So, you have been considering a change of pace? Want to leave the rat race
behind? Possibly even bypassing the cabin on the hill with sheep, chickens, and
an organic garden, and diving head long into that wild lake of your dreams
called Primitive Lifestyle? Great! I welcome the company. You see, I took the
plunge two years ago, and I am still swimming with my head above water, though
just barely at times.
I am now living in Northern Michigan, together with a few others who have
also heard the call of the wild and have answered it. I was asked by Steve
Hulsey, Editor of Wilderness Way, to write of my journey of the past several
years, and how I see and experience the realities of living a primitive
I want to be as encouraging as I can be to those of you seeking this way of
life. However, I am also going to tell it straight up, just like it is.
Having been through what I have in the past several years, I have developed
some sense of what is going down in the world. I believe there are many
wonderful human beings that are depressed, devastated, and overwhelmed by the
crazed society that surrounds them. Their true desire is to live as close to the
land as possible. Perhaps no one else knows that they feel this way and they
tell no one for fear of rejection and ridicule. So their secret consumes their
thoughts and dreams and they continue going through the motions of crazed
society, living the way they really want to only in their heads. I know what
this is like and maybe some of you reading this also know. Also, I hope readers
can learn from mistakes I have made. I refuse to write a flowery, buttered-up
story of living native, but I will say that the joys, rewards and freedom I have
experienced are well worth any hardships encountered. So, this is not a
blueprint for going primitive, just the human side of my attempt thus far.
What is it like to live primitive, the difficulties, the compromises, the
progressions and rewards? I will finish by relating what I feel to be the two
most important aspects of living primitive. They are not found in any wilderness
skills book, but can determine one's success at living in the wild.
Sometimes I think I was predestined for a primitive life way. As a youngster
I was fascinated with all things "Indian." I spent long hours exploring the tall
grass pastures of our farm, shooting arrows and throwing spears. Perhaps I was
also influenced by books I read, like Island of the Blue Dolphins. In some ways,
I have come full circle back to my early days.
Not unlike many of you, I was raised in a rural farming community, Indiana to
be exact. As a young boy I was responsible for looking after the pigs, cows and
occasionally the horses. I enjoyed being around the animals and thought I would
probably farm for a living. When graduation came, the right thing to do was to
get that college education, because, after all, farming was becoming more
complicated every year. Living in the city at the university was nerve wracking.
I was used to roaming pastures and corn fields. I worked part time to pay for
tuition and books, and, oh yeah, the occasional beer party... Majoring in
agribusiness and animal science and belonging to a large fraternity, I was,
after two years, disgusted with myself and the college scene. I moved back home
and commuted to class, determined to finish what I had started.
Since my weekends were no longer filled with parties and women chasing, I had
more time to think about what I was doing with my life. Even then, I had begun
to doubt my interests in a career, especially in the agribusiness. On a whim, I
enrolled in an elective, Forestry 240- Wildlife in America, with Fred Montague.
Little did I know at the time that this was a pivotal decision in the path I
would later take. Dr. Montague is one of those unique professors that goes far
beyond the prescribed course text, in fact, pretty much throwing the text out
the window. Not only did we have discussions on wildlife, but we were challenged
with every factor that affected wildlife: pollution, habitat destruction,
mindless capitalism, the very civilization itself.
By the time college graduation rolled around, I had done a 180. Wanting
nothing to do with agribusiness, I had thoughts of starting a small farm or
going to California in search of the music business (at the time I was lead
guitarist for a small time rock-n-roll band). I was depressed, with no job. It
is funny how, when you think you've hit rock bottom, things can change in a
flash. Something had clicked. I liked animals and liked observing them. I had
loads of experience with farm animals. I would become a farm animal
behaviorist!? Was there such a thing? A phone call and a few days later, I found
myself in the office of a premiere farm animal behaviorist who actually had a
graduate student studying the effects of music on farm animals. The professor
put me on the payroll. I didn't blink an eye. My duty was to assist his student
in her research. Soon I was enrolled in a graduate program of my own with my own
My co-graduate student, well, she and I saw things eye to eye and liked one
another. We were a great team. Before I knew it, we were engaged to be married.
By this time I was heavy into the environmentalism scene. I became vegetarian,
except for occasional pork raised back home on the small farm. I began putting
more and more pressure on myself to make a difference within the system.
In time my marriage began to fail-and I didn't even see it coming. After
passing my thesis defense, I headed to a large university in the south to study
behavior and consciousness in animals. Things fell through, and my wife and I
got into jobs with the U.S.D.A. studying animal welfare.
