Survival Training is a valuable and multifaceted discipline. There is a great deal to learn in a number of subject areas. Shelter building and fire making are two of the more exciting ones when you’re a kid. Edible and medicinal plants, tracking, traps, and snares, bow making and so many other skills are also incredible useful. Training to learn these skills in the most efficient manner possible has been my quest since I was sixteen. That’s when I got my first job at the Boy Scout Camp in 1983 as a councilor teaching Wilderness Survival merit badge. I noticed that on Monday, it was easy to know, even on that first day, who was going to make it through the night and who was going to quit when they did their overnight in their shelters on Friday. It was more than just “attitude”.
I learned that you can adopt any attitude you want. Sometimes you had to be careful not to focus on a self-destructive attitude like anger, fear, or frustration by simple tricks. “Be smarter than the tool” was one of my internal chants. So was, “We get what we need, and no more than we can handle”. These folks seemed wired to fear the woods, or have an extreme reaction to bug bites, cold, hunger, and anything that wasn’t their mattress at home.
My favorite part of sharing the skills was watching those few who “got it” light up when they finally made a connection between themselves and the landscape. Back then I thought it was because they successfully completed a skill such as fire making or staying in a self made shelter. After a while I realized it was more of a feeling of, “Hey, I can do stuff out here”!
It was then that I made it my quest to figure out how to get folks who seemed tightly wrapped in the artificial environment of comfort, conveniences, and safety to unravel from their cocoon and experience something real and meaningful…the woods. I’ve been working to unravel that “conversion” formula for thirty one years.
Each time a student is asked at the opening of a class why they are here. The returning ones often say it is what they have been looking for since they were little. I believe it is the experience of being in the woods working on skills with other people. It seems these are missing elements of what we need to become fully developed as whole human beings in a maintenance baseline of “wellness”. It seems we can only access this “nourishment of the whole being” through authentic communication with people and the landscape in the out of doors.
Reversing over thirteen years of neglect and a forensic over-emphasis on visual and auditory learning isn’t impossible. It does take time. It takes hard work and a methodology that offers measurable, meaningful results. It also takes a degree of success through each of the stages of development in ones study to mark growth in a discipline and, later, to use the disciplines effortlessly as an unconsciously competent skills practitioner.
I’m not satisfied with reversing the effects of prolonged institutionalization. That would admit some sort of personal defeat. I’m in it to push edges of development to a place that would more than “make up for lost time”. If we can design a program that takes a decade off of the mistakes and plateaus common to folks learning the skills, than “survival” would be the doorway in to a great deal more than chummin’ it up around the campfire. We would be able to give folks the tools to become master guides, herbalists, forest gardeners, hunters, and trappers. The approach to each of these disciplines would increase bounty and the overall health of the systems that support the skilled practitioner, their family, and their community.
We’re close. We’ve been using twenty acres in Augusta, ME as a living lab. Our forest has been supporting yearly survival skills, foraging courses, and tracking teams and is healthy and diverse because we share shelter design, medicinal pant preparation and fire making, not just in a sustainable manner, but in a manner that revitalizes soils, increases edge areas, and promotes health and diversity of species and ecotones.
The result is an emergent food forest. Our goal is to generate a thirty acre landscape capable of sustaining six to eight people throughout the calendar year. While increasing the yield of food and medicine by providing important skills and plant resources to those willing to invest in their personal and ecological health and development.
From the meager beginnings of Wilderness Survival we access the best practices of primitive skills, ancestral wisdom, permaculture design, and modern educational science. Some where in there bushcraft becomes a necessary transitory piece for adults who missed or wan to extend their experiences in Scouting. These valuable “strands” of experience and study bring folks a higher degree of nature literacy. They are the hunter who knows which deer and when. They are the forager who knows when to let a patch rest, or which plant to use for that unique situation without knowing how.
“Dirt Time” is an investment of time and calories. Efficiency in the wild is marked by the amount of time and calories invested compared to the caloric return on that investment. The process of your skills development is no exception.