Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Stone Age Visit

A Look Back in Time

Although I don’t watch that many of the Food Shows on the Boob Tube I did catch one last week that was amazing. – at least to me.  Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmerman on the Travel Channel.  Zimmerman was in Botswana, South Africa roaming around the Kalahari Desert with a  family group of  the Sans tribe - the legendary bushmen of the Kalahari.

Now the thing that was amazing to me was that this tribe was just a stones throw from living in the stone age. The few clothes they wore were mostly animal skins with a scattering of modern garments, mostly worn by the women. Their tools were very primitive – even by primitive standards. All the tribes people carried a digging stick they used for digging roots, ant hills, grubs  or whatever – their main sources of food.  The men also carried bows and arrows. I’m not talking compound bows or even what we would consider a long bow. These weapons would have been on the reject pile of any of the American Indian tribes. At best they were 4 foot long, very loosely strung and appeared to be very weak, I’m guessing maybe 20 lbs. pull at the most. There was no evidence of any shaped handle and the limbs were left natural – that is rounded with just the bark scraped off.

The arrows were small to match the bow, just barely straight and there were no attached points, flint or steel that I saw. The ends were pointed and maybe, not sure of this, fire hardened. Regrettably -  the program didn’t show the tribesman actually shooting any game with their bows – something I would have loved to seen.

The men also carried spears and my impression was that five foot long, metal tipped, almost straight, stretch of wood was their primary weapon The program narrator did mention that those spear points and the metal axes we saw them use to chop into a bee hive were the only modern metal implements they owned.

The episode followed the tribesmen while they were conducting a hunt and highlighted their tracking skills. These guys can track a butterfly across the sky – in a thunderstorm. They reportedly can tell, almost to the hour, when an animal made the tracks, what sex the animal is and even where they slept the night before. Okay, I made that sleeping part up- but- you get the picture. These guys livelihood depend on their tracking skills. They are not in it for sport.

Another bush skill the film crew captured was how they made a bird snare. First one of the tribesmen made a long length of cordage. He made this small line in just minutes from a plant the talking guy said was a Snake Plant.( I use this same plant and it makes great cordage) He then made the trigger parts from small tree branches and baited the small loop, the business end that was set on the ground,  with a couple of nuts that the birds favor. I don’t remember – maybe they didn’t say – the name of the bird they were after. Anyway, the next day they caught one bird. This bird was not the size of a turkey – not even a small chicken. More like a half starved quail. To cook the bird  they simply pulled the skin off and threw the bird onto a bed of hot coals. Now here’s the best part. That bird was shared by 12 adults. That was their meal for the day. No veggies, no baked potatoes smothered with butter, no hot rolls – just that tiny, cooked to a crisp, ash coated little chunk of fowl meat- (no pun there) shared between twelve adults. Skinny adults by the way – rail thin even. You’ve heard the expression “ he could stand under a clothes line and keep dry” ?  That thin. None-the-less the tribesmans stature -that ain’t much meat. Not if you’ve been out beating the bush all day. Hell, even if you’re just setting at the home table waiting on the little lady to serve it up to just you – not eleven other, ribs showing, hungry mouths – that’s barely a snack.

I don’t know about the rest of you – but I’d love to spend a couple of months with  people with those skills and knowledge. We’re talking skills that go back centuries, back to the stone age and beyond. Skills that our ancestors knew and practiced but that are now – except for a hand full of people in remote parts of the world – basically lost. Lost that is – to most of the modern world – but not lost entirely to us true primitive skills students.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Edible Plants

Foraging Facts

Way to often it seems, I’m asked about foraging and in particular, being able to live off the land by eating edible plants. Lots of people have read one or more Survival Manuals and from those manuals somehow ascertained that all they have to do is learn how to identify the plants pictured in those manuals and they can eat like kings. And honestly, that’s sort of the way some of those books read, especially if you take everything in them literally.

I recently read that there are as many as 365 thousand different plants on the N. American Continent. That number includes trees, vines, bushes, weeds, mosses etc. but even so, that’s a lot of plants. That article also stated that at least three quarters of those plants were edible. Seeing those numbers one could easily come to the conclusion that finding plants to eat should be an easy task. They should be growing everywhere – right?

