl of water to bring it to a boil and keep it there for fifteen to twenty minutes to purify the water.
At my wilderness school I teach students of all ages about nature. By far, my most popular classes are those that explore how the Native Americans perfected their survival skills – lore that tied them so closely to the natural world that the natural result of that partnership was not only pragmatism but also respect, reverence and gratitude.
Because I ask my students why they sign up for such a course, I hear lots of perspectives on the relevance of survival skills for our time. I’ve pared them down to two basic categories … and I’ve added one more that I believe lies deep in the subconscious realms of the human brain. A half-forgotten room of atavistic memory.
Before I list these rationales for addressing these skills, let me ask a question: Might you really ever find yourself in a life or death scenario – you against the elements? Ten years ago, I prefaced my survival skills classes with this statement: “Chances are, you’ll never find yourself in a true survival situation … like walking away from a plane crash in the Andes or being car-jacked in the jungles of Central America and left on your own.” That’s what I used to tell my students. Not now.
Of course, the more adventurous you are … the more your odds increase in coming face to face with a survival challenge. After all, not everyone flies over the Andes or drives jungle roads. For that matter, it’s only a small percentage of Americans who venture out on the trail for days at a time with packs on their backs. But the times have changed to make us all logical candidates for learning these ancient skills.
~ The Three Reasons to Learn Survival Skills ~
1.) It’s a different world now because of the escalation of terrorism. There are people in other countries who feel that America is long overdue on being at the receiving end of foreign attack and devastation. (Even Pearl Harbor seems not to count, because of its distance from our consolidated shores.) We, who engineered the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and head the list of the planet’s voracious consumers, present an image to many that is spoiled and arrogant. From the lessons of September 11, 2001, we have a new awareness that – within the scope of terrorism – anything is possible. Almost certainly there is more tragedy to come.
Short of nuclear holocaust (for a taste of coping in a post-apocalyptic world, read The Road by Cormac McCarthy), an act of terrorism could demand from us at least a few survival skills. Consider this scenario: a deliberate contamination of a municipal water source. Surface water from streams (though almost universally polluted) would come full circle and once again be a primary resource just as it once was. Knowing how to render such water drinkable would be imperative. Drinking that stream water “as is” would be a serious mistake – one that could level you with a sickness so severe as to incapacitate you. Racked with pain, you would become dehydrated and too miserable to perform the tasks needed to stay alive. (Side note: yet there is a tea made from a root that can dispel that sickness inside an hour!)
If you don’t have a wood heater or fireplace, you’ll be setting up a grill or permanent fire pit outside your home. You’ll have to haul water to it – that, or make your pit near the stream. You’ve probably got all the containers and cookware you would ever need for collecting and boiling water.
If our system of commerce and the transporting of goods were brought to a halt, grocery stores would empty in just a few days. After depleting our pantries, we would be forced to venture outside for our food. Hunting and fishing would enjoy the status it once held in pioneer days. Those good at it would be renowned. But the forests and streams would be overwhelmed by sheer numbers of people trying their hands at it. The forest would likely become a war zone of territorialism and desperation.
As for our other needs, virtually all of us possess at this moment a lifetime supply of shelter, clothing and tools. But how much do we know about successful gardening? Seed storage? Or foraging for wild plants? The experienced farmer would be our mentor.
2.) There is still enough wild land in America to challenge a person unexpectedly stranded in it. Every year, we hear of someone’s demise in wilderness. The person who wandered off from the group. The traveler who ventured off on an unfamiliar route and ran out of gas in a remote area. The solitary adventurer who pushed his/her limits.
There are probably places in your own county that would qualify as “wild” enough to pose a problem to you if you weren’t prepared for an unplanned stay-over. In that situation you would not likely succumb to starvation or thirst, but hypothermia could be your nemesis – especially if you were wet. (Even in summer, a cool night can prove deadly.) Hypothermia is the loss of body heat to a point where it cannot be retrieved by a person’s natural metabolism. Without help afforded to the victim (external heat source or hot drink ingested), this condition leads almost certainly to death.
If you think you might be exempt from the threat of hypothermia because you are physically fit and plan to fend off the deadly cooling process by running or some other strenuous exercise … think again. The debilitating stage of hypothermia sneaks up on you quickly. It robs you of your ability to use your muscles. Exercise is not possible.
A most useful skill would be knowing how to insulate your clothing with materials from nature. And how to get a fire going. If your stalled car is nearby, you would have a tremendous asset in its shelter from wind and rain. But people have frozen to death inside their cars.
You might even have matches or a lighter. But I have learned through my classes that, even with those incendiary assets of technology, most adults do not have sufficient fire-making skills – especially in wet weather. Did you know that a forest that has been soaked for days in a driving rain still has more dry dead wood than wet dead wood? Would you know where to find it?
3.) This last rationale is my favorite, because it’s for everybody who simply yearns to be “out there” in God’s world. Survival skills integrate you with the land like nothing else can. Think of taking off on a hike or camping trip and purposely leaving your matches at home. Or leaving behind food. Or tent and sleeping bag. Your surroundings become the source of all your necessities. The earth reveals itself as the bearer of all gifts – just as it did for paleo-people and, later, the many native tribes. How differently your eye would look upon each gift. You would literally learn to love sticks, leaves, stones, vines, roots, bark … and every other useful component of nature.