My marriage was all but over, although I still couldn't realize it. It was a
dark time for me. I took a week off from work and went on a humanitarian mission
to the slums of Juarez, Mexico-a border town. If one could major in primitive
living, I think I would make as a pre-requisite that one visit a "third world"
country. One's ideas on materialism and what one can do without quickly become
I felt very positive about my decision to leave the
material/civilized way of existence behind. I just wasn't sure where I would
be going to leave it behind. A friend loaned me a packet of info on outdoor
survival schools. In the packet I came across one that gave me goosebumps. I
wrote a short note saying I wanted to attend the gathering. They responded by
saying "glad to have you, and by the way we have a few staff positions open." My
intuition said "This is your chance, dude!" My heart said, "Hey look, you're
still married, even if unhappily, and you'd better stay put if you want to make
this marriage work." I felt caught to say the least. My wife must have known
because, to my surprise, she enthusiastically stated that we should call about
Within a month, my wife and I found ourselves in the Northwoods of Wisconsin
at the outdoor school. I felt that this was the beginning of making a go at
living the earth ways. However, if you want to canoe wild rivers, there are
bound to be rapids and waterfalls. Two weeks after arriving at the school, my
wife made it clear she no longer wanted to stay in the marriage. This devastated
me. Only those who have gone thru divorce can understand the darkness, pain and
anxiety of such an experience. I had gone over the waterfall and felt I was
drowning. Indeed, for a time, I felt I would be better off to die rather than
endure the suffering and heartache I was going through.
I was alone now, but in the few short months I resided at the outdoor school,
I had gained some close friendships, and had begun to learn some basic primitive
living skills. I had also learned to canoe, and had lived in a primitive
shelter. It was my first taste of what living primitive might be like, and I was
Being restless, I moved around the Northwoods of Wisconsin. I built a camp of
my own consisting of a birchbark covered wikiup, by a small bass-filled lake. Having no cash and wanting to make my own deerskin clothes, I
bartered my services. I did ceiling drywall work, a tough job, for a local
butcher, remodeling and received a decent pile of deer skins in exchange. At
this time, I did not know enough about hunting and trapping to procure a food
supply, and so it was quickly looking like either food stamps or a job. I took a
temporary, low paying farm labour job for a month. Again it was either divine
intervention or dumb luck; it happened to be a diverse farm, and I was able to
take home with me several bags of great apples, and all the squash and pumpkin I
wanted, as well. These were a boon to my diet.
Not long after, I retrieved a road kill deer in fine shape that gave me meat
through the winter. I was coming to believe that prayer did work after all!
At this point, I had left a decent paying research position, paid off my
debts and with a few hundred dollars left, had wandered through the Northwoods
of Wisconsin, gradually gaining confidence in my abilities to survive. I was an
opportunist -- doing whatever I had to to survive, without going back to
civilization. I was, in effect, making a break from civilization at the mental
and emotional levels. I was trusting more in myself and discovering my true
heritage. Knowing that 99.95% of my ancestors had lived a hunter-gatherer way of
life made my heart grow stronger. My dreams began changing from being chased by
gunmen in city streets, to scenes of ancient landscapes with ancient people.
The deep snows off of Lake Superior made the woods even more quiet. I had
heaps of time alone to reflect on my past, the present, and the unknown future.
This quiet time helped me to heal from past emotional wounds. The days and
nights spent out by my wikiup camp were incredibly awesome for me. The first
night in the wikiup was late in the hunter's moon (October-late). Frost was in
the air -- my favorite season. I came clear up out of my balsam fir bed when a
barn owl landed in a nearby tree and gave a blood curdling yowl! If you've
heard this at close range, you know what I am talking about. The very next
evening, a few coyotes came down to the lake and were letting everyone know with
sharp, cackling vocals, and howls. Now this was the wildlife! I thought. A few
weeks later and I heard my first wild wolf howl. There was a pack of wolves in
the vicinity, though few people have heard or seen them.
Yes, I have lost my way in the woods several times, and boy does it give the
heart a workout! I left the beaten path and just when I was ready to head back,
I stepped in a hole and fell. I was a bit disoriented when I stood and the
clouds had moved in. Nothing looked familiar. The adage "things look a whole lot
different on the way out than they do going in" is very true. I paused and tried
to look for my tracks, which isn't the easiest feat when no sun is shining into
a cedar swamp. By the time I had checked for tracks, I seemed to see them in
every direction. It was beginning to get late in the day. My now steady
breathing got just a tad heavier. If you've ever been down in a brush swamp of
cedar and tag alder and are not positive which direction will take you out, you
start to get worried. I took off in the direction I thought I had come in, not
realizing it was exactly opposite of the way I wanted to go, and fought wave
after wave of tag alder heaven. My face and arms were scratched up, I was
dripping wet with sweat, I was sinking up to my knees in bog every step, and was
now plumb confused. It was then that I must have lost track of both time and
space, but finally came out on a logging road.
