Monday, February 25, 2013

The Importance of Traditional Woodcraft Skills

I came across the following article and, while reading it, I felt I could not agree more. The essence has been captured perfectly for me. Paul has given me permission to share this great article with you. The accompanying picture is neither his or mine, but belongs to Dennis Neely, yet I felt it captures the essence of the article quit good.


The Importance of Traditional Woodcraft Skills

By Paul Van Horn

In a grove of Aspen trees in the Colorado Mountains, a group of campers greeted the new day. It had snowed the night before, and the temperature had dropped to 15 degrees. In spite of the fact that they were camping without tents, stoves, or sleeping bags, they were warm, dry, and in great spirits. Their lean-tos, set up with a long, parallel-log fire in between them, sheltered the entire group throughout the long October night, their beds of dried ferns and leaves offering comfort and insulation from the cold ground. They were distanced from the fire to ensure comfort: Not too hot, not too cold. As the group made ready to begin the day’s hike, they carefully wet all the charcoal from the fire, and crushed it so no piece bigger than a pencil eraser was left. The firepit was carefully checked for hot spots, fresh dirt was imported, and grass and serviceberry seeds scattered to help it regenerate. The firewood was scattered, and the entire camp carefully checked for trash. By the next summer, this camp could barely be discerned. The vegetation surrounding the firepit was just as robust as in surrounding areas. The firepit itself had begun to regrow, and was full of grass, and a thimbleberry plant! This group used traditional woodscraft techniques. Woodcraft first and foremost, encompasses “traditional” outdoor living skills: Skills that have historical roots in the indigenous, pioneer, and wilderness work cultures of North America. These skills by definition involve the crafting of a secure existence in the woods, and make use of simple, durable gear, and natural resources such as wood and stone to create the necessities (and luxuries) of life. Primitive skills such as hide tanning and arrowhead making, as well as nature study, and more modern skills such as axemanship and wilderness navigation all find a home within the term woodcraft. Woodcraft also implies a certain style rooted in the heritage of recreational camping that speaks of woodsmoke, buckskin, canvas and steel. This style means living with the earth. Camping in such a way requires solid technique, and elevates the act of camping to high art.

For a variety of reasons, woodcraft has fallen from favor among most campers. In doing so, modern outdoor recreation has set aside valuable skills and knowledge in a rush to modernize camping. Trendy, high-tech gear and thrills sports have largely replaced the durable equipment and traditions of years past. In recent years, however, there has been a renaissance in the traditional wilderness arts. From snowshoeing to backpacking, the skills, equipment and philosophies of the traditional wilderness traveler are being reborn. These skills, known here collectively as woodcraft have much to offer the modern outdoorsperson. The skills and knowledge of years past can, and should, become the possession of the modern camper.

The practice of woodcraft elevates an outdoorsman’s skills to new levels. The woodcrafter, skilled in the use of simple equipment and improvisation, stands head and shoulders above his peers in terms of his ability to live in the wild. The skills needed to provide for one’s basic needs in the wild form the base of this knowledge. In most modern literature, the ability to make fire, shelter, procure water and food, and craft tools from resources found in the wild now falls under the title of “survival” skills (to be used in emergencies only!). Modern equipment eliminates so much of the skill inherent in living outdoors that the loss of such gear (for most people) constitutes a life-threatening emergency. A modern camper, in need of a fire because of an unexpected storm, or upset canoe, may find himself unable to cope with the situation. Having adhered to the modern dogma of limiting fire use, and skilled mainly in the art of lighting a gas stove, they may be unable to light a life-preserving fire. Canadian survival instructor Mors Kochanski illustrates the continued importance of the fire:
“Fire is the most useful and important skill in basic bush living, particularly in the cold. It warms and dries, makes water and food safe, and transforms any place in the forest into a home... Possessing the means and the knowledge to light fire at any moment is a prerequisite for living and surviving in the bush.” (1987, p. 9)