Not necessarily - the thing that a lot of these manuals fail to emphasize or fully explain is that most all plants, no matter where in the world they grow, are very seasonal. Most produce berries, seeds, nuts, roots or fruit only once a year and sometimes for a very short time. That vine that is loaded with big sweet grapes today may be  totally barren next week.

Foraging over a large range that contains different and varied habitat can greatly increase your odds of filling your basket. Even so – although these territories may have a large variety of edible plants, a lot of these plants produce edibles at totally different times of the year and you could easily find yourself completely stumped and going to bed on an empty stomach.

History shows us that many early peoples were  nomadic and often on the move following the growing seasons of plants so as to maximize harvest. Keep in mind also, other than dealing with wars, foraging for food was a full time occupation for these people. If you had to do nothing each day but hunt animals, dig roots and harvest berries, nuts and other edibles – you’d soon become expert - or very hungry.

During the cold winter months even the experts would have a difficult, maybe even impossible, task of keeping their bellies full. There just isn’t enough plant food out there to even consider living off the land eating just plants.  Now you might ask – how did the Native Americans manage to survive the winters?

They learned to store a supply of food for the long winter months when little other food could be found. They learned to dry roots and berries and how to grind maze into flour for long term storage. They sometimes stored the food by digging holes into the floor of their homes or lodges where it was cool and protected from animals.  Even though these early natives were truly experts when it comes to foraging for plants, hunger and even death from starvation was a common occurrence, especially during some of the longer and harsher winters

Also, don’t forget - prehistoric Indians weren’t just foragers of plants - they were also hunters.  It’s doubtful that food from plants alone could sustain a tribe through the many long, cold months of winter in the Northern Regions. Much needed protein was obtained by hunting of animals. And - unlike our present day wasteful practice, early hunters used just about every part of any animal harvested. Even the bones and skin were used either as a source of food or for clothing to ward off the cold.

Could any of us back-to-nature types conceivable live totally off the land for extended periods of time? I’d say the answer is – maybe. If the area you are foraging in has a real abundance and variety of edibles. If you have the training and knowledge to recognize the edibles and, if you have the time it will take to keep your larder full. Even so – you’d still have a hard time finding a well balanced diet eating plants alone - one that could properly fuel the body – especially through a winter. Remember – the longer and harder you must forage – the more energy and calories you’ll need. Even in nature - nothing is free.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Weekend Workshop 9/09

Basic Workshop 9/20/09

In spite of rain on Saturday, and I’m talking frog floating, snake choking, gully washing torrents of rain our Basic Weekend Workshop was loads of fun. (actually the rain and cloud cover was a welcome respite from the Florida heat) We were a little short on the number of people that attended. Three people had to cancel due to work schedules but I tend to prefer small classes anyway.

One thing the rain did provide was a challenge. The students were given a very real demonstration of how difficult it can be to start a fire when everything around you is wet. Not only was it difficult to find dry tinder, even dry kindling and squaw wood was hard to come by.  We had to resort to tricks of the trade like whittling away the outer bark of limbs and making little sticks out of big sticks to get to dry wood.

Finding dry tinder that would catch a spark from our fire steels was the biggest challenge. There were no cattail punks left around the ponds ( too late in the season)  most all the palm tree bark and leaf fibers were damp and even digging under piles of pine needles produced nothing suitable. It took a lot of poking around but eventually one of the students found some dry Palm Tree trunk fibers at the base of a jack. With that little bit of dry tinder we were then able to get our fires going.

The rain and super high humidity  also taught some of the students another valuable lesson: keep your sleeping bags dry. Although warned, a couple of guys didn’t pay attention and ended up getting very little sleep that night due to wet sleeping bags and water in their tent. This time of year with night time temperatures in the upper 70’s, there’s not much danger of hypothermia but under different circumstances and if the temperature had dropped even 10 or 15 degrees  you can bet they would have been cold. Another lesson learned the hard way.

