Seekers are in the middle of learning how to make rawhide from deer skins. Over the last few days, they took to the woods for materials to make the needed tools: hide scrapers and fleshing beams, along with stretching racks and paddles. While working on the tools, we went over the process of cleaning off the flesh and membrane from the inside of the hide, and then the hair and grain from the outside. I demonstrated, and then the Seekers went at it with passion. It didn't take long before they each had a skin ready for making rawhide. Necessity is the mother of invention, and they already needed rawhide lashing to finish pack frames and fire kit bow drills, so they envisioned ways to cut the hide and store the remainder for future use. When there is a need, our creative energies and capabilities in general are much greater than if we were just learning a skill for the sake of learning it.
In the next quarter moon, the Seekers will build stretching racks, which are used in the softening step of the tanning process. With their tanned hides, they will then learn how to make buckskin clothing, moccasins, and other gear.
The Seekers just got back from a 20 mile round-trip hike to gather wild leeks. They left camp just after dawn and went by the twin wilderness lakes known as Shelp and Scott, which are surrounded by an old-growth forest. Like all the Seekers before them, they walked quietly, in awe of the elders towering above them.
The leek beds carpeted the Maple woods as far as the eye could see. Before any gathering was done, I sat down with the Seekers to make a personal connection with this favorite green of nearly everyone. Relationship is stressed throughout this experience, so that the Seekers will have perspective on how a skill fits into the greater picture of the lifeway, and so that the skill will be practiced respectfully. They talked about a leek's favorite growing environment, her life-cycle, and gathering techniques that will support her needs. Because giving is receiving, when we honor leek’s needs she in turn honors ours.
Boy, those Seekers gathered with gusto and now they have the motivation to explore ways to preserve the surplus. There are many methods, and once they have come up with all they can on their own, we will add whatever they missed. It's amazing as to what people can come up with when they apply their clan knowledge, and we guides often learn something from them too.
On the way back, I got turned around and guided the Seekers through a thick Cedar bog that seemed to go on forever. We finally reached the other side and found out we were about a mile off course. I noted that the Seekers needed more practice to hone their newly-learned direction finding skills.
As I walk up the trail to Zhawanon, the southern camp where the Seekers are spending the Green Season, a Pygmy Blue Butterfly flits across the trail in front of me. They and their elder sisters, the Tiger Swallowtails, have just come out to join the rest of life in celebration of the returning warmth. This is the wettest it’s been in five or six turns of the seasons—we had abundant rains before freeze-up, followed by heavy snows. The streams are again flowing full, and the sand-and-rock bars that laid exposed in the lake shallows are again underwater, providing places for the Bass and Sunfish to spawn. And the waters brought someone else back—Mosquito. The local Ojibwe call her Zagime, and her eggs have the ability to survive for several turns of the seasons until there is adequate moisture for them to hatch.
The accumulated eggs of five or six Green Seasons have just recently hatched, and two suns ago a couple of the Seekers were at their wits’ end to deal with the swarm. On top of that, the first Deer Flies had just come out, and another one of the Seekers had swollen hands and bumps on his forehead, showing how allergic he was to their anticoagulant saliva.
Rather than giving workshops that are unrelated to real life, we offer guidance when it fits, then they will have the need. Their senses are then keened, they listen attentively, and they use their passion and inventiveness to find workable ways.
Our approach as Guides is to first help the Seekers realize what they already know, and what Zagime has already taught them. They've found out that she prefers shade to sun, she'd rather be out in the humid morning and evening than midday, and she doesn’t do well in the wind. Putting together what each of them knew, they realized that they could adjust their routines to stay out of harm’s way. Awarenesses like this one that come from group sharing are what we call clan knowledge. We Guides added to their clan knowledge by suggesting that they put a thin coat of oil on their skins, as mosquitoes detest getting anywhere near something that will coat their wings and interfere with their ability to fly. If there is no oil, rubbing Cedar boughs directly on the skin works well also. Simply dangling something in front of your exposed skin is often all that is needed, as Zagime (and many flies also) do not like to get trapped between things.
This is just a sampling of the in-depth knowledge the Seekers are gaining on a variety of primitive skills. Upcoming is primitive cooking, fishing, trapping, plant and insect foraging, and more on hidetanning.
A lot has happened out in Nishnajida since the last post. The Seekers have been working hard in several different areas of wilderness living. First, we spent a lot of time together learning the art and skill of hide tanning, exploring all the steps in the long process of turning deer skin into buckskin. We were very fortunate to be gifted four road kill young bucks, all on the same day, so each Seeker had their own deer to skin and butcher themselves.
They then took their fresh deer skins to the hide tanning area and began scraping in earnest. When finished, we strung them up in racks so that the skins would dry and the membrane (a layer just underneath the skin inside the animal) could be sanded. This is an important step when dealing with fresh hides, so that during the braining there would be good penetration into the skin. Soon after they sanded their hides the weather changed, and we had to shift to plan B.