If one is skilled in the art of firecraft, then a fire can be quickly lit under virtually any condition, and tailored to any specific use. Skill in lighting fires implies knowledge in a host of other subskills, such as tree identification, knife, axe, and saw use. Beyond survival, cooking, crafting, and knowledge of environmentally sound fire types add to one’s knowledge base. Another woodcrafting skill vital to survival, but largely ignored in modern camping literature is sheltercraft. Reliance on a manufactured tent reduces the ability of most moderns to build a solid shelter out of natural materials. However, understanding how to build a debris shelter or litter bed is crucial to supplement the warmth of a fire, or in situations where a fire may not be a feasible option at all. In addition, shelters, like fire, offer the opportunity for a gaining a tremendous amount of knowledge: Principles of heat loss and production, insulation, and the characteristics of a myriad of shelter types and materials must all be understood in order to build a warm, weatherproof, durable shelter. Each of the basic skills of woodcraft offers greater safety in the backcountry and opens pathways to other related knowledge.

Woodcraft gives one the opportunity to make their own equipment. Before the days of outdoor mega-stores like Recreational Equipment Incorporated (REI) much of a person’s gear kit was homemade, or salvaged from the closet. Learning how to make clothing, tarps and tents, stoves, cooking pots, knives, and other gear items was an integral part of the camper’s skill base. Making one’s own gear provides multiple benefits. Aside from procuring an important piece of gear, such as a coat, or stove, the construction process teaches skills like sewing, metalwork, and carving. If the item ever becomes broken, or wears out, a replacement can be made for little or no cost. For most outdoorsmen today, the only option for replacing gear is to go shopping, as complex sewing processes, specialized, manufactured parts, and high-tech materials make most modern gear far too complex to be repaired by the user. Use of traditional gear overcomes these difficulties, and gives the user new skills.

Crafting is another related area in which woodcraft shines as an educational opportunity. Crafting toys, dolls, baskets, as well as the vital gear discussed in the preceding paragraphs not only increases skill levels, but also gives the crafter an intimate knowledge of the materials themselves. The cattail doll, for instance, requires in-depth knowledge of the cattail plant: The leaves will be most pliable and attractive if harvested after they turn brown, but before the first frost of the fall. Continued investigation reveals that certain patches invariably yield better-quality materials. Understanding the reasons for each of these observations provides knowledge of the lifecycle and ecology of the plant. Once the construction process begins, the crafter discovers that each leaf type in the plant offers unique characteristics: The heartleaf functions well as a belt for the doll, or when split offers strong ties. The outer leaves offer fine edging for sewing, and smooth, broad coverings for the head, and shoulders of the doll. Each doll offers new insight into the utility and beauty of the parent plant. The same may be said for other crafts: Baskets made from Red-Osier Dogwood or Paper Birch bark; knife handles made from deer antler or serviceberry wood; Or pottery made from locally-harvested clay. One’s appreciation of the materials present in the natural world grows with each item completed. Along with this growth comes a corresponding, never-ending education into multiple facets of the environment. The skills and knowledge offered by the practice of woodcraft provide the key to a solid level of outdoor knowledge.

As a means of connecting a camper to the immediate environment, woodcraft has no rival. Living outdoors with a minimum of simple, spartan gear, starting fires, crafting implements, and gathering food offers an unparalleled chance to immerse oneself in the environment. Whereas modern gear allows the camper to set up camp virtually anywhere, with little regard for such variables as sun exposure, wind, or insects, the traditional camper must exercise more care if a comfortable camp is to be achieved. The siting of the camp is critical: Does the sit receive lots of warming sunlight? Is it too close to mosquito-infested areas? What happens in the event of a storm? Is there a reasonable amount of shelter from the wind and rain? Is there sufficient debris for bedding? Answering such questions leads to a deeper understanding of the environment, and an eye well schooled in the art of choosing a quality campsite. Once the camp is chosen, shelter must be erected, bedding prepared, wood gathered, and the fire built; All with attention to the aforementioned factors. While some might see these careful preparations as a bother, the traditional camper sees an opportunity to hone skills, improve knowledge, and create a camp that is a source of pride, rather than one that is little more than an afterthought. Rather than being simply another chore to accomplish before bedtime, the very act of camping serves to integrate the senses with the local environment, and bring one into harmony with nature and her demands. The camper learns which trees provide the best firewood, the best shelter, and what other plants might be found nearby. They know where to find leaf litter or pine needles for a soft, insulative bed, and they understand the life of the mosquito and no-see-um, and learn how to best avoid them. Supplementing their rations means knowing where to find berries, roots, fish, and game. This is far beyond “guidebook” knowledge. This is knowledge of how a human can live in nature.

