Survival School

The estimated reading time for this post is 7 minutes

YABAW! Yet Another Big, Amazing Weekend.

Right when you need it, boomp. There it is. The survival training I went to this weekend was based on Tom Brown’s Tracker School and was exactly what I needed right now.

So much has been happening to me of late. It’s been a lot to take in and it’s consumed most of my brain space and energy either thinking or doing research. After the first night on the preserve… I wasn’t thinking about it at all and didn’t even want to. The only place I was willing to spend my attention was on the continually unfolding adventure around me which, in the end, led to a whole new state of consciousness.

As soon as we arrived we went down to a dock reaching out over a small lake. A giant blue heron watched us as one of the caretakers tossed in a few shovelfuls of fish food pellets the size of corn puffs. Fish began popping up out of the water and pulling the food off of the surface. I bent a little closer to get a good look at them when, in the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a long, dark form weaving towards us like a shark. It accelerated quickly towards the surface and, suddenly, pierced it with a massive head the size of a watermelon. Catfish, up to five feet long, swarmed in from all over the lake. In the end there were fifteen of them, feeding, diving, leaping up above the surface and crashing down into the water again. Across the lake, a giant snake began slowly swimming its way around the edge. I was mesmerized.

While they were often intermingled, the weekend focused on two primary areas of learning: physical skills and awareness skills. The morning began with a short meditation to practice opening up our awareness to the subtle sounds, smells, tastes of the woods. We then proceeded to construct what is known as a “debris hut” shelter. One of the instructors had apparently been living in one for the last eight months. It is basically a massive sleeping bag sized cone into a ribbed structure covered with a network of leaves and twigs. It should keep you warm well below freezing if packed high enough, and is completely waterproof.

The first thing that became clear was how quickly this group worked together. There were fifteen people, and all were eager to help pick up whatever needed to be done. I also re-learned a lesson about age that I picked up years ago. When I was younger I felt very little connection to much older people (grandparents). I always assumed this was a generational issue, and something that everyone not living with their older relations experienced. Now I see it very differently. I am a strange little bug, and I surround myself with interesting and strange people who make up a tiny subset of the population. Any generation has this small subset of people, including older generations. There were sixty year old people at this event that felt as fresh, spastic, exciting and excited as me at my freakiest.

One of my favorite characters from the weekend was not that much older than me. He was, however, more spastic, less self conscious, and even more full of endless stories, facts, and fascinating observations. He would tell some story about the time he lived in a wigwam. When I asked him where that was, he would explain that it was on some private land a little ways from where he worked, at an Ashram. An Ashram where, apparently, he was happily living as a vegan and picking up roadkill just for skinning until he found a fox and, as he held it in his hands, realized he could eat it. He then ended up with a roadkill deer which he sliced open, spread over a bamboo structure and smoked. At the time he would dream of it, savoring slicing up the meat, the feel of the knife in his hands… so he moved out of the all vegan Ashram and build himself a wigwam, covered with discarded tarps, which had holes that attracted, and allowed him to observe, shrews. “They were so cute, and mostly blind, and so fun to watch. Man, that’s the one creature that you’d never want to have grow huge… they’d just burrow up out of the ground all venomous and terrifying… that’d be the worst.” He was also a medic at the first Desert Storm, spent random times living in the woods, and makes stone tools with rocks he finds in downtown Austin where he lives, and is about to have his first kid. Lucky kid.

Next we learned to make fire, something I was most excited about initially. I didn’t quite get it out of my bow drill in the time we had, but I got close and I definitely know what I need to do at this point. I’m really stoked about making that happen and I’ve already started looking out for the right woods and yuccas for twine making (which we also learned).

We touched on a whole spread of other skills, including bird language (learning to understand what’s happening around you by how the birds react) and tracking. A track has an insane amount of information contained in it when read correctly, including fullness of bowels, sex, mood etc. But all of these skills were nowhere near as cool as the awareness training.

Every culture ultimately discovers some way of reaching a mental state of quietness, and develops their own interpretation for that state and uses for it. The Apache realized that this state provided a variety of tools, both practical and spiritual. From a practical standpoint it allows a human to not register “intent” with animals, which would make them appear to be a danger. It also produces “wide angle vision”. When I was a kid I realized that if I slightly unfocused my eyes while playing video games, and took in everything that was happening at once, I was far more effective at dealing with a wide variety of moving elements simultaneously. As a sound recordist for films I learned a similar technique for listening “holistically” and registering every sound that might be a problem.

Fundamentally opening up your perception in this way allows you to take in a huge number of factors, so many that you conscious brain cannot process it all at once and you simply “surrender to” or “feel” the information you need. (Malcom Gladwell talks about this in his book “Blink”.) This was important in our next exercise, where we walked off into the woods and blindfolded ourselves. We had to follow, and locate, a moving drum that sounded once every 20 seconds. Apache trackers, at age eight, had to locate a moving camp over a distance of 100 miles blindfolded in the same way. So that is what we did next: same exercise, no drum, carrying a full glass of water we couldn’t spill. Several minutes into the second exercise I ended up turned around and could tell that something wasn’t right. I stopped, stood up straight, and “felt” for the right direction. I started turning and got it immediately. I think it was primarily the feel and sound of the wind, some of many environmental factors my brain was taking in. Several people stopped in front of trees and walked around them while blindfolded, never touching the tree. The difference between being among trees and being in a clearing was huge. I could feel it the second I stepped out into a clear space.

The awareness exercises had quite an impact. A few hours after returning home, I am still in some altered state of awareness. My senses are hyper attuned. I felt a little strange when I first arrived, but the minute I stepped out the door and tried to walk to Wheatsville… it was a whole different experience. Everything was brighter, and moving, and I could hear and feels sounds and movement all around me. It was like everything was amplified. I tried to have a conversation with someone in the store and it was hard to communicate I was so overwhelmed. It was like moving through a richer, fuller version of the world. It was very surreal. I’m not sure how long it will last; I’m certain my brain will start filtering and shutting down again now that I’m being saturated with stimulus. Perhaps by tomorrow. But I’d really like to be able to keep the ability to turn on this level of awareness. Might be time to begin a regular practice of it…

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