During this period that I think of as the very beginning of my attempting a
go at primitive lifeways, I had what I call "the Shaman complex." The Shaman, or
medicine person, is what is glorified and emphasized about native cultures by
our media. Therefore, I, along with many others I know, are especially drawn to
this aspect when first learning about primitive lifeways. In other words,
learning about all the plants and the medicine uses seemed paramount to me (and
others I've run into) and topped my list. This isn't a bad thing, if one
progresses beyond it, for it drew me into the woods, meadows and river areas and
allowed me to familiarize myself with wildness. My first summer I learned maybe
one hundred plants and their uses as medicines (one need only learn a half dozen
or so to take care of most medical needs from bee strings to cuts/bleeding to
colds!). I don't mean to belittle the medicine person, and in fact, I still am
drawn to aid in healing.
Midway through my first winter in the Northwoods, I met a woman who was
ailing from Lyme's disease -- a most debilitating and awful disease, spread by deer
ticks. I grew fond of her and wanted to help in any way I could. Because many of
her days were spent in bed, she asked if I would move in and care for her. I
said I would. It was very difficult for me to see this person in misery despite
everything I tried. The mythic aura surrounding "the Shaman" had been burst, and
I had learned a good deal about myself and the fragility of human life. Being a
medicine person has little to do with drums or rattles or chants, or even how
many herbs you know. In fact, this woman was helped not so much by the herb I
gave her as by my simply being there, lending an ear and a hand and letting her
know I cared. I no longer have the "Shaman complex." I realized that we all have
unique potentials to help and to heal by our presence and caring.
Having been away from "civilized" ways of living for about one year now, I
was longing to be with others who also wanted to live a primitive lifeway. I had
been keeping in touch with a few of my friends from the outdoor school I had met
the previous summer. We had been kicking around the idea of starting a community
based on living primitively. After working out details of where we could set up
a primitive camp and agreeing on some basic premises, a tribe was born. When it
comes to a tribe or community, the adage "the whole is greater than the sum of
its parts" is very true. We had been able to make the break from civilization at
the emotional and mental levels, but now we were attempting to do it at the
physical level by living the old ways.
So, what is it like to live a primitive lifeway, sleeping in a conical
birchbark lodge, wearing deer skin clothing, making and using tools, traps and
weapons to supply meat, and all of the other multifarious aspects of wilderness
living? In the following pages, I will detail my experience of living close to
earth. Again, it will not be a flowery account, but rather one that is full of
compromises and hardships, but also of rewards and joys.
I do not claim to know everything about primitive living or survival, and I
have not lived in this way long enough to be 100% proficient and
self-sufficient. However, I have learned much and want to share what I have
learned. Primarily, I want to discuss the many unexpected mysteries one has to
figure out and learn before progressing further. I have called my quest the
journey from civilized chaos to primitive paradise.
Moving up to northern Michigan was my fifth move in one year. As you might
guess, my material possessions were at a basic minimum. When it comes to
bringing it, less is more. Less baggage -- more freedom. The items needed to live
primitive are few.
Those few friends joined me and I was thrilled to be part of this new
tribe/community. To my way of thinking, this is the real starting point of
primitive living; a family of some sort. It was myself, another bachelor, and a
married couple. Though one could get a good start on primitive living on one's
own, humans are meant to live together, and having companionship and support is
a definite plus.
I have heard it said, that in survival situations, there is a hierarchy of
needs as follows: heat, shelter (including clothing), water, food. This
hierarchy could also be applied to getting a primitive encampment started,
though shelter, water and food all kind of co-evolve. We knew where we were
going to get water -- a fresh water spring 3/4 mile away and we had been working on
brain-tanning deer skins to make clothing. Other than wild greens, we would have
to wait until fall to be legal hunters of meat. This fact, together with the
fact of sleeping in tents (polyurethane nightmare) meant I put constructing
semi-permanent primitive shelters at the top of our list. This was no easy task
as you will see, for it held some basic realities and "compromises" we have had
to accept for the time being. One of these realities is that most land in this
country is privately owned, and what is considered public land often has strict
limitations. For instance, the state forest out our back door (actually, front
door as we've no back door) is highly regulated. Theoretically, if caught taking
even so much as a twig could result in a fine and loss of privileges
(i.e. hunting/trapping). Thus one is fairly limited to where camp can be set up.