While doing our nature walk I did my usual combination of basic navigation skills, lost proofing, scouting for natural shelters and materials, foraging for food and collecting any and all natural or discarded man made items that might prove useful for survival. Along the borders of some of the more heavily timbered areas we were able to find several Wild Plum Trees with enough ripe fruit for several meals.   Fox Grape vines were very plentiful, they grow all over the area,  but we could find no ripe grapes. I’ve noticed this to be somewhat true for most of the South East region. Last year it seems almost every vine had grapes, this year there are very few. Of course we found many of the familiar -  and can almost always be counted on - local edibles: small plots of Prickly Pear, center sprouts of the Palmetto, Pond Lilies and one Persimmon Tree – which I totally forgot to point out.

Our shelter building session went very well - excellent as a matter of fact. This group of students made some of the best natural shelters I’ve seen in a while. And that was with very little instruction or input from me. One student in particular, a 15 year old, made a free standing shelter entirely from natural materials. All the material was either already dead and basically dry. No cutting or breaking of live plants what-so-ever. Just the way I like it.

So to wrap up – it was a great class and I’m hoping my students had as much fun as I. I certainly hope they  will remember and practice some of the skills I taught and as always – I too learned a great deal.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Shelter Building

Shelters of Opportunity

Although I do teach survival skills, I still consider myself a student and as such I’m always looking for a better way - something new, a different approach or some foolproof means to get a message across to students. I read everything I can find on the subject, attend Primitive Skill Rendezvous, watch videos and generally live and breath survival for a good part of each day ( I do have another life that occupies some of my time) but even then – I’m a long way from knowing it all and have enough common sense to realize that I’ll never actually “Master” any of these skills. There’s always something more to learn.

After watching many of the wild antics of Bear Grylls or even the more pragmatic and realistic approach of the Survivor Man , Les Stroud, I’m not surprised anymore when a student asks me if I’ve ever bitten off a rattlesnakes head or run down a full grown caribou on foot then drank it’s blood. When I answer those questions with a “No” they sometimes seem disappointed and I get the feeling that, in their minds, I’m not a real survival man.

I do understand that sometimes these made-for-TV drama shows are my students only exposure to the art or practice of survival. They’ve maybe seen an episode where one of these TV experts built a mini condo using loose sand mixed with bat guano, built a roaring fire during a monsoon with one wave of their magic fire wands and then feasted on roasted pheasant under glass that they caught with their bare hands. A hard act to follow to say the least.

Shelter building especially seems to be one of those skills that a good number of students have trouble with. It seems they think only in terms that range from one extreme to another. They want to build either a full blown 2 story, 2 bath house, complete with a carport for the ATV they’re going to build the second day, or, they just want to sleep on some hard wet rocks like The Survivor Man did in that last show they watched.

My approach to teaching shelter building is slowly but surely evolving into what I think of as Reality Shelters or more specifically: Shelters of Opportunity. After many years of research and a few years of practical experience I’ve come to realize that, for the most part, people that find themselves in a true survival situation, that is, a situation that actually calls for a real need to build a shelter, are probably not going to follow the rules and guide lines commonly taught or recommended by us supposedly more informed survival types.

The point I’m trying to make here is that we instructors, teachers of survival skills, are not seriously taking into account and fully considering what actually happens when someone gets lost. (I’m using the lost person scenario as that’s the most common). Let’s say that this individual has actually attended a basic survival course and during this course he was taught to make a shelter using a large section of plastic tied into place with about 25 feet of parachute cord - a very common and very effective standard instructional method. In addition to the plastic shelters he may have also being shown how to make a simple debris shelter using whatever materials are at hand. Again, a very common and practical training exercise.

The problem here is that statistics show very few people, even though they may have some training, are going to actually stop and take the time to build a suitable shelter, especially the first day out. As far as the sheet of plastic goes, I seriously doubt that few, if any, students actually carry a large sheet of plastic with them or elect to make that one of the shelter items in their Personal Survival Kit ( PSK) If this lost individual did happen to bring along a PSK it’s much more likely that he’d have a space blanket and/or maybe a large trash bag. Both of these can make excellent emergency, short term, fair weather shelters, but only if they know how to use them. That training they got in building a large plastic A-Frame isn’t going to be all that much help.

I feel the same way about those large debris huts. That’s good stuff to know and they do make fairly good shelters, IF- you have or actually take the time, if the materials are at hand and if you really know what you are doing. In many cases there will not be suitable material at hand, it may be pouring down rain (try building a dry debris hut in the rain) or the most likely scenario, that poor lost soul is going to run around in circles until it’s totally dark and to late to build any type of shelter. He’ll be lucky to find a dry spot under a tree.

