The teenage students were expecting the usual activities from their class field trip to Tomales Bay — sailing, crab hunting, and making acorn pancakes. But clouds were forming, and it looked like the trip would have to be canceled. Then their instructor spotted some roadkill on the side of the highway. So instead of sailing during a heavy storm, the students navigated their way through the anatomy of a dead raccoon.
The objective was to turn the animal into something with a utilitarian value — in this case, a torch. After removing the pelt through some strategic cuts and laborious tugging, the students scraped the fat off the pink hide and carcass to form the basis of a fuel. After boiling down the fat and picking out the impurities, they poured the purified oil onto an adequate medium — a branch wrapped in fiber. Presto: They had a cave-man flashlight.
Only about half of the group was willing to help make the torch. "We said this is what we're going to do beforehand, and if you don't want to see it you don't have to see it, and here's this other activity," said Casey Nutt of Trackers Bay, an East Bay education program that specializes in a broad range of outdoor survival techniques. The rest of the kids were sent to find wood to make primitive hunting darts.
"Every part of the animal can be useful," Nutt observed. For instance, along with fuel for torches, animals and their leather can be used to make clothing, shoes, boats, and even translucent windows. "Leather was basically the plastic of the ancient world," Nutt said.
He also views roadkill as a neglected-but-worthwhile source of food. While living in the hills of Mendocino County, he made a grocery run and saw a recently killed five-point buck lying on the edge of a grocery store parking lot. Its meat lasted for weeks. "If you pull the hair and it comes out real easy, then it's starting to rot," Nutt said. It's also important to separate the muscle from the guts, he said, because the internal organs spoil quickly and will cause the rest of the carcass to go bad.
Nutt and his students are members of a growing community of Stone Age survival-skill practitioners. In the time since he helped start Trackers Bay two and a half years ago, Nutt has seen a surge in interest in what are often called ancestral skills. Just in the last year alone, class sizes have quadrupled. "We've done better as the economy has worsened," he said. "Parents say that they're really interested in their kids learning these basic survival skills now because they're not sure of the direction of the world."
Meanwhile, overall enrollment in the Trackers program, which also has locations in Portland and Bend, Oregon, has grown from 200 to 2,000 students in the last five years. "It's expanded to ludicrous levels," Trackers founder Tony Deis said. "In fact, we have a hard time keeping up with our demand."
The phenomenal growth of interest in such skills is not limited to the Northwestern United States. Annual events such as Rabbitstick Rendezvous in Idaho and Arizona's Winter Count draw a diverse collection of people eager to learn about making and using Stone Age technology. Held in the wilderness, these events allow attendees to find temporary respite from the distractions of civilization. Workshops range from llama handling to making stone tools like arrowheads or spear points.
Nutt's own interest in survival skills emerged while he was a kid in Berkeley, where he remembers enjoying hikes with his grandfather. But his passion really took off when he came across the book My Side of the Mountain, about a young boy who runs away from home to live in a tree with a raccoon and a falcon. Later, during high school, his parents passed him a book by the famous tracker and wilderness survival expert Tom Brown Jr., and Nutt was soon reading Brown's books obsessively.
After high school, he travelled around the country working on farms. Eventually, he encountered a man who inspired his love for boat building and sailing. "He could build anything," Nutt said. "I was like, 'I want to be that guy,' and I found out there were schools for wooden boat building."
Nutt learned how to build skin-on-frame boats and discovered Trackers Northwest in Portland. It was a perfect fit. He was recruited to teach kayak building, but the company also offered guided camping trips that Nutt eventually led. About two and a half years ago he came back to his former stomping grounds and helped launch the East Bay chapter of Trackers, which was rechristened Trackers Bay. At that point, he had a job but knew few kindred spirits.
Then Nutt met Ted Biggs at a primitive-skills gathering, and the two soon became friends. Originally from California, Biggs moved to Hawaii in his early teens. He returned to study folklore at UC Berkeley and discovered the local primitivist community. Like Nutt, he had a passion for sailing and learning ancestral skills. However, the two friends have found different outlets for their mutual interest.
Biggs has applied the hunter-gatherer ethos to life in the city. "The city is inundated with resources, and most of them are thrown away, and so part of urban hunter-gatherer mentality is to recognize all the resources that are around us," Biggs said. He regards the division between "civilization" and "the natural world" as a false dichotomy. Although they may appear different, he said, the two realms operate by the same laws of nature. And so, Biggs forages, squats, Dumpster dives, harvests roadkill, and even traps animals to supplement his student aid while supporting a wife and two kids. And although he is hesitant to talk about the details of trapping animals, he concedes that he's had his eye on a flock of semidomesticated Canada geese living in a local park. But alas, he noted, "they probably wouldn't fit in my oven."
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