One week in fall several years ago, Douglas Hill went into the woods. What came out of the woods was a different man.
Hill was finishing an intensive course in primitive skills at Practical Primitive in New Jersey. Together with the three other students in the class and their instructor, he walked into the woods to put what he had learned and what he had made in six months of study to the test. It was a week that would expose the gaps in the shelters they made, the weaknesses in the tools they used and pots they fired, holes in the knowledge of how to put those tools to use, but more than that, well beyond that, Hill says, on a rainy, cold night, when he was wet, chilled and without food or fire, he would come face to face with who he really was. And discover then that who he thought he was, was not who he actually was.
“We were all so miserable and like our willpower had just gone out the door and I had this moment of just, I think, seeing through who I thought I was, who I always thought I was, and realizing who I am,” he says. “It was this moment of just wow, you know, like it would be pretty easy to die out here. The wilderness isn’t this bubbly take-care-of-you sort of place. You’ve got to take care of yourself. You’ve got to put the energy out there. But I could not bring myself to go out in the rain and try to start a fire. It was just a miserable, miserable night.”
That night reshaped his future. It took a man who could have become another Christopher McCandless story of enthusiasm for a life in the wild gone wrong and dosed him with a bit of well-deserved fear for the woods.
“I think it took away a bit of my ideals and replaced it with experience,” Hill says. “Like a lot of people, I had a slightly altered sense of reality.”
When he looks at the woods now, that sense of dangerous wild is tempered with a sensibility for harvesting its plentiful resources. He sees what can be woven into cordage, what wood will burn easily under the pressure of a bow drill and where to strike stones and logs to break them into usable pieces.
Hill has spent half of the last decade studying primitive technology and indigenous skills. As a quote from primitive technologist Scott Silsby on his website claims, it’s not the worst set of tools we’ve ever used to get things done, it’s just the first.
Hill grew up in the wilds of New Jersey. Before he learned how to make fire with sticks, weave baskets and carve a hunting bow, he completed a bachelor of science in technological studies and taught industrial arts and technology education — everything from wood shop to mechanical drafting — in high school.
“I left teaching and that was really when I think my own interest in technology started going farther and farther back,” he says. “It’s just been a slow progression.”
Yes, he says, he’s read Into the Wild, a gift from a friend he says probably handed it to him in the hope that it would save his life. The book served as cautionary tale. Reading the cover text about the boy who hiked into the Alaskan wilderness and was found dead months later was among the experiences that slowed his run into the wilderness for the life of a noble savage.
When he goes to the woods now, his use of primitive technology is often tailored to meet the skills he wants to focus on developing, and he’ll pack contemporary tools so he can work on isolating one skill, such as purifying water in the woods, while enjoying a tent and the steel knife often belted to his side.
A bow drill to start a fire | Photo courtesy of Douglas Hill
The former high school teacher is clearly a teacher at heart — complete with the humility and patience of having wrangled teenagers — and now that he’s been studying and practicing primitive skills for six years, he’s started to teach them. He founded Gone Feral a year ago, leads workshops around Boulder County and spent a week in early September at Rabbit Stick, a gathering of people who practice primitive skills, teaching Adirondack basket-making. (And his baskets put Longaberger to shame.) Though he does teach kids, the niche he’s really looking to fill is providing an education in the outdoors to adults through one-on-one mentorships and private workshops.
Let’s get one thing clear right away. He is not in the business of teaching anyone how to survive the zombie apocalypse or the latest J.J. Abrams television show scenario in an afternoon.
“I think it’s unrealistic to say ‘I want to learn how to survive for three weeks in a matter of six hours.’ That’s just not going to happen,” he says. Learning how to survive an unexpected night out, however, is a reasonable goal.
Hill teaches the use of technology that dates back to the Stone Age with the idea that there are intrinsic benefits to knowing how to build a brush shelter, throw with an atlatl, weave a basket, cut with a stone knife, track an animal, identify edible plants or make a fire from sticks. Some of those skills could help save your life in an emergency. But beyond that, learning these skills is about developing a different relationship with the natural world, and a different understanding of the ancient humans and humanoids we’re descended from.
Hill in Borneo | Photo courtesy of Douglas Hill
Part of what people learn when they study indigenous skills is about us, and who we were, and what we’ve lost. The technology of the Stone Age is the common denominator for humans everywhere. Every civilization shows evidence of having sharpened stone to a point, a technology developed two and a half million years ago, before humans, and carried right through to late 1800s medical reports of American West cavalrymen injured by stone-tipped arrows.