The rainy weather had us exploring fire making. First we went over the three needs of fire: heat, fuel, and air. Then we look closely at fire boards, spindles, handholds, bows, and finally, the all important notch. We also explored what qualities make for a good fire kit. After a couple of demonstrations with technique and two fires later, the Seekers were ready to go off into the woods to gather materials to make their own kits. A couple of days later, Luke made his first fire.
The next day was still rainy, so we put off hide tanning again to explore deadfall traps. Just in time, too, as mouse has taken to gathering her food from the food pit in the back of the lean-to. The first trap we looked at was the common figure-four--simple in design yet challenging to make effective. After studying the physics behind the design, understanding the trigger, and learning what materials would work best, we then looked at how to make the trap both stable and sensitive.
The next trap we looked at was the Paiute trap--using the same principals learned from the figure-four, it wasn't long before the Seekers were ready to begin building and setting their own traps. Squirrels, chipmunks, and mice are the main target and will prove to be helpful for the coming Hunger Moon in which they will need to hunt all their own protein.
After a few more rainy days passed, the sun came back and we were able to go back to the hide tanning. The hides were re-hydrated and prepared for braining, where we used eggs instead of brains. Here the Seekers learned the process of ringing the hides in the egg solution and learning how to "read" the hide's readiness for the stretching process. Once their hides were ready, they all re-strung their hides in the racks and started stretching the skin in earnest. It turned into an ideal day, with sun and breeze together and with lots of hard work, four beautiful buckskins resulted. All in all it was a very successful time with lots of knowledge gained and five very proud seekers.
Today the Seekers asked us to take their matches—all of them. They now have no way to cook their food or have light at night without making fire by friction. It is a skill they have been practicing since they got here four moons ago, and yet none of them can make a fire every time they want one.
One reason is that they didn't need to rely upon their fire-making ability, as there were always matches for backup. Or there was always someone else to fall back on. Now if the person who volunteered to make the cooking fire is unable to do it, there is no cooking fire. They have learned that necessity is the mother of invention—that we are capable of so much more when we are needed.
Another reason they haven't been able to make fire consistently is overconfidence. Some of them learned fire-making in primitive skills courses in the past, where materials were already gathered for them and conditions were ideal. In the real world where there is dampness, fatigue, and less-than-ideal materials, a flame seldom comes so easy.
They are purposefully relearning the skill in the worst of conditions, with the best of form, so that they can start a fire when one is really needed. When they finish this course—and if they want to bad enough—they will be able to start a fire without tinder when it is pitch black and raining.
Early this morning in the middle of the lake,I broke out of the fog to the sight of two Otters on a floating log just ahead of me. They were absorbed in eating a fish they had just caught, so I just drifted quietly by and continued on—I had lost Seekers to find. This was the third day since they left camp, and they were somewhere out there in the wilderness without map or compass.
Getting lost is part of the Wilderness Guide Program experience; it's one of the most effective ways to learn orienteering. They enrolled in this course to leave everything familiar behind and take only the clothes they wear, a knife and a tomahawk, and go into the wild to evolve a culture from scratch. They learn how to function as a circle, how to speak their truth, and how to resolve conflict, along with all of the physical skills needed to provide their basic sustenance—food, clothing, fire, and water.
They travel to various camps during the year to provide for those needs: fish camp during the springtime to catch spawning run up the streams, berry camp in the summer, and rice camp in the autumn to harvest wild rice for the calories needed during the white season.
These past few days, they've been making their way to rice camp, and in the wilderness there's only one way to get somewhere—by your own power, over, around, and through whatever is in front of you.In the sand I drew them a map of a narrow lake about two and a half miles long that ran north-south, about ten miles east-southeast of their camp. All they had to guide them over streams, bogs, and forest, and then find their campsite on the east side of the lake just below the shoreline bluff, was three lines in the sand. First I made a loop to represent the north side of the lake, then an X showing our location,followed by a line up the west shore of the lake, around the north side, and down the east side to where they could find a good campsite.
Now mind you, they had no topographic map and no compass—they were to do this by relying entirely on their own wits. Was this asking too much of them? Only if they have forgotten what it is to be human.
Our pre-modern ancestors were constantly on the move, sometimes for great distances, to gain their sustenance. And they did it quite well without map and compass. To tell direction, they read the wind and clouds, the plants, and the landscape. They listened to what the birds and the other animals had to say. They decided where and when to go without leaders, because one person was fallible. When a person makes a mistake, and that person happens to be the leader, the whole clan suffers. So they relied upon what is known as clan knowledge. One person's knowledge and memory is limited to what that individual knows and remembers. However, when the whole clan sits down in a circle and each contributes what he knows, everybody in the circle knows it. Everybody benefits from each individual's ancestral memories, intuitive abilities, and sensory input. It’s each individual functioning like an organ in an organism, with every person contributing to the welfare of the organism as a whole. No single organ runs the show, as no single organ has all the requisite skills and abilities. Each organ needs all of the other organs in order to function.