Preferably we wanted next to water; since we didn't have necessary funds to
purchase land, we were settling for staying on a community members' parent's
land. This in itself is a compromise, as we agreed to work part time remodeling
a house in exchange for staying on the land. This turns out o.k. as we do get
paid for working.
Of course, we wanted to build our shelters from materials we would harvest
from the forests. Materials that would make a shelter worthy of northern
Michigan weather -- from below zero to above 100 degrees -- and all the snow and rain
anyone would want. We have sandy soils here and not much grass or clay. We
thought, as have most of North America's subarctic tribes, that birch bark was
ideal. It takes approximately 40-50 good sheets of bark (depends on size of
shoot) to cover a 12 ft. wigwam or conical lodge. We applied for a permit with
the forest service to harvest birch bark from several stands scheduled to be
clear cut. We needed to borrow a pick-up for transporting the bark. It took
three trips (3 full days) to harvest the bark and get it to where we could use
it. Some of these bark sheets were sewn end to end with spruce root to make
panels. Others were placed individually on the lodge frames.
Generally (and I emphasize) one cannot improve upon what has worked for
thousands of years for indigenous people. We would prove this out time and
again, often the hard way. Shelter has been a prime example. We exerted more
energy than I care to think of in attempting to build the "perfect primitive"
shelter, only to return to the basics in the end.
As I write this, I am reminded of how we often forget what the primitive
person had to work with for tools; namely wood, bone and stone implements. It is
amazing how quickly one can destroy and travel down the wrong path with the
white man's axe, shovel and saw. Prior to actually getting birch bark, we had
decided to try to build earth lodges, basically underground shelters. As
incredulous as it now sounds to me, we dug a four feet deep by sixteen feet
diameter pit through sand and gravel, using steel shovels. We were modeling our
structures after the Mandan Earth Lodges (which were not dug but a foot down).
We had axed down huge hop-horn beam supports and were figuring out the best way
of placing the ceiling beams on. It was becoming more and more apparent that the
sheer amount of materials needed to construct the lodge would be prohibitive. In
addition, we began questioning what structural integrity we would end up with,
knowing that tons of earth would be pushing from all directions. We were trying
to live primitively by using the white man (read civilized) mentality.
With some thought, we decided to go with what was originally used in this
geographic region -- conical lodges and wigwams. We thought we would build one of
each and see the advantages/disadvantages of each. The wigwam was straightforward, however, the earth lodge idea wasn't totally dead and we decided to
make a 10 ft. diameter conical lodge, (which ended up 9 ft. diameter) within the
huge crater we had dug and then bank dirt up 4 feet around it.
We liked the idea of trying to harvest all materials for our shelters nearby
and had permission from neighbors to harvest several basswood and ash trees, so
we thought we could peel the bark and use it rather than birch bark, which
wasn't nearby. Because we only had a few trees we could take, we wanted to fell
them so as to use as much of the bark as possible. Felling large diameter, 60
ft. tall trees is no simple thing, and we nearly killed ourselves in the
process, all with the help of buck saw and axe. I believe the trees were trying
to tell us something, for from the get go, the first 5 trees all became
"hung-up" on neighboring trees. Several of the trees "barber-chaired", (a very
dangerous situation when felling trees). After seven trees the message started
becoming clearer -- the natives rarely felled any trees larger than wrist size
primarily because of risk of life and limb, and secondarily because of energy
expenditure to do so. A revelation occurred and for a time we had dubbed our
tribe "The Little Trees" for we vowed not to cut anything but saplings and wrist
sized trees from there on out.
We had peeled a good share of basswood and ash bark, more-or-less. Hard
lesson number 179 -- basswood bark cracks and splits and curls horrendously upon
drying. It is very marginal for shelter coverings. Ash also cracks and curls,
but much less so. Soon it was back to square one -- what the natives used: birch
bark. Birch bark is tough, rot resistant, waterproof and beautiful. Thus, we
finally succumbed and got our permit to harvest birch bark. If done properly it
doesn't kill the tree, as long as direct sunlight doesn't shine upon the inner
bark of the tree.
The wigwam was straightforward, with only a bit of coaxing to cinch bark
down around the curved ceiling. Placing bark on the conical lodge was even
quicker. However, we needed forty strong poles for a frame to hold the weight of
the dirt we piled on it. As you might guess, this left almost nothing of a smoke
hole. The smoke had a tough time going out and we had a tough time breathing.
