This past spring I had taken a class that I have been wanting to take for some time, ‘Wilderness Survival.’ I was very excited that it was nearby and the instructor had a great deal of experience. The class was with Richard Cleveland, founder of Earth School: Nature Awareness and Self-Reliance, in western North Carolina.
I made the 45 minute drive to the location of the class in the Smoky Mountains of western N.C. The morning was warm and sunny, perfect weather to participate in a class of this type. I had read everything on Richard’s website and had spoken and emailed him several times before the class so I felt like I was off to meet a new friend in person and learn what he had to teach. The other students showed up on time, all eager to get learning and experiencing.
I’m not entirely sure what most think when they hear the term ‘wilderness survival’ but the handful of people who knew where I was going were supportive and I think may have thought I was brave and daring??? Perhaps images conjured up in their minds upon hearing something like this is that it will be something like what Bear Grylls does on his TV show, Man Vs. Wild on the Discovery Channel; traversing glaciers, death-defying drops as he scales down the side of a 200 foot high moss covered rushing river ravine, pulling leeches off his body, and eating beetles or any other type of insect that may cross his path… hmmmm, that is all adventuresome but certainly not quite what I can handle.
The class I took was adventuresome in mentally stimulating ways. Even though I have enjoyed watching Bear Gylls and have probably learned a lot vicariously as a result… I mean, how many of us would have thought to roll in mud to protect our skin and clothing if we’re lost in the woods and there’s a forest fire?
Instead, we learned practical skills; like how to make a bowdrill to start a camp fire, how to make rope, build a debris hut, make a snare to catch/kill small game for food, forage for wild edibles or medicinals, or make other simple tools. It was great fun, fascinating, and easy enough for anyone to do at nearly any age. Richard even leads classes designed specifically for kids and families.
It was more than learning the skills that our ancient ancestors knew and lived with daily. It was about awareness of self, nature, the earth, and time.
It was about empowerment. Being given the information necessary to know how to perform some very simple tasks that could mean all the difference in terms of survival.
It was about connection to self, nature and the human species. Making a bowdrill and starting a proper fire takes time, enough time for the mind to ponder where we came from and that the actions I was performing were exactly the same as people from 2,000 or more years ago practiced… it was more than them practicing these things, they ‘lived’ them. They did not have available to them the things that we find commonplace today. Life was indeed different then, more different than we can probably imagine.
But that is where we came from and as I sat patiently carving out the notches in my sticks that would create the tool I needed to make fire for protection from animal predators at night, that would keep me warm on cold nights, that would cook my hunted and foraged food, my mind drifted into thoughts and awareness…
…how did humans, thousands of years ago, know how to make fire by friction from sticks. I would have loved to witness the beginning’s of that process as they put 2 and 2 together.
…how they communicated their knowledge to each other and their children regarding which plants to use as food and which for medicine, which were best for clothing and other useful items.
As I sat carving, it also occurred to me… how much else did they know that has become lost over time. These very simple techniques and tools that I found absolutely brilliant came from a people, our ancestors, who possessed great wisdom… to read and track the stars in the night sky so they knew what time of year they were in so they could prepare for the winter months, know when to expect the fresh new green spring plants to emerge and which types of locations they could be found…
We tend to think of ourselves as being far more intelligent than any other species on the planet, and more intelligent than our ancestors… besides our ego’s, what makes us think we are superior to them… and are we really?
I began to doubt our superiority and realized that when we undervalue brilliant simplicity we are paving the way to lose or stymie something intrinsic to all humankind. How much of our true independence have we lost? How much of our wisdom have we brushed aside? We let these things go, for what? To be dependent upon others to provide our needs?
That’s when the truth of what we’ve done, or maybe allowed to happen, to ourselves set in. The bizarre-ness of why we allowed our power, to take care of ourselves without the use of money, to be removed.
I began looking around and thinking of all the things I have and own, I wondered… are they really any better than the items our ancient ancestors possessed, or are they just different? Have we really made, for ourselves, a better quality of life? Or, have we merely created a complex web and convinced ourselves into the way of living that we have?
