WHEN I ARRIVE IN CAMP, I let my pack drop from my shoulders. It’s the first day of a four-day backcountry trip, and after putting in the miles, I could use a good meal and a crackling fire. I typically carry a lighter in my pocket and fire steel in my pack.
But when it comes time to ignite the fire, I don’t reach for these gadgets. Instead, I choose a length of goldenrod and set to work on a hearth board of umbrella magnolia. This warms me twice: once by the effort to spin the hand drill to produce the coal, and again when the fire is kindled into flame.
A lot of people refer to such fire-starting methods as bushcraft. Earth skills. Primitive technology. Whatever you call it, the skill set I’ve spent decades developing runs the gamut from deploying simple modern tools, such as fire steel, to applying entirely primitive skills, like turning river cane into an arrow with a stone point and wild turkey feathers.
But why go to all that effort when you can buy a Bic lighter in any gas station or order a dozen machined carbon-fiber arrows online? In some ways, it’s precisely these modern conveniences that push me closer to bushcraft.
It feels as if the world is moving at warp speed these days. Trying to absorb terabytes of new information and purchase the latest products is like drinking from a fire hose. Attempting to navigate a society that evolves faster than we do is like a rough boat ride on a windy lake.
I know I’m not alone, either. Many of my friends hunt, fish, and spend time in the woods to escape these feelings. They ground themselves with traditional knowledge, as I do. It’s why a rifle hunter might switch to a compound, or a compound bowhunter to a recurve. It’s the reason I’ve drawn on a doe at seven paces with a bow I made myself and endured four weeks in a Louisiana swamp without any modern tools.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be prepared or that modern equipment doesn’t have its place; in fact, I make my living working at an outdoor retail shop. But when we rely exclusively on technology to solve our problems, we become divorced from problem-solving and the effort it requires. (What happens if your GPS breaks? Did you pack a paper map and compass, or even learn to use them?) For many people, if technology vanishes, so too does skill and confidence.
In early 2020, life changed for everyone. And it revealed chinks in our armor in all sorts of places. Knowing something about how to look after yourself and your family—without every possible modern convenience at your disposal—suddenly seemed like a good idea to a lot more people. Simple projects like planting a garden or rendering fat were now very much worth the time.When we own a skill set, such as foraging, it gives us a connection to the place where we live, the confidence to survive there, and contentment with ourselves.
Huge sawtooth and white oaks grow beside the building where I work. So last fall, I spent several quiet mornings collecting acorns before my shift. The squirrels stockpile a bunch, but hundreds simply rot where they fall. So I gathered gallons of them. Over the next few weeks, I shelled the acorns, leached them of tannins, and ground the dried nuts into nutritious meal. It was a lot of work for an ingredient you can buy at the store, but I was content that this project cost me absolutely nothing but a bit of my time. And when I pulled the first loaf of acorn bread out of the oven, it gave me a touch more confidence in myself—all thanks to one more skill I’d made the effort to learn.
Turning acorns into flour may not be for everyone, but it’s just one example of the unlimited potential around us. We can all develop skills to provide for ourselves. Using my brain and my hands to create something useful is the most human activity I can think of. It wasn’t easy to find the precise knife angle for shaping a bow stave. It took much trial and error to learn what ratio of sap and charcoal yields the best pine-pitch glue. And that’s the point: I want a challenge and the focus it demands of me.
Some folks will argue such skills are obsolete, but they help me survive the modern world too. Not because I’m continuously getting lost in the woods or eager for the apocalypse, but because bushcraft connects me to an ancient past. I’ll never know who my ancestors were, but I can try to understand what their lives were like. My interest in our prehistoric origins has also helped me prepare for the future—as well as anyone ever can, anyway. Working the land as our ancestors did forces me to make choices rooted in the known world, not the hypothetical. I’m content in knowing that I don’t control everything in the world, and I’m not supposed to. So I do what I can with what I’ve got.
This story originally ran in the Survivor Mindset issue of Outdoor Life. Read more OL+ stories. And listen to seasons 1 and 2 of the Outdoor Life podcast on Spotify, Apple, or wherever else you get your podcasts.
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