“You can go to Virginia, you can go to Afghanistan, you can go to South Africa and there are periods when stone technology was the only technology,” says Douglas Bamforth, professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. “All human groups used flaked stone technology at one time in the past, and they often used it side by side with metal.”
But when stones that were flint-knapped, or broken into useable points like hand axes and spear points, were first discovered in Europe, they were called “fairy stones,” mysterious relics of unknown creatures — even though people were still flint knapping in France and England. The task of unmasking the fairies has fallen to archaeologists, who have to decipher stories written in stone.
“There’s two ways that we can tell about past lifestyles. Number one, we can study the tools themselves and we can use microscopes to study wear patterns on stone tools, see what kind of material they’re cutting,” says Steven Holen, curator of the Department of Anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. “The other way that we understand how people lived in the past is to reproduce their tools and use them ourselves and then study the wear patterns on the experimental tools. It’s easier to understand the ancient tools once you’ve used them yourself and then looked at the tools under the microscope to compare them.”
What we learn first in that experiment is just how much knowledge we’ve lost over thousands of years in terms of skills and knowledge of the natural world and its resources.
“We know tons that they didn’t know, so it’s not that we’ve become impoverished in our knowledge,” Bamforth says. “It’s just that our knowledge has changed, but you suddenly come to understand how much knowledge there was in the world that has not persisted.”
“I think that’s another surprising thing is you find out how smart people were, they were very good technologists and they were very smart people,” Holen says. “They were just as smart as we were, in some ways, maybe smarter.”
Even for those not examining stone tools under a microscope, the rest of the world comes into sharper focus after time working with primitive tools. You can look at a rock and see that a rock doesn’t have to just be a rock anymore. It could be a knife.
“You look at the world a little bit differently when you’ve actually worked with these things and made them,” Bamforth says. “You just feel stupid, at first, because you don’t know how to hold the damn thing without hurting yourself.”
Hill has a small collection of tools that replicate the evolving rock chunks prehistoric people worked with over the last two and a half million years. He holds up a hand ax, a flake of rock with one side sharp enough to cut meat and the other round enough to grip, the kind of tool made by homo sapiens’ predecessor, homo erectus.
“These are the folks that walked out of Africa, so this was what was in their hand when they left Africa,” he says.
But let’s forget trying to wrap your head around gutting mega-fauna with the sharp edge of a rock, and forget Africa. That’s too far back.
It was a cool, late summer morning when I first met Hill, thousands of miles from Africa and from those cold woods and after a string of days that could have you doubting you might ever be cold again. We talk for an hour before he asks, “Have you ever tried to make fire by friction?”
He kneels over his fire kit, a foot tamping down a fire board, and his hands on the hand hold, a piece of wood on top and a bow drill to spin a stick, the spindle, against the fire board. The wood squeaks at first in protest, he adjusts the pieces, then a sound more like sawing starts. In moments, there’s a scent of burning. He picks up speed, the squeak returns, and a spin of smoke and the smell of campfire rise from the fire board. He leans back from a nugget of wood shavings, almost furry, black and gray with a glowing, red heart, determined and encouraged by a slight breeze.
“It’s such a beautiful thing,” he says. The furry part, he explains, is the particles of wood. “People ask, ‘Will any wood make fire?’ I don’t know the answer to that question. I know some woods work a heck of a lot better. Generally, you want finer particles than that. The finer the particles, the quicker they’ll heat up. You’re shaving off all these particles, raising the heat and they’re sort of melting together, and that’s what creates this coal.”
Though he’d been a woodworker well before the days he started delving into primitive skills, making fire and bows reshaped his understanding of wood. Otherwise, it’s tough to see the particles for the board.
A bow, for example, is made of one set of rings of a tree — cut through the rings, and the bow is likely to split at the mark of its growth.
“When most people look out there on the landscape they just see green, they don’t see what’s around them, what different trees they have, what those different trees do, is it edible, is it medicinal, what it does for you,” says Eddie Starnater, co-founder of Practical Primitive and instructor for the six-month intensive course that landed Hill in the woods that night, putting his skills to the test. Studying primitive skills, he says, changes a person’s mindset.
“You become a participant, if you will, in your ecosystem, rather than apart from it,” Starnater says. “You’re a part of things, not apart from things.”
For the last seven years, Starnater and Practical Primitive co-founder Julie Martin have run small workshops from a property 45 minutes outside New York City, teaching everything from candle-making to building brush shelters. The program Hill participated in, their hunter gatherer program, is among their more intensive, demanding and challenging programs. Students commit one three-day weekend a month for six months, and, between classes, complete plenty of homework, which can include tasks like identifying, preparing and eating wild plants.
