Tag Archives: survival training

Survival Training 3: Scout Pits

The pits. Everyone always wants to know about the mud pits. They want to know how it felt to search through the dark for a hidden location and then climb down into a muddy hole in the earth, the size and shape of a grave, and go to sleep for the night. Patience. First I had to dig it.

My little german shovel, ready to dig

The first step was to find a good location. One of my teammates picked a spot surrounded by fallen trees. My first thought when I saw it was, “that’s the perfect place to hide a scout pit.” My second thought was, “wait, if that was my first thought, it’d be the first thought of someone searching for it.” I then realized that I had to dig my secret den of sleeping in plain sight. That was, until I realized that I’d thought of that idea second, and so would someone hunting me. In fact, maybe someone looking for me would be so sure I’d never fall for hiding my pit in the obvious place that the obvious place was exactly where I should dig. Soon this lead to the inevitable game of, “clearly I cannot chose the glass in front of me.” At last I split the difference by finding a spot in a fairly open clearing with enough saplings protruding from the ground that there was just barely enough room for a person to fit between them. More importantly, it would be hard to imagine that someone could fit between them.

I started by carefully clearing away and saving the top layer of decaying leaves and twigs. They were going to be the camouflage I would use to rebuild the forest floor as it was. Then I started enthusiastically carving out the dirt beneath with my small shovel. I had known we’d be traveling some distance to the site of our hidden camps and so I opted for a collapsing german army shovel. I think it cost me about $25 at a military surplus shop. The little green tri-folding tool took some serious abuse without complaint. One edge was serrated, which was perfect for cutting through the tough layers of roots near the surface. The front came to a point, and I could use that to hack at the thick clay to loosen it up before shoveling it out. Unfortunately, despite all of it’s great features, the shovel could not escape its tiny size.

After six hours of furious digging, pauses to pant and stare blankly at the ground, mad, aimless stabbing at dirt, ceaseless sweating in the rain, and general psychological mayhem as I forced myself time and again to keep digging, I still wasn’t done. I just couldn’t move enough earth with that tiny shovel. It didn’t help that I’d also come across a number of massive rocks. I’d had to use a whole slew of levering and digging and tugging tactics before I could heave them out, their resistance stubborn and unrelenting until the last. It was like trying to get my housemate Dhruv Bansal out of bed for a morning game of squash. Actually, in both cases pouring water on them helped to some extent. So did yelling.

Graham emerges from one of our scout pits
Graham emerges from one of our scout pits

The class had to continue, so in the end we compromised. Our team of four joined forces the next morning to finish two scout pits and we rotated nights sleeping in them. I was really disappointed in myself for not having been able to finish one completely solo, but the massive blisters on my thumbs and palms (in rock climbing we call them “bloody flappers” when they reach that point) were enough badges of honor to justify moving on to the next challenge.

My view in the scout pit of my feet
As it turns out, the scout pits were really comfortable. The walls weren’t wet and muddy, but solid and cool to the touch. The thick layer of dirt on top was enough to stop water from getting in and acted as insulation. There was plenty of room and maybe it was because I live with six housemates already, but the guests didn’t bother me. There were only a couple of large spiders, crickets, and beetles that decided to wander through my crude door to join me and none of them had any intention of harming me. I actually enjoyed having them around. It made everything feel more authentic somehow.

In the morning I climbed up out into the early morning light, the dewey ground and the smell of the damp leaves all around me, feeling very woven into the woods. I felt refreshed and exhilarated. I wasn’t a stranger wrapped in plastic, I was alive and a part of it all.

Survival Training 2

I wasn’t walking particularly carefully but my awareness was turned up high when, suddenly, the smallest movement to my right exploded like fireworks in my brain. I froze immediately and snapped my focus from a wide, expansive view to a narrow tube, zooming in on the barely visible fawn. Her colors, a complex blend of camouflage patterns, would have made her nearly invisible if not for her slight movement. Only days ago I would have missed her entirely, but now my brain was turned up to a level of awareness innate to all humans, but trained to disuse by environments like cities, thick with background noise. I was perceiving the world in a way that was essential to the survival of our ancestors.

Awareness. Throughout my experience, my understanding of what that word meant expanded as rapidly as the thing itself. Awareness is like reading. Awareness is like feeling. Awareness is a way of being.

Learning to read

When I first started to learn Chinese characters, they were beautiful scribbles, little bits and pieces of art neatly woven together. As I learned the radicals (simple bits of characters that form larger characters) I started to see them pop out of the background until the whole written Chinese language started to break apart and form simple, repeated shapes I could recognize. I think the experience is something like standing up close to a painting entirely of dots and, as you step back, seeing the dots suddenly form into people having a picnic.

As I learned about the various plants that surrounded us, just as with Chinese characters they began to emerge from the green mush before me that my brain called, “woods”. Suddenly I could spot the medicinal plantain and then the tulip poplar, with its catlike leaves and easy to peel bark, ready material for tinder or cordage. Quickly my brain used this head start to begin breaking down and separating a whole variety of plants I couldn’t even name, but could recognize instantly.

Where is the moon

Awareness is about keeping track of things. Like the moon. Every time I was overly focused on moving I lost track of the moon and went in the wrong direction. I don’t have a child, but I imagine that the way a parent maintains a constant background connection to where their child is in the room is how I learned to love the moon. It was another center, ever present, but also moving over time. By being constantly aware of its shift as it moved across the southern sky I could make continuous adjustments for how I was moving in relation to my glowing friend.


