Ask Me Anything, Primitivism, Religion

Does Outdoors Time Improve Priests?

Photo by Asaf Antman


Andrew asked me:

Thanks for your post on returning to the outdoors [here]… Do you think that contemporary priesthood should be more directly rooted to the outdoors? I think we often consider churches as the ‘house of God,’ but I also think that it would be more apt to say the whole planet is the house of God.

This is a good question.

Just to clear the air, I’m not Christian. From the way you phrase your question, with an emphasis capital-G God, I have to assume you’re coming from an Abrahamic background.

I’m a polytheist. We believe there are many faces of the divine—in other words, many deities. These deities did not create the universe nor do they rule over it. They live in it, just like you and me. They are the personalities of forces of nature (the wind, the sea, the sun, love, etc.). Relating to them is not necessary; they are not jealous gods. They were here long before us and they often watch us in silence. But if we choose to listen, we can hear them whisper their guidance.

I’m starting with that because it colors everything I believe about the role of religion and priesthood. Ultimately, priests are people who spend a lot of time building a close relationship with these beings. We learn about them and, hopefully, how to be like them.

For me, it’s easiest to find them in nature. But this isn’t true for everyone. All the natural forces are present in our cities and suburbs. Ultimately, we carry the gods inside ourselves, so we can hear them anywhere there is silence.

In my particular tradition, ceremonies are often held outdoors. Offerings are put outside. We sing to the sun when she rises and the moon when she first peeks out. There is poetry for the sea and the stars. Relating to nature is a powerful practice.

But I don’t think more outdoors time will improve a priesthood. A priest needs to serve a community. More than that, a priest needs to serve individuals, helping them discover their inner selves and pursue lives they’ll find meaningful.

To that end, I think the way to improve any ministry or priesthood is:

  • Don’t try to convert anyone or sell them on a doctrine. Doctrine isn’t as important as practice.
  • Teach practices that anyone can do and that create healthy changes over time. This includes things like meditation, contemplation and exercise.
  • Adapt to new ideas, new technology, and science—even when it conflicts with old beliefs.
  • Refuse to give empty reassurance. Most people go to their church or temple and receive a message that everything will be okay in the end. Then they go home and make no changes in their life, even if they’re unhappy.
  • Instead, show people how to make positive changes, especially when it’s hard and frightening to do so.

I haven’t succeeded at all of this as a priest. I did teach many people to meditate, and helped a smaller number of people find themselves and their purpose in life. But I also found that it’s very, very hard to get people to make changes in their lives. There’s a lot of fear there.

I think that spending time in the wilderness is ultimately for a priest’s own enlightenment and well-being. The question is: when they learn whatever they’re going to learn from that, what are they bringing back to people who live a normal life? That’s what a priest needs to answer. We need to come out of retreat and get our hands in the soil.

Have a question? Ask me anything


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Lúnasa Days is about leaving home, taking a risk, and believing in magic.

Available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

Adventure, Primitivism, Travel

Why Stealth Camping is a Bad Idea

Photo by Zane Selvans

Rogue reader Clair wrote to ask me:

Did you do anything to prepare for sleeping outside, in unknown places, possibly getting noticed by police or property owners, on your adventure?

This is euphemistically called “stealth camping,” (translation: trespassing) and it’s a bad idea.

Stealth camping has an air of legitimacy among backpackers, primitivists and adventurers, not because it’s legitimate (it’s mostly illegal) but because it makes you feel legit: a true daredevil who bows to no ruler.

Adventurer Benjamin O. Jenks captures it well:

I could care less what the naysayers think, I love it. Every night is an adventure. What you sacrifice in hours of sleep, you make up for in feeling a pure injection of freedom.

I was thrilled to add stealth camping to my arsenal of tricks when I began my Great Adventure. After doing it eight times, I removed it from said arsenal, hoping never to go back.

A Response to Clair

I don’t consider it unethical and I’m not biased against it. But the reality is it is an impractical way to go. Here’s why.