Furthermore, all of those poles sticking out caught considerable rain which
would drip onto us and our bedding. We soon discovered that if we didn't want
rain water gushing into our lodge we would have to dig out an entrance way that
sloped down away from the door. A huge headache to construct, I might add.
By mid September, we were having frosts. I began noticing that in the
mornings, it was much warmer outside than it was in our lodge! I decided we had
built nothing more than an elaborate cold air sink, that was also damp, smoky,
and cramped for two people. Believe it or not, we endured this for over three
months, despite having rain about every other day.
Finally, we said "enough", and chose to dismantle the failed
experiment and build a regular good 'ol down to earth (not in it) conical
lodge. We made it 12 ft. in diameter rather than the 9 ft. we were living in. We
needed only 13 wrist sized poles for a frame. Amazingly we dismantled the old
lodge, moved materials to a location of red pine for winter wind protection, and
built the new lodge in a day's time. The new lodge has almost twice the floor
space, the smoke goes straight out the smoke hole, and it is so well lit, you
can read fine print. It is dry, warm and beautiful. I guess the natives already
Another aspect of primitive life I have been thinking a lot about is food.
Nutrition, diet, methods of obtaining meat, and water have all been hot topics
of discussion within our community. Of course, clear drinking water is essential
for good health, as well as for bathing, cooking, cleaning (cooking and eatingware and clothing) -- also soaking deer hides. Because we don't live next to water,
we have to hike a 1 1/2 mile trip to carry water, and the river is a 3 mile
round trip. Living this way instills a sense that water is valuable, and not to
be wasted. It does become a hardship to walk to the river to bathe when it is
100 degree F, and muggy, and the walk back defeats the trip to begin with. I
quickly realized why aboriginal people chose, whenever possible, to set up camp
next to a lake or river. Without a water source, cleaning self and clothes, and
obtaining drinking water becomes a hardship.
Another reality check is the difficulty in obtaining enough food from the
wild to live here in the 20th century. There are three primary factors that
limit the hunter-gatherer diet right off: (1) the amount of privately owned
land, (2) strict hunting and trapping seasons and (3) strict limitations on
hunting and trapping methods and bag limits. What about plants? Well, getting
fresh wild greens in summer is easy, and does enrich the diet. I used to be
vegetarian, but that is next to impossible in a hunter-gatherer existence. The
best item for living in the north is meat and as much fat as one can get. I have
learned that it is possible to live quite well on spruce tea and meat, as long
as one eats the entire animal. Eating organs and eyes, gives trace amounts of
important minerals and vitamins A & C, not found in muscle. The spruce tea
provides vitamins A and C, which are hard to get in the winter.
Because of the limitations I mentioned earlier, I have had to purchase about
50% of my food. I am learning ways of making wild meat stretch in the diet, one
of which is making a brothy stew and adding some tubers or squash and rice
occasionally. Adding a beaver tail now and then adds great amounts of much
needed fat and is very tasty!
I have tried going on civilized food like rice and beans, peanut butter,
oatmeal and the like, but my energy level was very low. Wild meat is what I have
to have to remain healthy and strong and keep my body temperature regulated in
the cold winter months. This has meant that I am a "reformed vegetarian" eating
only a little plant material.
Because of my change from vegetarian to meat eater, one thing I had to come
to terms with was the fact I would have to kill to get meat. I certainly don't
like the idea of someone else doing the dirty work and buying meat. Most
domestic meat is practically poison anyway. I had to come to terms
psychologically with killing another living being. This would not be difficult
had I been without other rations. However, I was eating well during the summer
and therefore, it made it difficult to think about killing. It seemed that any
other creature is out there doing its best and that I didn't have a right to
pluck it from this world? The closer I got to nature, the more I understood it
hasn't anything to do with rights and everything to do with the circle of life
itself. Life feeds on death whether you are vegetarian or meat eater. It is the
way a sense of respect has formed for the animals I began hunting and trapping
for food. A sense that it would be disrespectful if I didn't use the entire
I remember the occurrence that put me over the edge. I had just dried a
sizeable amount of wild apples, and had tried to keep them varmint proof. After
coming back from a two day trip, they had all been nabbed by chipmunks. It was
the last straw! I set up two deadfalls and became a killer. It's not as
heartless or gruesome as it might sound. Properly set deadfalls and snares kill
an animal quickly and humanely, and without the animal associating being caught
by humans. Perhaps they think they are caught in a bush in the case of a snare,
and in the case of deadfalls, they never know what hit them, because it's over
in a second. Snares and deadfalls are illegal to use in Michigan and most other
states, but I am practicing with them on small game (meal chipmunks) to become
proficient whenever I might need to use them on a wider scale. Deadfalls work on
a mouse or a bear and snares for rabbit to moose.
