The Earth Skills Correspondence Course is a ten block course that leads students through the skills of wilderness survival, in your own bioregion. It emphasizes the mastery of shelter, water, fire, camp skills, plants and trees, cooking, safety & hazards, attitude & philosophy and instructor training. Ricardo Sierra mentors the course through e-mail, this blog and a private Facebook Group, and students are self-guided. The course provides a wealth of skills and a powerful foundation from which to build and grow in any personal or wilderness study direction.
Get more information about this learning tool here: The Earth Skills Correspondence Course

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Correspondence Course Weekend Retreats 2009

It's almost 2009, and as the year winds down, I am already planning the coming year and beyond. I got the deer processed and hide fleshed and salted, and the skull and horns are being cleaned to be used in councils for Red Deer Camp or men's lodges here at Hawk Circle in the Earth Skills Trainings. It feels good to have meat to offer to my students to share by the fire, or have Trista make an awesome stew or chili. Thank you, deer.

Which brings me to this post. I am thinking of planning three Earth Skills Correspondence Course Weekend Retreats, where students of the course can come here for a weekend, bring their own food, set up a tent or stay in a cabin, and study the skills, have me look over their coursework and give hands-on instruction during the weekend for a few hours on Saturday and a few hours on Sunday. No charge. What do you all think of that?

We get really busy in the spring, because of the Tracking Expedition, the Advanced Bird Language Intensive, the Spring Survival Trek, all kinds of school groups and then camp preparation, staff training and the camps themselves start rolling in June-August. However, I would love to find a way to schedule something in for you all to attend and get some attention and move further in your course. Would something in July work for any of you? How about October or September? I don't like to get too into the late fall because of deer season (archery) but we could also plan something for the last week of November or something too. April might work, if you can make it.

What works for you, people? I can throw out some dates, and see what sticks, but I really don't want to tie up my weekends if no one is actually going to show up. So I need to hear from you! Otherwise, I will work on my timberframing, or cutting firewood, or helping gather wild foods, or plant the garden or any number of gathering, teaching, or building chores that need to get done around here.

The weekends are pretty laid back, with use of our barn room, heated with a wood stove, as well as the tipi, for teaching and practicing skills, and the whole property for gathering and making grass mats, or making stone tools, or gathering wood and making fire from scratch, to cooking, or building a shelter or rock boiling or any number of other cool things that we can work on. And we can hang out, carve by the fire, tell stories and I can share whatever it is you need help with, from mentoring to professional marketing to earth philosophy and more. Basically, it is up to you, in a lot of ways. If there is a way for me to do it, I will teach and share what I can to help you get better.

If you haven't gotten the course yet, this might be a good time, too. It's $450 if you pay in full, until January 15th, and you get the full course, open ended, with no time limit to finish, plus mentoring support, as well as access to me for questions and troubleshooting, and you even get three weekend retreats here at Hawk Circle, to pick my brain and get hands-on skills teaching and advice. How can you go wrong?

Anyway, make a comment on this blog and let me know if you have a preference for a weekend or time of year, and we will move forward on getting the dates rolling!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

My First Buck

I got my first large buck yesterday evening. It was something really significant for me, not because it was about killing anything, but it was about taking a large step closer towards mastery in hunting that has been a long journey in the last six years. It started with Frank Sherwood's Red Deer Hunting Camp class that we offered for two years, and then continued on my own learning....

I've been away for a while, mostly dealing with some health issues with my son, Javier, which you can read about in my Journal, so please excuse the long absence from the Trailhead. But I will post more as soon as I can. I am off to do a sweatlodge of thanksgiving, and will write more as soon as I can.

Okay, I am back. That was a good lodge, very hot, and it is freezing here, about 12 degrees F with 25-40 mile an hour winds blasting across the hills, with light blowing powder snow.... Winter is here! Our hair froze as we left the lodge, and it was refreshing...

So, about the hunt. The first thing I can say is that Hawk Circle is an old farm, where most of the old orchards and fields are overgrown, with all kinds of brush, hawthorne, alders, honeysuckle bushes and dead and dying pines, elms, aspens and poplars. There aren't a lot of clear, open areas that deer avoid, with easy to find transition trails in the brush, that the deer love, (lots of cover). So it is actually hard to know where they are moving through, and where they aren't, and when, too. It is part guesswork, part luck and part detailed observation and tracking.....

I had to wait until I knew the wind was coming from a clear south direction. It had to be a real wind, not just a breezy, shifting wind that changed direction every chance it gets... I found a thicket of tall pines, and lots of brush, and crept up through the crusty snow, step after step, waiting for the wind to pick up, and pausing between each for a few minutes, then moving quickly for ten steps, and waiting longer.

I stalked up the hill, and pulled my collar up, to ward off the wind. It was strong and cold. It was about 3:30 pm and I figured I had about an hour to wait before the deer came down the hill, through the brush, to nibble on fallen apples, small browse and head towards the alfalfa fields a half mile away. The deer on our hill love to spend their days on the ledges above our old orchards, in thick brush where they can see someone coming for a long distance. I leaned back against a young white pine and scanned the woods.

I checked below my spot, too, having been stalked by big deer before, and surprised many times. I didn't think they would come up the hill towards me, but I have grown tired of having them snort twenty yards from me, so I kept my eyes open. Mostly, though, I tried to listen, because the snow was thin and crusty, and I figured I would hear them long before I would see them.

I shifted positions several times, careful to be very quiet. I focused on my breathing, at times, and practiced shifting into wide angle vision. A chickadee hopped around in the brush, picking off tiny insects that were too cold to move, and searched the snow underneath some witch hazel for small seeds shaken out of their hulls. Twice I saw large flocks of Canada geese, winging their way south in a hurry. The flocks must have been about a hundred birds or more, and they were moving fast. I am pretty sure they could sense the oncoming Arctic air moving south.

When the first deer came down the hill, I could hear it very clearly in the cold air. The crunch was unmistakable, and intermittent, which is pretty normal for deer. They are usually a walk, stop, smell, nibble, turn, look around, smell, scratch my ear with my hoof, then step again, stop kind of animal. It was a huge doe, and she stopped under a large apple tree to browse on the branches and bark. I saw her go up on her hind legs to get the higher branches, and while I had a good shot, I knew she wasn't the right deer. It just didn't feel right, so I didn't even lift the gun.

Another deer came a few moments later, also a doe, and also fairly large. I still didn't get that feeling, so I waited, all senses alert. I knew I would have several chances as the deer moved down the hill, because there were several open lanes where I could find a clear path through the brush and pines.

I was surprised a little, because usually, the first deer I see when I am hunkered down in brushy areas are little ones, and they hang around, just giving me ample opportunity with their inexperienced wandering. Bowhunting is usually filled with seeing lots of these little guys, and hoping the larger bucks or does would come instead. Bucks I have seen, but in most cases I screwed something up in the process, scaring them off and missing my chance....

I was waiting patiently, content to let all of the deer walk by if they were all just does. Then I saw the antlers. I am always surprised when I see the antlers, because they seem so white, so obvious, and startlingly distinctive in the woods. Well, I saw these antlers moving like a white flag above the honeysuckle, and my heart raced fast. He stepped behind brush, then bent down and under some low apple trees. Then behind a fallen branch. Then into the open, right along the trail where I sat. Clear path. One shot. He dropped instantly, and the sound of it all sent the other two does scattering down the hill. One of them came very close to where I sat, looking up the hill toward her 'mate'. (Deer don't mate for life. It's more like for a few hours to a few days, until the estrus passes and the does are pregnant. Then, they are on their own. See you later. Good luck raising the kids. That kind of thing. It's not mean or bad. Just the way of the deer.)

Anyway, I flicked the safety back on and put my forehead to the ground in thanksgiving. As I sat there, my heart was racing and then I felt something move into me, or around me. I got up and walked slowly to the deer. He was still, and he looked peaceful, but so strong. So beautiful. I was just in awe. I was talking the whole time, thanking him, explaining how much I appreciated his gift of life, how much his gift meant to me and to my family and to our community and to me as a man. As a hunter.

