My Journey into Primitive Living
September 22nd - 25th, 2004
by Sherene C. Djafroodi
I showed up on Tom Elpel's doorstep after having my first conversation with him only three hours earlier. I just happened to be in Montana and he just happened to be taking some friends on a primitive skills trip the very next day. This is how it works with Tom. He is an author, an environmental activist, and the director of Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School (now Green University) in Pony, Montana--an incredibly busy man who doesn't work within schedules or course outlines, but lives and teaches by the opportunities that present themselves. Tom explains this lifestyle in his book Participating in Nature where he writes, "Primitive living is a model for living that gives us the basic foundations, the very laws of nature, upon which all solutions, in primitive and contemporary living, must be built." In this journal I will share the primitive living skills I learned on a four-day trip into the Pioneer Mountains. More importantly, I will explore the psychology of primitive living, because without understanding the psychology, the skills are merely garage bench hobbies.
Gear: On the morning of September 22, 2004 winter whispered into our ears that he was coming. The sky was gloomy, the ground wet, and my skin cold. There were six of us: Tom; Hollowtop's interns, Brian and Norm; a student/friend, Jeff; plus Rick and Rich, a father-son pair from Michigan; and one woman, me.
My pack was the first lesson in primitive living skills and possibly the scariest. I headed into the mountains with nothing more than a wool blanket, a plastic poncho, my wolverine hat, a journal, a fire set that I didn't know how to use, my snow boarding pants, a knife, and the clothes on my back. Tom packed in some primitive food. Brian brought a cooking pot. That was it for four days in the mountains of Montana with winter tailing us. I had never packed so light, ever. As much as I love being outdoors I've always traveled in fear in the wilderness, my pockets filled with a whistle, compass, emergency first aid kit, snake bite extractors, water bottles, power bars, lighters, matches, waterproof matches, another lighter. To go into the wilderness stripped of these things was an act of faith, not only in my guides, but in nature herself. It's a feeling that is exhilarating and frightening.
Campsite: We drove to the trailhead and hiked for a few hours before we reached the snowline at an elevation of around 7,500 feet. Tom says, "Okay, let's start looking for a campsite. You can spread out or come with me." I think, "Well, besides flat land, I don't know what to look for," so I tried to follow him, but within twenty minutes Rich and Rick and I were on our own. The only instruction we had been given was anything that looks like a shelter will probably make a good shelter: something near water, but preferably not down in the bottom where the cold settles in, and something with lots of dead wood for fuel. We puttered around for a while before we half-heartedly decided to suggest a spot that Tom pointed out earlier. I would later hear the interns half-jokingly say, "Don't rush, no matter what we find, we won't start building shelter until the last minute anyways." I realized at that point that this trip would be incredibly unstructured and I would only learn as much as I not only wanted to learn, but really put an effort into learning. Tom wasn't going to hand it to me, or pound it into me. The learning was up to me.
Shelter: I see now that in sending us off on our own, Tom was giving us the opportunity to think shelter. He writes in his book: "The type of shelter you build, and the location you choose for it, will vary tremendously depending on the time, the place, and your goals. Therefore, every primitive shelter you ever build will be completely unique, and suited to the particular conditions at hand." Tom goes on to list four primary elements of good shelter: shingling, insulation, airproofing, and fire.
Log Cabin: The weather was wet and cold with the possibility of more snow. Tom decided that we would share one shelter built in an approximately 8' by 10' space circled by tall spruce trees. The guys gathered dead logs in the area to create four, three-foot tall walls, each wedged against the trunks of the spruce trees. The walls would protect us from wind while sitting or sleeping. I helped insulate the walls by stuffing leaves, sticks, and rotten wood between the logs. Everyone helped cover the floor in pine bows to insulate against the wet and cold ground. The spruce tree branches overhead were natural shingles, not enough to protect us from pouring rain, but enough to handle the on-and-off showers. We slept in a circle around a fire, which Tom and Brian kept going through the night. The temperature dropped down into the 30's that first night. I was so hot that I used my snowboarding pants as a pillow, and kept kicking my wool blanket off.
Coal Beds: Up at Grayling Lake two days later we made coal beds in a cluster of huge rocks that were like natural caves. We split off into groups of twos and three depending on the space available. Me, Tom, and Jeff, took the outermost cavern. We dug a hole in the ground, about 1 and 1/2 ft wide, 5 ft long, and 6 inches deep. Then we started a fire in the trench. Three hours later we removed any big pieces wood and filled the hole with dirt. Tom covered the hot ground with a plastic poncho to trap the heat in. The fire heated the ground, as well as the rocks around us. I got to sleep in the middle, on top of where the fire had been, but I had little faith in this concept of a natural heater bed, so I slept in my snowboarding pants. I was so hot that I ended up shedding layers in the middle of the night.