Survival knowledge lightens your load and sharpens your eye. It brings immediacy and purpose to the details of the forest. On some previous outing you have probably walked past a colony of arching plants with yellow-green bell-shaped flowers dangling beneath the stem. But now – with an education of edible plants simmering on the back burner of your mind – you pause, feeling a wave gratitude wash through your body. You judiciously select one or two plants and harvest their tuberous roots. These tubers will serve as the main course of your next meal. Their rich taste and hardy nutrients will greet your palate with surprising satisfaction. Forevermore, when you look upon this herb, you will experience a sense of connection and awe.
Instead of seeing the native needled evergreens as a mere backdrop of scenery, now you would recognize a year-round source of protein, fat, carbohydrates, iron, phosphorous, thiamine, riboflavin and vitamins A and C. All this is packed into one ribbon-like layer hidden beneath the rough outer bark of the tree.
When I first struck out on a self-imposed “semi-survival” trip, I took everything I needed for a normal camping trip… except matches. I had cookware, rice, spoon, canteen, tent, sleeping bag, etc. But eating that rice depended upon my success at creating fire. My eye was so keen to find the proper dead wood (not just any wood will do for fire by friction) that I felt a quantum leap in my relationship with trees – those beings the Cherokees called “The Standing People.”
It was as though the trees were whispering to me. Oak said, “Not me. I can’t help you with that. I didn’t swallow fire in the ancient days. But save me for the time when your spark has grown to a large flame. I can make a lasting fire for you.” Sourwood said the same. And most of the pines told me that they could be helpful in making my initial small flame quickly build to a larger one, but they could not help me create the fire from scratch. Then hemlock said, “Yes, I swallowed fire in the long ago. I’ve been waiting for you. I can give you fire. And I am holding my lower dead branches off the ground for you so that they are dry … at least on the inside.”
And so it was hemlock that gave me fire, cooked my rice and warmed me that night as I gazed at the flames. And when I looked at my hands I knew that something profound had changed for me because of this new relationship I had earned with this tree. Knowing that I could walk into the forest with empty hands and coax fire from a piece of select wood became a monumental milestone. The feeling was and remains a paradox of “humble power.” Whenever I demonstrate fire creation for a group, the spectators break into smiles as if they have just witnessed a magic trick. And I feel much the same even after all these years.
On my next trip I did take matches along with my other gear. But I purposely omitted tent and sleeping bag. Shelter and insulation became my quest. All else that I had packed was a given. On this journey the fallen leaves and the down branches were my treasures, for they were the building blocks of the home I would construct. Never had I been so aware of how much is discarded from the various trees. Never had I noticed the differences of loft and texture and quantity of the leaf litter characteristic of the many species of trees.
Next trip, I packed everything but food. And so went the pattern until I began to leave behind things in pairs. Food and matches. Or tent and water. Then I omitted items in threes. This is the same procedure I advise for my students today. To go about the quest in a safe and adventurous format. Jumping into the full-fledged ordeal is too much.
After many, many months of similar trips, I weaned myself away from all the gear until I was ready for a true self-imposed survival trip. My equipment was 1.) my mind and what it knew about the forest, 2.) my body and what it could do with its strength and the form I had learned in practicing the skills, 3.) the clothes I wore, and 4.) my knife.
At this point in my growth as a practitioner of survival skills, my eye had learned to look for everything at once – that is, to relax and see what was in front of me so that I did not pass by something of use. The improvement of my observation skills was significant. My feeling of being a part of the wild – as opposed to being a visitor to it – was exactly what I had yearned for and needed … even though I had not defined it in those words. I was a different person – a person I had always wanted to be.
When I ask my survival students: “Why do you want to learn these skills?” Most often I hear this answer: “I just want to learn more about what’s around me. I want to be more connected to it.” I know this feeling. It is elemental. It is in our genes. Our ancestors planted it there. Without this connection, something fundamental is missing in us as an animal on this planet.
Ever since we have been children, haven’t we admired those figures in history or fiction – people who knew the secrets of nature? The Native Americans; the mountain men who pioneered the way west; Mowgli from Kipling’s The Jungle Book; Sam from My Side of the Mountain; Tarzan. I believe most of us feel that spark of autonomy in nature glowing within us. It is the ultimate knowledge. We crave intimacy with the green world that lives and breathes around us. It is the world into which we were born. It received us. Sequestered away inside our buildings and adrift in the momentum of our fabricated society, most of us peek out at the natural world as though spying a foreign territory.
I live on what was once Cherokee land, so it makes sense to me to learn what they – as a people – once knew to a man, woman and child. And if I “discover” something “new”, I know it is not really new. A Cherokee learned this long before me. And therefore, as my relationship with the forest has grown, so grows my bond with these people who understood the value of each piece of the puzzle of that place I call “the real world.”
Mark Warren has authored a four-volume series of books called Secrets of the Forest. These books detail the nature and survival skills he has taught for more than 50 years. Check them out here.
Mark Warren owns and directs Medicine Bow Wilderness School, teaching nature classes and primitive survival skills in the mountains of North Georgia. For more information, call: 706-864-5928 or email: medicinebow(at)att.net.