The teenage students were expecting the usual activities from their class field trip to Tomales Bay — sailing, crab hunting, and making acorn pancakes. But clouds were forming, and it looked like the trip would have to be canceled. Then their instructor spotted some roadkill on the side of the highway. So instead of sailing during a heavy storm, the students navigated their way through the anatomy of a dead raccoon.
The objective was to turn the animal into something with a utilitarian value — in this case, a torch. After removing the pelt through some strategic cuts and laborious tugging, the students scraped the fat off the pink hide and carcass to form the basis of a fuel. After boiling down the fat and picking out the impurities, they poured the purified oil onto an adequate medium — a branch wrapped in fiber. Presto: They had a cave-man flashlight.
Only about half of the group was willing to help make the torch. "We said this is what we're going to do beforehand, and if you don't want to see it you don't have to see it, and here's this other activity," said Casey Nutt of Trackers Bay, an East Bay education program that specializes in a broad range of outdoor survival techniques. The rest of the kids were sent to find wood to make primitive hunting darts.
"Every part of the animal can be useful," Nutt observed. For instance, along with fuel for torches, animals and their leather can be used to make clothing, shoes, boats, and even translucent windows. "Leather was basically the plastic of the ancient world," Nutt said.
He also views roadkill as a neglected-but-worthwhile source of food. While living in the hills of Mendocino County, he made a grocery run and saw a recently killed five-point buck lying on the edge of a grocery store parking lot. Its meat lasted for weeks. "If you pull the hair and it comes out real easy, then it's starting to rot," Nutt said. It's also important to separate the muscle from the guts, he said, because the internal organs spoil quickly and will cause the rest of the carcass to go bad.
Nutt and his students are members of a growing community of Stone Age survival-skill practitioners. In the time since he helped start Trackers Bay two and a half years ago, Nutt has seen a surge in interest in what are often called ancestral skills. Just in the last year alone, class sizes have quadrupled. "We've done better as the economy has worsened," he said. "Parents say that they're really interested in their kids learning these basic survival skills now because they're not sure of the direction of the world."
Meanwhile, overall enrollment in the Trackers program, which also has locations in Portland and Bend, Oregon, has grown from 200 to 2,000 students in the last five years. "It's expanded to ludicrous levels," Trackers founder Tony Deis said. "In fact, we have a hard time keeping up with our demand."
The phenomenal growth of interest in such skills is not limited to the Northwestern United States. Annual events such as Rabbitstick Rendezvous in Idaho and Arizona's Winter Count draw a diverse collection of people eager to learn about making and using Stone Age technology. Held in the wilderness, these events allow attendees to find temporary respite from the distractions of civilization. Workshops range from llama handling to making stone tools like arrowheads or spear points.
Nutt's own interest in survival skills emerged while he was a kid in Berkeley, where he remembers enjoying hikes with his grandfather. But his passion really took off when he came across the book My Side of the Mountain, about a young boy who runs away from home to live in a tree with a raccoon and a falcon. Later, during high school, his parents passed him a book by the famous tracker and wilderness survival expert Tom Brown Jr., and Nutt was soon reading Brown's books obsessively.
After high school, he travelled around the country working on farms. Eventually, he encountered a man who inspired his love for boat building and sailing. "He could build anything," Nutt said. "I was like, 'I want to be that guy,' and I found out there were schools for wooden boat building."
Nutt learned how to build skin-on-frame boats and discovered Trackers Northwest in Portland. It was a perfect fit. He was recruited to teach kayak building, but the company also offered guided camping trips that Nutt eventually led. About two and a half years ago he came back to his former stomping grounds and helped launch the East Bay chapter of Trackers, which was rechristened Trackers Bay. At that point, he had a job but knew few kindred spirits.
Then Nutt met Ted Biggs at a primitive-skills gathering, and the two soon became friends. Originally from California, Biggs moved to Hawaii in his early teens. He returned to study folklore at UC Berkeley and discovered the local primitivist community. Like Nutt, he had a passion for sailing and learning ancestral skills. However, the two friends have found different outlets for their mutual interest.
Biggs has applied the hunter-gatherer ethos to life in the city. "The city is inundated with resources, and most of them are thrown away, and so part of urban hunter-gatherer mentality is to recognize all the resources that are around us," Biggs said. He regards the division between "civilization" and "the natural world" as a false dichotomy. Although they may appear different, he said, the two realms operate by the same laws of nature. And so, Biggs forages, squats, Dumpster dives, harvests roadkill, and even traps animals to supplement his student aid while supporting a wife and two kids. And although he is hesitant to talk about the details of trapping animals, he concedes that he's had his eye on a flock of semidomesticated Canada geese living in a local park. But alas, he noted, "they probably wouldn't fit in my oven."
Biggs also has had success as an urban forager. On one particularly rewarding Dumpster-diving expedition, he discovered a Dumpster loaded with organic produce, barely bruised and very ripe. "We came back with five or six big boxes and filled up my friend's porch," he said. Because Dumpster food is usually very ripe and doesn't have very much of a shelf life, Biggs believes that a community of like-minded people could benefit from such finds. Consequently, he has created a web page that invites fellow urban hunter-gatherers to form a community and share their respective skills.
