Resurrecting American Chestnuts

There is nothing more evocative of “primitive America” than the American Chestnut.  Once the dominant canopy tree in the Eastern woodlands, it was decimated by a fungus imported to the US in the early 20th century.  By the mid-1900s the iconic tree went the way of the telegraph and the stagecoach with only a handful of survivors.

It’s hard to overstate the role the American Chestnut played in the evolution of our Continent.  Visit any antique shop or 19th century log cabin, and you are likely surrounded by Chestnut lumber, furniture and fine instruments.  The steady, predictable nut harvest supported teems of wildlife and humans alike.  It would be hard to recognize a 19th Century West Virginia forest because the loss of the Chestnut so transformed the ecology of the entire region.  But importing Chinese versions of the prolific tree (which were resistant to the blight they carried) spelled the fast and violent end of the American chestnut.  Sort of.

Here’s where the metaphors are hard to resist.  Get it, resist?  Nevermind, it’s a blight joke.  American ChestnutsThere were a few American chestnuts, hunted down and guarded by enthusiasts, reported and documented.  Over decades, scientists have crossed these hearty survivors with Chinese chestnuts to produce blight-resistant strains that are 99% American chestnut, and 1% Chinese.  We can never go back.  The forests of the East Coast will never be what they were, and we can’t and shouldn’t want the past.  One of my teachers at Duke always impressed upon me that there is no such thing as “natural”.  The real question is, what do we want our world to be and look like?  In this light, we can choose the Chestnut not because it used to be here, but because it is beautiful, bountiful, useful, and a part of us and our history, our identity.  It may never again cover the hills of Appalachia, but we can plant a few seedlings.  We here at the North American Bushcraft School have been jonesing for American Chestnut seedlings for years, but when a friend of the school asked if he could plant his here (a reward for donating to the American Chestnut Society which funds the research to produce the resistant trees) we danced in joy.  The land the school is on has been in the family for generations, and it was heavily logged during and after the blight.  Our desire to see American Chestnuts grace these hills again is personal and a little bit sacred.  Wanting to undo a little bit of the damage done to these lands is perhaps a Sisyphean undertaking, but we’re with this land for the long haul, and we’re dedicated to its health, history and future.

As we watch the tiny sprouts reach upwards more and more each day on the kitchen table, we swell with wonder and pride.  Not because we had anything to do with the amazing undertaking that is the resurrection of this American icon, but because it represents a spirit of caretaking and hope that makes my American heart sing.


For the past few years I have been fascinated by disgust as a human emotion, and I am kind of disgusted by it.  Disgust is defined as “a feeling of revulsion or profound disapproval aroused by something unpleasant or offensive.”  Strong stuff.  And in fact, disgust can be broken down into two categories: physical; and moral.  Physical disgust is a reaction to yucky things.  People across cultures express physical disgust with the exact same facial expressions, though there is some variability in what can cause disgust.  Some Westerners experience disgust looking at certain insects that are staple foods in other parts of the world.  This brings us to the far more malignant moral disgust.  The two kinds of disgust trigger the same parts of the brain and probably serve the same purpose.  Survival.

There’s a pretty clear line between survival and an emotion that makes you avoid dead things or pools of vomit.  Helpful, even!  This is clearly an evolved human trait that is expressed differently across the species.  I have no problem with this kind of disgust really, although having overcome some of my own disgust reactions has proven helpful to me.  More on that later.

Alas, the waters of disgust become murky and we cannot always tell the difference between physical and moral disgust.  For example, moral disgust towards sexual attitudes, obesity, race and religion can be pretty safely categorized as solely moral, but people who experience high levels of physical disgust (I, for example, am a sympathetic vomiter) tend to also display high levels of moral disgust.  My husband, love, life partner, is a dumpster diving, road-kill eating type.  Always has been.  Many is the family vacation where we had to devise some story explaining the 30 cases of raisin bread we brought.  At first, I will admit to being disgusted.  But my intellectual brain overruled my emotional one, and I sought to root out disgust from my emotional vocabulary.  Bread a few days beyond its date, after all, is no threat to my survival.  It turns out that knowledge is the enemy of disgust.  Sure, if you indiscriminately started licking things off the highway you’d get sick eventually, but by knowing what to look for, using your senses, and thinking a bit, you can very safely do these things with little to no risk, hence the disgust is unnecessary.  It is actually far riskier to eat factory processed food than weeds and roadkill.  A better use of our disgust would be to aim it at industrial food production.  THAT is what will kill you.

When we set up our educational display at public events, there are always people who walk by, see the traditionally brain-tanned hides of roadkill beasts, the antler sheds and say something witty like “ew”.  These folks are, generally eating a corn dog, wearing leather boots and generally oozing hypocrisy as they walk quickly by.  I want these people to come back!  Let’s get past your initial emotion, which is pretty normal.  Because although they ARE partially disgusted by dead things that in some hypothetical time and place could carry dangerous pathogens, they are also morally disgusted, and this is what irks me.  Our endless quest for efficiency and comfort has lead us to wall off icky things.  Our protein comes filleted, stuffed with feta cheese and wrapped in plastic, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the chicken whose body it came from.  People who get their food covered in dirt and blood and sinew (poor people) are disgusting to the straight world.  But why?  Do the poor have something communicable?  Will the rich catch it?  But we are disgusted by the poor, and the trappings of their existences.  The corn dog and boots are only acceptable because they have been chemically processed and stripped of any identifying features (at great cost to society and the planet).  If someone carried around pig lips and a corn stalk (same as a corndog, right?) that might trigger disgust.