I touched his shoulder and felt warmth flow up my arms. I could feel something, some sort of energy, flow into me, which sounds weird and lame, but it affected me deeply anyhow. English isn't the sort of languauge that is really good at describing this sort of stuff, so it always comes out cheesy, you know?

I took in everything about him, how he lay, his hooves, his shoulders, his wet nose and his ears lying softly in the snow. I was whispering to him and to the deer people the whole time, and I can't really remember what I said... (actually, I do, but some things are best kept between me and the deer), and then began the process of gutting and carrying him back to the barn. He was big and yet, it seemed to be easier than some deer I remember.

Noah helped me get him back, and we estimated his dressed weight at about 150-175 lbs. Of course, we aren't experts at this, so I couldn't be sure. But he was very good sized, and strong, healthy and well fed, too.

I feel so blessed to have been able to participate in this process, and sad that his days of walking these woods are over. He will become a part of me, and my family and all who share in his gift. He will walk with me each time, and see the woods through my eyes, ears and nose. I hope he will help guide my steps, not just in the woods but in my life, chosing a path of honor and wisdom, stealth and power....

Maybe I am just hoping, but I feel different inside. I am a hunter and I have been accepted into the company of bucks and earned something. I have the rest of my life to figure out what it is. And continue to be worthy of their company.

Thank you, deer.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Passion and Commitment

Most of you who are reading this blog are committed in many ways to learning earth skills, to getting closer to nature, to finding your vision and walking a strong path. I would bet that all of you are passionate about learning and growing, too.

At Hawk Circle, I haven't really pushed the whole 'Passion and Commitment' thing, because I think it can be overused. I think people can beat themselves up over going out to dinner rather than staying home and making acorns. I have seen students become almost immobilized by their worry that they aren't passionate enough. Or committed. Have you seen this?

I guess the bottom line is, for me, anyway, that I don't want someone to feel bad about themselves. I don't think that is the way we are going to really learn our skills. Or atleast, it shouldn't be that way. Because it just doesn't feel good. And if you start to associate not feeling good with wilderness skills, or getting outside, then it is a bad trend.

Guilt trips don't really work. Boot camp doesn't really work, long term. What I have seen work is being inspired. Connecting with that spark that comes from sweet discovery of a new track, or finding an awesome new berry, or making a superb bow. Hearing a story about how native people lived can be inspiring. Hearing stories about one of your friend's camping trips, or newly learned skills, definitely is inspiring!

When I am feeling low, or flat, and I don't feel like I am all that passionate, I do a couple of things. I go visit people I know who are passionate. Like Michael McCarthy, the artist/blacksmith/gardener...(the list goes on and on) and just being around him gets me excited to work on something, anything, again. Or hanging around with Barry Keegan, making any number of crafts. Or just hanging out in the barn with our students, who are always working on a ton of different things.

If no one is around, I will pull a book down that particularly spoke to me, like Barry Lopez's "River Notes" or Ed Abbey's "Desert Solitaire". Rereading certain passages definitely lights a fire under me, and gets me in the right mindset or mood. It just takes a little 'shot' and off I go....

Commitment is just a larger part of this. It says, "Don't give up!" even after I have just blown off a weekend to have down time with the kids. With commitment, it helps to have a long range view rather than looking at every little bump in the road, and to just give yourself a break.

As Carey Odes once said "It's not like the earth got screwed up in a day, or a week or a year. It has been happening for generations, even hundreds of years. We aren't going to say, 'Hey, the earth will all be perfect on Friday. Now what are we going to do next week?'. It just isn't going to happen like that. So everyone just settle down!"

Carey is pretty funny, but he does make a good point. We all need to settle down, and just be committed for the long haul. Recognize that it takes all of us a long time to make effective, real change, and that we will get there sooner by being inspired and loving ourselves, rather than beating ourselves up or feeling guilty.

Okay, I wish that I could magically wave a stick and everyone would change and be passionate instantly, but in the long run, we need to take care of ourselves, and do our best and take it day by day.

Another bit of good advice is something John Stokes, of the Tracking Project, in New Mexico once told me when I was learning my own skills. He said "Just try to practice one thing, a small thing, each day, and you will find that knowledge growing larger and larger, rather than pushing to do everything all at once. It just takes one or two small things to add up fast."

I listened to his words and I started to make a fire with a bow drill, every day. Just one fire, and in six months, I was starting to learn something about fire! I made fire with cedar, with sycamore, with milkweed bowstrings, with cottonwood, willow, alder and elderberry. It was an awesome time and I learned a lot.

That advice is definitely something I am happy to pass on.

Let me know if this helps!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Falling Leaves, Bow Season and Preparing for Earth Skills Training....

Bow Hunting Season just started here in New York, for deer. I have been spending just a little time out there so far, but the season just gets better and better as it goes along! I am enjoying being outside, away from the computer and all of the details of running Hawk Circle and just feeling the woods, smelling the leaves and listening to the sound of geese winging overhead.... I love this time of year! About seventy percent of the leaves have fallen, and winter is coming. Now is the time to get out in the woods!

First of all, we are just wrapping up our Earth Skills Fall Semester here at Hawk Circle, and it has been a great course. The students have made amazing bows, primitive pottery, ash splint pack baskets, beautiful buckskin, and lots more crafts and skills. Today I taught them how to make rawhide lanterns using willows, rawhide and bark, to light their shelters or path through the woods... Good times.

The main thing I wanted to say in this post is that you should make an effort to get out to your shelter and spruce it up for the colder weather. If you get a good awning, a reflector wall, some cattails and dried grasses set up for your shelter and backrest, you should be able to stow some firewood and be ready for camping out even in the coldest weather.

Tip: Bring about 15-20 feet of strong cord that you can use to tie up bundles of grass or firewood lengths, to make them easier to carry. If you use a strong stick (throwing stick?) and tie the bundle to this, you can carry the whole thing over the shoulder, holding on to the stick and not just a bit of string. It lets you walk and see in front of you, so you don't trip, and you can even drag the bundle behind you if it is large and heavy. Safe, easier and smart!

Another thing you can do is to collect moss, dried ferns or even leaves, and stuff them in between the logs in your reflector to keep the wind out. It is not as cold as trying to make survival cement with mud/clay/grass mixtures! Believe me, the time for that type of construction is really behind us. Of course, you can use any unseasonably warm weather is fine if you get it..... and the mud/grass combo is definitely superior to just leaves.

Another tip: Don't leave containers of food in your shelter, if you want to keep mice from chewing it all up looking for a good meal. You can dig a storage pit in the ground near your shelter, covered with a large rock, if you really want to store food and gear out there, but in your shelter, you are just asking for trouble, either from small rodents, bears or even kids crawling in there to check it out.

Okay, that's it for now, but get your shelters done, people, and work on your tree journals, too! Those are always good to get done and they go fast if you just sit down and crank them out after getting your field journals going....

Take care and see you in the woods!


Saturday, September 6, 2008

Time has come to work on your shelter for Fall!

The goldenrod is bright yellow, and chokecherries are ripe. The leaves are starting to dry and curl slightly, though they are mostly still green. The forest is preparing for fall.

Now is the time to make your plans for the fall and the winter, in working through your course curriculum. It is a good time to look over your goals, and set measurable, clear objectives that will help you move forward in your skills and your knowledge and experience. Clarity will bring results! Instead of saying "I really need to get out and work on my skills this fall-that's a goal of mine...." say "This fall, I will sleep in my shelter five times, and complete eight tree or plant journals." (Or whatever course work you are working on.)

You will be surprised at how different your approach will be just by changing your language. The bottom line is: You want to grow. You want to make a difference, and be a role model. You want to find healing and awakening in the immersion of nature. You want new skills.

Whatever your goal or mission, you have to focus on them, and not let your e-mail, or your blog (he he he!) or your favorite distraction get in the way.

The first thing I try to do in preparing for the cold nights of fall and winter is to take note of where cattails, grasses and other insulation is growing in abundance. I pick a dry day and begin the gathering process, making sure to bind the materials loosely and let it dry fully before bundling it tightly for traveling.