Biggs believes that most of the people who pursue ancestral modes of survival fall into one of three categories: those who do it for fun, those who use it to supplement other income, and those purists who, for philosophical reasons, resist modern technology and depend solely on ancestral skills for their survival
"I think it probably stems from getting away from all this technology and doing something very simple," said Dino Labiste, a naturalist for the East Bay Regional Park District who teaches multiple classes around the Bay Area. "If anything happens, they've got something they can fall back on." Labiste teaches basketry, rope making, fishnet construction, fire making, and primitive cooking techniques. "When you start making things out of things you encounter in nature, you tend to develop that connection with nature."
Even as a child, Labiste knew about living from the Earth. He grew up in Hawaii by a family that raised its own chickens and rabbits while also harvesting food from the sea and the forest. "We knew where our food came from and that it was organic and fresh," he said. When he came to California for college he got into backpacking, which led him to further his understanding of the environment and survival skills.
Labiste believes that more people are interested in learning Stone-Age skills. Ironically, it is process that can be facilitated by modern technology. "I think with the introduction of the Internet, a lot of people that have these types of interests — like hide tanning, flint knapping, basketry, fire making — are learning through the Internet and finding other people."
In the vernacular of primitivism, using a tool like a computer would be labeled a "hard skill." But to survive in the wild, it's also necessary to know what are called "soft skills" — how to track an animal, stay calm in a dangerous situation, or recognize when the chatter of birds represents an approaching predator. Nutt notes that these skills can take a long time to master, but through learning them one can acquire a better awareness of oneself and the environment.
Sometimes learning a soft skill involves letting an animal become the instructor. "I've always had sit spots," said Sky Snyder, a naturalist who teaches both independently and through Trackers Bay. A sit spot is a location where a person can sit quietly and attune themselves to their surroundings, be it insects, squirrels, plants, animal trails, or anything else. The goal is to get the animals to let their guard down. "They'll start to realize that you're not a threat, and you'll be able to see more and more behaviors," Snyder said.
A sit spot can even be in the city. "I had a skunk that I was seeing kind of on a regular basis outside of my house in Belmont," he said. It wasn't Snyder's first skunk encounter. As a kid, he was sprayed by a skunk, and it took weeks to get the smell out. But this time around, he kept his calm. "It stood up on its front legs and put its tail up and I just stayed real still and tried to pretend like I was eating something on a bush." The ruse worked, and the skunk relaxed. Over time, it became more accustomed to him, and Snyder was able to get closer to it. After about six or seven encounters there was almost no fear left between the two — almost. "I could have reached out and touched it, although I would have gotten sprayed," he said. "I didn't fuck with it."
Snyder didn't always have such a magnanimous relationship with animals. Like many teenage boys, he shot birds with BB guns and pulled the legs off of insects. But that changed abruptly after he and his brother went out to test a new BB gun many years ago. Sky took aim at a bird, fired, and watched it plummet to the ground. On closer inspection, they discovered that it was a woodpecker, and noticed the bird's strikingly long tongue falling out of its mouth. "I realized, 'Holy shit, this is such a beautiful, beautiful creature and I've been killing one after another.' I haven't sport hunted since then."
Today, like Nutt, Snyder teaches survival skills to youths. He recognizes in them the same impulse to have a violent relationship with animals. It comes from what he believes is a natural instinct to hunt animals and gather fruit that would have been ingrained in someone born 500 or more years ago in a Berkeley forest. "It's not facilitated in our culture, so the kids go out and they recreate it," he said. Snyder helps them try to channel it. "By touching a gopher that's sticking its head out of a hole, you can get the same pleasure as if you killed it."
By teaching kids, Snyder and his fellow instructors are keeping alive a spirit and skills that are disappearing around the world. Many of these skills have a lineage that goes back to the indigenous people of the Americas. When Native Americans were relocated into reservations, much of their ancestral knowledge was lost. But some held on to the skills and passed them on. In the 1960s, Tom Brown Jr. met an Apache elder named Stalking Wolf who mentored him in the ways of old. Brown later passed this knowledge to his promising pupil John Young, and since then the two have disseminated the knowledge to thousands of aspiring survivalists.
In Snyder's Shasta County hometown, he knows a Native American elder who is a storehouse of ancestral knowledge. "He was making a basket and I said, 'Isn't that women's work?'" The elder replied, "I'm the only one that knows how to do it now." He went on to explain that the basket was made using roots from the eastern side of the tree, which are straighter than others because the prevailing winds in the valley blow from the west. This was new information to Snyder. "I've read all sorts of manuals and field guides and things, and he gave me more useful information in that thirty-second time period than I probably would have found out."
Snyder laments that much of the elder's knowledge may be lost when he eventually passes on. But he and his cohorts are trying to keep such knowledge alive for generations to come.