First there is a nervousness or stress that comes with sleeping somewhere you could be evicted from. Shelter should feel secure. But if a farmer or owner sees you in the evening they might confront you with weapons or call the authorities. It’s one thing to be told to leave before sunset, another to be awoken at 3 am and chased out, possibly without your gear. And certainly with nowhere else to go.

By skill or luck this never happened to me. I’ve either been undetected or ignored. But from the moment I set up camp to the moment I fall asleep, to every noise I hear at night—I am aware of the risk.

From a [primitivist] point of view, you would not set up your nest in a cave you know to be occupied by a bear or a cougar. Why would you set it up in hostile territory managed by humans with guns?

I find that the extra stress also means I feel less rested. And it means I cannot follow a natural sleep cycle. I have to be up early before someone could find me.

There is a second reason I don’t do it, which is much closer to my heart. Instead of stealth camping I simply knock on a door and ask. I explain my journey and say, “Do you know anyone in the area who will let me camp on their land tonight?”

If it’s close to sunset you can be more direct: “Do you mind if I camp in your yard?”

This is a very different experience.

When you stealth camp you set yourself up as a loner. When you ask permission, you make friends. They learn your story. Sometimes they offer you food or a place in their home. They give you water. You play with their kids, and maybe some aspect of what you’ve learned about adventure will inspire those kids one day.

Humans are social animals. We survive because we have a tribe and a network. When you camp out you have a choice to either refuse that social heritage and behave like a raccoon, or embrace our biggest strength and form relationships with new friends. A lot of travelers enthusiastically encourage stealth camping, but I view it as a poor survival choice. Life is much happier when you befriend your neighbors. Even your posture will change if you have to hide from people or lie to them.

When you knock on the door sometimes they will turn you down. Other times you make life-changing acquaintances. It’s worth it.

Respect to Benjamin, but I didn’t feel a pure injection of freedom, I felt my ass dragging and exhausted from sleep loss. Maybe it matters more when bicycling than when hitchhiking like he did. But the main reason people stealth camp is to save money—to travel for free—and that’s the irony:

You can travel for the same price of zero dollars just by making friends and asking the landowner.

If you’re planning an adventure, learn to talk to strangers. It will earn you hot showers, hot meals and maybe even hot sex. Three things that are better than buckshot and angry dogs.

Personal Development, Primitivism

A Year in the Woods

In 2006 I learned to live in the wild. It was the most eye-opening experience I’ve ever had. People often ask what it was like, and I almost I can’t tell them. The only way to understand is to do it, and no one ever does it.

Or so I thought.

A Woman of Action

Last week I got an email from Clair. I’ve known Clair for years; at first she was the silent, thoughtful woman who attended events at our Temple. I began to talk with Clair and, bit by bit, discovered that she’s not exactly your average woman.

Clair has a commitment to living naturally. Not just buying organic, but actually changing her lifestyle. Last time I saw her she was living on an organic farm and learning how to work the land. She came to my going away party and gave me a jar of her own home-made drawing salve. It’s already proven its worth more than once by removing splinters and insect stings.

But somehow I still wasn’t expecting her email.

Clair announced that she’s going to Teaching Drum Outdoor School, the same wilderness school where I lived in 2006. Whereas I was there for less than a month, Clair will be going there for a year.

Teaching Drum has long offered a year-long wilderness program. Participants are taken to a remote section of wilderness. On Day 1 they make their own clothing from hides. They are shown how to make shelter, how to gather food and how to live as a small community on their own. In the winter they live in the snow; in the summer they live in the heat. Slowly over the year their food drops are reduced until they rely totally on their own hunting and gathering.

Bringing Together Families

For many years, the yearling program was small: you can imagine that not many people are bold enough to try it, and many drop out before each year ends. But this year Clair and the Drum are taking it to an unprecedented level, with 40 people—adults and children—forming a true, working tribe in the woods.