I will also look at my firewood resources for the winter, to be sure I have enough to make my campfires for cooking. I build an awesome shelter awning, too, with a comfortable grass mat and backrest, so I can sit, warm and relaxed as I enjoy the evening and cook or work on crafts.

A reflector wall is a must, and if you can pick a warm day, go out and make some survival cement, a mixture of clay, dirt and grasses that, once dry, will seal up the openings in your log or rock wall. You can make your campfire ring awesome too, and you can get your camp fully ready for your campouts and adventures.

Doing these things will get you psyched to head out to the woods whenever you get the chance, because you will know you are going to a place where you will be comfortable, warm and have a positive experience. It really helps when you are working towards your goals!

You are still going to add leaves and materials to your shelter once the leaves actually fall, but getting ready now will get you in the mood for the days to come.

It is an awesome feeling to come out of your warm shelter to a world covered in frost, cold and damp, and have a nice bed of coals to coax into a fire, make a cup of tea and enjoy the way the sunlight turns the frost into trails of mist all around you. You will enjoy knowing that your slept warm and secure, despite the low temperatures, too!

Get ready to enjoy your fall and move into winter, with lots of skills and goals nicely tucked into your journal!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Journaling, Taking Pictures. More Valuable than Gold, with a little Time.....

One thing you will notice about my blog, or the website or my Facebook page about Hawk Circle is this: I have a lot of pictures. Okay, they aren't all magazine quality, but they tell a story in way that shows very quickly, what Hawk Circle is all about, the flavor of our place, the colors of the land, the way the sunlight shines on the beams of the new cabins, etc...... They help a lot.

Story: When I first started studying wilderness skills in earnest, it was 1984, and I was a young pup, with a composition notebook and a thirst to learn. I had a camera that I reluctantly took pictures with, being short on cash for film and developing, and a traveling lifestyle that wasn't compatible with having lots of boxes for storing photo albums and so forth. It was a pain not having a good flash on my old Minolta X-700, so my woods pictures always came out blurry and dark, but I did try. However, I had something in the back of my mind that always seemed to make me even more reluctant to pull out the camera. It was the words of many different native peoples, who seemed to resent people taking their pictures, because in some cases 'their spirit would be captured' or 'it takes a person away from the moment, removes them from experiencing life first hand'. I can relate to that, because in the summer of 1984, I was in Sequoia National Park as part of a BackCountry Trails Program, working for the California Conservation Corps. We were camped in the Big Arroyo, about 20 miles into the heart of the backcountry, building the trail on Kaweah Gap. Our weekdays were filled with rolling stones, building water bars, switchbacks and laying riprap, but our weekends were a time to head for the peaks, or find a lake where we might catch the fabled 'Golden Trout' the region was famous for. One day my friend and I climbed a small, un-named peak, just to get the lay of the land, and when we arrived at the top, we just rested and enjoyed the view. All of a sudden, a gust of wind hit me in the face and a huge golden eagle drifted in the updraft from below us to our eye level. I was staring face to face with a soaring, floating, golden eagle, not fifteen feet from my face. My friend dove into his daypack, trying to find his camera, pull off the lens cap and turn it on, so he could get a picture. I knew he was moving around slowly behind me but I couldn't take my eyes off of the bronze bird still in front of me. Her eyes seemed to pierce right through me, and gave me a strange sensation in my whole body. By the time my friend got his camera ready, the bird dropped and flew away, instantly a hundred yards away, a speck against the granite boulders, cliffs and bristlecone pines. He had missed the magic of the whole scene.

I never took a lot of stock in taking pictures after that, for some time. It just seemed to steal the magic of the moment for me, and I didn't bother as much as I should have, looking back now.

However, I wish I had taken a picture of me with my first shelter, or my first coal burned spoon (it was made from sassafrass, and it was awesome!) or my first class at the Tracker School with all of the instructors (Bear, Frank and Karen Sherwood, John Stokes, Rick and Ruthie, Kurt Folsom and of course, Tom). Having a photo of those days would be so nice right now, to show students of the early days of learning skills and how young we all were as we were learning and teaching, etc.

Your photos are not neccessarily for you, but for your students. For those who will follow in your footsteps, and who will learn and be inspired by the risks and adventures you have. That's why it is important for you to document things, through journaling, too, where you can write down your thoughts of what it was like to track shrews through the Crucible, or swim in the Medicine Waters, or gather milkweed in Indian Valley. Many years from now, you will appreciate your own words in ways that right now, you might barely understand. As a mentor, you will thank me, and I would be remiss if I didn't beg, nag, bother and demand that you do it! In this day of inexpensive digital photography, you just need to do it. And don't go crazy, but find a way to get some good pics, (of you!) and get action shots, or posed shots, whatever you have to do, with close-ups, too.

Journal the date, the time, the weather and the location, and then write from the heart. What was it like to do whatever it was. How did you feel doing it? What did you learn from it, at the time, in the moment? What do you think you learned now, looking back? What would you do differently, if you had to do it again? All of this and more can help you write great entries that are both illuminating and powerful to read, even years later. Your stories will inspire others, believe it or not. Having them documented is very powerful, too. It anchors them, for you as well as your students.

In addition to my lack of photos, I lost a box of about ten journals of nearly ten years of study in one flooded basement. Always store your journals in a safe place, and if you can make copies of them, do it! Don't rely on computers to save the data forever, either!

Anyway, I hope I have made my point, and inspired you in some ways to get started again on your journals and picture taking!

By the way, there is still, like, two spaces left in the awesome wild foods program with Sam Thayer called "Becoming a Gatherer" happening at Hawk Circle September 22-26. Check it out!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Summer Update

Hey all!

Summer is finally winding down here at Hawk Circle, and we are getting ready to head into fall. The goldenrod is starting to turn yellow, a few maples are starting to show color and it won't be long before the apples sweeten and the elderberries are ripe for picking.

The past few months have been busy here, with many campers, guests, great staff and a ton of projects that are slowly transforming our land step by step. We raised two cabins and are in the process of enclosing them and building bunks and beds for everyone to sleep on, and the list of other accomplishments is too long to list. But all were worthwhile and make either the participant, or staff experience more rich and rewarding.

Skills-wise, I have done some flint knapping, carving, some wood craft and lots of tool sharpening among other things. I have also been teaching quite a bit at times, from quick sapling bows to drying meat over the coals of a fire.

I haven't been able to work on my book or get a lot of personal projects done, but that is what the fall and winter are for! And if you are interested in learning more about wild edible plants, as staples for gathering real food sources, check out the workshops we are having here at Hawk Circle with Sam Thayer: Becoming a Gatherer. It's coming up in a little more than a month, in September. Or, if making super soft, strong and luxurious buckskin is more your thing, or you want to tan your next deer hide, check out the Art of Braintanning Buckskin Intensive at the end of September!

Barry is running an intensive too, called The Art of Ash Splint Packbaskets, in mid October, so you chould check that out if you want to go traditional and make a beautiful, strong and amazing pack basket. Barry is the best and you won't be disappointed!

I will have to post some more things here, just to keep this flow going, but until then, I hope you are all enjoying the summer and working on your earth skills!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Earth Skills Course Student Questions

Hey All,

Not long ago, one of the Earth Skills students sent me the following questions that deal with skills that are part of the Earth Skills Correspondence Course. They are great and I figured that since I wrote back and answered them, I might as well share them with you all too, so we could all benefit! So, without further ado, here they are!

Question 1: Weather - I'm having a heck of a time learning clouds - do you have any learning devices that help? I feel I'm just going by rote memory - read the book, look at the sky, and then try to memorize both for later reference - days pass and I'm looking at the sky unable to remember is that a 'this cloud' or a 'that cloud'?! Any thoughts on what to learn first and how?