Camping in this style also brings an acute awareness of the impact of one’s actions. The modern camper, cooking their dinner on a gas stove, has little notion of what sort of impact they are creating beyond their campsite. Purchasing a stove and cooking freeze-dried meals creates a fictitious sense of “leaving no trace”. It is difficult to see, and truly understand the true impact of cooking dinner. One ounce of gasoline represents far more energy than it returns to the cooking pot. The exploration, drilling, transport, refining, and packaging of the stove fuel inflicts a tremendous negative impact on the earth. At each step, more damage is done. In this situation, the traditional camper has far greater control over the impact he creates, and can make choices that will minimize that impact, even making it a positive impact by wetting and scattering the plant-nourishing ashes. Knowing that the fire must be completely dismantled, the camper is very careful to select a site that will not scar extensively, burn small, easy-burning wood, and use the fire only for necessities. The wood fire also represents multiple levels of energy, but it is natural, renewable energy. It is an age-old energy exchange that returns nutrients to the earth, and clears the way for new life to grow on the forest floor. The understanding gained by this ability to manage impact fosters a sense of caring:
“Incorporating Stone Age skills into our daily lives provides an opportunity to be an example of a conscious and workable environmental philosophy. We become very conscious of the precious resources growing all around us, and we suddenly have a vested interest in keeping them in good condition. That field has our dinner, that hillside our clothing, that gully our tools! This is bioregionalism at its best. We become part and parcel of our environmental community.” (Blankenship, 1996, p. 11)

The direct connection between camper and environment that woodcraft provides fosters a deep awareness of the interconnected nature of life, and encourages careful, reverent behavior in the backcountry

Finally, woodcraft, while perfectly suited for extended expeditions in remote areas, offers a world of excitement and learning close to home. One need not travel to Moab, or Patagonia to practice the trade. Gear can be made in the living room, axemanship practiced in the backyard, and challenging, “no-gear” expeditions undertaken in the local wild areas. Travel burns gasoline. Why not burn wood instead, and keep more of our recreation closer to home? The familiar old hiking trail becomes an exciting new path when one begins to discover the medicinal plants along the way, or a hidden grove of oaks offering a comfortable night’s sleep. Most people know very little about their backyard. Woodcraft offers the key to new levels of learning that would change most people’s perception of seemingly familiar places. .

The public turns to wilderness guides and educators to learn the crafts of the outdoors. For this reason, woodcraft must once again become the common language of all outdoor professionals. Woodcraft may be seen as the bridge between the goals of adventure education (AE) and those of environmental education (EE). Adventure education commonly focuses most of its energy on improving its human participants. Activities such as ropes courses, rock climbing, and whitewater kayaking offer excellent promise for improvement of their human participants, but little in the way of environmental education, unless the instructor takes the time to teach about nature. Environmental education, on the other hand, seeks to connect people to the natural environment, and educate them about environmental issues, but the improvement of the individual is not usually emphasized. Woodcraft does both. The goals of adventure education can be admirably met on an expedition using traditional gear and techniques, while at the same time bringing participants closer to their environment by virtue of the simple gear, and resource-dependent techniques used. Greg Weiss, a traditional skills instructor in Wisconsin, points out that traditional skills teaches through nature, rather than just in it (AE), or about it (EE).

Simon Priest (1990, p. 113) says environmental education concerns itself with two primary relationships:
“ecosystemic and ekistic. Ecosystemic relationships refer to the interdependence of living organisms in an ecological macroclimate. In other words, basic biological concepts like the web of life, the food chain, the energy pyramid, etc. Ekistic relationships refer to the key interactions between human society and the natural resources of an environment.”

