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Learning to Love Roadkill

Interest is surging in so-called ancestral skills, in which people learn about making and using Stone Age technology.

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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."

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