You could say a clan is leaderless, but in a real sense they are all leaders. In matters of the heart, the heart rules; in matters of the liver, the liver rules. The liver—not the lungs—know what a liver needs to function, and what it needs in order to best serve the organism.
Even knowing this, the Seekers set out to find the Rice Lake with some trepidation. Even though they already had four months of training in wilderness skills: they knew how to drink wild water without having to sterilize it, they could make fire by friction, they could build shelters from whatever was around them, and they could find food wherever they were at. They learned orienteering, weather-forecasting, and wilderness first aid. But what they didn't yet have was the experience of being fully human, being fully awake, aware and connected—in essence, being fully in relationship with their Hoop of Life.
OdeMakwa and I weren't worried—we had full confidence in them, in part because we were trailing them to make sure they didn’t get themselves in any big trouble, but mostly because I trusted in their intrinsic humanness.
Theoretically they could have reached rice camp the first day. We paddled out that evening to see if they were there, and there was no sign of them. Nor were they there the second day. We started to get a little worried. Not because we thought they were in any serious trouble, but because it’s our job to think worst-case scenario and make sure it doesn't happen.
We tracked the Seekers to their first night’s campsite, which was under the canopy of a majestic maple-basswood forest. Their trail from the campsite headed due east toward the lake; however, they for some reason stopped and backtracked to the campsite. The backtracking was easy to read: two of them were pretty tired on the way back, so they shuffled their feet, leaving drag marks so glaring that they obliterated some of their earlier trail out.
From the campsite, they headed west-by-north, the direction in which their permanent camp lies. It was soggy, with no sun for days, so maybe they got discouraged and went back home. We decided to do the same, as it was getting dark and starting to rain.
At dawn the next day,we decided to check out their long-term camp, just in case they headed back. I knew the odds were slim for such a solid group, yet they existed. From there we bee-lined to the north side of the race lake and scouted it to see if we could pick up any sign of their passing. I might have even come across them.
To cover the terrain adequately would have taken days, which we didn’t have. The north end of the lake reached up into an expansive bog, which looked open and inviting—until you took a few steps into it and realized it was a tangle of downed, moss-covered trees, ankle-grabbing brush, and invisible pot-holes.
Too bad we didn't have the time for the challenge.We stuck to the edge of the blog as we circled the north end of the lake, howling periodically. Our calls should have reached deep enough into the bog to catch them if they were out there.
No sign and no return howl. We worked our way up the ridge that ran down the east shore and followed it for about a mile, to where my sand map indicated a good campsite. They weren't there.Again it was getting late, so we went home.
The next morning, we put in at the south end of the lake and paddled up the east shoreline, howling periodically. About two thirds of the way, we got a return howl. Their just-finished camp was within fifty paces of where we checked for them couple of days ago—where my scratch in the sand indicated they should be. As glad as we were to see them, our feelings were completely smothered by how glad they were to see us. They were wet and tired, out of food, and to top it off they weren't sure they were on the right lake.
While they were telling the story of their trek, one of them said he didn’t think he was of any real help, because he didn’t know much. I asked him if he knew how to make a dugout canoe, and he shook his head. "Imagine you were about the size of a chipmunk," I suggested, "and you had a paddle in your hand, standing next to that nice oval food bowl there in front of you that you carved. Would you still say that you didn't know how to make a canoe?"
Like him, we are all much more capable than we know. Unfortunately, we were raised in a society that trains its members to be passive receptors: it's nearly always someone else who gives us the job or degree to work for, and there's always someone telling us if we’re good or bad, right or wrong. Someone else even decides how much we’re worth. We can't even provide our own entertainment anymore. Whether it’s organized sports, music, or a movie, we sit there being spoon fed. Is it any wonder that we've lost the ability to adapt to change?
This group of Seekers had to continually adapt to a changing landscape, to changing weather, to their changing moods and energy levels. They needed to be aware and attuned. They had to listen to each other, or they would never have been able to function as a unit, as an organ within the greater organism of the wilderness.
Would a detailed map and compass have made their trip easier? Maybe, and maybe not. If a map can be followed without error, and if a compass doesn’t get lost or broken, the system can work very well. However, the more details there are to consider, the more potential there is for confusion. If a landmark is missed, or a compass reading is misread, it tends to create doubt and confusion—people lose perspective, misjudge, and get themselves in trouble. Even when map and compass work and the group arrives at its destination, they’re all the poorer for it. All they've done is learned to become more reliant on map and compass—and less reliant on their intrinsic orienteering abilities. They've taken another step away from what it is to be human.