I am often asked if I ever miss soda pop or candy bars or pizza. Currently, I
don't, but when I was first starting out, I did have cravings. Honestly, I
cannot drink a soda now, because of how sugary sweet it tastes. Wild apples,
blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries, are native sweets and they more than
satisfy me. I also eventually didn't miss salt. Most of the stews I made are
devoid of salt and spices and they still taste good.
I want to say something on food variety. This past summer, I got sick of
peanut butter and cheese sandwiches and could barely choke down black beans and
rice by fall. After trapping season started, and we had beaver to eat, I never
noticed I was eating beaver stew three times a day! It is good.
Food variety is fairly limited in the primitive diet. That does not mean it
isn't a good diet. Studies of pre-contact primitive peoples the world over have
found that these "limited" diets met every body requirement. In the book,
Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, by Weston Price, it was concluded that
these primitives had unbelievable endurance, erect postures and cheerful
personalities. They were found to have excellent bone structure and well
developed jaw and teeth free from decay. In case after case, Price found no
incidence of cancer, ulcers, tuberculosis, heart or kidney disease, high blood
pressure, muscular dystrophy or sclerosis or cerebral palsy.
Price also spoke of these primitive societies having no
psychiatrists, no crime, no prisons, no mental illness, alcoholism or drug
addiction. Every baby was nursed by its mother, and there were no neglected
children. In other words, physical health went hand in hand with mental and
The Hunzas, who were living in the Himalayas, were studied by an English
physician named Robert McCanison. The results mirrored those found by Price. It
was said a Hunza messenger could carry a message to a village 35 miles away and
return the same day with no signs of fatigue!
Other groups of aboriginal people studied by doctors in pre-contact periods
also agree with Price's findings.
Of course we all know too well that the modern diet and lifestyle results in
exactly the opposite effects as found in the primitive peoples.
Another question I am asked, especially by girls and women, is "where do you
go to the bathroom?" I think they are politely asking what does one use in place
of t.p. Well, hygiene in the wild is pretty important in order to stay healthy
and, like all things, mother nature provides for every necessary need. Moist
leaves on the forest floor do quite well, and sphagnum moss (which has
anti-septic qualities) is even better. Snow works during the white season. After
taking daily trips to the woods when "nature calls" I can say that most any
bathroom or outhouse seems smelly and unsanitary to me. Besides, when I "go" to
the woods, I am closing the circle, giving something back if you will. It can
really become something of a ritual.
When you're back in the woods, hygiene is an important factor of all-around
health. Keeping camp clean and picked up and keeping yourself clean is a
priority. Having a river or lake to take occasional swims during warm seasons is
refreshing and also allows easy cleaning of cooking and eating bowls. We have a
sweat lodge where periodic sweats are taken. This is tremendous at removing dirt
and grease from the body and hair and also helps clean any toxins from the skin.
I have never felt cleaner or more refreshed than after taking a sweat!
Since I have broken the "civilized" habit of daily showers using synthetic
soaps and shampoos my hair and skin feel much better. No more itchy, dry skin.
In fact, taking daily baths washes oils from the skin that are necessary for
vitamin D production in the body. At any rate, body oils and odor seem to
stabilize after a few months in the woods. Waiting for greasy hair to
"stabilize" was trying, but once it did my hair has been very healthy.
There are a number of myths about our primitive ancestors perpetuated by
modern civilized people. These are often directed toward me when the topic of
"what do you do these days?" comes up. Then, "Don't you know those people died
before they turned 40?!" Me: "I seriously doubt that the human species would
still be around if all people died that early and even if they did, I would
rather live a free and full life in the wild and die at 40 than live a
desperate, seared and isolated existence of 80 years. Then, "Your teeth will
fall out and you'll get cataracts!" Me: "My teeth have never been healthier,
especially since I am not eating junk anymore, and my eyes ...I'll drink some
willow tea, it's supposed to prevent cataracts." Them: "It must be miserable
living in a tipi in the winter and so cold!" Me: "Yes, it does get cold, but I
feel great and invigorated staying in my tipi. Fresh air always at my nose, a
nice warm fire with meat cooking, looking up at the stars as I go to sleep -- no, I
wouldn't trade tipi life for any house."
