Today’s soundtrack: here.
The sun was shining. The breeze was blowing. And a stark naked woman stood in front of us, smiling.
This isn’t the start of a romance novel. It’s the true-to-life account of my three weeks living at a hunter-gatherer camp. Specifically, at Teaching Drum Outdoor School in northern Wisconsin.
It was 2006, four years after the Stone Circle Study. A lot had changed. In 2005, I lost my spiritual teacher. A man I had thought was a true spiritual master turned out to be anything but. We went our separate ways. In the wake of that crushing experience, I made offerings and asked if I should seek a new teacher. The answer I received was simple: “Learn from the land.”
So, I made plans to hone my outdoors skills. I was an experienced camper, but camping always involved modern equipment and my own food supply. I had never tried to live off the land, and decided the Teaching Drum was the place to do it.
I arrived in the early afternoon. Someone showed me where to put my gear and I met a few of the other newbies. Then one of the guides offered to show us around.
That was when the nudity happened.
The guide was a woman in her late 40’s, with the lean muscles of someone who lives outdoors. She walked us along the main trail that went back toward the camp. On the way she showed us a cold spring-fed lake. She explained that we could wash our clothes there or swim for fun. “You can swim naked if you want, no one minds,” she explained.
And then she demonstrated.
So there we were, eight or ten first-day newbies dressed in long tick-proof pants, sweating relentlessly, mouths dropping open as we tried to guess how to respond to this.
She kept talking about the camp—what food was available, where we gathered for meals, etiquette—as she stripped off the last of her clothing and waded into the lake. She washed herself as she spoke.
At one point she smiled coyly at us. I can only assume she was a hair-trigger away from collapsing into laughter. My expression must have been priceless. I tried to strike a compromise between “not at all shocked or uncomfortable, so I’ll keep looking at you as you speak” and “SO not staring at you! I’m totally respectful!”
The Camp Itself
Teaching Drum School is an unusual place. It will always hold a special place in my memory. I’ll try to paint the picture for you.
The school’s founder, Tamarack Song, believes in a hands-off approach. That means you don’t go there to get a workshop, you go there to live a lifestyle. I learned many valuable skills while living at the Drum, but most of them were picked up by watching or asking. There were no classrooms.
Tamarack himself spends much of his time writing. There’s a modern house at the entrance to the school, and a library complete with computers and internet. That may not sound very hunty-gathery, but it’s necessary to run a school. To do outreach and publish his writing, he has to balance between two lifestyles.
These modern buildings flank the entrance to a whole different world in the woods. Following the trail back, we passed increasingly rustic buildings: an old cottage, a traditional wigwam, a lean-to, and then… nothing. A grassy semi-wooded area where visitors such as myself can pitch their tent (if they’re foolish enough to lug one along, which I was). Savvier types can claim a place to stretch a tarp from a tree or throw together a temporary shelter from local materials.
The long-term residents of the Teaching Drum make a successful living off the land, ranging far into a bordering National Forest to gather wild edibles or fallen wood. They fish and hunt where permissible, gather clay from a lakebottom when needed (this was my favorite task), and make fires using a bowdrill.
Wisely, they go a little easy on casual visitors. There is a stockpile of apples, oranges, and basic veggies in an underground cellar. A few freezers at the front house contain a great surplus of venison. Eggs and nuts round out the foodstuffs available for anyone incapable of hunting/gathering their own meal.
Even with these conveniences, it is a truly shocking transition to try out this lifestyle. It is not physically difficult or demanding. It’s actually an easy, idyllic way to live. All the work necessary to make a living can be accomplished in a few hours a day, leaving ample time for socializing, playing games, or practicing a craft (if so desired). It’s highly decentralized, and no one tells you what to do. Really, living this way is not that different from being on vacation forever.
But mentally, it’s a huge shift. There are a hundred little things you didn’t know you cared about, till you miss them. A few examples:
- A hunter-gatherer’s diet tends to be seasonal. You eat the same foods every day for weeks or months.
- Certain foods, such as dairy, enriched grains, and desserts, are almost wholly unavailable in the wild. The wild diet is low in carbs, uses occasional fruits as sweets, and is very healthy for you—but hard to adjust to.
- Bugs happen.
- The wild lifestyle is very hygienic, but in a different way than settled life. It takes some time to be at ease using pine needles as hand sanitizer or mullein leaves as toilet paper.
- The elements are always with you. Us newbies tended to huddle together in the lean-to if it rained, but we saw the regulars walking around in the rain freely, no jacket, big smiles on their faces. Living outdoors means becoming comfortable with outdoor weather.
Tamarack writes about how there are different “thresholds” people go through as they try to live in the wild. The first one happens on Day 2, the next one after about a week, and the third threshold after about a month. At each of these points, people get overloaded with all the new things they are experiencing (and the familiar things they’re making do without). Then they want to quit.
A person who toughs it out through those thresholds will adjust. It’s not just gritting your teeth to bear it—it’s an acculturation process where you actually become comfortable with the wild life. Bugs and rain stop bothering you, while milk and chocolate become a distant memory you don’t care about so much.
I was at the camp for three weeks, so I only experienced two of these thresholds. They hit you hard. How hard? I think this excerpt from my journal sums it up:
Today I was canoeing on the lake. As I paddled back toward the river that leads to camp, I saw a very young fawn in the grass at the edge of the water. He was so little he didn’t seem to know what he was doing, and he didn’t see me. I pulled my paddle out of the water and glided toward him quietly. The only thought on my mind… his mother can’t be far, and she’s still in milk. If I can tackle her I can have some.
What It Means to Rewild
Ultimately, my short foray into living as a wild human was one of the most important and fulfilling experiences of my life.
It is mentally challenging, and I can picture it taking a year to get fully used to it—about as long as it takes to get used to living in a foreign country. (Which is exactly why the Teaching Drum offers a one-year immersion to those who are serious.)
But the great boon of this experience is the knowledge that I can live anywhere. I understand how nature makes food and shelter freely available, which is like magician-knowledge. I can conjure a comfortable living out of weed-covered fields. It takes so little work I’ll look lazy.
Equally important is everything I learned not to do. Hundreds of jewels of safety and survival wisdom are tucked neatly away in my mind, ingrained into me by hands-on experience. I left the Teaching Drum hardly more than a neophyte, but already a survivor on any terrain.
Being able to survive outdoors and live comfortably are themes I’ve carried with me ever since. They led me to experimenting with zero-gear camping trips, and brought me to live in snow caves and handmade dens. They have helped me bend toward invincibility.
Next time I’ll talk about some of those more extreme adventures I’ve taken, and how to make them fun instead of scary. But here’s what I need you to do: tweet or Facebook share this post.
And, if you have outdoors adventures of your own, share a story!