Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Definitely the Right Spot

When I walked up to the campsite, I smiled and knew it was the right one. Little Stony Creek was right there. It was loud when I walked up to the banks, but the sound of rushing and churning dampened with each pace I took away. It was a mansion of a campsite with ample room for many people, but I had it all to myself. It was bounded enough to feel like one room, in a forest that went on for about as long as they do in this part of the world. I set out to gather some firewood, and immediately found Ganoderma tsugae, a medicinal mushroom. Yes, this is definitely the right spot, I thought. It was going to be a good weekend for sure.

Little Stony Creek

This adventure was the first in which I’d be sleeping solo in a deep woods location. I set up both my tent and a hammock my Aunt gave to me, intending to sleep in the hammock unless the skies opened up. I did end up sleeping in the hammock, which I found to be as comfortable, if not more so, than a sleeping bag / pad. I fell asleep watching the stars through the trees and watching the fireflies flicker. I was still in transition from city mode to woods mode, though. This takes time.

I did a whole lot on the second day. I woke up more or less with the sun (though I threw the blanket over my head a few times). One of the highlights of the day was trying my first bull thistle stalk! It’s an intimidating-looking, armored plant, but a sharp knife made short work of it and got me down to the slightly sweet and very pleasant stalk, which I ate raw. I also had my first Solomon’s Seal root. After boiling, it tasted a bit like potato with some slight bitterness. Throughout the day, I grazed on large quantities of greenbrier, a bit of violet, some spruce tips, and boiled some milkweed tips. I also ate a half a pound of Oscar Mayer, no preservatives, Angus hot dogs. Those were foraged the weekend before, from a supermarket dumpster.

Spruce tips - they just scream "pull here!"

On this second day, I was slipping into woods mode. My mind was going here and there, without the distractions of the internet, any type of schedule, and any other people to interact with. I thought about the meeting I was facilitating the next week (not for a long time, pesky work commitments) as well as current and past relationships. Without distractions, I had to deal with everything that I could push aside in the city, where I find it hard and make it hard to hear myself. Past relationships, current relationships, what do they all mean? Well, I’ll probably never know the ultimate answer to that question, but it sure is a trip to ruminate.

I physically exerted myself throughout the day, bushwhacking up a mountain in the early AM. The greenbrier and mountain laurel made the journey especially difficult, but I was rewarded with a stunning view. I walked across the backbone of rocks, enjoying the warm sun as the coolness of morning was burning off. I was also happy to be getting more comfortable off trail in the big woods, using the lay of the land and an understanding of the basic map of the area to stay oriented. When I got back down, I took a dip in Little Stony Creek; well, not a full dip, because it was cold. Mental note to start some cold training soon.

Beautiful view after bushwhacking.

I found a peaceful campsite on the second night, though not nearly as aesthetically pleasing as the first. The peacefulness was a bit unsettling. This night I was especially deep in the woods and I really felt out on my own. I was writing some in my notebook and had the fire going. All I could hear were planes, the sound of animals (mostly birds), the crackle of the fire, and my pencil moving across the page. Everything was as it should be, but there was still that creeping feeling of aloneness. The discomfort, though, is part of getting away from all the distraction and schedules so that I’m able to hear myself and heal. A slight mist was coating my journal page and making it hard for the pencil to make good contact, so I went and checked my hammock, which was getting wet. I took everything into the tent. I was happy to have the increasingly strong rain put out the fire and I soon fell asleep.

I had vivid dreams that night, so much so that I’m not sure what I dreamed and what actually happened. At one point, I awoke to a noise that sounded like a big cat meowing fiercely in the distance. My heart started pounding. Eventually, I chilled out and went back to sleep. I can really psyche myself out when sleeping in tents, since I can’t see anything, but only hear noises. Did a cat really meow? I’ll never know for sure.

The next day, after a hurried, and thus unsurprisingly unsuccessful, try at making friction fire with some paw paw that I found, I walked back to the car barefoot. Driving down the forest road, I had that mixed feeling that I always get when leaving a camping trip. On one hand, I’m almost out of the food that I brought, I have wet clothes, and these problems get fixed by going to a house in the city. On the other hand, I just about start to come awake and alive in the woods after a couple days. I start to feel less like an alien visitor, and more like a part of the woods. It’s such a nice feeling to finally get in that mode. I’m removed from my addictions of email, social media, and junky, sweet food. I have no choice but to be with myself and deal with myself. I can focus on the small things and big things physically in front of me, zoom in and zoom out, walk fast and walk slow. It’s a spiritual experience for me. I’m finding myself increasingly distracted and unsettled in the city, feeling restricted and as if everything is programmed. Day by day I realize that I’m not where I want to be and that I'm starting to stagnate. I can see a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not far away.