When I was a kid I spent many a night outdoors in all kinds of weather. Not once did I have a tent, tarp or any form of shelter. I never owned one. None of the guys I ran with and hiked all over the hills of Kentucky with owned a tent, sleeping bag or anything else that most people now consider essential. We slept wherever we could find a dry spot. The same goes for Native Americans and early man all over the World. When caught out at night, whether by accident or purpose, they didn’t have large sheets of plastic, space blankets or anything else other than the clothes they wore and what they were carrying.

Where did these guys sleep and how did they keep from freezing? Just like animals they found themselves a natural shelter, a shelter of opportunity. Their shelters ranged from a luxury type shelter like a rock cliff or small cave to maybe just a depression in the ground and a clump of grass or two as cover. This was practiced for thousands of years and goes on to this day in remote parts of the World. As you are reading this there are thousands upon thousands of people sleeping outdoors without any of the modern aids most of us softies desperately need.

My new approach and training philosophy for shelters is to teach students how to find and utilize shelters of opportunity as their primary, first choice shelter. This may sound like a backwards approach to some. Why not teach the conventional shelter building methods using space blankets, ponchos, plastic tarps, as the primary shelter and consider shelters of opportunity, natural shelters, as a fall back, last ditch shelter? Good question but it goes back to basic human nature and statistics. The chances that a panicked (and they usually are) lost hiker, especially teenagers, the most likely age group to get lost, are going to stop and take the time build to a bomb proof shelter, even if they had the materials, are slim to none.

What I hope to do is give students the necessary training and ability to be on the look-out for and be able recognize a suitable shelter of opportunity even while they are doing exactly what they have been told to never do – run blindly through the woods. Yes, I continue to teach the conventional methods but not using large plastic sheets or other non-realistic materials. I use only items such as space blankets, garbage bags, ponchos (my favorite), maybe a tarp, items that a person might actually carry in their PSK or in a small day pack.

I’ll continue to hope that none of my students would actually run amuck through the woods. I’ll also hope that I taught them well enough that they will remember to follow the basic rules of survival. And I'll hope that in the event they find themselves lost, or maybe just a little confused for a day or two (directionally challenged) they’ll use their skills to build that picture perfect shelter.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Core Skills

Primitive Survival Skills

The Three Core Skills

Our ancestors used what we now consider primitive skills on a daily basis in order to survive and as a matter of routine everyday life. For thousands of years these skills remained basically the same and were passed on to generation after generation. The foundation skills, i.e., the skills most experts consider the core and truly “primitive” skills are the ability to make fire, twist fiber and to shape stone.

To better define and emphasize the need to learn each of the core skills just consider the steps and the materials needed to make tools as basic and as simple as the bow and arrow. In order to fashion the bow some sort of sharp tool would be needed to first cut, then shape the limbs and to cut notches for the bow string. To make the bow string would require the knowledge and expertise to select and process materials and then the ability to twine those materials so that the cordage would be strong enough for repeated use. The arrows would also need to be cut, maybe shaped or smoothed with a sharp stone and then straightened by applying heat – meaning you’d need fire. If the arrows were fitted with a stone arrow head, again flint knapping skills would be required.

Primitive tools, weapons and implements advanced proportionally in design, usefulness and effectiveness as the three core skills advanced. The better early man became at making arrow heads, spear points and stone blades the more advanced and effective their weapons became. As man learned and improved his skills in making cordage from grasses, roots, and leaves, the better simple articles of clothing, nets, baskets and shelters became. It also goes without saying that as man became more adapt at creating and controlling fire the faster his quality of living was advanced.

Flint knapping, making cordage, starting friction fires all go hand in hand. Many, if not all, of the other primitive skills often regarded as essential for subsistence – cooking, smoking meat and fish, tanning hides, making garments and containers, tools and weapons etc., all depend on, or are accomplished by the use of one, or a combination of these three core skills.

For those primitive skill students and practitioners that stick to the truly primitive methods, shunning the use of any modern tools, quite obviously, we have a real need to become proficient at each of these core skills.