Community: Both forms of group shelter introduced me to the importance of community in primitive psychology. We all pulled together to find and build the shelters that we would sleep, eat, and work in. Everyone did their part. Norm was sick, so he stayed by the fire and did the cooking. Brian was the strongest so he gathered heavy wood. Jeff was the only one with a cup so he brought water. Tom did a little bit of everything in the process of teaching, and me, Rick, and Rich did the same in the process of learning. The division of labor came naturally, as did the looking out for each other.
It shocked me how close I felt to these guys in a matter of days. Not necessarily emotionally close, but comfortable close, a real kind of closeness that is different from intimate conversations. I may not have noticed the closeness if I weren't the only woman sleeping in and 8' by 10' foot space with five men, or in the case of the coal beds, between Tom and Jeff, but I was, so I did. I never felt like the "girl." Even though I was the least experienced of the group, I was never talked down to directly or indirectly. I never felt sexually objectified. I don't know if it was because of the physical proximity, or because we were all equally invested in our survival in the wilderness, but our little community of six was completely egalitarian.
Tinder Bundle: Everyone was awake bright and early, ready to get started on skills. Creating fire was the most immediately fascinating primitive skill for me. My first lesson in fire starting was that there are as many primitive ways to ignite fire as there are modern ones, and each method can be just as easy as it is hard, depending on the conditions. Before you can have fire you must have fuel. Tom writes, "The tinder bundle is made from any light, dry fibrous materials like dead grass, sagebrush bark, or the inner bark of the cottonwood." The conditions were so wet that I spent two hours watching the guys try to start a fire using native resources to no avail. Eventually, Tom got it going with dry cottonwood bark that we packed in. In this situation, I was told, you could gather material for a tinder bundle as you go, and if it was wet then you could pack it close to your body warmth to dry it along the way.
It wasn't until later that I made my own tinder bundle and finally understood the importance of layering. I used long strands of dry cottonwood bark wrapped into a birds nest as the outer layer. I added dry, dead plant leaves for second layer. The bundle was an inch and half thick to prevent the coal from falling through. In the center I placed the driest, fluffiest, shreds of cottonwood bark and dead flower heads, which I collected nearby.
Bow Drill: While Rich and Rick practiced hand drill and flint and steel fires, I decided on the bow drill. Tom uses an analogy to describe the bow drill process, "The joining of the male spindle and the female fireboard results in the birth of a glowing baby coal. The process of creating that coal, which seems to be almost living, by merely rubbing two sticks together, is very much a magical process."
I found a dead, curved, branch, with its weight and thickness equally distributed. I peeled the bark off to make it smooth and tied a rope across to make a bow. Soft bark, mostly roots, is good for the board and spindle. We were high enough up that there were only pine, spruce, and fir trees, so I ended up using a board and spindle packed in. Tom showed me the proper position and technique and let me have at it.
After watching the other guys try for over an hour the night before with the damp tinder, I was certain that it would be months before I actually produced my own coal. I twisted the spindle into the bow and held it in the notch with my right hand. Then I placed my left for on the fire board. With my left hand, I pressed the socket into the other end of the spindle. Slowly, I imitated Tom's controlled back and forth movement of the bowstring. I didn't rush, because I was certain I would be there for a long time, trying over and over again before I even got close. After a few minutes smoke started rising from the board. I heard Brian tell me to press the socket harder into the spindle. I heard Norm tell me to move the bow faster. My arms started to get tired and I felt like stopping just when Tom said, "Your not even close until you feel like you can't go any more." The smoke rose into my nostrils; my left arm quaked into the socket. My right arm quivered pulling the bow back and forth. Finally, Tom said stop. Slowly, gently, he pulled the fire board away from the piece of bark set on the ground to catch a coal. I didn't see anything but a pile of saw dust. Disappointed I dropped the bow. Tom lightly waved his hand over the dust, and there it was, a red-orange coal glowing in the disappearing dusky air. I was so excited I screamed, but the work had only begun.
Blowing into Flame: Tom walked me through dropping the coal into the tinder bundle. Cupping and folding the bundle into my hands. Blowing into it from underneath. Immediately enormous amounts of smoke came from the bundle. I heard everyone in the background encouraging me. Within minutes I had exhausted all of the air in my lungs and finally started choking on the enormous amounts of smoke this little pile of bark and leaves was making. I couldn't breathe and I was coughing. Tom took the bundle and blew into it. I wonder now if he held off on igniting it into fire on purpose. As soon as I caught my breathe he handed it back to me. I blew as hard and fast as I could but it was still not enough. Finally, Tom instructed me to blow in short breaths. I had seen him do this earlier, where he blew into the bundle like the puff, puff, puff, of a train. One, two, three, four, and boom, the bundle burst into flame right in the palm of my hand. I jumped. I screamed. I whooped. Everyone cheered. And then I just stood there and stared at what I had created, like it was this incredible work of art, no, even more, it was life and energy in my hands. I had created life and energy.