Woodcraft offers pathways to both relationships; it actually covers both of them at the same time. In a traditional camp, the very act of subsistence places us in direct contact with the resources and the ecosystemic facets of our environment. It is said that humans learn best when they are genuinely involved in their learning, and living with the land, in the manner detailed in preceding paragraphs, allows one to experience ecosystemic relationships in a very intimate, real way. Food chains become real when one catches a fish for dinner. The small creatures that fed the fish, the fish, and the person that eats the fish are all part of that food chain. The bears that eat the berries you like, the mosquito that bites you, the mountain lion that left the tracks near camp are all part of the chain. In addition, energy takes on a whole new meaning. A wood fire is a concrete, real example of stored solar energy. Being a part of, rather than partially insulated and separated from, the basic processes of life brings a deeper understanding than any book, or academic lecture ever could. In the words of Hyemeyohsts Storm:
“To touch and Feel is to Experience. Many people live out their entire lives without ever really touching or being touched by anything. These people live within a world of mind and imagination that may move them sometimes to joy, tears, happiness or sorrow. But these people never really touch. They do not live and become one with life.” (Van Matre, ed, 1983, p. 29)

The ekistic relationship, or the relationship between human and nature becomes very clear. Using traditional woodscraft skills, every human need-warmth, food, water, clothing- can all be procured directly from nature. Such immediacy clarifies the human-nature relationship: We depend on nature, and everything we do to satisfy our needs has a direct impact on nature

In the realm of adventure education, Priest (1990, p. 114) discusses two primary relationships:
“interpersonal, and intrapersonel. Interpersonal relationships refer to how people get along in a group (two or more people). These include communication, cooperation, trust, conflict resolution, problem solving, leadership, influence, etc. Intrapersonal relationships refer to how an individual gets along with self. These include self-concept, spirituality, confidence, self-efficacy, etc.”

Traditional skills may be used to pursue improvement in these relationships, either as stand-alone activities, or to complement an existing program format. As a stand-alone program, woodcraft brings students to new levels of cooperation due to the labor-intensive nature of wilderness living: Gathering food, firewood and crafting materials, processing food, cooking, and maintaining the fire all build a strong sense of community. Problem-solving skills are also enhanced as students learn unfamiliar skills, and use new tools, such as knives and axes to accomplish daily tasks. Used in an existing program format, traditional skills add an entirely new level of adventure and challenge. Traveling through mountain forests in the late fall, for instance, requires careful camp planning and construction, as cold temperatures, a snowstorm or freezing rain make daily living more challenging.

Finally, woodcraft skills offer a tremendous opportunity to bring people of different cultures together. Regardless of our cultural background, we all share common living skills. Firemaking, shelter building, food gathering and tool making are skills all humans share from some point in their past. To be sure, different cultures exhibit different techniques for meeting human needs, but the basic stone age skills have so much in common that modern people of all backgrounds find common ground. String games such as cat’s cradle and witch’s broom, familiar to many American children, offer a good example of this. Witch’s broom, for instance, is known around the world by other names: Fish spear, teepee, and hogan. String games performed anywhere in the world become a bridge between cultures, eliciting common smiles in spite of language or other barriers. String games and the other skills that make up the backbone of woodcraft represent the most common heritage of all humanity. “In a world that divides us in so many ways, here is one common base, a valid basis to build a foundation of community” (Blankenship, 1996, p. 11).

In terms of the interpersonal goals of adventure education, the sense of empowerment, and self-efficacy that woodcraft offers is nothing short of life changing. Jim Smith, a physician who took part in a 7-day outdoor survival course in Utah, said “At the end of the course I had a tremendous sense of accomplishment, an almost ‘I can do anything’ type of feeling. Being able to start a fire, build a campsite, and have such a small amount of equipment to survive gave me a real ‘back to roots’ type of feeling” He goes on to say “the skills... are very necessary as far as putting you in touch with the earth and showing you what it can provide without the need of a wrapper or cashier. They also give you confidence in yourself as a survivor and provider.” (Personal communication, 2002). From the perspective of the outdoor educator, Bart and Robin Blankenship offer a similar opinion:
“We all want to feel capable. Learning and using the Stone Age skills builds self-reliance. Self-esteem increases as you learn to create a comfortable lifestyle. Food, clothing, containers, soap, glue, vitamins, fire, and light become things you can make for yourself. These skills are empowering.” (1996, p. 11)