Monday, June 5, 2017

What a Community Can Do

I’m often unjustifiably credited with making “something from nothing.” A couple weekends ago, we performed one of those feats - making a fired clay bowl that holds both water and its shape. Of course, the clay pot was not made from nothing, but rather without things purchased at a strip mall. I was only able to shape the pot through thousands of years of human ingenuity, through the hands, minds and passion of a group of people, and with some basic, but skillfully collected, materials. The bowl, to me, is a symbol of what a community can do. This is why I say that ‘we’ made the bowl. I simply kneaded (wedged) the clay and shaped it, with expert guidance.

It holds water and doesn't become amorphous!

We made the clay bowl at the Mid-Atlantic Primitive Skills Gathering over Memorial Day weekend in West Virginia. Having gone to the event last year, arriving Friday after dark was almost no problem. I knew where to park, where to set up my tent, and where to find people gathered around the fire. After accidentally stepping in a small artificial pond with my then-dry shoe, I met some friendly people by the fire. We exchanged stories of picking up and processing road-killed animals until about 1 AM, and then headed to bed.

The next day I took classes on rabbit hide tanning and flint-knapping (breaking rock to make stone tools). It was a long day, and I did little besides make some rabbit hides smell like smoke and make a big rock smaller. Two skills I certainly need to refine some more! When dinnertime came, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed because I didn’t have a firm grasp of the skills I had just learned. But, when night fell, a father-son duo kicked off some storytelling and music by the fire. They had the group of at least 100 captivated, telling folk stories about possums and people, pushing the bounds of believability and leaving me wondering whether their stories could be true! I was feeling good at the end of the night, grateful for the campfire, the storytellers, meeting new people and seeing old friends.

I decided that Sunday would be pottery day. I had taken a pottery class the year before, but I did a shitty job. I rushed and skipped important steps. This year, I was determined to make a good pot and take my time. Our trusty instructor was there, dedicated as always, helping probably over 100 people make pots throughout the weekend, and often forgetting or neglecting to eat meals. Under his guidance, I wedged some clay, and started shaping it. I took my time, smoothing out any small cracks that started to form, knowing that these fissures would only intensify once the pot was dried and fired. I eventually got the bowl into a shape I was satisfied with, and left it to dry while attending an afternoon wild edibles class.

When I got back to the central fire, my pots were already there. The primitive pot virtuoso was collecting wood and arranging pots by the fire, making sure that none of them dried too quickly. He had two very dedicated people working with him to fire 100 or so pots. There were a few of us chipping in here and there to help, but the trio was doing the bulk of the work. I wanted to learn as much as I could, having forgotten much of the process from last year.

Second kiln being fired (right), pots being dried for the third kiln (left).

At this final night of the Gathering, something suddenly started to click. I was not a master of any of the skills that I had just learned, and of course it was ridiculous to think that I could be. It did take me some time to be OK with that, though! My realization was that this Gathering was not just about skills; it was about people coming together from different places, geographically and philosophically, to learn and to teach. I was overcome with a strong feeling that these are my people, that this was my pack. The people I interacted with see the value in old ways and have a true appreciation for what has been largely lost in North America and elsewhere. We are actively passing on and learning skills that are teetering on the brink of extinction. Besides these skills being a part of our humanness, they are becoming more vital as our dependence on functioning ecosystems becomes obvious and real.

I continued collecting raw materials for the kilns, but was mostly observing the trio moving pots around, building platforms with coals under them, and fitting tight wood pieces around the pots for firing, making sure that no flames would lick the pots. The smoke from the large fire was often blinding and choking. With determination, focus, and teamwork, the trio built and fired three kilns. Someone literally slept next to the kilns to keep an eye on them.

The next morning, I came back to the fire pit to remove one of my pots. The expert potter's rule is that no pots should be moved from the kiln until they are cool enough for bare hands. As I looked at the pot, noticing some of its glistening mica, I remembered the music by the fire the night before. A musician shared the following thought (paraphrasing): “Why is it that we come here (to the Gathering), and feel so good? It’s because we come together and work together in a way that we want to see in the rest of our lives.” There is something truly special about coming together in the context of primitive skills. Coming together happens in other aspects of my life, for jobs, school, religious observances, etc., but these often feel like obligations. Meeting to practice skills that are foundational to being human and are used to provide basic needs feels very different to me. When we come together for this purpose, it is easy to see glimpses of how small groups of people, working together, can live without all of the maddening complexity and destruction that industrial society has created and caused.

The upside down pot with the 'M' at the bottom is the one I shaped.

As I’ve said here before, I just want to be a person, with other people: a human animal. The titles of man, scientist, pay grade level, hunter, young professional, PhD, mean little to me. I am satisfied with being a person, and am learning and relearning the physical and emotional skills to be a true and effective person. I’m continuing to put together what that means for the way I live, and it’s invigorating to be with others who are working through the same challenges.