Creation: The psychology of primitive fire starting is both literally and metaphorically an encounter with the great spirit that creates all things. The life force of your mind and body interact with the living matter of the earth to give birth to flame, the flame that sustains and destroys life. I got to be a participant in the process of creating something living. It filled me with a sense of accomplishment and excitement that I don't remember having before, even though I've been creating art my whole life. I think the difference is that the fire is physically alive. I never expected to get a coal on my first try. Two days later I would try my hardest for an hour and half and get nothing but blisters. The forces of creation are truly unpredictable.
Pack Frames: It is truly amazing how many things can be made from just the resources found in the woods. In his book, Tom describes how to make everything from clay pots to moccasins. We had a limited amount of time, limited resources because of the elevation and time of year, and an uphill hike to our next campsite now that the snow cover had melted off, so we decided to make pack frames.
I gathered three straight, dead, and fallen trees about the diameter of a silver dollar. I cut two pieces as long as the distance from my fingertips to my armpit. The third was cut to the length from my elbow to my fingertips. Then came the hard part, shaving them clean of branches and bumps. My knife was small and somewhat dull. It took me hours of frustration and exhaustion before I settled for my still-bumpy sticks. Each piece was then notched in two places so that they lay flat in a triangle on top of each other. One of my pieces was accidentally used as fired wood (because I left it near the wood pile) and I had to do it all over again. It took me forever to finish.
Pitch: The next step was to prepare the pitch. Tom sent me out to gather dried sap from the trees. I then melted it on a flat rock in the fire. I crushed an old coal into fine charcoal powder. Slowly, Tom mixed this into the melting sap and stirred it into a thick glob. This pitch is nature's super glue. I heated up the notches on my pack frame sticks and put pitch into them. Then I pressed them together and heated them up again. I held the frame while Tom tied each notch even tighter together with the thin rope-like roots that had been gathered from trees on the hike up. The result was an incredibly sturdy pack frame that held up through a bouncy two-mile hike up a steep trail, with me carelessly and repeatedly throwing it on the ground in exhaustion.
Interdependence: Making the pack frame was not fun for me; it was laborious. However, it connected the psychology of primitive skills to a lesson that I have only recently begun to learn. Everything we take, we take from the earth. There is a big difference between picking up a 20-dollar backpack at Walmart, versus combining my blood, sweat, and calloused skin with the matter of the earth in order to slowly create a pack frame. Tom describes the psychological impact of using primitive skills when he writes:
"We are faced with the realization that in order for our lives to go onward, we must take from the world around us; like the coyote stalking a mouse, we must kill and use to survive. It's too easy to forget that in the contemporary world. We think resources come from the store, and we forget that there are impacts and consequences directly...Primitive living is a metaphor that gives us an awareness of the true costs of living, no matter where we are."
In this process I got to experience the real cost of production. Time, pain, frustration. In experiencing these things I felt like I honored the earth and her resources. In return she gave of herself so that I may experience comfort. In looking at my pack frame now, I feel the joy and sense of accomplishment that comes with diligence and perseverance.
Food: By day four the sun was out, and we moved camp up to the incredibly beautiful Grayling Lake. We should have been in good spirits except that food had become a big issue. Everyone was hungry, and everyone except for Tom was really disturbed by the fact that they were hungry. Tom had packed in primitive food: jerky, flour, rice, lentils, potatoes, but we were running low and had to ration down to small portions. From day one we had been instructed to carry a rock or a throwing stick in order to catch small game. The idea of me actually being able to hit an animal with a stick or rock seemed preposterous. My prediction turned out to be true. By the time I glimpsed a bird or squirrel they were gone before I had my arm raised. Apparently, I wasn't the only one that "throws like a girl" because none of the other guys, except for Tom, caught any food that way. Tom, however, managed to get a grouse, a squirrel, and he plucked a fish out of a stream with his bare hands.
Fishing: By the fourth day I was starving, sitting on the banks of the lake watching the plentitude of trout feeding at the surface. I determined that, one way or another, I was going to catch a fish. I resorted to a metal hook and tackle that Rich had brought in his emergency survival kit. The first night was disappointing. The fat trout swam around my worm with indifference. They splashed water on me with their fins and swam away mockingly. I gave up.