I could go on with the years of myths that crowd our minds concerning the
natural life. I have to meet my own doubts and myths head-on. I believe that
most aboriginal people lived long, healthy and joyous lives. Sure, there were
hardships and heartaches. If there wasn't some adversities and struggle it
wouldn't be much of a life, and how would one learn about the right ways and
wrong ways to do things?
Modern society and its disdain for the primitive do something that always
seems to be just over the ridge. It is impossible to hide from its ever
searching eye and I am often humming Greg Brown's song "Ain't there no place
away...." I can't put my finger on it exactly, but fear and misinformation has
bred a gargantuate monster of regulations, laws and codes that can be
aggravating to the would-be primitive. I've already spoken of hunting/trapping
limitations with DNR officials who are armed to the teeth. I may be a bit
paranoid, but after we had built our lodges, it seemed that air traffic directly
over our shelters picked up immensely. Maybe just intrigued pilots or maybe some
surveillance by government officials? Several times we've had groups of F-16
fighter jets storm the tree tops above our lodges.
It is not only being watched and the hunting regulations that aggravate me,
but there is also the issue of housing codes and zoning nightmares. Social
Services once threatened friends of mine who were residing in a wigwam with
their children that the children would be taken away unless they were in a house
that met zoning codes. This meant they had to have tar paper on the roof, a
wooden floor, no open fire, and a thing called a "rat wall."
There is an immense need for education on this issue of primitive living.
U.S. History classes are now incorporating study of lifestyles previous to
European contact. I have started going to elementary schools to talk with
children about what it is like to live aboriginally and to demonstrate making
fire and cordage; the items I use in daily life. The children really take to
this, and have many questions they want answered. Adults too are interested,
many I thought unlikely to be intrigued about the lifestyle I am living. Just
yesterday, my mother told me she had gone to the dentist, same dentist I went to
as a kid, and he asked what I was doing. Mom said he was thrilled when she told
him, and he excitedly said he had always wanted to do something like that (i.e.,
wilderness living). With adults, the response is usually either "you're going to
freeze to death" or "how wonderful, I think I will have to make a visit to check
The presence of modern society is a reality that I deal with, not just in
passing, but also when it comes to making ends meet. At this time neither I, nor
anyone else I know of, can live primitively 100%. I do think it will be possible
in the future. For now, there are land taxes (the community recently purchased
land -- with a river on it!), automobile costs, and car insurance (very costly), and
extra food costs. I have been doing some construction and masonry work part time
to enable me to meet these expenses, yet also continue pursuing the primitive
lifestyle almost full time. I have started giving demonstrations on aboriginal
living at schools for a fee, and this is another way I can get income, while
I would much rather share how to do something (i.e. make a bark basket, tan a
skin, etc.) than to make it myself and then sell it to someone who will hang it
on their wall of their half-million dollar house.
When I first embarked on living primitive, I wanted to be able to live it
full time without needing a car or extra food. For now, the reality is that I
need income, just a little, to make ends meet.
The reality of land is also important. We as a community didn't (don't) like
the idea of "owning" land. What it boils down to is either be willing to be
nomadic in national forests or buy land or have a generous relative. Although
being nomadic on public land has its advantages, for now having a home base and
not have to worry about harassment from DNR and Forest Service officials is the
best choice. After looking a while, we found a great little piece of land for
sale in the wildest area of the entire midwest, surrounded by national forest.
It has a creek and river on it as well. To me it is paradise, and I am looking
forward to moving there soon (June '96). Of course, the flip side is that I am
in debt due to the land purchase. That means more outside work is in order. This
currently is ranging from part time masonry and house remodeling work to giving
talks and demonstrations on aboriginal life at elementary schools. We hope to be
giving workshops on aboriginal living soon.
Some people become disappointed when I tell them I drive a car occasionally,
or that I don't get all of my food from the wild. They have an idealistic sense
of what living with nature is. This seems to stem from what they think a real
"Indian" is or should be. Before I actually went primitive, I also had an
unrealistic view of what it would be like to live primitive.
At present there is no cut and dried dividing line between modern living and
primitive living. It is a grand illusion to think you can totally step from one
world to the other right away. Because of the number of skills and amount of
knowledge needed to live in the wild, I am having to be patient and take the
time to learn. I do not always wear buckskins. I am using cast iron to cook in
until adequate clay pots are made. I own and drive a car to and from certain
hunting areas, to schools, to visit relatives, etc. At some point, I hope to
canoe or walk (most) everywhere. I use wool blankets and a sleeping bag until
enough fur pelts are tanned for a sleeping robe. In other words, the transition
from modern society to a primitive lifestyle is just that, a transition. I have
had to rely on certain non-wilderness products to survive. I am reiterating all
of this because I want to emphasize that this transition takes lots of time,
time to learn skills, time to heal from living in modern society, time to deal
with insecurities, time to adjust to a major lifestyle change.
