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, November 21, 2010

Hunting: A Practice in Invisibility

When I first began training in wilderness survival, I remember Tom Brown, Jr. talking about the concept of invisibility. I had never really imagined that as a skill other than my comic book characters who could disappear from sight as their 'super power'. I knew there were ways to do it, but had never really thought about it much up to that point.

Tom talked with us about camouflage, stalking, and movement in terms of hunting, or escape and evading your enemies, and how to use the clays, mud and patterns in nature to let a person virtually disappear in the forest or fields. When we actually did it, I could almost not believe my eyes! This summer, we actually had a TV film crew come out and Ben Gallagher made it happen, on film, and it was really cool.

However, other than hiding from people in our various scout games and such, having fun and practicing our skills, there isn't much of a modern use for invisibility. Unless you are in the military, or work as a cat burglar, or so forth! But in hunting, it is everything.

Being invisible to animals is hard. The scent issues alone are huge. Animals smell hundreds of times better than us, and their hearing is keen too. The eyesight of turkeys is phenomenal, and any movement can give an immediate alarm to everyone in the vicinity that you are hiding.

However, there are layers of invisibility, I was taught. There is, of course, the physical methods, where you are camouflaged into the landscape, blending perfectly and if the wind is just right, you are gone. Then there is the mental invisibility, where the place you are hiding is so obvious, so unique and different, that the mind of a person looking for you can't see you. Because no one would ever be able to hide in a place like that! (I once hid in a living room full of people, standing behind a couch, holding a picture frame up, and no one noticed me for over twenty minutes, then I moved the picture and everyone screamed. They still couldn't believe they hadn't seen me, though. It was uncanny!) It is important that your mind be free from thoughts, other than being a wall or a tree or rock. If you start thinking as a person, you will be seen almost immediately!

The last layer of invisibility is the spiritual. This is where the earth, or spirit, if you will, opens up and swallows you, and you are part of the spiritual fabric of the universe (aren't we all, already?) and you disappear from the earth, so to speak, as a human. You are one with everything, and no one can see you. In some ways, you could say that you cease to exist as a human being, and are instead something more, something greater, than a small human being.

Anyway, this is the sort of stuff I think about while sitting in my camo clothes (it ain't summer, people, so no clay and mud stuff now!), totally still, trying to stay warm and being watchful of the wind. I meditate, and pray, and day dream and take short naps. I have found that being without thought is very important. As soon as I start thinking like a person, I have found animals that will run away or just turn and walk the other direction, even though I made no sound and the wind was perfect. That says a lot about what animals can sense and feel. There are times when I am without thought, and animals seem to come around me very close. Not just deer but chickadees, squirrels, weasels, rabbits and mice. It also seems like there are times when the land just lets me sink in, and I forget about the cold, the wind, everything. Maybe I am just imagining it, but it is those times when the sunlight, or the wind, seems particularly alive, and the world is a magical and beautiful place, and I am a part of that somehow. It feels really good.

I am posting some pictures of antler rubs, buck scrapes and a deer hiding in the snow, that my friend Tiffany took a week or so ago. These are all things that you can look for when walking through the woods, and noticing what is going on out there. The scrapes are where the male deer scrape out the soil to make a fresh place, then they pee in the spot and leave various scents and hormones from their meta-tarsal glands in their feet that tells the female deer to leave her urine there when she is ready to ovulate. He places his footprint deep in the scrape as he does this, and you can see his track clearly! He also rubs his orbital gland near his eye on the branches above the scrape (which is almost always present), for what, I don't know. The buck will travel back and forth along his many scrapes, made along where female deer are traveling, to see if any females are ready to mate. If the scrapes are fresh, he will be back, so these are good areas to hunt if you are going after bucks.

The antler rubs occur near deer bedding areas or where they frequently travel, and they scrape up small saplings vigorously with their antler tines. The general rule is, the larger the tree rubbed, the larger the antlers and the larger the deer. Height is also an indicator in factoring in the size of the deer. I have never had much luck hunting antler rub areas, however, as it doesn't seem like the deer return to that area that much, as opposed to scrapes. It does let you know that there are bucks around, though. Which is exciting, as they mostly write the book on invisibility!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Gathering Time is Here...

I spent an hour gathering dogbane stalks on the side of the road today, and got enough for about ten bundles. The weather was perfect, about fifty five degrees F and sunny. The stalks were tough, so I had to cut them with a knife! The patch I gathered from was on the side of the road, along a field edge, and the farmer came along with his four wheeler, and about four sheep following him, and asked if I needed help with the car. I told him I was just gathering some weeds by the side of the road, and he said "Take all of the weeds you want!" and drove off, slowly, with the sheep following him around. It was pretty funny.

Anyway, the dogbane is still in my car, filling up my trunk and back seat completely. I have to pull it out, separate it and then tie it into bundles that we can bring to our school programs or use in our summer camps for making bow drill cords, bow strings, arrow fletching, bracelets, snare cord, paiute deadfall cords, necklaces, fishing line and much more. You just can't have enough dogbane laying around! I will hang these up in our barn so we can grab it when needed for a class.

