Skills almost lost
EarthBound Skills teaches wilderness know-how in Chico
On a recent warm September morning, a class of fourth-graders from Blue Oak School sat on the ground under the shade of pines and cedars at the Lake Concow Campground. They worked intently with their hands, hollowing out the soft inside of a small segment of a thin elderberry branch to fashion it into a tiny container.
Overseeing the kids’ progress were Jahnia Mitchell and Matthew Knight, two members of EarthBound Skills, a collective of young instructors who teach wilderness skills in and around Chico. The group has been teaching children on field trips and at school sites for a little over a year. The collective also offers weekend workshops that are open to both adults and children.
“Our main focus is … just connecting kids with nature, and if that just means getting kids outside of the classroom in the field outside, awesome,” said Knight. Sometimes, he said, he and his fellow instructors will just go to a school and “build debris houses.”
After making the elderberry containers, Knight arranged the children in a semicircle. He used materials from the campsite to demonstrate how to make fire from friction by using a basic hand drill: a piece of cedar board with a notch cut out at one side, with a stick used as a spindle that sits nicely above the notch, and a pile of fluffed-up cedar bark shavings for tinder.
He spun the spindle by rubbing his hands back and forth, applying downward pressure. The children started to gasp and yell, “Whoa! There’s smoke!” Soon after, Knight’s hard work produced a tiny coal, which he quickly picked up and dropped into the fluffed-up bark. After a few blows, and a lot of smoke, the bark burst into flames. The children whooped and hollered and clapped as Knight held the burning pile in his hand for all to see.
“Fire is … crucial in our sacred order of survival skills. … To create that from yourself and from nature is really powerful,” said Scott Grist, the third member of the EarthBound collective. He went on to explain the hierarchy of needs as being shelter, water, fire and, finally, food. Grist says that he came to Chico to study geology “because of my love of the Earth.”
Unlike Grist, Mitchell and Knight had little to no connection to nature as children. “I remember being depressed, being like, ‘there’s no place to play,’” said Mitchell. “I think that’s why it struck such a chord within me to bring kids back to nature, because … I didn’t really have that as a kid, and I realized … how much that affected me, and how healing that [connection to the land] has been for me.”
Knight said he never camped until he moved away from home at age 17. “When I found out about the skills, it just resonated so deeply with me,” he said.
All three instructors, independent of each other, learned their wilderness survival skills at the world-famous Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Each of them first heard of survivalist skills through Brown’s books, which detail his childhood in the Pine Barrens, where he was mentored by an Apache elder in survivalist skills and native philosophy. He also has a series of field guides on each aspect of nature survival—from nature observation and animal tracking, to edible and medicinal plants.
“When I read [Brown’s The Tracker], it totally hit a chord inside of me,” Mitchell said. “Right away, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to study from this guy.’”
All three mentioned being surprised by discovering wilderness skills, and also by their resulting entrance into the subculture of wilderness survivalists: “I didn’t know there was anything like this out there,” explained Mitchell. Grist, in a separate interview, said, “It opened me [up] to a new world that I didn’t really know existed, of this Native American knowledge that’s almost lost.”
Attending Brown’s school, Mitchell said, was life-changing. “I recognize there’s a problem with the way our culture is right now, and so I’ve always had a desire … [to determine] what my role is in fixing that, or changing the direction our culture is going in. What I love about the skills is that [they] reconnect you at a really deep level to your surroundings.
“I believe once you’re connected to your surroundings, you won’t want to destroy them; you’ll want to preserve them. You develop that respect. You also develop respect for the natives who came before us who kept this place alive for tens of thousands of years.”
The goal of EarthBound Skills is to spread the knowledge to Chicoans, both young and old. The group’s three weekend workshops during the fall are open to all ages and will focus on harvesting and processing acorns [see Chow, page 30, for more on acorns], building a fire-making bow drill, and weaving baskets from cattails.
“Acorns, for a lot of tribes in California, was the staple food,” said Grist, who also brought up Brown protégé Jon Young, another inspiration to the collective: “[He] says if you want to learn about your environment, learn about [what] the native people did, what food they ate, what shelters they built, because that’s thousands and thousands of years of knowledge built up about survival and just living with the land.
“Even if modern society keeps trucking on, I think this connection to acorns or any other kind of natural thing in nature is going to help the overall human paradigm of culture in our area.”