Clair writes:

[We will] learn how to live in the wilderness as a multi-generational clan. Many of the families and some singles are coming from overseas and the rest are from here in the States. We will be living in a community supporting and learning from each other what it truly means to be a human living in the circle of all our relations. We will also gain practical skills in fire making, shelter building and food gathering without modern equipment.

Clair’s group has started collecting for a scholarship to make sure no one is turned away. They seek to raise US $11,000 before May to underwrite the cost of attending this program and make it accessible to everyone.

I just made my donation, and I’d like to ask all Rogue Priest readers to consider donating too. Much of this blog is about having the determination to change your life, to transform yourself by embracing challenge. Clair is doing that in a remarkable way, and she and her tribe are making it a priority to help others do the same. They need your help.

There are two great ways you can support Clair’s yearlong group:

  • Make a direct donation to Teaching Drum through the yearlong’s web page. You can use Paypal, or donate by phone or mail.
  • If you love flowers, purchase some through Flower Power Fundraising. 50% of every single sale will benefit the yearlong program.

This program does amazing things and your donation will help to change lives. Please tweet and Facebook share this post so we can get the word out to lots of people. Thank you.


Winter Camping for #Occupy Protesters

I spent Saturday in solidarity with the Occupy Milwaukee protesters. If any of you still haven’t heard of the #Occupy movement, you can find a good summary here. I summed it up on Facebook like so:

This movement stands for increased accountability from corporations: through regulation, through taxes, and through limiting their political influence. I went very cautiously, not sure what it would be like. Was stunned by the unity of purpose, the incredible diversity of the people there, and the friendly attitude as everyone self-organized into a voting General Assembly.

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Primitivism, Religion, Spotlight

Encounters in Nature: the Complete eBook

I frequently link to the great discussions over at Humanistic Paganism, and the reason for that is simple: editor B.T. Newberg is a sage in the making. He’s also a friend in the offline world, and we frequently meet for conversation over Vietnamese coffee.  When this guy talks, I listen.

And I scheme.

What if, I thought, I could get B.T. alone with Urban Haas and listen to the conversation?Would my head asplode? Would history be rewritten? Probably not quite, but I knew the result would be epic.

A few weeks ago, my dream came true when B.T. and I piled into Urban’s hybrid SUV and drove five hours to a secluded cabin. We spent three days having some of the best conversation I’ve ever experienced. It was like the fine wine of waxing philosophic. If it was up to me I’d have drank the whole bottle.

Luckily B.T. has more vision than that, and as we settled around the campfire one night he pulled out an array of recording equipment and primed us for more than an hour of unedited, uncensored frank conversation about nature through the lenses of our three spiritual paths.

An houngan (Vodou priest), a Humanistic Pagan, and your Rogue Priest gathered around one mic. What were the results? B.T. has been releasing them in 15-minute segments over the last week or so. And now, he’s gone a step further.

B.T., Urban, and Drew. We are sober, just sunburned.

Encounters in Nature is now a complete ebook offered through Humanistic Paganism. It features a full transcript of the conversation, with links to the audio if you’d rather listen than read. The pages are packed with amazing pictures Brandon took during our trip, and he bookends the conversation with a killer introduction and a pile of bonus content.

This ebook just went live, and is currently offered for free. Snag your copy by clicking here, and show B.T. a little love by passing it on to others. Please tweet or share this post and let the world know!

Adventure, Primitivism

When I Was Enkidu, pt. 3: The Great Kind of Crazy

I had my magician-knowledge. I learned from the land. And now it was time to put it to use. I did so with vigor, relentlessly.


The first trip was a simple, summertime affair. I took several of my students from the temple and we camped in a grassy field. This was nothing new; we had done outdoor retreats before. But this time, there was no tent. No fire-pit. Not even an official campsite.

I showed them how to find a place that would be naturally low-mosquito. We created a place for a fire and I began to teach them how to use a bowdrill. After we ate, we didn’t get out soap to do dishes. Natural materials sufficed.