This quality is certainly not unique to woodcraft skills, but the immediacy of feedback is what part of makes woodcraft technology appealing to youth at risk programs. Personal responsibility and a proactive attitude are two qualities such programs seek to foster in their students. Pulling into camp late, the tired, hungry students are faced with the choice crawling into blankets, and going to bed hungry, or taking the time to construct debris beds and shelters, starting a fire, and cooking their food. In this situation, there’s no easy out, as blankets alone will not ward off the cold, and the food they carry must be cooked to be edible. Lacking ready to eat energy bars, and down sleeping bags, they quickly realize that comfort can only be achieved through effort and teamwork. Physical comfort is such an elemental human desire that even the laziest of students will eventually see the light, and work to construct a soft bed. Use of woodcraft equipment and skills allows outdoor programs to construct a situation that doesn’t need much interpretation from instructors: Be proactive, work together, pay attention to details, and your comfort are assured; Slack off, and you’ll be cold and go hungry! The rewards of creating a safe, warm camp night after night are more valuable than anything else. I’m reminded of a quote from a student on a 14-day survival course. The students had been hiking all day in pounding rain, and everyone was completely soaked, even under their rain ponchos. One student, a computer executive with a major U.S. firm, went to work with his bow-drill fire set. Everyone was hungry, but had little faith in their ability to get a fire going (the ground was literally steaming with moisture from the day’s rain). Larry worked and worked, and just as he was about to run out of energy, he got his coal. But the moisture in the air had permeated his tinder nest, and he had to blow, and blow until finally, it burst into flames. The look on his face spoke volumes, but his words were the icing on the cake: “ I make million-dollar decisions every day, but nothing is as satisfying as this fire!” The lesson is clear: It doesn’t matter what background, or skill level a student brings to the course. Woodcraft offers an incredibly empowering mode of interacting with the wild. Adventure and environmental educators would do well to master its lessons!

The importance of the heritage that woodcraft represents must not be overlooked. Contemporary woodcraft has roots stretching into the native cultures of this and other continents, the pioneers of North America, and a multitude of other cultures and sub-cultures here, and abroad. To summarily discard these traditions would be utter folly. Thousands of years of careful refinement in gear and technique has more value than that pitched by a marketing team in some corporate boardroom. Fashions change; Traditions endure and have lasting value. A good example of this is the winter mukluk boot made of buckskin with a fur or wool liner. The soft, breathable leather allows maximum blood circulation in the foot, and perspiration escapes readily, keeping the foot warm and dry. This type of footgear has sheltered human feet from the bite of subzero cold for thousands of years. In spite of such a long and successful history, there are few sources of mukluks today. Most winter boot manufacturers put their marketing dollars behind a design that uses a heavy rubber bottom, and synthetic or leather top which is well-suited to wet weather, but makes for miserable feet in subzero cold, due to its inherent lack of breathability. Cold feet are almost a given in rubber pac boots when the temperature drops below zero, yet few people even consider that there might be a better way. Such boots are “modern", so they must be the best. Woodcraft teaches that the heritage of human history has the answer. Humans have stayed warm, dry, and safe in winter for thousands of years. What lessons can we take from this legacy? We might continue to refine the mukluk, but to discard it entirely would be foolish! For another example, we only need look beneath the mukluk. The traditional wood and rawhide snowshoe has evolved over hundreds of years into many different forms, each suited to a particular type of terrain and snow. To think that one modern invention-the aluminum and plastic mountaineering snowshoe-should suddenly render all this evolution obsolete is absurd. One trek off trail in deep powder will convince the modern snowshoer that the traditional designs still rule. In terms of floatation, and ease of use over the long haul, a traditional design has no modern rival.

