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

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!