Answer: As far as the clouds go, lately we have had a plethora of cumullous, mostly. With a few altocummulous, and some cirrus far above when the sky actually clears. The weather has been in a very humid pattern in the past three weeks, and although today was very clear and dry, it is a rare day indeed! The bottom line is, don't worry about being right so much as try to determine if the clouds are local, holding a lot of moisture, part of a larger, regional system or front and at what level are they in the atmosphere (low, alto, stratus, etc.) This will really help you make some better predictions and understand what is going on. Weather is tricky, and I will try to think about how I can help you further. Damn it, so much of it comes down to awareness, doesn't it? Paying attention to the little things, all of the time. It can be very frustrating and it isn't easy. Trista gets annoyed sometimes because she will say, 'should I water the garden? The weather report says it is going to rain....?' Sometimes I say yes, because I just know it isn't going to rain until tomorrow. When I am right, she doesn't know how I know.... other times, she will ask me and I will say 'I don't know', and she will keep asking me, thinking I am fooling around or holding out on her. At those times, I really don't know what is going to happen! There are so many variables that it is tough to predict. Sometimes I just don't know, and other times, I do. It is just part of learning and guessing and seeing what happens and feeling it out, too. But keep a weather journal, and try to look at the weather as a system, not just individual clouds, and that will help.

Question 2: Snow on Shelters in Winter. This question was inspired by a post on one of your blogs - snow on a debris shelter in the winter - if you're confident in the shelters strength (good ribbing and ridge pole - lots of leaf matter, etc) - should the snow that falls on the shelter stay or be removed??

Answer: As far as shelters go, yes, I would keep snow on the shelter, as long as the ridgepole is strong enough. If the sides are steep, it is good too, because the weight is decreased too. However, in the winter, your shelter is usually built a lot stronger to hold the overall weight of the debris and the snow too, it is usually okay. On the other hand, if you get five feet of snow, especially wet snow, you might want to take some of it off. One thing you have to remember is that snow, once it lands, sets and cools, it will conform to the new shape and then it will begin to hold that shape. If your shelter is built right, it will be naturally domed, and the snow will be in the same shape, and even as it increases, it is still in the right shape, with the weight transferred to the ground equally..... The snow beneath usually will allow the new snow to be supported by it's own strength and structure.... I don't know if you are getting all of this, but basically, you generally don't have to worry too much if you build it right to begin with. A bigger issue in winter shelters is making sure you have good air vents. And believe me, a snow covered debris hut is a lot warmer than one without snow, because of the awesome insulation factored in.... Just make sure you have air! And you want to make sure you get way off of the ground, too. That ground is super cold, so stay away from it!
Question 3: On cordage - do you have a good resource about the various plants used for cordage and when is a good time, better time and bad time to collect the plant material? Tree bark - good in the fall, okay in the summer? what about nettles? or cattail leaves? It would be nice if the resource also noted what materials might be good for what projects - cattail (from what I've read) in not as strong as tree bark - how to process each plant would be great too! Too much to ask for from one book?!

Answer: The answer to this question is, yes, but it isn't published yet! I am working on a book that will be titled "The Hawk Circle Guide to Useful Survival Plants" and it will feature cordage plants and trees in great detail. It is hard to say when it will be finished and published, but I am hoping for a year from now, so keep your fingers crossed! You can find some info on cordage plants in the Tom Brown Field Guide to Wilderness Survival, as there are a lot of plants and trees listed in the back of that one that can help, but I am not sure if they are listed in terms of when to gather them, how to store them, etc. That is coming in my book, just so you know. If you want to work on it, though, start with plants that you can actually gather and use now, such as cattail leaves, (long ones, dried first, then soak and twist....) or gather nettles and dry them as well, and then pull the fibers off or 'ret' them in water to help them pull off easier.... Good articles for cordage are in the Bulletin of Primitive Technology issues and we have a full set in our library here at Hawk Circle which you can check out the next time you are in the area....

Question #4: Fire, Tree Identification and Gathering Wood I think I'm learning from my mistakes - which seem to mostly be aboutthe wood I'm using or the size of the notch in the fire board. I pick up wood here and there for a fireboard or spindle - carve and see what I can get in the way of a coal - but I'm not very good at identifying wood on the ground - I wan to pick the better woods/easier woods and with a guide book I'm SLOWLY learning a few good 'fire' trees and trying to pick up wood near them but it seems I need some work on ID-ing wood that is not attached to a tree.

And maybe it's just that different woods in different combinations need different techniques on different days (due to humidity, etc) to get a good coal - which is where the notch seems to play a factor - I will get a coal quickly with one spindle on one day (still have a good notch hole and room in the hole/notch for another try) and the next day with a different spindle get nothing but smoke.

I'm not giving up!! I'll get this skill one way or another.

Answer: On the issue of trees and fire wood sources, I can only say that you can just keep identifying as many trees as you can, starting with the ones you know, sort of, and get to know them really well, first. You just need to start making positive identifications using field guides, and then your confidence will begin to grow. There are a lot of variations in leaf size, bark color and shapes and texture, that it is easy to get confused by a lot of trees, and the wood that is dead or on the ground can be tough to identify too, so you just need to keep paying attention to each wood and it's unique characteristics as you carve. That way, you will start to figure it out more and more. I learned a lot by splitting wood as a kid for our four cords of wood for the woodstove. At the time I hated having to do it as a chore, but one thing it taught me was to tell different woods apart by the barks and the wood color inside. Sometimes it was just easy to tell what it was by how it split, so that helped too. One by one I started to get to know little differences and be able to pay attention to those as I walked around in the woods or in the woodpile. I don't know if this helps, but you just have to go slow and take it a few trees at time and don't get overwhelmed. You will figure it out, and you are already ahead of the game, you just don't know it yet. It takes a while to build up a 'tree awareness knowledge' database from which to draw on, and make hypotheses' about which wood is what. I still make mistakes too, once in a while with a wood with no bark and just a bare branch.... It's all good! Humidity plays a huge role in East Coast fire making. Letting a bow and drill set sit around in a damp place can make a large difference in whether you get a fire going. So your practice and learning is proving that. You can practice with a set that is damp and already carved and see if it is getting a fire, and if not, try carving a new set and see if you can get it. You can also put it on the dashboard of your car and see if you can dry it out, then try it. If you get the fire, you will know that humidity is playing a part here. The other issue that you can think about is your already started hole/notch. Sometimes there is so much friction on the sides of the drill as it goes down in the hole, that you can't get the speed and heat in the bottom, where the dust and the heat is needed most. If that is the case, carve the sides of the drill slightly, so it will be smaller than the already burned in hole. It doesn't have to be extreme, but just a little smaller will make a huge difference in where the heat and friction is coming. And, it is a lot easier to push and spin, too... We call this 'shouldering' the drill, and it is a very important trick. Finally, there is a test that we give our campers sometimes, where we take their carved bow drill set and dump it in water for three or four minutes, then give it back to them to make a fire. At first they are freaking out and depressed, but then they start working to see if they can get it. If they heat up the drill and fireboard a few times, then stop, even for short bursts, the heat from their efforts can actually dry out the wood enough to get it to ignite in just a few minutes. Sometimes they carve off the damp wood too.

Okay, enough Q & A! Let me know if you liked these and if they were helpful for the course!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Shelters, Long Term

Recently Barry Keegan and I were talking as we were cutting the frame for our latest cabins here at Hawk Circle, about the nature of shelter. It was interesting, because we were talking about the longevity of shelters, how they have evolved through the ages and how it felt to be timber framing rather than peeling bark for a longhouse or wigwam or other native structure. Barry liked the idea of putting energy into the beams and frame, knowing that the cabin would likely live on past our own lives, to shelter campers and students well into the next generation if given proper care and maintenance.

On the other hand, a wigwam or longhouse has to undergo lots of repairs after about twelve to fifteen years, just due mostly to the constant contact with moisture and the nature of the bark, poles and lashings.

I made the point that it is much different building native shelters today, as compared to three hundred years ago, because then, you could find any number of huge elms, basswood and hickory trees, in a climax forest, and you could peel one or two trees and have all of the bark you could want, in huge sheets, ready to lash onto a sturdy frame. The Dutch Elm disease hadn't hit, and the forests hadn't been cleared by pioneers looking to farm the New World, as they liked to call it. Cherry Valley looked like Wales or Ireland only as far back as 70-90 years ago!

