Primary skills

I used to farm organic vegetables. Now I help people grow more of their own food in their own back yards which I call foodscaping.  I also teach naturalist and survival skills or what some people call primitive skills. I don’t call them “survival skills” or “primitive skills,” I call them primary skills. How to make fire using only natural materials that you find where you are, how to build shelters, make cordage, track and trap small birds and animals, archery, edible and medicinal plants, and how to observe bird behavior for what it can tell us about what we can’t see with our own eyes. Also the rudiments of gardening, fostering orchards, livestock best practices, food forests, compost, soil building practices and water harvesting.


I think of the skills and awareness sets of all of these things as primary. Primary suggests that they are, or perhaps should be, at the foundation of our consciousness and abilities. How to live in the places we inhabit without all of the interventions of modernity. To me that is primary. If I had my say, that would be the curriculum of primary school. Secondary would be all the wonderful things that modern society has invented over and above the primary activity of feeding, clothing, doctoring and sheltering ourselves directly from our natural surroundings. This is what makes me an upside down man in the modern world. Modern society and culture value what I value the most, the least. Hmmm. What to do . . . ?

Before the modern era, the roots of a people’s culture always reached deep into to the places we inhabited. This deep rootedness to place expressed itself in the flavors and colors of our food, the fibres of our clothing, the shelters we called our homes and in the less material aspects of our humanity as well – our stories of ancestral heroes and struggles, our legends and our myths, our songs and our dances. From necessity, this was so. The raw materials of culture were close at hand, the teachings and skills of how to live and to survive and to thrive in a given place crucial and hard-won lessons accumulated over a long and unwritten history.

Now all of that seems to have changed. Or are we just coasting blindly through an era of postponed costs and consequences masquerading as “cheap fossil fuels” an their attending technologies?

In one, single generation all of the accumulated cultural wisdom of eons of land based sustenance can pass out of existence, and it does. Even in my own modern family this is true in its own way. My father and mother both grew up on farms in the early part of the twentieth century, my father in Wisconsin and my mother in New Hampshire. Their young lives were hard. Yet by the time they were teenagers they knew how to garden, raise livestock, hunt, fish, gather wild fruits and berries, put up firewood, preserve food, build structures and all the myriad detailed chores and activities that went along with the family farm lifestyle. Both my father and mother were of the first generation in their families to go to college and pursue an educated middle class lifestyle. Almost none of the land and nature based skills and knowledge that they possessed as children were passed on to me or my siblings growing up. Those things were no longer valued and they passed out of our family culture without even a perceivable whisper of loss. Good riddance was more like it.

It took me decades of work and study to catch up with what my parents just “knew” about how to farm and sustain life from the land when they were still children. I’m glad for what I have learned and that some of what I have learned has made its way into my children’s lives and is slowly making its way back into the culture at large as the necessity of sustainable living is being acknowledged more widely.


This small story from my own family is but a small reflection of forces that have been at work for centuries on a global scale. As modern, educated, technologically oriented, expansionist cultures have extended their reach and influence, the consequences to localized cultures who drew their sustenance directly from their places of habitation have been extreme. Vast webs of culturally held wisdom, awareness and skill relating to nature, place and sustenance have been lost, not to mention the horrors of genocide that so many cultures of place have experienced. It is no wonder that we find ourselves on the brink of ecological and climate disaster. And it is no wonder that war and violence are still on fire over the earth.

I think the answer to both war and ecological destruction lie in the capacity that humans have developed over millenia of evolution to connect deeply with nature through the primary arts and allow nature to inform our deepest wisdom and leadership in community. This is what I mean by culture repair. And I thank Hawaiian elder, artist and friend Al Lagunero for his words and vision of a New Old Way. We won’t be turning back the clock and going back to the old, old way, that’s for sure.


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