We spread our sleeping bags on trampled grass. Surrounded by cricket song and tall prairie plants, we drifted off to sleep with nothing over our heads and no one buzzing in our ears.


The next such trip was not so idyllic. It was the most challenging experience I had ever thrown at my students.

In late March or early April, we parked our cars on the road and hiked through knee-deep snow to a secluded, wooded location. We had:

  • No tents
  • No food
  • A knife and a hatchet apiece
  • Five hours to create shelter before sunset

I could tell how nervous everyone was. The snow was a surprise; it had fallen the night before. We had the clothing for it, but hiking through it was exhausting.

Finally, we came to a place that looked no different from any other, except that I had scouted it and knew it well. I found a downed tree and showed my students the basics of building a debris shelter, or as I lovingly call it, a den. Heaping up pine boughs and armfuls of leaves onto frames of fallen branches, the structures slowly took shape.

The group of us built four of them: one built like an upright hut (too windy), one built like a tunnel (that was mine, pretty cozy), one that was more like living underground (worked quite well), and one that was too poorly constructed and had to be abandoned.

With an hour or so of sunlight left we successfully killed and butchered a porcupine, which would be our food for two of the next three days.

Often people ask what porcupine tastes like. It tastes delicious, like beef with a slight fishy flavor—but it’s not the flavor you have to worry about, it’s getting those quills off. We sustained a few punctures but managed to skin and cook her safely.

This kind of trip is a real dividing point for people. It was brutally hard, not because it has to be but because we were new. Think of how you did the first time you rode a bike. Now apply that same learning curve to living in the snow with nothing.

Some people, even seemingly adventurous people, will run away at that point. It’s scary. But unlike in my tent in the rain, I was no longer terrified. I didn’t feel a burden of leadership crushing down on me. Instead, leadership was a privilege—the chance to teach these worried, tired people that they can make a cottage with their bare hands. They can shape sticks and leaves into a base camp, and food will wander up for their usage.

That is magician-knowledge: the power to make something from nothing.  The power to rest easy outdoors where people in tents would be shivering and fighting off frostbite.


Then it was time for the greatest challenge: outside with no equipment in Minnesota in January.

For those of you not familiar, Minnesota routinely gets temperatures of -10 to -35 (with wind chill) in January. This isn’t recess ladies and gentleman. Fingers can be lost. It’s do or die.

Although a debris shelter would work, getting the debris out from under the snow would be vicious. This time we planned to erect those most miraculous of structures, snow caves.

A snow cave is more or less like your childhood snow fort, with a couple crucial design overhauls:

  1. The door needs to be narrow and face downwind.
  2. The entry tunnel should dip down and back up again before you reach the inner chamber—this traps heat inside.
  3. There must be a bed of sticks (pine boughs preferred) so you are not sleeping directly on the snow.

It was #3 that condemned us to failure.

After spending an afternoon building our very first snow caves, we cooked our meals and wriggled inside. There were five of us total, divided between two caves. When we first got inside, it was blissful.

So warm it felt okay to remove our hats and gloves.

But it didn’t last. In our race against sunset, we had gathered too few branches to put on the floor. What we had gathered was devoid of pine needles and, in many cases, covered in ice.

We were sleeping directly on snow with no insulating layer. (Note: your sleeping bag is not an insulating layer in this case.)

The heat drained out of our bodies. We began to shiver violently. Wrapping arms around each other, we made an effort to huddle for warmth, but to no avail. As long as we were on a slab of packed snow we were headed straight toward hypothermia.

With reluctance, I agreed we should bug out. Exiting our snow cave a few hours after sunset, we trudged to the nearby farmhouse. I saw the geese watching us as we walked by, their wings outstretched in the wicked wind like it was nothing. I swallowed the bitter taste of defeat (or the taste of learning) and we made ourselves cozy by the fireplace of our friend’s farm.

Again, this is a dividing moment. Most people at this point will decide, for life, that snow caves are no good.

I prefer this.