Now, it is hard work finding big elms for peeling, or basswood or tulip poplar, and we have to travel miles, peel it, transport it, store it carefully and then soak it for days to get it to form onto our shelters, often made at nature centers miles and miles from Hawk Circle. Much harder work!

Anyway, it was a good conversation, and it led to good thinking. Food for thought, as they say.

We are in the process of developing a Sustainability Apprenticeship, where adult students or homeschooled highschool age students could come and learn by doing, making timber framed cabins, learn about organic gardening, composting, caring for small livestock, gathering and processing foods, natural building like cob construction, cordwood masonry, straw bale construction, blacksmithing, tool care and use and much more. It is looking like it will be a practical approach to community living and sustainable methods, with a dose of cooking, baking, wild medicinals and even knitting thrown in for good measure.

I am really excited, because it could be a great way for students who want to take our Earth Skills Semesters to earn credit towards a course, and learn strong life skills too, and be part of our community. It looks like a win win, which I love!

Anyway, I will keep you posted and until then, I hope you are all enjoying the summer and getting outside and practicing your skills from time to time!


Friday, May 23, 2008

Things that are Hard; Things that Open the Heart

Some things are hard in this world.

It is hard to see your kids struggle, learning to deal with friends, or the pressures of school or to find their way.

It is hard to keep up with the changes that are occurring in our rapidly changing technological world.

It is hard to pay $4.15 for a gallon of gas, not knowing where the money will come from to make up the difference in the family budget.

It is hard to see someone you love suffering from poor health, like cancer or a relentless degenerative disease.

When I look at the faces of native people photographed by Edward Curtis, I can see the eyes of people who have seen things that are hard to bear. They leave lines etched like bird tracks in the sand, tracks that tell of pain, of love and things lost that are dear to them. I feel connected to them, and I wish I could sit with some of those people, long gone from this world now, to share a morsel of food, even if it was in silence. The weight of the world's sorrows might hang around us, settling like thick dust, choking us in grief.

However, I see, no, I feel, more hope rise up within me, protesting and shaking off the ashes of fires long gone.

"Look at the sunset! Or that tree covered in blossoms! There is so much promise in this life, and this world is beautiful beyond reckoning...."

I don't mean to belittle the pain and hardships of life. I don't think it is right, nor do I wish to gloss over it, rushing, to get to some new place in a hurry. I didn't do that in Death Valley, either. In fact, I spent time savoring the heat, the dry air and the almost purifying absence of succulent life. I wanted to know what it felt like, what it did to my skin, my perception, my mind and soul.

What I found was, even in that desolate place, covered in rocks and dead plants and spiny scorpions and scaly snakes, there was joy and beauty and hope and promise. There was a cleansing power that scrubbed my soul with hot sand. And it was good. Really good.

Nature can cleanse our hearts and our minds, and restore us in ways that books, t.v., talk therapy and other substitutes can't touch. It just works. And why wouldn't it work? It is us. Time spent in nature, submersed in her sounds, our senses flooded with birdsong, wind, stars and the scent of pines all combine to renew us.

Watching my son tell a new joke or make something he couldn't do before melts my heart and makes me so grateful to be alive, despite the hardships.

Waking to the sound of birdsong can bring tears to my eyes.

Sharing a meal of color, spices and friendships is also healing and appreciated.

Talking about current events with peers brightens my day, despite the fact that it is mostly words whisked away in the breeze, to disperse and vanish with nothing to show for it. Maybe it is just practice, in thinking, of all things!

Making a fire without matches and sharing it with friends. Warmth. Light. Crackling wood and hissing of steam.

Music. It opens my heart in ways I can't express.

Working with a team of people towards a common goal. Getting things done, together. Yeah!

Hugging someone you love.

So, what is my point? Where am I going with all of this?

I don't know, really, but I am grateful to be alive. To be here, feeling both ends of the spectrum.

I am thankful, and to everyone, everything in this Universe, I say, simply: Thank you.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mental Toughness: The essential ingredient

Earth skills don't come easy. I won't pretend that they do. Making fire takes having a fire inside of you that won't go out because your hands are sore, or you have trouble finding wood or the drill keeps popping out of the fireboard socket or handhold.

Gaining a real skill is more than making fire once or twice with dry wood cut from a fence post. You have to do it over and over, honing your skill, fixing your mistakes, learning and discovering and experimenting as you think of new ways to get good.

I haven't even gotten to the blindfolded part yet.

So, what is the difference between people who are casually interested in learning earth skills, and those who are serious? For one thing, serious students are passionate. They have a fierce desire that laughs at obstacles that get in the way of all of us from time to time. People who are passionate keep sight of their goals and don't get distracted by the little things that steal our time and our focus. Honestly, you have to learn to nurture this passion and feed that desire. It isn't easy. One way to do this is to write down your goals. Then keep track of each time you work towards that goal, in the form of notes, in your journals. (The Correspondence Course uses this technique to help you see your own progress towards your goals!)

Think of it like this: In addition to building your physical strengths, (to make a fire, to build a shelter, or dig out a spring, etc), you also have to build your mental strengths.

This is hard to do in our world today. Everyone wants results now, easy, on demand, take out, eat in, whatever, which is stuff that doesn't build mental toughness. I am not saying it is easy to live in this crazy world at times, but much of the cultural clutter doesn't help build mental strength.

Meditation is one way to clear the mind and build focusing skills. Lots of people know about meditation, but how many of you really take the time to sit or stand still, quietly, and let go of everything but the goal? Yeah, that's what I thought! Not many. However, all it takes is a few moments, deep breathing and a clear goal! Try it before you practice your skills next time you practice.... Let me know if you feel or see a difference.

Another way to build mental strength is what I call "the inner buffalo". The natives have a saying that goes "You can pretty much lead a buffalo anywhere he wants to go." Which means that buffalo can be immovable if they so choose. Stubborn. Unwavering. A dust storm, or snow, or intense heat barely registers or breaks their concentration. They are solid. They are strong. They will go through obstacles, if need be. And they are beautiful and powerful animals.

I remember when I was learning to build shelters, in the early days. I was living in San Luis Obispo, and working for the California Conservation Corps, and it was 1984. I was twenty years old, fresh out of Tom Brown Jr.'s Standard Course in wilderness survival skills. One weekend, I had planned to go out and build a shelter and sleep in it for a night or two, for the practice and to see if it would work out. But I woke to heavy coastal rain showers, and I was discouraged. I looked out at the rain from my cabin, and tried to think of what I could do inside. More fire, or make cordage or read some plant books.... good but those weren't my goals. I could do them anytime, during the week. I was about to give up and start working on fire skills, when my inner buffalo got going. No, it said. I can still practice, even in the rain, if I make a shelter fast, with an awning or porch roof. Then I can do all of those other skills at my shelter, in the rain, where it is real. I just have to do it fast. I packed my gear, first aid kit, flashlight, etc along with some food, put on my rain gear and headed out. My friends thought I was nuts and begged me to come to the movies instead. I vanished into the woods, and a half hour later, I was building my shelter. Eucalyptus trees, poles, cottonwood and alder leaves, and lots of willow. Sandy soil around the banks of a small stream. It took me longer than I thought to get my shelter to stop dripping and shed water, but I learned a lot about building in the rain. Yes, it is hard to see when your glasses are covered in drips and water is coursing down your back. And it is hard to recognize poison oak when you take your glasses off! (No, I didn't get poison oak. This time.) Anyway, I got my shelter done, and then I ran back to my cabin for a hot shower and new clothes. (Hypothermia prevention!) Then I headed back out, gathering tules and cattails for bedding and lots of firewood. It turned out to be a great campout, even with a smoky fire and damp shelter, but I learned a lot. Not just about shelters, but about myself, and how I almost talked myself out of going out. My inner stubborness beat out my inner couch potato, who loves creature comforts.
Now, don't get me wrong! It is okay to take it easy sometimes. To rest, rejuvenate and relax is very important, and sometimes we all need to sit on our eggs, so to speak, like the wild turkeys are doing on the hill here at Hawk Circle! You can get a lot of good thinking done, integrating your experiences and reconnecting with friends and family, which is important.

