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

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!