It takes a special type of mind to look at failure, dive back in and ask, “How can we do it right?”

Thankfully, I try to surround myself with such minds. After discussing our design failures, we built a new snow cave. This one featured a longer entranceway and more interior space (just for comfort). Most importantly, it featured lush, thick layers of pine branches forming a sort of natural mattress on the floor.

As night fell, one other intrepid soul and myself crawled in. We laid down.

Felt good.

We waited.

Felt really good!

“Hey,” I said, “Do you think we should take our coats off?”

We did. It was warm enough to put them aside. In fact, it stayed above 50 degrees all night in there, with no heat source other than our own bodies. We slept peacefully—some of the best rest I’ve ever gotten. It soothes me just to think about it.

In addition to our night of warmth, we ran some tests. We checked to see what works better: removing coats to huddle together, or keeping coats on to maximize insulation (under these circumstances, keep your coat on). We checked to see if someone walking on the roof will collapse a snow cave (answer: two people jumping on it may not collapse it) and whether it’s possible to dig out from a collapse (yes, at least enough to make an airhole and then rest before working your way out).

It was one of the most amazing educational experiences I’ve undergone.


I’ve titled this series Enkidu for a reason. Many of you may know that Enkidu was Gilgamesh’s best friend and companion. More than that, he was a wild man, raised by animals. Gilgamesh had to have him civilized in order to stop him from raiding the farmers. Once he was civilized the two went on great adventures together.


On his deathbed, Enkidu forsook the goddess who had civilized him. In his final moments he missed the birds and wild beasts and running where he would. He regretted choosing the luxuries of civilization over the freedom of the wild.

There is a part of Enkidu in all of us. Humankind was wild and nomadic far longer than settled and agricultural. Society wants us to be civilized so that we won’t cause trouble—but a part of us will always regret it.

This is true of computer programmers, New Yorkers and stay at home moms. This is true even if you’re out of shape or afraid of bugs. We are evolved to live in the wild, roam over long distances and go where we please. That is an impulse that still burns away in all of us.

In the Gilgamesh Epic, Gilgamesh was able to defeat terrible monsters only with the help of his wild friend. I would humbly suggest that we all need Enkidu to overcome our greatest challenges; without contact with the wilderness, we are doomed to a vague sense of being caged, unfulfilled, or held back.

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Adventure, Primitivism, Travel

When I Was Enkidu, Pt. 2: How to Live Wild

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.

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Adventure, Primitivism, Travel, WDS

When I Was Enkidu: Nothing But the Rain

It was June 2002. Rain hit my tent. I heard it clattering against the dome and it was not comforting. It was chilling.

A clammy cold fog had already drifted through, dampening everything. We were camped in a swamp. I hugged my sleeping bag tighter around me, but it was cold and wet. It couldn’t help me.

At that moment I was filled with fear. Not because of bears or shrieking leeches. Not because of the storm.

I was scared because this was Day One.

I had planned a seven-week trip to Beaver Island, Michigan. It was a field study to map stone circles located on the island. Most people don’t know there are stone circles there, and they’re quite unusual for Native American construction. There was talk that maybe they had been built by early European explorers long before Columbus.

But that wasn’t what I cared about, not in that tent. There were three things on my mind:

  1. There is no way I can do this for seven weeks.
  2. I am miserable. This is the worst.
  3. I am responsible for two other people. They will look at me to make things better.

It was the last one that was hardest. Two women, my study co-author and our photographer, were in a second tent just yards away from my own. They didn’t come complain to me, and I didn’t go complain to them. None of us wanted to go out in the rain just to gripe. But I know we were all thinking the same thing.

I want to go home.

Home was a million miles away. Actually it was about 450 miles, but that was no closer. My father had graciously offered to drive us from Milwaukee all the way to Charlevoix where the ferry departs for Beaver Island. Earlier that day, on the ferry on the copper-blue lake, with the sun shining, the trip still seemed like a great idea.