Anyway, the last thing I will add in terms of getting stronger mentally is being positive. It's all about choosing to think positively about your situation, and being thankful for what you have, what you have been given, and believing in yourself, in your skills and life. There is a great power to doing this, and it takes time, but with perseverance, you can see tremendous results. I will tell some good stories about some of the ways I learned this in another post, but trust me, it is key to building that inner strength.

I'll also add discipline, because it is one way to organize your learning and growing to reach your goals, but that is probably my weakest link in the whole process personally. Let's just say that having kids, family, lawns to mow, projects and a crazy schedule all could use a little more discipline! (My mom sent me to a Waldorf School, not West Point. Just the way it goes....)

Hope you are all having a great spring!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Trees: Giving the Gifts that Keep on Giving

One of the things that sometimes surprises people when they start the Earth Skills Course is the emphasis on learning trees. There are journals, observations, sketching and descriptions. There is ample time for field study dedicated to our tall forest brethren.

Of course, once you stop and think about it, trees are so crucial, so vital and so amazing, you realize that it would be virtually impossible to get close to nature, using native skills, without learning and getting to know them.

Right now, we are tapping four maple trees for sap, and we are literally drinking the sweet blood of those trees. I am cutting the beams for the camp cabins, which are white pine and tamarack, and carving pegs of red maple, oak and white ash to hold the frame together. Barry Keegan, our head instructor, has probably about 200 hickory, elm and locust bow staves seasoning in our barn, and our Earth Skills Semester students just cut some white cedar that had fallen in the last storm to dry for coal burning, bow drills and hand drill fires.

We burn cherry, beech, birch and sugar maple in our wood stoves, to keep us warm, and carve traps from viburnum, nannyberry and buckthorn. Cedar and aspen make great fire boards for making friction fires, and tulip poplar bark is awesome for tinder bundles. I could go on and on and on....

It isn't easy learning about trees you don't know at first. I mean, you have to use field guides and then learn to observe very closely things that most people miss. How does the leaf attach to the twig? What is the predominant bark pattern and color? Is there a unique signature shape to the way the tree grows? How does it smell and feel? (The bark, leaves and branches.) All of these come with time spent studying, observing and living with them every day, or as much as you can accomplish with them on your field trips and camp outs.

One thing I have discovered is that you can't learn much about a person if you don't spend any time with them. Well, the same is true for trees. You have to carve the wood. Use it to pound stakes or split firewood. Burn it and see how long it lasts. Bend it for a bow, coal burn it for a throwing stick or spoon. Sit under it and see how the light and shadows play against your skin. Listen to see which birds like to creep upside down along the bark, searching for caterpillars, sap or hollows to build a nest.....

If you find you are having trouble getting motivated in learning as much as you can about your trees, just imagine what our survival would be like without wood. Without shade, oxygen and protection. It always makes me appreciate their steadfast help, their beauty and their friendship in my times of need.

The least I can do is learn as much as I can about them!

On the other hand, it can still be intimidating!

If that is the case, try heading out to a botanical garden, and call ahead to find a time when one of the staff is free for a tour. Maybe you would like to volunteer for an afternoon, in exchange for additional learning. Usually, they can introduce you to a ton of different trees and help you see their differences side by side, and give you a first hand look, without getting you caught up in field guide anxiety.

Any of you out there reading this have any tips to share with the rest of the readers? Feel free to comment and let us in on your secret easy way to get to know our trees! Or just let me know if this post was helpful in any way.

Have a great day! I am off to boil down the sap for some sweet maple syrup!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Awareness, Sensitivity and Paul McKenna

A couple of weeks ago, I was taking a late night break from writing and saw a show on TLC called I Can Make You Thin with Paul McKenna. It centered on the idea that you can begin to lose weight if you slow down as you eat, chew, taste and savor your food and stop eating when you are full.

I really enjoyed the show, which was very clearly laid out and presented with a positive, hopeful manner. I especially enjoyed thinking about food, and how I can get so busy, stressed and hurried that I lose my sensitivity to my own body sometimes.

I began to consciously slow down as I ate for the next few days/weeks, and tried to follow the advice of McKenna. What I found was really empowering. I began to eat about a third of what I used to eat, and really became tuned in to what being full felt like. I am hesitating to share this to the entire blog world, because it is personal, but I am just going to go for it on the chance that it might help any of you reading this, as it is very worthwhile!

Anyway, it has been almost three weeks and I feel really good about what and how I have been eating, and the changes have been subtle but very real. I like how I feel and I like the fact that I become attuned to my body again after many years of working too hard, too long, under considerable stress and all that.

Why I am sharing this, beyond my own personal growth, is that much of the learning and awareness of the Earth Skills Course, or any natural/wilderness learning experience is really similar. When we learn to listen to the sound of a bow and drill rubbing and spinning, really listen to it with a deep awareness, we begin to know how to respond quickly to allow us to get a fire more easily. When we become aware of the smell of thick leaves, we can find a good shelter location faster. When we slow down and take the time to cook our food over an open fire on a campout, we allow our minds to integrate all of the information that we are bombarded with on a daily level and we can begin to experience a deeper relaxation, more healing sleep and a greater quality of life. I am sure you get the point. The bottom line is that this awareness and sensitivity is vitally important to helping us in all areas of our lives....

For me, having learned many of these skills of awareness long ago, I don't experience them now the way I did the first time I learned to track. I am usually the one doing the teaching, and it has been a while since I was on the other end of the 'revelation' or life changing experience. It was really a treat to discover that a valuable awarenesslesson awaited me on late night television, and I continue to enjoy the process. I will let you know how it goes from time to time, and if any of you are carrying some extra weight around like me, check out the show if you get a chance. I would love to hear your thoughts and responses, too.

Have a great week! I am off to the tracking expedition we are running in Cape Cod next week, and it should be awesome!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Changing Weather in Survival

In the past two weeks, the weather here has been crazy. Sunny, balmy and close to sixty degrees F for one or two days, then the temperature plummets to fifteen degrees, followed by two days of cold rain. Then, six inches of wet snow, high winds and cold damp air around thirty five degrees. Then, back up to fifty or sixty.

It has been like this for a while, and it is typical of the late winter/early spring weather in the northeast. Most of us just throw another log on the fire, complain about the mud or slush and go on about our business.

However, to a person studying the skills of survival, it makes you think. "There's some fresh snow on the ground, no leaves or debris, and the snow is wet and melting fast. What should I do for a shelter?"

How do you predict the weather, and how much firewood should you gather? What sort of insulation could you find that will keep you warm and alive should you need to make your own shelter under these extreme conditions?

I can't tell you any formula that will work every time, and I can also add that this season is definitely for advanced students! However, here is some advice that might help, should you need it.

One: Always make sure your shelter can withstand a heavy snow load. This means building a strong framework, extra strong, actually, and try to double or triple your debris layer. Have you ever tried to lift wet snow when shoveling? It is really really heavy. So don't fool around when making your frame thick and sturdy!

Two: Gather materials when the weather is good. This is obvious, but it does tend to go against human nature. When the weather breaks, it seems like we should play, have fun, wander and explore. But you really have to buckle down and remember that tomorrow it could be super cold and windy, and you need to get firewood, grass, leaves, branches, whatever, just in case. Plan for the worst and hope for the best, is a good policy at this time of the year. Or, pay the price later, and I'm not talking about charging up your credit cards, baby.

Wool shirt-$70
Lakota Knife$125
Spending a night in a wet shelter, losing three toes to hypothermia-Priceless!

Ha ha ha, yeah, it's not so funny, is it?!!!

Three: You might have to travel to find a good location for a shelter. One thing to remember is that it is sometimes better to build a shelter in a location with lots of materials for firewood, debris, than to try to transport those materials to your 'preferred location'. Look for natural shelters, fallen trees, rocky outcropping, whatever you can use to protect you from the wind, the wet snow, and stay high and dry against flooding and water.