It is important to keep it dry and don't let it get wet when bundled or it will all mold and be no good. I check the stalks to make sure they have good fibers, that are strong and easy to peel and process. I don't harvest the tiniest plant stalks, generally, and try to get the largest ones with the longest stalks to make the best cordage.

Dogbane has a dark brown, almost mahogany colored stalk, and the fibers are a beautiful brown red color when peeled. The large branches at the top of the stalk have fibers in them too, but are hard to process easily, so we usually discard them during the classes. The leaves of dobgane are bright yellow during the fall, so they are easy to see from the road, along field edges and damp places. They sometimes have seed pods on the stalks that you should remove if you are gathering them before putting them in your car. Once I had a large bundle of dogbane that we left in our barn because it was wet, and then made a fire in the woodstove a few days later, and got the room all warm. The seed pods dried out and opened up, spreading fluffy seeds everywhere. It was funny but a huge mess. And the fibers were so fine that they caused a huge problem with breathing, too.

We had a great vacuum party and opened all of the windows and doors to try to get it out of there.... It was a lot of work! It has happened with milkweed, in my car, too, and even mullein stalks, although that was mostly dust, rather than seed heads. And it was very, very dusty and I sneezed for over an hour!

So, now is a good time to gather milkweed, which is easy to spot with their stalks bursting with white fluff from the seeds, and mullein, for hand drills and torches, and golden rod, for hand drills, and nettles, for cordage, and grasses, for grass mats and tinder. These plants are great to gather now, before they get pressed down by the snow and begin to decay.

Gather milkweed and select the ones that are very white and clean. The ones that are greenish, or dark grey and have black splotches usually are too far gone to make good cordage fibers. The white stalks (or light grey) are the best, with silky fibers that are fairly strong.

If you can find swamp milkweed, that stuff is really strong and very fine, too. Great for bow strings and anything that needs to be tough and strong. It loves water, so check the swamps, the water ways, drainage ditches, irrigation trenches and similar places. It is a perennial, so it will grow there again and again, which is great!

Anyway, hope this helps you get out there and get your year's supply of fire making and natural fiber resources!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Up Next: Earth Skills Correspondence Course Conference Call: May 4th, 7 pm

Just a quick update to let you know that I am planning the first Conference Call for the Earth Skills Correspondence Course for Tuesday, May 4th at 7 pm.

To register, just send me an email and I will send you the call in number and code to join the call.

Then send me your questions by email and I will answer them in the call, as well as any others that come up through the conversation. I will be focusing on skills for Spring for a short time and then open the call up to you and your questions.

I expect the call to be about an hour, maybe slightly longer, depending on your questions. It is okay if you can only make part of the call, too.

Also, I have the dates set for the June Earth Skills Correspondence Course weekend, which is June 12-13th. If you would like to come out to Hawk Circle, stay in a cabin or leanto and practice some skills and get some first hand mentoring on the skills of your choice, please let me know. I just need to register you so we know there is a place for you to stay and what skills your are hoping to work on during the weekend.

The weekend is free, but donations are accepted! Bring you own food and drink (we have great spring water here) and you can use our camp fire circle for cooking too. Or you can get pizza in Cherry Valley as well as other food if you don't want to cook.

Hope you are enjoying a great spring!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Earth Skills Correspondence Conference Calls: Are you In?

I am about to unveil an important announcement (no, not the snow 'wave' sliding off of our hide shed roof!). It's regarding a new Earth Skills Instructor Certification Training Course I am doing, so stay tuned for that next week, but in the meantime, I have a quick question for those of you taking the Earth Skills Correspondence Course:

Are you interested in being part of a conference call (toll free) of earth skills students, where you send in questions by email and I answer them, as well as provide further mentoring to the group?

The call would be for about an hour long, and probably held sometime in the early evening perhaps in the middle of the week.

I can arrange for the first call to be in mid April if you guys are wanting to try this out and see how it goes. Please let me know and we can take this to the next step and set it up.

Hope you are all well and let me know! Thanks!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Anyone Up for some Earth Skills Weekends in 2010?

I am in the process of putting together the Earth Skills Correspondence Course Weekends for this year and am wondering if you all have any preferences for dates or months to visit Hawk Circle? At this point, we have an opening for a weekend in June, something in August and then sometime in September or October.

Anyway, they are always a good time, with learning and practice of skills, some great hikes, campfires and whatever else comes our way.

Let me know if you think you can make a weekend this year and we can get these scheduled!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Insects and Debris Huts: An Earth Skills Question

And Now, a Question about Debris Shelters!

Dear Mr. Sierra,

Hi, I've been practicing debris hut making for a while and the past several times I've had a problem with spiders getting settled before I do. I've been trying to find out how to get rid of them and came across this quote in the posted comments over You Tube but I don't understand what the instructor is talking about.

"Insects and spiders are driven out by 'smudging' VERY carefully so as not to burn down your shelter with you in it. Maine has no venomous snakes and a few spiders that cause localized necrosis. Even so, follow normal snake protocols as if using a modern sleeing bag in the dessert south west in snake country. The walls, while strong enough to climb on after settling, are easily pushed out for a ginger or explosive escape."