There is simply no cultural circle in place to help those of us pursuing the
"wilderness way." We have few, if any, elders to learn from. We have been
schooled and prepped from birth for the helter-skelter business world, not the
aboriginal world of
gatherer-hunter. I have had to refrain from being so critical of myself to
avoid becoming discouraged and be accepting and as patient as possible.
I hope this lets the reader know that there isn't a ready-made primitive way
of life waiting once jobs are left and houses are sold, etc., What has been
encouraging for me, is the knowledge that every one's ancestor's (99%+) were
hunter-gatherers. This is our true heritage. As I have moved closer toward a
100% primitive lifestyle, things seem to get easier. Ideas form quicker. A
certain grasp of the whole circle of what living primitive means is being made.
I just have had (and continue) to have the perseverance to believe it is
possible and that I can do it.
I suppose there are levels of freedom these days. In my opinion, going
primitive offers the most freedom possible. At times it exhilarates me and
definitely enhances my life. My life is my own. If I want to go explore a new
wilderness area, I go do it. If I want to go scout for beaver or deer or
whatever, I go do it. If I want to simply sit half of the day in the sun by the
river, I can do that too. I am very flexible with what I can do and when I do
it. This is a part of being free, I believe.
Another aspect I have noticed is my change in sense of time. I am relaxed and
not hurrying around to beat the clock. As I have slowed down, it appears that
there is more time! A wonderful paradox, isn't it? I think less of the future
and live more in the present moment. Time seems to have opened up and
blossomed -- expanded if you will. I feel more into the natural flow of life. This
too is a part of freedom, I believe. Living in the present moment isn't
something I have consciously tried to accomplish, but is gradually and naturally
occurring the longer I am in the woods.
I said I would finish by talking about two aspects of primitive living that
are not found in any skills book, yet, that I believe are essential to success
in long term wilderness living. They are (1) Community (i.e.family, tribe,
friends) and (2) Attitude.
Community, in my eyes, comes before all else. A group of people with common
goals and shared interests is a powerful thing. You become like brothers and
sisters, and care about each other. When someone is hurt or sick, the others
pitch in. If someone is down or depressed, we talk and play music. If a lodge is
to be built, we all help. If someone kills a deer, or traps a beaver, all share
in the meat.
Being in a community is also like a mirror to yourself. Realizing each of us
has come from a messed up society, we each have our own personal hang-ups that
we each work on. We don't always agree on everything in our community, and that
is good because we have to think twice about things and hash them out.
I am thankful for the community we have, though it may be only five people
now. I hope others will be able to form in the near future.
Attitude. It can make or break ya. It is important to know skills like fire
making inside and out, but if you're caught in a rain storm or blizzard or
whatever, and you let the weather get to you psychologically -- it could mean
hypothermia. I am learning that I need a sense of confidence and courage to live
the way I have in the past two years. Many doubts have entered my mind about
what I am doing. I have had to suck it up and get past the fears and let myself
know I can do it. If I fail, I try again. I can't give up on anything and
continue to live primitive. Many things need to be learned. Some wise elder
said, "When you get up in the morning, encourage yourself. No one else will, so
you have to do it for yourself."
A sense of humor is a big part of the right attitude. Mine can get very
sarcastic at times. I deal with the setbacks and compromises with humor -- poking
fun and being sarcastic. Being able to laugh at myself (I do it often) helps a
great deal. When things don't go just the way I've planned, I can either get
down on myself, blame someone else, or laugh at myself or the situation. Having
been through what I have, I can say that laughter is indeed the best medicine.
When I began to live a free lifestyle, my personality also became more free.
Actually I hope I have not been too heavy on the compromises and difficulties
of going primitive. It is difficult to describe the magnitude of feelings of
freedom and awesome sights, sounds, smells that enliven my senses in the woods.
The joys and rewards of this life are not things which can be understood from
talking or reading about them, but are meant to be experienced first hand. So
get out there. Experience it and live it!
I have enjoyed sharing some of my experiences of the past few years in my
journey toward a full primitive lifeway. I hope it has encouraged many of you to
make the break from modern existence. Maybe we will meet someday.