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 2, 2012

Answering Your Earth Skills Student Questions

Every so often, I will get questions by email that pertain to the Earth Skills Correspondence Course, and as I answer them, I think to myself 'I bet other students have questions similar to these, too.'    So I thought I would share them so they are available to all of you out there who are into wilderness skills. Feel free to send me your own questions and I will answer them here when I get a chance.

From EW, from the Rochester, NY area (Now relocated to North Carolina):

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?

Okay, this is a good question.  It reminds me a lot of people first learning about trees, and how at first, they all look the same, so it is overwhelming.   However, the key is to divide and conquer.  (Just like learning your trees!)   You want to start with the easy ones, the big ones, and learn those first.   For example, Cirrus clouds are easy.  They are wispy, thin clouds that are high in the atmosphere, made up mostly of ice crystals.  They are also called Mare's Tails, because they look like the long tail hairs of horses.   They appear at the uppermost edges of a new weather front, and often bring a change of weather.  

Barry Keegan prepares a fire for our primitive pottery class, under
a sky of Mare's Tails (Cirrus clouds).  Autumn, 2007
Read about them in your weather resources, or look them up on Wikipedia, or Google them for different images, and then look for them every chance you get.   As you get familiar with Cirrus clouds, you will start seeing them all of the time.   And that will get you going.  Next you can add Cumulous clouds, which are big, white, fluffy, cotton candy type clouds that aren't all that high in the atmosphere. Start researching and checking out pictures and you will see them everywhere too...

Classic Cirrus clouds, or Mare's Tails, over the
Hawk Circle Barn last summer...
A bone harpoon with fluffy Cumulous
clouds in the background.
The basic idea is to start small, and ask yourself questions like, how high up is that cloud or cloud system?   What direction is it coming from?   How fast is it moving?   Does it look like it contains a lot of moisture?   Is there light penetrating or illuminating it from within, or is it dark and thick?   (Usually the darker a cloud, the more dense and moisture filled it is.)

Weather is something that you can learn but it helps to do some journaling and see what happens after you start seeing different clouds.   It is a practice in awareness, and it will aid your skills of tracking, survival and every other skill, because the details of the weather are part of every skill, and the weather changes all the time.   But start slow and take your time with each aspect of understanding.

Cumulous clouds over the
Tablelands at Gros Morne
National Park, Newfoundland
Special Note:   Many times, your sky will have two or three different types of clouds at the same time, in different atmospheric levels, moving in different directions.  So be aware that you might be seeing a number of things going on, and don't get too confused or frustrated about it.   Just go with the flow!

Question 2:  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??

Musician and Wilderness Guy Sean Rowe digs through the snow
 to get to his shelter during a snow storm...
If you have a good shelter, with a strong ridge pole, and you know you have good, sturdy sticks as part of your shelter, then having snow covering it will be extra insulation (snow is an excellent insulator) and make your shelter very warm.   Snow will cut out the little leaks and places where the wind pulls warmth from you.   Snow will actually form a shell around it as it grows and thickens, and it will be warm, quiet and snug.   Even two or three feet of snow should still be fine on your shelter.  

One concern would be wet snow, which is very heavy and you could always take some of the snow off if you notice your ribbing or ridgepole getting pushed down or in.

The big concern with adding snow over your shelter is making sure you have some air holes and air flow in your shelter so you don't suffocate.   You need to make sure your door opening has some space to let air in and out...   Be sure to check it if you start getting some snow falling heavy that your doorway air hole is clear and open.

Does this make sense?   Also, if you live in an area with lots of wet snow and freezing rain, the snow might keep your shelter from drying out when the weather gets warmer, so in that case, you might want to scrape off most of it as the weather changes.

Remember that your shelter should be built with strong sticks and brush, a good ridgepole that doesn't flex or has Y-stick supports under it, and about three feet thickness of leaves, ferns, grasses, pine needles or other natural material to insulate it from the elements.   Built properly, you wouldn't even know it snowed outside if you were inside when the storm started...

Stay warm and dry and hope this answered your question.

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?!

Milkweed stalks found by the roadside,
mid February, 2012
This is a great question and I don't think there is a definitive answer to this one.   There are a lot of guides that list wild edibles and when they are best collected for use by season, and I think Tom Brown has a guide to utilitarian plants in the back of his "Living with the Earth" field guide, but I am not sure if they will tell you what season to gather and all that.   In many cases, it is something you have to learn about in your particular area, as you go.   Maybe there are other resources that some readers of this blog or the students in the course can recommend.   Anyone?

Dried milkweed stalks
ready for storage!
I have on my list of books to write these very subjects so all I can say is that they are in the works, and I will try to complete them as I can, and until then, try to learn which plants and trees have cordage fibers in your current location, and if you get those to me, I can tell you how and when to gather and process them for the particular project that you have in mind.   I also did a blog post last winter about gathering materials, which might help a little.

Soft, silky milkweed fibers,
ready for twisting...
And yes, cattail is definitely not as strong as most tree barks or even other plant fibers!   But woven, they are nicely tough if they are treated well, so they are a wonderful source of good, warm fibers!   Makes good mats, bedding and shelter thatching (the leaves, that is).   Good luck and thanks for asking these great questions!