“It’s not a theoretical knowledge base. They do have to find it, harvest it, prepare it and consume it, then they report back on it,” Starnater says. “You know pretty quick if somebody just read something out of a book. … The point of the program is to have the student internalize everything, so it’s practical knowledge you carry with you.”
Among their first projects is weaving a long, narrow bag for their fire kits — a bag Hill still carries.
That final week, participants take and put to the test what they’ve made and learned over the six previous months. The baskets, the clay pots, the bow, the atlatl.
“I get to have a lot of fun with it because I’ll let them suffer in a few different areas for just a little bit first,” Starnater says.
Students can pack backups — like a modern sleeping bag or a hatchet — and leave them in the car. He encourages them to use the materials available and if and when they turn to contemporary tools, note that as a skill to work on.
Hill still employs a similar approach when he goes into the woods now, often packing based on the skill he wants to work on — and carrying a backup. He takes his bow drill to make a fire, for example, but will pack a lighter, too.
“I’ll go in, if I want it to be a totally primitive experience, I’ll go in with a fire kit, or maybe none, and I’ll make it out there, and build a brush shelter,” he says.
For students of these skills, he recommends taking it on in small steps.
“If you want to go out and not make fire with a lighter, pack your lighter, know where it is, but promise you’re not going to use it unless it’s dire. But keep everything else the same, your tent and everything else, and once you become really proficient with fire, then you’re like, ‘OK, well I’m going to go out and build myself a shelter,’ but keep your tent with you, maybe even set your tent up, so that if it gets bad and it’s rainy you can just dive in your tent as opposed to having to set it up. So that’s the kind of thing I did, is decide what I wanted to work on and then to kind of push everything a little farther.”
Progress toward total self-sufficiency moves slowly, he says, and the key to not dying is to not go too far, too fast.
Hill teaches a student to use a hand drill | Photo courtesy of Douglas Hill
One of the lessons Hill says carried with him from that night in the woods is the sense that you can’t do this alone. Surviving in the wild takes the skills, strength and energy of a community of people.
There’s a big interest in survival skills now, thanks to shows like Bear Grylls’ Man vs. Wild, Survivorman and the J.J. Abrams’ collection of Lost and Revolution, as well as The Hunger Games books and movie. They often miss the point. (Though if you want to see some primitive technology in action, Hill’s a big fan of the skills slipped into Cast Away.)
“If we’re talking about indigenous people, to a certain extent every day is survival, but they’re not necessarily having to wake up every day and go out there and make their fire kit and find water,” Hill says. “For most of history, we’re moving in small bands or extended family groups that we’ve taken to calling tribes. People had their group stuff, so you have your fire kit and you’re not going to have to remake that every day. As a matter of fact, you’re probably not even going to have to start a fire every day. Keep the fire going, let it go to coals, then blow that back to flame, so I think the hard and fast survival thing where you’re dropped into the woods with nothing is a situation that very few of us are ever going to find ourselves in, and very few people in history have found themselves in.”
Among the facts archaeologists will never get stones to tell them is how many people were together and in what kind of group at any given site, people who dropped off something like the Mahaffey cache of stone tools that was dug out of a Boulder front yard, which Bamforth led the study on. But the evidence suggests we’ve always been intertwined, sharing skills and resources.
“We tend to view people as totally self-sufficient and then when we start to look it often turns out they’re much more economically interactive than we expected, so it’s not as rare as a quick glance of the evidence might suggest it is,” Bamforth says. Sites around the continent show that hunter-gatherers often moved and traded a lot to distribute the best materials for different purposes.
“Overnight, sure, people get through stuff all the time by themselves, but long term, whether it’s a million years ago, or after the zombie apocalypse or to practice long term whatever, you need a group,” Hill says. “You need a community. Whether that’s your family or a group of friends, just whatever it is, you need a group of people.”
So Hill is looking to build a community of people who get together to share their skills, trade tips and talk, well, not shop, but materials, cordage and projects. Secret places to practice archery and ways to get around the major hurdle of being an urban dweller and trying to make rural tools: sourcing materials.
To that end, he’s running community skills nights at the Boulder History Museum the first Wednesday of each month. It’s an informal gathering meant to draw together people who are working on primitive technologies and want to work on them in company, instead of alone. After all, if you can make a fire, you ought to have someone to share it with.
For additional information on Gone Feral, visit http://goneferal.org.