Thursday, June 3, 2010

the trek and sun rise

we are nearing the end of this class

ive been looking through a pin hole at small pieces of a picture that is cloudy, dim and unfocused. occasionally ive caught glimpses of things i thought i could understand but couldnt quite connect to the rest. everything ive seen has been new and with no frame of reference with which to make associations ive had only the loosest idea of how these small fragments might fit together.

now i feel like ive taken a small step back. i can see a larger section and though the edges are still quite blurry im starting to get a sense for the orientation of things.

last week i returned from the earthwalk survival trek. almost 10 days living in primitive/semi-survival mode. one final set of lessons and about as close to the edge of technological life support as the uninitiated might get before things become dangerous. all necessities of shelter, food and water where gathered and prepared by our own hands. with few exceptions the only tools for the work being a knife, a cooking pot and a wool blanket.

as extreme as that might sound, no one was at risk of starving or freezing or dying of thirst. there were enough safety nets in place to ensure that we would enjoy ourselves and take knowledge from the experience while still pushing the edge and testing personal limits.

i feel like the entire telling of the tale would be weeks in the doing, going all the way back to the beginning of the earthwalk apprenticeship. as it is these things get pretty long....

i present here, the highlights:

there were a few days of preliminary preparation before the heart of the trip was to be approached. our initial camp was by the side of an alfalfa farm, owned by a friend of the instructors and a perfect landscape for harvesting our wild foods and material goods.

the beginning of the trip was a 3 day wild edible plant intensive. some plants we had been introduced to earlier in the year were revisited, and some new friends where introduced.

a few samples...

hookers onion

burdock roots


willow buds

willow is not a particularly fantastic food source, its inner bark being a last ditch survival food at best. it is however highly prized medicine containing asprin pre-cursors and providing pain relief when wrapped around a wound or taken as a tea infusion.


camas bulbs are incredibly delicious. sort of like sweet potato. the starches in them though are incredibly dense and need to be steamed for a great deal of time to break down the carbohydrates so that they can be eaten without debilitating bouts of gas.

a word of caution when harvesting camas and to a degree wild onions as well: the bulbs of the death camas plant are very very similar to both. a wild onion will always have an onion smell which is your sure tip to distinguish it from its deadly twin however the only way to safely seperate the death from the safe camas is to harvest them WITH THE FLOWER HEAD ATTACHED. the flowers of death camas are white and those of common camas are violet like HOWEVER if it is not flowering or the stalk breaks off during the harvesting process leave it be. its not worth the risk considering a very small amount of death camas will drop a human adult within hours

for cooking the cammas bulbs we made a steam pit for them to simmer in over night but part of the pit was used to cook trout, eaten that night.

a steam pit is a brilliant piece of technology since your basically just using a big hole in the ground to cook your food. it takes some work but the pay off is a practically fool proof method of cooking. its hard to over cook the food and you can prepare a great quantity at once, digging up different sections as different foods finish cooking. hypothetically several people could pull all their meals for one day and possibly some of the next from one pit.

after the hole is dug, a giant bed of coals is burned down into the gaps between large rocks, lining the bottom of the hole. over the coals, wet grass is laid and, in this case, some cat tail leaves as well. the food is laid on this bed, then covered with more leaves and grasses and finally the pit is back filled with all the dirt that was taken out.

the center of a cat tail stalk is a beautiful piece of art, reflecting the many gifts within the plant. from top to bottom the plant offers something edible, medicinal and/or utilitarian. the flowering head and the pollen head occur on the same stalk, both are valuable resources. the immature flowering head can be roasted and eaten like corn on the cob. pollen harvested is high in nutritional content, good for mixing in with flour for baked goods. cat tail fluff is good fire tinder or bedding material, the leaves will make cordage, the cores of the stalk near the root are a tender delicacy and finally the root stalk is a great wealth of delicious starch. since it is a water dwelling plant it should always be cooked or blanched to eliminate the risk of microbial diseases.

after the plant intensive the true work of gathering and preparing our food supply began.

willow was harvested to make tripod racks for drying meat.

the meat, buffulo, was sliced as thin as possible and drapped over cross beams to dry in the sun. it took about a day of dry, sunny, breazy weather to dry the meat hard as a rock so that it could be pounded into a fine, powdery meal

dried meat, dried berries and a large amount of rendered fat is the simplest recipe for a substantially powerful food energy source called pemmican. with all the water content removed and the fat creating a solid moisture barrier this high calorie food is the perfect power bar. having an indefinite shelf life, samples of pemmican one thousand years old have been discovered which are still edible!

wrapped in a burdock leaf with clean burdock root this would be the base for my stews over the course of the trip.

i also collect sheperds purse and field penny cress. both are mustards with penny cress having a distinct and strong mustard flavor good for adding spice to a stew.

