Primitive Skills

One day while I was checking my email at Plow Creek, I opened an email from and read that they were putting on a Permaculture Design Certificate training with the first five days being dedicated to primitive skills, wilderness survival skills, and hunter/gatherer skills.  I had taken a Permaculture Design Certification course with Midwest Permaculture two years ago and I was still on the email list.  They called the training The 3 Epochs of Humanity Permaculture Design Certificate Course.  Sound pretty cool?  Yeah, I thought so to.  It was a course that included all of the typical material covered in a Permaculture Design Course (PDC), but with a special theme relating all the material to the 3 epochs of humanity.  The 3 epochs of humanity are: 1) Hunter/Gatherer; 2) Pastoralist; and 3) Agriculturalist.  Hunter/gatherer is pretty self explanatory, pastoralist began with the domestication of animals for meat, milk and eggs, and agriculturalist began with the domestication of food plants.  With the transition from hunter/gatherer to pastoralist came a less mobile culture and a more sedentary lifestyle and with the transition from pastoralist to agriculturalist came a stationary culture and a much more sedentary lifestyle.  I was very interested in how they were going to relate this stuff to Permaculture and I was even more interested in learning primitive skills, but I wasn’t in a position to be able to pay to take the course.  I had just recently been reading in the Bible and had just read that he who asks, receives, so I decided to go out on a limb and ask.  I sent an email to the folks running the course to see if we could work out some sort of work/trade thing so that I could take the course at a reduced cost and I got an email back that was basically a form letter inviting me to register for the course.  So, I registered for the course, but was very confused, did this mean that I was going to have to pay, were they gonna let me take the course for free, did they had some work in mind for me to do?  I sent back an email asking for some clarification and they said that the course was on them.  They had heard about what I’ve been doing, traveling around to different communities and volunteering my labor in exchange for knowledge and they wanted to support that.  I had been communicating with the main instructor for the course that I completed two years ago, Wayne Weiseman, about what I needed to do and what I needed to learn in order to be able to teach permaculture and I also hooked him up to teach a course at Koinonia in September.  They also wanted to thank me for setting up that course, and they had a couple of ideas for ways I could do a little bit of work for them after the primitive skills thing.  So, basically, this was a totally sweet deal for everyone involved and I was especially thankful and excited to be able to hang out with Wayne and Bill again (Bill Wilson is the co-owner of Midwest Permaculture with his wife, Becky) and to get to learn some primitive skills.

So, what the heck are primitive skills, how exactly did the hunter/gatherers survive and why is it relevant to modern life?  Hmmm, I’m glad you asked.  Primitive skills are skills which make use of primitive technologies, which when looked into aren’t really very primitive at all.  Primitive technologies were used by hunter/gatherer peoples everyday and thus were very practical and very efficient and the technologies had been continuously refined and perfected over the course of 2 million years of human experience.  That time frame to develop these technologies is staggering when compared to the last 10,000 years or so in which the technologies of the agricultural and industrial societies have developed.  It would appear to the industrial age person that primitive technologies are inefficient and impractical because an industrial age person could pull a lighter out of their pocket to start a fire while the primitive technologies would use a bow drill friction fire kit to start a fire.  Or it might appear impractical and inefficient for a hunter/gatherer to spend 3 to 4 hours each day gathering and preparing food while an industrial age person can just go to a restaurant and have a meal ready in 10 minutes.  However, when one looks into the practicalities and efficiencies of these activities a little closer, one must come to a different conclusion.  Think of the time and energy that it took to bring that lighter to the industrialists hands.  Think of the time and energy that it took to get that meal onto the plate at the restaurant.  For the lighter, crude oil had to be extracted from the ground and transported by pipeline/truck/train/ship (which had to be built) to a refinery and then transported to several factories so that the different pieces of the lighter could then be made and then transported to another factory to be assembled and packaged, then transported to a store where the person had to get to in order to obtain it.  Also for the lighter, coal and natural gas had to be extracted from the ground and transported to a power plant in order to make electricity to power all of the factories and stores required to make and sell the lighter and metals had to be mined, transported, refined, melted, and formed into the required pieces.  For the bow drill friction fire set, one person had to gather two stones in order to make a knife or other suitable cutting edge, that same person had to gather a couple of sticks and use the knife to form them into the proper shape, the person then had to gather fibers from a nearby plant and twist them into cordage for a string for the bow, that person then had to exert themselves physically for 30 seconds to a minute in order to get a coal from the friction fire set to use to blow into a flame.  All of those materials could have been gathered from within easy walking distance and could be made and assembled and used in a couple of hours.  The fire set could then be used many times before some more string had to be made from readily available plant fibers or another stick had to be gathered and shaped to replace a worn out piece.  The friction fire set can be used dry or wet, while the lighter will not work if it gets wet.  Now, you be the judge, which technology is more practical and which more efficient?  Now lets consider the other example of the gathering food for 4 hours from ones immediate surroundings versus the meal ready in 10 minutes from a restaurant.  Wild foods are available in abundance in certain areas in certain seasons throughout the year, so for the sake of this example lets assume that the person is in the right place at the right time and that the person had to walk for several miles to find the food.  It might take one hour to walk around and find the food sources, one hour to harvest enough nuts for a couple of meals, one hour to harvest enough greens for a couple meals and another hour to harvest enough roots for a couple meals and then another one to two hours to process and prepare the meal.  The person would have needed a stick to dig up the roots, a couple of rocks to break open the nuts and would have had to make a fire and use a rock to cook the meal on.  That gives a total of 5 to 7 hours to gather and process enough food for a couple of meals for one person.  Now for the meal from the restaurant, oil, coal and natural gas are required to make and transport the seeds, fertilizer and chemicals to the various farms required to grow the food, the seeds then have to be planted, fertilized, irrigated, sprayed and harvested by tractors and other heavy machinery, the food is then stored in boxes(which had to be made and transported) and transported to a factory where it is processed with other chemicals and food additives into other food substances and then transported to a storage facility and then transported to the restaurant where it is stored and cooked as needed.  All steps of this process require oil, coal, natural gas, metals and trees to be extracted, mined or harvested.  The person who eats the meal had to go to work in order to make enough money to buy the car, which had to be built and transported to him, to drive on the road, which had to be constructed, to the restaurant, which also had to be constructed, in order to pay for the meal.  I apologize for not going through the effort of adding up all the time that was required to build all the things that were required in order to get that meal and that person to the same place in order to have a more accurate comparison with the “primitive” meal.  Now, you be the judge, which meal was more practical, which meal more efficient?

So, the primitive skills course was a really great experience.  I learned how to make some basic tools such as a digging stick, a throwing stick (for hunting small game) and a stone arrow head and/or knife.  I learned how to make fire with sticks, how to build a couple of different types of shelters, how to obtain and store water, how to make cordage (or string), how to make a trap for catching and killing animals for food, how to identify, process and prepare various wild plant foods, how to make clay pots, how to weave a basket, and how to go about finding all the things needed for these various activities from the local landscape.  I met some really great people, ate some really good food, had a lot of fun and learned a lot of things.  The main instructor for the course, Wayne Weiseman, recruited me to teach a couple of courses with him in the near future and was able to give me some good guidance as to how to further develop my skills and knowledge so that I’d be able to teach more with him and possibly on my own in the future.

One other really great thing that I took away from this course was more knowledge about how to meet my needs from things that I can find or make from plants and animals and rocks that are always just a few steps away from me, wherever I go.  I look at the world a little differently now, and I’m beginning to see more and more possible uses of more and more things that I see all around me as I move around through this world of abundance.  Thank you, nature, for providing everything that my body needs.


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