But after he saw us to the ferry, Dad took the car and headed home. And by now, ten o’clock or midnight, he was already home. And warm.

I considered asking him to come bail us out. Drive back up, rescue us. The trip is a bust. Forget the stone circles.

It wouldn’t have been easy. No cell phones (2002, remember?) but we could have used the phone at the biological research station we were camped near. He would have come for us, maybe even that night, but it wouldn’t have been till nearly dawn he’d be at the ferry. And, oh yeah, the ferry wouldn’t leave till morning anyway.

Like it or not, we were stuck out there for one night minimum. But it wasn’t the minimum that terrified me. It was the maximum. Seven weeks is a lot of goddamned nights if you can’t even make it through just one.

Admitting that sleep was not going to happen, I reviewed my options. We could bug out tomorrow and go home. It would be an imposition, and it would waste hundreds of dollars already spent from our paltry budget of $1,900. It would be a blow to my reputation, and it would feel like I had personally failed my companions who had counted on me to plan and organize everything.

Or we could stay. A decision that might be even less popular than bugging out, or might even result in outright mutiny. I knew my companions well enough to be certain that if I was panicking, they were more than panicking.

And that was my first in.

What if the reverse is true?

If I stay calm, will they stay calm too?

I fixated on that. I planned what I would say the next day (or that night, if they burst into my tent wanting to go home). I made a mental list of things that might get better, and things that we can change, and things that aren’t that bad. I planned these things mostly to distract myself from the growing pool of water in the corner of my tent. I decided that I would speak with positivity and confidence, even though it was a complete sham over inner terror, and hope that it caught on.

I didn’t realize it at the time but I had just hit upon one of the most important strategies of a good leader. When the going gets tough you keep calm and carry on. When there’s a a blitzkrieg of shrapnel butterflies in your gut—you keep calm and carry on.

Fitfully, I survived the night. The morning brought mixed feelings. It was the least comfortable of all: the cold wind off the lake had chilled our low-lying swamp all night, and the thick trees wouldn’t let the fog burn off. It draped on me, on everything. Getting out of my sleeping bag was an exercise in shivering. But at the same time, the very sight of sunlight and the knowledge that nighttime was over gave me a sort of courage. I opened my tent door and went to check on my colleagues.

“How’d you sleep?” I asked.

They looked at me with zombie-like faces. I nodded as they debriefed me on how horrible the night was. I didn’t disagree on any particular. When they asked me what I thought, I began to talk in terms of what could be fixed or how we could improve things.

We did improve things. We re-sited our tents and did some waterproofing. We strung clotheslines to dry our bedding. We adapted.

It wasn’t perfect. Nothing we did would change the freezing miasma that hung over the swamp each morning. Nothing we did could stop it from raining every. single. day. of June on Beaver Island. I’m not sure that my companions ever were happy with our living situation, but they did it for my sake and I did it for their sake. In time we got used to it and I slept soundly and well many nights.

There are a lot of great things that I could tell you about from those seven weeks. There were Ottawa elders who visited and asked me to be their guide on their own island. There was the peace pipe ceremony they invited us to on the summer solstice. We even spent two days on a (truly) deserted island.

The moral of this story could be: don’t ever fucking give up.

That’s a good one. I like that moral. It’s true, mostly.

But that isn’t the moral of this story. Nor is it the fact that this was the day I learned what it felt like to be a leader. Those are tangential.

No, this story is told because that was the day I knew I could do more than just “camping.” I was beyond camping now, vacation-style, with s’mores and a car and a get out of jail free card.

I had gone deep. Balls deep in mother nature. And I found that I could make it, be steady, even comfortable.

I was comfortable dating the outdoors, even when she was in one of her moods.

I was changed forever. If you want to hear about why a grown man with a normal life would go off to live with hunter-gatherers, it starts here.

If you’ve enjoyed this story so far, please tweet or Facebook share it. Questions, thoughts, stories of your own? I love stories. Hit me up in the comments.