What exactly is "smudging"? "Smudging" with what? If you could give me any other insights into how to get rid of unwanted campers in my huts (ie smoking them out??? or anything else) I'd really, really appreciate it very much. Thank you for all your help!!!
Seriously Suspicious of Snakes & Spider Smudge

Dear SSSS,

First of all, thanks for your question. This is a good one and very important to earth skills students in many parts of the country where poisonous snakes and spiders are a real threat to your safety and health. It only takes one bad spider bite, or a close encounter with a rattler to make anyone run for the Red Roof Inn and stay the heck out of the woods! That being said, there are a few answers to your question that can help you with your situation and concern.

One thing I might add before I begin is to ask where you are located? That does play a factor in this in terms of materials that you typically use for your shelter. Do you use leaves or pine needles? Grasses and cattails? Forest or desert? In any event, you may have to modify these answers to fit your location and available materials.

While I live in the Northeast, which doesn't have many threatening snakes or spiders where I live, I have traveled through the Midwest, West, desert Southwest and the Pacific Northwest, where many of these hazards are real. When I go to an area I haven't been to before, I usually research how the native peoples lived there for thousands of years, studying their shelters carefully, either through books or in the local natural history and native culture museums. In many cases, there are important ways that these shelters protect their people from the local hazards. In the Southwest, many cultures lived in cliff dwellings with clay or sandstone floors which were swept clean, and bedding used was furs or woven rabbit skin blankets, which could be shaken out each day outside to remove spiders or scorpions. Food scraps would be kept to a minimum in these locations, to discourage mice and rats, which attract snakes as predators.

In the coastal foothills of California, tribes like the Tipai-Ipai, Chumash or Cahuilla lived in family dome shelters made from poles of saplings covered by woven palm fronds, mats of grasses, cattails or tules, with shade arbors of brush and sticks. They slept on grass or cattail or tule mats, which could also be shaken and kept clean.

The point I am trying to make is that debris shelters, from a survival point of view, were used in extreme cases, when there was no fur, gathered grasses, cattails or tules were available for long term bedding. They were used in emergencies only. In those environments, all of the available debris is home to insect and spider infestations, including scorpions, too. There just aren't that many options in the foothills and deserts for habitat, and the dangerous critters are predators hunting for food in those areas. Palm trees have lots of fibers, but in the dead fronds, that are clustered along the main trunk, they are loaded with all kinds of insects.

If you build a debris hut with those kinds of materials, it is going to be loaded with 'visitors'. It doesn't matter if you smudge or not. They are going to be there, or move right back in as soon as the smoke clears.

Smudging, by the way, is where you take a bowl, pot, clay pot, wooden bowl or a slab of bark, fill it with hot coals from the fire, then place green leaves, bark, sage, pine or cedar needles or grasses on top of the coals, where they will smolder with intense, thick smoke. Place that container in the shelter and let it fill with smoke so it will drive the insects away. This works very well with mosquitoes and smaller spiders up here in the Northeast.

You have to be very careful, as the coals can heat up the material and then spontaneously burst into flame when it gets dried out. That's when your shelter goes up in a hot, smoldering furnace blast of fire. Not good.

Most native shelters had fires in them, and the smoke from those fires kept the spiders and other insects at bay. It also helped preserve their hides, any food or gear stored there as well. It solved a lot of problems, as well as provided the usual warmth and cooking heat too.

In the wilderness, in an emergency, you might have to make a debris shelter, or a scout pit shelter, and sleep in it right away, and hope for the best. Think good thoughts and hope the spiders and scorpions and snakes don't feel hungry, and make it through the night. If you leave it for any length of time in those kinds of environments, you will have to pull all of the debris out and try to air it out and get the rest of the critters out or you will be unpleasantly surprised.

Native peoples generally had deer, wolf, bear, buffalo or other large animal skins that allowed them to sleep warm and not have to use infested debris.

In 1986, I was living in the high desert plateau forests around Prescott, Arizona, while I was attending Prescott College, and I built a great scout pit in the woods behind our house. I filled it with soft grasses, pine needles and cottonwood leaves and covered it with soil so it was perfectly camouflaged. I built it planning to sleep in it that night, but something came up and I had to wait for about three days before I could head out.

I took a flashlight with me (thank you, backup gear!) and shone the light around inside before I went in. I saw the tell tale crazy webs of about three black widow spiders inside, very comfortable in the almost pitch black darkness. I pushed a stick in to try to hook my wool blanket and get it out, and as it came out, I heard the squeaks of some small mice in the grass, and the telltale sound of a rattlesnake warning. I was glad I checked before going in, and at the same time, I was bummed out that I built a great shelter for a bunch of mice, spiders and snakes! That was a lot of work, but lesson learned!

I hope this answers your question, SSSS, and helps you make a great shelter that you can use for your expeditions and adventures. I invite all readers to add their comments and ideas so we can all learn and grow! Good luck!