Sure, I do believe that we have come up with some very good and useful things that have helped our species tremendously. At the same time I wonder… at what expense?
I sat and gazed up at the bright clear blue sky and wondered… was I looking at the same shade of blue in the sky as a woman 10,000 years before me who was sitting in the exact same spot gazing up at the same patch of sky?
As I dropped my gaze slowly down to the trees, plants and earth, I wondered… did the fauna and flora look and grow on this location the same way it did 15,000 years ago?
I knew the answers. No.
The sky and landscape of our planet today is vastly changed. Here in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina alone I know that when the only humans on this landscape were the native Americans that these beautiful wooded mountains boasted vast acres of old-growth forest. Trees so wide that even 20 grown men touching hands could not form a circle around the mighty towering native trees. And that when the first European settlers came to America they cut down all of these massive trees, shipping many of them back to their native lands, land which had been stripped nude of it’s trees decades earlier to burn for fire, lumber for their buildings, timbers for their ships and more. These great trees were used for fuel, housing, paper, tools and other items here as well for the new settlers to establish themselves in a land they knew little.
These same people shot and completely eliminated the native woodland bison that once roamed in these mountains. Just as they brought to extinction the Carolina Parakeet and Passenger Pigeon… how many other species of flora and fauna did we lose and we weren’t even aware that they were gone, or even here in the first place?
I realized too, that not all indigenous peoples and the Europeans, wiped out species. Why not, we certainly had the capabilities to do so. I hate to think we we only like to pick and choose the species we want to share this planet. I know too that some, then and even today, are very aware that when it’s gone, it’s gone for good.
A perfect example of this is Easter Island, the Rapa Nui went there, built the most amazing carved statues. But in the process, caused their own extinction. They cut down every last tree to build the statues, homes, build fires and tools, etc. They had to know what scenario they were setting themselves up for, or did they? It is thought that they were originally Polynesians who navigated in canoes or catamarans from the Marquesas Islands, 2,000 miles away, or the Gambier Islands (Mangareva, 1,600 miles away). In 1999, a voyage with reconstructed Polynesian boats was carried out, reaching Easter Island from Mangareva in 19 days. They became trapped on the island, no wood to build a canoe, fire, house, or tool. Surely one of them had to be taking a break and notice that there was only one or two trees left on the entire island for them to make a boat and canoe back to their homeland.
I think it’s interesting how some indigenous peoples know that you cannot keep taking, while others don’t.
Perhaps the not realizing that the tank, or species, is about empty is overlooked because of complexities occurring within the community. People preoccupied with other concerns, much like we’re seeing today… I wonder how many of us are sensitive to the fact that much is being taken away from us in recent years; like our freedoms, choices, and in some cases livelihoods. That we are tethered to a monetary infrastructure that keeps us even more dependent on corporations to produce the goods we need to sustain lives in the modern world.
How we got into this pickle is no one simple reason or answer. It’s so complex that I’m not even certain that those who pull more large stings than others can keep tabs on what the other hand is doing… while in the meantime, the average person takes on even more burden to provide for their family.
The earth is not here for us to use or exploit. By continuing to take and take… and only give back to the earth our waste and trash is a far cry from holding ourselves accountable and from making smart choices. To mindlessly remain steadfast on what may possibly be the most deadliest path that humankind has ever pursued somehow sounds like an understatement.
I left the class feeling extremely grounded and with a new pair of eyes from which to see myself, my life, and the world around me. Upon arriving back home, I looked around my apartment at all of the things I have in my possession and wondered why I had them, without giving myself reasons for why I had them… but wondering if I actually needed as much as I have.
Asking myself… can I live comfortably with fewer things? Can I part with them and what is the best way to part with them so they do not end up in a landfill? What would it be like to have fewer objects in my life? Would I one day replace them again? In what ways do I want to change the way I’ve been living so I can be more in alignment with what I believe in and who I want to become?
I don’t know if many others have life changing results from taking wilderness survival classes. I do know this, as I release the things I really don’t need I continue to regain my power, clarity about what I do want, and where I’m going. One thing I know for sure… I will not remain captive to a system that I support with money that I earn which keeps me dependent on outside resources and goods for my survival.
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