Four: Wear wool! Your gear is going to get wet, dirty, muddy, frozen and trashed. Make sure you have lots of dry gear to change into if you get wet too. Remember that fires are a pain when the wind is really blowing hard, in terms of smoke, sparks, firewood flaring up and burning three times as fast, etc.

Five: Be Careful! Snow is slippery. Slush is slippery. Mud, underneath the snow, is slippery. Wet logs underneath the snow/slush are very slippery. Tons of trees blow down at this time of year, and it is easy to get hurt if you start to get careless in the woods. Stay safe and have plenty of good, high energy foods to go along with the right gear and you can actually learn to enjoy this crazy time of the year. If you are out there, remember that the robins and other birds arriving early are having the same experience, so at least you have company!

I will be working on a book on Primitive Winter Shelters and Survival in this coming year, and should be filming a number of unusual shelters that are especially awesome for this time of year, so stay tuned! If you want to get involved in helping to build or film any of them, please let me know. I'll let you know more come November next year.

Enjoy this crazy spring weather!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Mentors: The Value of Access

When I first started taking classes with Tom Brown, Jr. and his instructors, I was a little starstruck, and new to many of the skills being taught and shared. I hadn't done enough of my own learning and struggling to know what to ask, so I mostly I just kept quiet, took a lot of notes and tried to work hard...

As I practiced, I began to find questions. I would hit little walls, get stuck, whatever, and I saved them to ask Tom or Frank Sherwood, or John Stokes when I next saw them at a class. (Yeah, this was way before e-mail- and yes, I am that old!)

It was then that having access to the experience, wisdom and help had intense value. It helped me grow much faster, and each conversation fostered relationships that exist to this day. In general, people who have taken a skill to a high level enjoy students who are heading in the same direciton. While it isn't exactly a peer relationship, there is a growing respect for the effort and time that each person has put in. It is something that happens in business, in science, in sports and in our field of wilderness education.

This is why the course costs more than the cost to write and print and mail the program. It is the mentoring you are actually supporting, and this mentoring is available to you for life. Well, for my life, basically! And it isn't a light gesture. It is a key ingredient in helping you grow, if you choose to use it.

The ten blocks of the Earth Skills Course are intense. They cover a tremendous amount of experience, reading, journaling and effort to complete, and the mentoring to help you through it is there for you. And you don't have to wait for months to get answers to your questions!

When you have your own students someday, know that they will value your time and effort and relationship as well, and the circle will be complete!

Overcoming Our Mental Blocks

There is a time in my skills practice where I get stuck. It's familiar by now, and I can feel it coming now, instead of realizing it three weeks late.

Some people call it hitting the wall. Writers call it 'writer's block'. Athletes call it 'the plateau', where no matter how much you try, you just can't get over your perceived limits in lifting weights, or running times, or whatever it is you are working on.

Well, it is true with wilderness skills too. For some people, it is about getting outside, sleeping in their shelter, making a fire, etc. Others have a fear of failure in learning something new and worrying that it will be too difficult to master. Or it can be just hard to fight the inevitable pull of computers, video games, hanging out with family and friends, or doing other chores and projects.

I know pretty much all of the above.

Can you tell when you are avoiding something? For me, it shows up when I start doing all kinds of projects that I usually don't like to do, which I use as an excuse for not doing whatever skill I am being blocked on! For example, I will suddenly start cleaning the laundry room, or the basement, or cleaning out my car, (something I usually avoid because I am 'too busy'!) instead of figuring out my skill or life problem.

I know my inner process. I know that I will avoid things that might have bad news associated, or might not look like I know what I am doing. One time I just didn't go back to my shelter because I knew it wasn't really built right. It leaked. It wasn't warm. It needed to be rebuilt and done over. It was a lot of work and I just didn't want to deal with it.

Another skill where I had a mental block was flint knapping. I was fine with making stone tools for survival uses, but I didn't know how to make good arrowheads, points, knives, etc. At least, nothing that looked like authentic native tools. So I just avoided it.

In the end, I got familiar with the mental fight, the process of avoidance and mental chatter that leads nowhere. That prevents me from growing and learning. I knew what it takes to break that argument down, for myself, and how to move through it.

So here are three suggestions that you might be able to use in getting through your own mental blocks:

One: Inspiration
If you find yourself bouncing off the walls of wilderness skills excuses, you probably just aren't quite inspired enough. Committed is another word that can be used in describing it. Think of it like a scale, where you have a balance of hard work and reward. Where do you get inspiration? Well, books and stories are one place. Talking with a mentor, someone you trust, can be another. Write down your goal and include how it helps you in your overall plan, completes you as a person, as an instructor, etc. Those are a good place to start.

Two: Moderate your Expectations
Every skill has steps that you need to take to grow and master. Break down your belief that you will get a fire with a hand drill every single time you try. Let go of the expectations and see if you can look at the skill fresh, without putting all of this extra pressure on yourself.

Give yourself small victories, accomplishments that you can celebrate as important blocks to build your foundation of your growing skill. Savor each 'win' and try to think long term. It takes years to master the skills of survival, and you can't expect to circumvent the hands of time!

Three: Get Support
Find someone who can support you as you struggle, as you triumph, as you work your butt off! That is the secret of the Earth Skills Correspondence Course, where you have a personal mentor who can listen, give feedback, help through the difficulties and understand when you are hitting a wall.

Sometimes, when you are working with things that are new, you have to protect yourself from negative opinions, surroundings, or environments. You might have to practice in private, so you can have some space to make mistakes and figure things out while you work. Be positive, and make sure those who are around you are positive as well. This is harder than it looks, but it is key to building up a positive environment where you will grow and meet your goals!

Good luck and let me know if this helps you out in any way.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Magic, Nature and Mastery

The first time I got a fire with a bow and drill, I just sat and stared at the fire. The tinder was burning in a patch of gravel in front of the main barn opening at the old farm in Asbury, where Tom Brown, Jr. was running his school at the time. It was the fall of 1984. I was twenty years old.

I had carved a bow and drill set months earlier, on my trail crew in the California Conservation Corps, high in the mountain pass of Kaweah Gap in Sequoia National Park. I was using Tom’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival, but I couldn’t get a fire. I used up three boot laces, and finally gave up in frustration.

But when I finally got that flaming tinder bundle, I just couldn’t take my eyes off of it. All of the practice and effort high in the mountains had given me the form, and with an improved notch, I was on my way.

If you haven’t experienced making fire with just wood and a knife, well, it is hard to explain. It is literally magic.

Then I had to do it again. And again. And again.

For me, it was an addiction. I just loved to make fire, and I needed to find wood in the forest, rather than using white cedar from a fence post. I needed to take it to new levels. In the dark. In the rain. With wood I gathered minutes before. With just rocks. With cordage made from plant fibers, from bark, from rootlets. With all kinds of woods and plants....

Yeah, even blindfolded.

Then, I would travel to Arizona, and do it all over again. Then to Massachussetts. Then over to California, New York, Kansas.... wherever I could go, practice, learn and grow.

Okay, I’ll be honest here: I was young, (20-25) during those years, and I wanted to learn it all. You could argue that I didn’t have anything better to do. I would say that’s true! (What could be better than learning to make fire?!)

I didn’t want to be one of those guys who had learned it and practiced it a couple of times before moving on to something else. I wanted to know I could count on the skill, when I needed it most, so it was really a part of me.

I can tell you about those times I practiced, gathered, worked and learned. It wasn’t just about the fire. It was also about getting to know the trees. It was about getting to know the woods themselves, the animals, the area around my campsite. All of it. Just being there made me feel good, alive, whole and complete. Like I was ingiting a fire inside of my soul, even.

I remember making a fire with my friend Craig Boynton, in the woods during a youth program, where we had fifteen sixth graders sitting around a bow drill fire we had made, with a large tipi fire (flames about three feet high!) watching a deer walk right up to our fire, our group, just curious about what we were out there in her woods! It was magic to us, to the kids, and we all felt blessed by that moment, touched by something bigger than us, our worlds changed and new and amazing.

