There's more to do in the woods than throw axes, and chop stuff with axes, and talk with your friend about axes. In fact, there are some things that don't even involve axes (we've heard). That's why Bethany Garretson will be joining us at the Project Woodchips Getaway this July: She knows tons about primitive skills, from starting a fire with a bow drill to building a shelter out of available materials to making baskets out of bark and tea out of plants. Neat? Neat.
Project Woodchips: When people talk about getting back to basics, it’s not uncommon to hear about the primitive movement. But what actually characterizes something as a primitive skill?
Bethany Garretson: I think of primitive skills as our “inner human” skills and something that's pre-industrial technology. For example, flint-knapping, friction fires, traps, basketry, and pottery. For many of the primitive skills studied in North America, just imagine a time before European contact and ask, “What did the natives do?” Those are many of the skills I attempt to replicate.
PW: What got you into primitive skills?
BG: I grew up in Cherry Valley, New York—a small rural town that played a historic role in the Revolutionary war. History became my favorite subject in school and I loved exploring old barns and historic sites. I'd build forts and pretend I was from the 1700's. My dad always joked I was born in the wrong century. It's funny how when we're so small we have a deep understanding of who we are.
My exploration of primitive skills spawned from my passion for history. Cooperstown, NY is twenty minutes from where I grew up and home to the Farmer's Museum—a living history museum. During college, I worked there as an interpreter of the Haudensaunee culture. I worked in a Seneca log house and Mohawk bark house while learning skills circa 1700 and 1800.
PW: What was the first skill you learned?
BG: The first primitive skill I learned was cordage/rope making. Then came birch baskets and quill work. I loved my job teaching skills and illustrating the lifestyle of a less cluttered and more hands on world. It was something I deeply wanted to pursue. My last summer as a college student, I worked at Hawk Circle, a primitive skills camp for children. I still remember starting my first bow drill fire with a cedar set—you just don't forget something that special.
PW: Are there any basic skills that your average hiker or novice camper should start with?
BG: Today, we have amazing gear and it's important to be prepared when you go into the woods. One of the tools I feel every hiker and camper should carry is a lighter and with that the knowledge to build a fire with natural materials. The Adirondacks are wet and damp—so good fire building skills are essential. Especially knowing how to start a fire with wet and damp material. It can save your life.
Primitive skills are such a strong tool set for any back country adventure—they make you more competent to do a lot with a little. It's important to acknowledge when and where to use them. For example, when I go camping, I carry a fire kit which includes my bow drill set, tinder, birch and a lighter. Most likely, in a real survival situation, I'm going to use a lighter over a bow drill.
PW: Do you have any stories of when these skills unexpectedly came in handy?
BG: My best stories with primitive skills come from around the world. Primitive skills are human skills and no matter our race or religion—I've found a group of diverse people can sit around a fire and feel intrinsically connected. In graduate school, I taught bow drilling to a few of my classmates who were from Africa, Bhutan and Afghanistan. Over the course of the semester, we'd had heated discussions, but around that fire we sat in a peaceful silence and looked at the coals and stars.
Another time in Nepal, I sat with a group of woman and made cordage. I didn't speak the language, but we smiled and laughed. It was beautiful.
Though one funny story with primitive skills in the modern world happened right outside my front door. My husband used his skills to set a crate atop a figure four trap and humanely caught a pesky red squirrel that had been getting into our garbage. We drove the little guy to a nice patch of woods thirty minutes down the road.
PW: You're also an Environmental Studies professor—do your students know you can start a fire with a bow drill and set traps?
BG: Ha, I think the word is spreading! Last semester, I led the Osgood Pond Semester (where students lived in yurts one mile from campus) and a section of our semester was learning primitive skills. This winter semester, I'm leading a Survival Saturday course, where any student can come out and learn some skills—such as shelter building, traps, fishing spears, throwing sticks, rock boiling, cordage and fire making. The primitive skills are very popular at Paul Smith's College and I think it's awesome!
PW: We are so thrilled that you're teaching at the woodsman getaway this summer--what can brand-new woodsmen and woodswomen expect?
BG: I'm so thrilled to be teaching at the getaway! It sounds like an amazing opportunity to work with a great group of people that want to push themselves in physical and mental ways. Which, is exactly what to expect when learning primitive skills. Bow drilling is amazing and it takes hours to learn the skill and lots of experience to master. I've been doing it for years and I'm still learning! So, expect to be challenged. Come into the experience with lots of determination and an open mind. Also, you can expect some amazing time by Osgood Pond next to a fire, star gazing while you're serenaded by loons and owls.
Want to learn primitive skills for yourself? Join us this July at the Project Woodchips Getaway!