Woodcraft also offers important insight into the philosophies and lifeways of those who have come before. Crafting and wearing a pair of moccasins, for example, helps one understand how work was life, and life was work to the pre-industrial woodsman. The effort and skills that must be put into a deer hide to transform it into footwear are truly amazing, and the result is an extremely lightweight, flexible shoe admirably adapted to long-distance travel, and moving quietly and sure-footedly through the woods: Form and function match perfectly. The same may be said of other traditional gear items: The packbasket, snowshoe, canoe, and many others. Using such items not only connects one with the mindset of the creators, but also with the centuries of innovation and refinement embodied that piece of gear. After making a pair of moccasins, a new appreciation for museum pieces becomes apparent. Every stitch, crease, and nuance of design comes into focus, and the true mastery our ancestors becomes clear. Woodcraft offers insight into the lives and skills of past generations in a way that no textbook, lecture, or archeological dig ever could. Gazing at the beaded moccasin in the museum, we not only know how it was made, but we know how it felt to make it: We know the effort of the creation, the textures, smells and sight of the hide as it becomes leather, and the feel of the finished product on the foot. Aside from actually stepping back in time, this is as close as we might possibly come to experiencing the heritage of humanity.

And finally, traditional practices and gear offer a connection to the magic of a simpler time when life, work, spirituality and art merged seamlessly. A connection to countless generations of human and non-human, fused together in a sacred dance of interdependence. Garrett and Alexandra Conover offer an elegant verse that describes this well:
“It may be true that the snowshoes standing by the tent flap are composed of babiche and wood. Yet they are more than that. They are a time machine from the whirling snows of the northern forests; borne by the spirits of countless native people, hide of moose or caribou, wood of birch or larch. Even now they seem to hum in the winter winds, resonating to the invitation of the horizon.” (Conover, 1995, p. 4)
Bart and Robin Blankenship, in their book Earthnack voice similar opinions about the skills of woodcraft:
“There is magic in creating fire. Imagine focusing your energy enough to make something burn! The results of this effort are inspiring: The warmth of the fire, renewed feelings of capability, and pure delight. By performing a task that your ancestors did daily-the simple movements, the honest effort-you also earn passage into that deja vu of a million years, that connection in genetic memory to ages past. Creating fire is a powerful experience” (1996, p. 13).

The heritage represented by woodcraft techniques offers tremendous value to the modern outdoors person, and should not be cast aside.
Finally, I must directly address woodcraft’s detractors. What of those who agree with Harvey Manning’s assertion in 1972 that “woodcraft is dead” (Manning, 1972, p. 20)? There are many in the outdoor field that would prefer to see woodcraft remain in books. They believe that modern gear and technique is the only appropriate system for interacting with our wildlands. They believe that the practice of woodcraft creates unnecessary and unethical damage to our remaining natural areas. Many of their concerns have already been addressed in the preceding pages, but a few demand further elaboration. The first and foremost concern seems to be that of impact. It is important to realize that those at the vanguard of change to modern techniques based their opinions on two things: Observations of heavily used areas, and observations of woodcraft tools and techniques used irresponsibly. Certainly, in heavily used areas such as national parks, recreation areas and campgrounds, and sensitive ecosystems, woodcraft techniques must be modified, and in some cases suspended. Fires are the most obvious area of concern. In less-used areas, or where fuelwood is in great abundance, a well-managed cooking fire poses no problems. However where sheer numbers of campers, or easily damaged ecosystems make such fires unacceptable, the woodcrafter may choose to use a small stove made of a tin can, or one of a few commercially-made woodstoves such as the Sierra Stove. These stoves can cook an entire meal (including tea!) using but a handful of twigs. When the meal is finished, the amount of charcoal generated is extremely low, and the ashes can be wet, and scattered. The meal has been accomplished with no fire scar, minimal use of fuelwood, and a reduced chance of inadvertently starting a wildfire (due to the confined fire). The skills used are much the same as with an open fire: The fire must be kindled, supplied with proper wood, and managed to provide the needed heat. The impact of the heat source remains local, and the fuel can even be carried in the pack, if needed. For shelter, bedding can be carried in the form of homemade, or commercially made sleeping pads, and tent poles carried in, or eliminated through the use of tarps. Modification of traditional techniques and gear vastly increases the situations in which they can be acceptably used.