Today I got to know our new Earth Skills Spring Semester students. We made a fire in our woodstove, starting it with a hand drill of horseweed and aspen, each taking a turn spinning the stalk, getting it warm and making a beautiful coal. The dry woodshavings caught, and the barn began to warm up. We talked about learning to live so close to the earth that we needed nothing from the modern world... living full survival, living on the gifts of our mother earth.

It still feels great, even now, twenty four years later.

Amazing. Magic.

Now that’s power!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

My Trip to Minnesota

Last week I traveled to Minnesota to meet with the Minnesota Waldorf School’s Eighth Grade, whose students are coming to Hawk Circle this spring. I met with the students and parents, and stayed for a few days at the home of one of my best friends from my childhood, Richard Elmquist and his family. They have started a community in eastern Wisconsin, with organic gardens, wonderful crafts, an orchard, bakery and dairy farm. It was a great visit and I really enjoyed seeing them all for my short stay.

In addition, I also got a chance to see the Mississippi River as it winds through Minneapolis/St. Paul, and much of the landscape around the city and surrounding countryside. I paid attention very closely, searching for familiar trees, wild resources, animal tracks and the lay of the land.

The ground was covered with a layer of crusty snow, dusted with light frosting of powder and great for tracking. I saw cottontail tracks, weasel, mice, squirrels, a variety of birds, deer, red fox, coyote, skunk and raccoon. There were elms, box elder, (lots!) cottonwoods, burr oaks, red juniper, white cedar, poplar, paper birch, locust, and many viburnums and elderberries too, in various places along the prairie and in the riverbottoms. The plant stalks that I could see above the snow looked to be mullein, velvetleaf, milkweed and dock. There was a nice abundance of dried grasses in places, too, as well as cattails in the wetland areas.

Why was I studying the land so closely?

The short answer is that I always do it, as I was trained by Tom Brown, Jr. in the early part of my intensive studies with him at his school. I was taught to pay attention no matter where I went, just in case.

The other short answer is that I was curious, because I haven’t spent much time there before, and I wanted to be familiar with the terrain in case someone from the mid-west were to want to do the Correspondence Course!

Just in case you are wondering, I think anyone from this area would have an excellent and easy time making shelters, finding food, water, great survival resources for skills and fire-making as well. The land is beautiful, gentle and open, with a big sky and trees that are communities in themselves.

It was a great trip and I learned a lot. On the way out to the airport, I passed a grey owl on the side of the highway, about twenty feet from my car at eye level. He looked like he was hunting, waiting for something to move, and his deep dished face was gorgeous and stunning. I felt it was an incredible gift.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also note the profuse number of red tailed hawks that perched in the treetops, fence posts, lamp posts and power lines. I understand that there are many eagles and osprey in some areas as well, fishing in the lakes and rivers that make up this amazing landscape.

My only regret is that I didn’t get to go ice-fishing. Well, maybe next time!

By the way, a friend of mine has just started a new wilderness skills school in the Minneapolis area, so check it out if you are out there for more local tips, regional expertise, cool places to go and more...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Wilderness Survival Fundamentals: Building a Framework for Mastery

When a person asks for more info about the course, one of the first things I will tell them is that they can do all of these skills on their own, without the course. I try to emphasize this point, because there are many people who are organized, self-motivated and just tend to go for it and make it happen on their own.

On the other hand, it is important to understand a basic framework for learning, growing and developing mastery. Mastery is what I am shooting for. Not casual. Not ‘somewhat’ proficient. Mastery. That is a different animal altogether. And it is something that takes time, it takes pacing, it takes an intrinsic understanding of human nature, the process in which these skills develop and a big dose of motivation and inspiration to push someone through to get there.

When you think of a winning team, any team, and you look at their coach, you know that that person is more than just an X’s and O’s playmaker. They understand passion. They understand how to ignite a burning desire to win, to find a way to win, even when you are dead tired and the last thing you want to do is work on your jump shot, or your bunting, or whatever sport it is....

There are many awesome players who have just needed the right coach and environment to develop and take their game to a whole new level.

You can’t build a winning team without players who understand the fundamentals of the game. How to move, the footwork, the conditioning, the shooting, passing and so forth. All of the wilderness skills have the same need for a systematic approach to make them reliable. Let’s face it. If you can’t get a fire when you really need it, what the hell good is all of your practicing and work? You don’t want to be the guy who missed the last second field goal, or the jump shot, after all that practicing! (Okay, enough of the basketball/sports metaphor!)

This is where the Correspondence Course provides the difference between casual practice and learning, and real training that adds up to something that will work, time after time. Not every student is looking for this.

When Jeff Eckhouse, Simon Mayer, Chris Marx, Matt Burr and I were piloting this course, we talked about why a wilderness skills instructor has to be literally that good.

We knew that if a person hasn’t done their homework, their fieldwork, their ‘dirt time’ as Tom Brown, Jr. likes to say, then that person’s tendency is to begin to mentor with ego, using bravado, stories, comments and other ways to verbally and non-verbally keep their students off balance and at arm’s length. This usually is because a serious student, or other instructor, can become someone who can see through their lack of experience, and that is terrifying.

Having seen this in different situations, we wanted to find the root cause of this kind of poor mentoring. We saw that often, it was because the student was pushed to become a teacher or instructor before they had fully mastered the skills they needed to teach at a high level, and that when they started teaching they were left on their own, without support or backup, and the cycle continued.....

Anyway, we knew that if we trained people in this kind of mastery/depth approach, that good things would come of it. So far, we have been very pleased, even with students that haven’t completed the full course. Nothing could make me happier.....

What do you think about this? Have you seen instances where this is true? Do you have an opposing opinion? Please share and let us know what you think!

Strategies for Success: Finding your Earth Skills Study Area

Finding a good study area for practicing your earth skills in the course can be challenging for those of you who live in a suburban or urban area. However, it makes it easier to do if you let go of your preconceived ideas of what your area should look like.

After all, most people think that it should be an idyllic, tranquill, forest cathedral, where deer eat out of your hand, and berries ripen as you need a snack. You would have miles of land to wander freely, undisturbed, as you gather the things you need to learn to survive.

Well, in case you don’t have the above situation, (and if you do, lucky you!) then you have to look for not just the perfect place to do your course, but one that will work for you, for your schedule, for your ability to travel and so forth.

Just for perspective: In the last ten years, people have camped in woods surrounding a public golf course, in their urban backyard, in an open lot near a working dairy farm and in the woods behind a busy shopping mall. With permission, of course!

Sometimes, it is good to plan your coursework where you can really get away, far from people and traffic and distractions, and then take your time building your shelter and camping and work through the material. And that idea sounds great at the time. Then suddenly, six months go by and you have only camped out once, and you are starting to worry that you might not get through the program. The distance, the time spent traveling, and juggling a busy family or work schedule can all take a toll on your course time, so adjustments have to be made to work it out.

If you don’t have a good area to do your skills right close to your home, look for someplace that is as close as possible. Sometimes you have to bring in materials for your shelter, or leaves/debris, whatever it takes, but the idea is to get out there often, and build up your experience by practicing the skills and sleeping in your shelter and just sitting by a fire you made yourself with your own skills. For that, you just need a place where you can get to it quickly, and where you can make it work.

Some people also consider coming out to Hawk Circle to do their coursework, if they are near us, and that can work also, but if it is far away, I tend to discourage it. However, any combination of these areas can work, and any nights spent in a shelter can count towards your course work if you journal it and keep working on your skills!

Places to consider: Churches, which often have land away from the actual place of worship. Boy or girl scout groups, who might be willing to trade land use for some good stories or skills shared with the troop. City or village regional parks, or local colleges. Fish and Game clubs (you might have to become a member of the club!) Remember that when you ask, even if they can’t give you permission, they may know someone else who might.

Don’t forget to take pictures, for your portfolio and include yourself, too. It really is awesome, years from now, to be able to look back and see how far you have come, and for your future students to see, too. I personally wish I had more pictures of my early practice and study time, as most of the time I was too cheap to take them, and the ones I did take got destroyed in the various moving I did in my early twenties. Ahhh, youth.....!

If you have a good idea for a study area, let us know!