By the second day at the lake I had resigned myself to the fact that I probably wouldn't catch any fish and started fishing just for the fun of it. After and hour of sitting on a rock above deep water watching the fat fish swim and play around my hook and my now dead worm, I disobeyed the rule of keeping your line still, and half heartedly threw my hook towards a fish that looked particularly interested. I turned away to finish a conversation with Jeff about the psychology of starvation when I felt a tug on my line. That fish was interested and he went for the dead worm, and I had dinner. Well, at least an addition to dinner. I jumped and screamed and hollered and gloated. As meager and modern as it was, I had caught my own food, and that was the missing piece of the puzzle that made me feel like I could leave this wilderness experience with a sense of fulfillment.
Hunger: The issue of food was the major controversy on our trip. Everyone hypothesized as to why Tom seemingly set the trip up so we would go hungry. Brian and Norm said it was so we would be motivated to hunt our own food. Jeff said that all of the trips were this way and it was because Tom was too fascinated and busy immersing himself in the rest of nature to bother with things like eating, crapping, and sleeping. Rick and Rich didn't know what the reason was, but they didn't see what starvation had to do with learning primitive survival skills. I felt like unless you are going to put me in an environment with an abundance of natural resources and teach me how use them to feed myself, then don't let me starve, bring enough food.
The Art of Doing Nothing: As much as we all complained about the lack of food, Tom was the only one who actually used primitive skills to catch anything. In retrospect I can more accurately hypothesize as to why that happened, what he was trying to teach us, and how that relates to the psychology of primitive living skills. Tom writes:
"In our effort to recreate the primitive lifestyle we find that we have ironically missed our mark completely--that we have made many primitive things, but that we have not begun to grasp the nature of primitive culture. To truly grasp that essence requires that we let go, and begin to understand the art of doing nothing."
Oddly enough Tom always came back with food after he had been out wandering by himself, maybe looking for shelter, maybe not, maybe picking huckleberries, maybe not--essentially, when he was doing no particular task other than looking. He had no problem being in this state of doing nothing. Whereas we would complain about spending two hours looking for shelter, or make snide comments about hiking up to another lake to do nothing but look for huckleberries, Tom had no problem in just being in nature without producing anything tangible.
My hypothesis is that is that by doing nothing but being in nature Tom is able to eliminate the barriers between himself and the natural world. In this blending he is able to get closer both physically and psychologically to would-be meals. He further explains the rewards of doing nothing, "No longer will you be so dependent on a lot of tools and gadgets; no longer will you need to shape the elements of nature to fit our western definitions. You will find you need less and less, until one day you find you need nothing at all."
Tom's success is mostly in his primitive mindset. I suspect that when he feels hunger he doesn't think, "Oh why didn't we pack in more food?" He thinks, "Oh where can I get more berries?" It's the lifestyle difference between acting upon nature and doing nothing but being in nature and using the resources she presents you with. While we were busy being miserable and whining about being hungry, Tom was maybe hungry too, but incredibly content to wander around and pick more berries.
I feel like I've never really been camping prior to this trip. With every piece of gear I left behind, I let go of one more level of dependence on civilization and put more trust in the natural world. It's one thing to be a nature lover and environmentally aware (a very good thing) and it is another thing to eat off of rocks and bend down to the stream for water, or to spend an hour digging up a handful of wild onions. The difference in the latter is that you experience complete immersion and unity. You can only know what interdependence with nature means if you taste being dependent on her. Tom writes, "Primitive living is a metaphor that teaches us about ourselves and the world we live in." It's the psychology of living seasonally in a cyclical world, of doing things slowly and patiently, of being aware, of appreciating and contributing to the community of people around you, of joy in participating in creation, of real interdependence with all living things.
I believe that experiencing primitive living skills would expand the horizons of even the most active environmentalist. Learning primitive skills would deepen even the most experienced psychologist's understanding of our primal selves. Experiencing primitive living, even for just one week, is possibly the only way to gain a true understanding of what civilization has given humanity, and what civilization has taken away. Tom explains the integration of primitive living skills with modern civilization eloquently when he writes:
"We think of ourselves as being somehow separate from nature. We think we can draw lines on the map and separate "wilderness" from "non-wilderness," but really, there is only one wilderness and only one ecosystem, and we are part of it. Like the deer eating grass, or the robin bringing materials back to build a nest, we all must use the resources of the earth to maintain our own survival. This is true whether we live in an apartment building in the city, or a in a wickiup in the woods."
Sherene C. Djafroodi is a student at Prescott College in Arizona.
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