I’ve been asked if we did anything “spiritual” during our week. I think the best answer is yes, we did: we set tripwires for each other linked to small, very loud firecrackers. Most importantly, awareness is about learning to sense. The secret to learning to be very aware is repeatedly catching yourself when you are not aware and turning your awareness back on. I am particularly prone to walking while looking at the ground, completely lost in my head as I play out a story or song idea or problem that is thousands of miles away from the present moment. There is nothing like an explosion next to my head to bring me quickly into the present. After your first explosion, you suddenly feel every very slight tug against your leg or arm. Feeling for each little sensation of unnatural resistance means you are also feeling out everything else around you. Sounds. Smells.

Awareness is about taking in a lot of information simultaneously, without focusing overly much on any one piece, and allowing the subconscious to learn to process that information. I remember the first time I was instantly aware of a temperature drop. When I began repeatedly noticing hawks overhead.

This wide open, full awareness I’ve been describing comes from a whole variety of seemingly unconnected practices. Walking blindfolded in the dark. Stalking other humans. Being stalked by other humans. Knowing there are tripwires somewhere between you and the glow stick you are trying to steal. All these things produce a state that is difficult to describe but beautiful to experience. Everything feels expansive and also like a thick space, or material, stretching out in all directions where I am at the center. Things are continually in motion through that material, interacting in an ordered and coherent way over time.

Even with the brief time I spent in this state, I was able to feel the connected nature of everything around me. I glimpsed the integral way that things play out, and how one movement leads to another. It is abundantly clear that, living in this state for a longer period of time, even more attuned to the movement and shifts of nature, seasons, and the millions of cycles that repeat time and again, I would want to find a name for this ever present essence. Maybe I, too, would call it, “The spirit that moves through all things”.

It’s an incredible way of being, and at our last fire together many grown men were overwhelmed and even cried. Wallace put it best. “I don’t ever want to forget… this”, he said, yanking out a wad of mud and leaves from the ground before him and holding it up in a fist. I knew exactly what he meant.

That feeling, that connection to that fistful of earth, came not just from spending time on trails in the woods or the awareness we built. It was shaped by living in the earth, quite literally as the week progressed. The many physical challenges I would face over the week forced me to time and again learn to take on my single greatest opponent and obstacle: my own brain.

Stay tuned for more tales from the underbrush!

Survival Training

I paused mid step, my right foot frozen just above the ground, my breath, slow and even. Then I heard it again, the distant bung of the drum, echoing through the trees on the hill high above me. The blindfold was tight and cool across my face. The lively nerves across the bottom of my bare foot sang of a dry twig and I adjusted slightly, shifting my hips smoothly, and placed the foot carefully into the leaves before rolling my weight forward. The sounds of crickets and the feel of soft breezes across my bare skin shaped the space through which I passed. I wove my way slowly through thick tangles of vines and piles of logs, navigating through and over complex terrain that unraveled and simplified as I focused on the immediate and moving through flow instead of resistance. At times I gently thumped into larger objects, and was careful to move my head back slightly and feel out with my senses what I had somehow missed. Always around me the crickets lay a thick background that made subtle shifts when trees or thickets came near. Always came the interruption of the drum, every half minute, providing a brief glimpse of my destination.

The blind drum stalk was a crucial turning point in the nine day survival course I took this last week. As at last I sat blindfolded among the growing group of silent men emerging from the forest, the drum pounding mere feet from us, I absorbed and reveled in the sense of fearlessness that came with having moved through what would have, during the daylight, appeared nearly impassible. I no longer needed trails. I no longer needed light. I no longer hesitated to join the earth, mud, leaves and vines. I had begun my transformation into becoming them.

We were a group of fifteen men: twelve students and two instructors. Karen, who owned the land where we trained, joined us for most of our adventures in the first half of the week as an enthusiastic observer. Many of the students’ wives had attended previous classes, but something about this particular course, that required us to dig and live in mud pits, convinced them to sit this one out.

From the very beginning the driveway spoke of the group’s diversity, with tiny fuel efficient cars parked next to massive trucks covered with gun stickers. Dave was a cop that taught firearms. Matt ran a green building consulting company. Chuck, ever good humored under his bright red mop of hair, was on his way to Kuwait as a soldier. Craig, with his quiet presence and strong center, was a redneck turned Aikido master. Phil did autopsies at the morgue before becoming a copy repair man. David was a preschool teacher and amazing at Tai Chi. Wallace was a former wrestler we referred to as the, “Primate” who painted abstract art.

While we may not have shared the same political views, we relished the opportunity to spend time with other men who shared our passion for both ancient and modern skills and the natural world. We were forever taking moments to discuss or try out new equipment or ideas. If you make an alcohol stove out of a cat food can, don’t forget to add a drop of food coloring to the alcohol… so you can see it. Leaving your tent behind and using a poncho or tarp to build a shelter is great, but adding a hammock to raise you off the ground and allow you to sleep on steep hillsides is even better. Hatchet handles inevitably break. Why not forge your own hatched head with a tapered hole so that you can replace it with a sapling?

The instructors, Richard Cleveland and Tom Laskowski, also set the tone by setting their egos aside from the very beginning and pointing out that despite their years of experience, they still had plenty to learn. They even expected us, as our skills improved, to sometimes catch them during stalking exercises. It was a dark night several days later when it became a good thing that Richard, in particular, had said something up front.

Tune in for more thrilling tales as my adventure continues!