my favorite wild green, nettle was found in large patches and wrapped in a to-go leaf

with a yarrow collection many first aid needs would be covered as well. yarrow is a styptic herb, stopping bleeding and possessing strong antiseptic properties. it can be used as a tea to stop internal bleeding, fight infections and to lessen fevers by promoting sweating. it can be inhaled in a steam bath to fight lung infection or crushed and rubbed into the skin it serves as an effective insect repellent.

more wild edibles would be found at the camp site we were heading out to so, wrapped in thick, velvety burdock leaves along with some acorns harvested months earlier and a bit of corn meal, the majority of my food supply was stocked for the next several days.

to help prepare and to eat this food we made our own spoon and then...

time to hike in

the pre-determined importance of survival priorities is dictated by the rule of 3's

death comes in 3 minutes without air, 3 hours of exposure to the elements, 3 days without water and about 3 weeks without food.

since suffocation is relatively easy to prevent in calm conditions, the first priority for life on this trip was building a shelter

made from fallen limbs, a fair amount of dirt and pile after pile after pile after pile after pile after pile of gathered pine needles, this would be my home for the next 4 days.

this is to date the most important thing i have ever constructed for myself and i made it with nothing but my own 2 hands. ok, there was a small folding saw involved but it could be done without! its just that ive never been responsible for my own life in such a direct way, with no outside power to help me.

the effect that mental attitude will have on a situation is something i have been aware of and its something you hear a lot about when learning primitive skills and survival techniques but i cant think of an experience that focused those effects as sharply as sleeping in a giant pile of dirt.

i went in to the situation with a great deal of apprehension. with the exception of clothing, im miles away from anything that is going to keep me warm and im relying on piles of dirt and tree branches to form a structure safe to sleep in. i had convinced myself that i would be very cold and damp, a tiny bit worried i would be buried under the debris and i was trying not to be too upset about all this. i woke up after the first night with this feeling that i had not slept well and had been cold. i had distinct memories of shivering and being uncomfortable and being dirty and uncomfortable. the second night 2 interesting things happened. first, i got myself comfortable with sleeping in the dirt. i gave up trying to brush debris and filth off my blanket and out of my shirt collar and just tried to own the fact that i was sleeping in the dirt....whats so bad about that? social programming is no match for necessity and dirt don't hurt

the second thing that happened was that i woke up and immediately started shaking and shivering and trying to huddle into my blanket for warmth. there was some fear that i was maybe too cold. isn't intense shivering the first sign of hypothermia?? i was really beginning to worry. then i realized that my feet were sweating. was this another sign of doom? no... wait...i wasnt cold at all. i was actually quite warm. and once i made myself relax i became very comfortable. the preconception that i was going to be cold and uncomfortable was so strong that i had convinced myself that i was freezing even though i was in truth warm and safe. light switch: on.

i slept the rest of that night content, satisfied and confident that i would not die in the woods. not that night, not the next, not ever. at least not for lack of shelter. although a bear would peel that thing like a banana...


as a precaution against the obvious risk involved in having 14 or so individual fires going, all cooking and water sterilizing was done around a group fire. it was extinguished each night and started again the next day using any choice of a number of primitive fire starting methods learned in the class

over the next few days this fire would also be the common area to work on several wilderness survival aids. such as a spear...

a throwing stick

a sling

and stone flakes from flint and obsidian for cleaning and butchering animals.

im sure i dont have to mention that all these implements will take some getting used to. most especially the sling. after trying to get a rock to fire straight from one of those im amazed that it ever got off the ground as a practical tool but i am gripped with the challenge of sharpening my aim to a real level of accuracy. just give me a few years? im a bit better at the throwing stick but woodland creatures are very small and fast. not that any woodland creatures were targets on this trip....i can neither confirm nor deny....

the bird pictured above was one of many small starlings packed in by frank and brought out on the final night so everyone would have the experience of butchering a small animal with a sharp rock. having animals already killed, on hand for a teaching exercise has of course been used throughout this course as a solution the the problem of relying on inept students trying to chase down game. this way we learn, ethical hunting is upheld, the animal is honored and everyone gets fed.

he also brought in 3 ducks

my friend eric and i teamed up for the mallard

im proud to say that the first time i ever cooked duck was on a flat stone in a campfire. and it came out delicious.

and so the evening and the morning of the last day.

it took a couple days after returning for the weight to sink in. a few days of savoring a new appreciation for burning hot showers rich food and things with sugar. a few days reflecting on the memory of seeing the sun rise that last morning, feeling that clumsy cliche of new dawns become very real and very relevant.

plant knowledge, hunting techniques, cleaning animals, survival, primitive living. as this primitive skills class comes to a close i can see many things that were once dark, abstract and conceptual become illuminated and manifest into hard physical realities and by coming into being, point the way toward new avenues and new ways to deepen and expand these skills.

me and another friend from the class came up with the analogy of mining the side of a mountain. the adding up of various elements, culminating in a large chunk of rock being moved away in a blast of dynamite, revealing a vein of something precious.
its depth and breadth is unknown and much of it still obscured by a cortex of rock but we know its going to be big and we know its going to be good.


  1. Wow. Completely fucking epic.

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