Poorly executed woodcraft skills have undeniably created a vast amount of undesirable impact. But the impact is more a result of poor technique than of some inherent flaw in traditional equipment. Modern gear can be abused to even more devastating effect: If a group of hikers, clad in all the latest petro-chemical gear, drives 1000 miles roundtrip to Moab, Utah for a few days of backpacking, cooks freeze-dried meals on gas stoves, and rock climbs using a carload of gear, can they really say they’ve “left no trace”? While their impact on the local environment may seem to be negligible, they’ve left a massive impact on the global environment by unwittingly enlisting a host of miners, oil workers, trains, oil rigs, tankers, manufacturing plants, gas stations, and other elements of the modern consumer-supply network. The point is simply that problems of environmental impact are not inherently rooted in traditional gear and techniques, but rather in the thoughtless actions of the camper, whether the year is 1950, or 2002. Poor technique is the culprit, and the answer is education, and constant reflection on technique in order to assure a balanced view of what constitutes truly sustainable impact. I believe traditional skills offer the best chance for having a positive impact on the land. A fantastic quote from Tom Brown Jr., a primitive skills instructor illustrates this point:
“I believe that a true survivalist is a caretaker of the Earth. Things must be harvested. Things must be adjusted and balanced. A survivalist put into a forest like this that is ailing, overgrown with trees killing each other off could actually be a positive effect, knowing what to take and when to take it. They are not just a caretaker, they're a healer. We're not a mistake from the Creator. We belong here and if we do this correctly as a survivalist, we are as important as the wolf is to the deer herd or the fox is to the rabbit population. And I know that Larry teaches that same thing, whenever you gather a plant, whenever you use a material, the Earth is put back as we found it but better. I believe that this attitude of "leave no trace" is like passing somebody wounded in the woods, saying hello and leaving. I look at the Earth as dying and it needs survivalists as healers. Instead of passing that person by, bandage the wounds. Fix what ails them and then go on.” (Brown, 2002)

Living close to the land provides an unparalled opportunity to observe, and make conscious, thoughtful decisions about how to manage our impact on the land we use. The typical high-tech hiker does not have the opportunity to thin a forest, or spread the seeds of a berry bush because many of these folks have been thoroughly steeped in the attitude of “look but don’t touch”. Woodcraft teaches that we belong in the wild. We are not just spacemen passing through the environment. We cannot leave no trace: That is simply not possible. The key is to recognize that we do belong out there, and we will leave a trace, and then to go about discovering how we can leave the most responsible trace possible. Sometimes the responsible thing to do will be to cook on a gas stove. But sometimes the responsible thing will be to cook on a campfire. It all depends on the situation, and the judgment of the camper.

In closing, I must say this: Harvey Manning was wrong. Dead wrong. Woodcraft is not dead. In backyards, wilderness, outdoor schools, and gatherings, woodcraft remains strong all over the country. Hundreds of new people each year discover a new way of walking and living in the woods. They discover an empowering system of skills that enables them to participate directly in their environment. Woodcraft is a vibrant, living thing that not only deserves greater use, but demands it. The current direction of many outdoor pursuits risks furthering the separation between man and the earth. It’s a good thing Mr. Manning was wrong, because woodcraft offers the best hope of chance of reuniting us with the planet, and restoring a belief that we do indeed belong in nature. The earth is our true home. So let’s pick up the packsack, sharpen the axe, lace up the moccasins, and go home.


Blankenship, B. and R. (1996). Earthnack: Stone Age Skills for the 21st Century. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, Publisher.
Conover, Garrett and Alexandra (1995). A Snow Walker’s Companion: Winter Trail Skills for the Far North. Camden, ME: Ragged Mountain Press.
Kochanski, Mors (1987). Bushcraft: Outdoor Skills and Wilderness Survival. Edmonton, AB: Lone Pine Publishing.
Manning, Harvey (1972). Backpacking One Step at a Time. Seattle, WA: Recreational Equipment Inc.
Miles, J. and Priest, S. eds. (1990) Adventure Education. State College, PA: Venture Publishing Inc.
Van Matre, S., and Weiler, B. The Earth Speaks: An Acclimatization Journal. Warrenville, IL. The Institute for Earth Education.

The original post you can find here; the importance of traditional outdoor skills
and Mr. Neely's website traditional blackpowderhunting


  1. Outstanding! Thanks for sharing this article, Ron!

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