A scientific study finds that you can predict a person’s political voting record with 95% accuracy by showing them pictures of gross things and gauging their disgust reactions.  I kid you not.  I’m not implying anything here other than to say that what seems like a simple survival strategy is often wrapped in layers of corn, to hide the fact that it’s just a hot dog.


Ode to Pee

Recently, when a guest instructor called me to his introduction to natural dyes class to discuss “peeing on things” I decided that my informal obsession with the practical uses for pee should take on a less cartoon-like quality.  It’s not just that I like peeing on things, after all, who doesn’t.  Right?  Seriously, the first time I watched someone start an indigo dye vat with urine, I was mesmerized.  Not only does the urine have real and valid chemical properties that enhance the dye vat, but it makes the product intensely personal.  An indigo dye vat is a living thing, and when you add a bit of yourself, it’s pretty great.  This is the ultimate renewable resource.  Every one of us has more of it than we can use.  Plus no one, and I mean on one is going to goof around with your indigo vat when you tell them what’s in it.

The “active” ingredient in pee is uric acid.  This is fantastic stuff.  Yes, it is aromatic.  No, you shouldn’t drink it.  But I am here to tell you about a couple of great uses for it.  Our ancestors were not nearly as squeamish as we are, in fact the Romans were nuttier about peeing on things than I am.  I think this might explain my ruddy complexion (“this” being Roman-ness, not urine).

  1. Tanning leather.  Urine has been used for thousands of years to help tan leather.  My micturating Roman friends used their pee to “buck” the hides.  When the uric acid degrades into ammonia, this solution does a good job of loosening the hair and membrane from the leather hide so that it can be scraped off and tanned.  There are some claims that urine was used to do the actual tanning, but I can’t see how this is chemically possible.  Even pee has it’s limits.setup
  2. Mordanting Textiles.  Natural dye enthusiasts will have at least heard of using urine or powdered uric acid as a mordant.  This is a pre-treatment for natural fibers like wool and silk that “primes” the fiber to accept dye.  It makes the colors brighter, and last longer.  In a related use, urine has been used for centuries to remove stains from clothes.  Again, this uric acid to ammonia business comes in handy.
  3. Growing plants.  Human urine is quite different from most animals’ waste disposal strategy.  The mix of nitrogen and other nutrients left in our waste stream is a great fertilizer for most plants.  Diluting is a good idea, or spreading it around.

So, of the three fundamental human needs, pee helps us achieve two of them (shelter and food).  OK, so maybe you’ve managed to cloth yourself for 35 years without peeing in a bucket once.  And your tomatoes are just fine with regular compost, thank you very much.  That’s probably true, but if you’re buying dyed cloth or leather from a store, it’s likely that much worse things were done to produce that clothing than a little pee.  And if you’re buying factory-farmed produce… same thing.  So before you turn up your nose at extreme recycling, give it a try.  It won’t cost you anything.

Why You Should be Eating Bugs and Other Gross Things

grubsWhen we go to a grocery store and think about shelling out big bucks for a lobster or crab, or grabbing some plastic-wrapped chicken cutlets for that matter, we are stepping on and driving around a lot of food. Whether it’s roadkill, weeds or insects, our western culture has taught us to eat all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons.  I’ll give you three reasons you should be eating grosser food, but let’s also think about the reasons we shouldn’t eat the shiny, hermetically sealed, marketed and processed stuff that’s at the supermarket.  There are always exceptions, if you’re willing to put out big bucks, you can get meat that isn’t factory farmed in horrible conditions or pumped full of chemicals and hormones.  You can get vegetables that aren’t saturated with insecticides and fertilizers.  You can even find potato chips without elephant-endangering palm oil.  Those things are great but quite expensive and there are very good arguments that terms like “organic” and “free range” aren’t necessarily what we think they are.  “But,” you are about to say, “roadkill, crickets and weeds? Nasty!”

Reasons you should eat grosser food:

  • You’re already eating bugs!  The USDA allows up to 150 insect body parts (or excrement) per 1/2 cup of wheat flour and 925 fragments in 3 tablespoons of ground thyme.  The list goes on and on.  The average person eats more than a pound of insects per year by accident! Frankly, I prefer eating bugs to the lingering toxicity of the pesticides used to keep them away. Not to mention the fact that when you eat lobster or crab, that’s an underwater cricket, not a fish!
  • It’s Everywhere. Talk about abundance, insects make up nearly 90% of the life forms on earth, roadkill is a nuisance and weeds… well weeds are what you use to make metaphors about abundance. Wild (gross) food is everywhere, and it doesn’t cost you anything.
  • It’s Not Actually Gross, it’s Wild. Bear with me here.  American and European standards of “gross” were formed before we knew how diseases were transmitted.  Other places around the world, after all, eat things we think are gross all the time.  The Bubonic plague and other outbreaks of disease lead us to suspect bugs and rodents of being diseased.  Some insects do muddle in dung, but so do chickens and pigs.  Just as you wouldn’t eat raw chicken, you wouldn’t eat a raw dung beetle.  Proper cooking, we now know, kills disease-carrying pathogens (that can sometimes be carried around by certain insects), so nothing to worry about.  As for road kill, if you get to it in sufficient time, it is no different than a deer that has been hunted for food.  The main difference is that insects, weeds and roadkill live full and free lives right up until the moment of their demise, unlike our farmed sources of protein.

At my school we teach a very popular Wild Food Weekend that introduces people to foraging and gross cuisine.  There are tons of arguments for eating wild, like not wasting road kill protein or eating lower on the food web that I also find convincing.  In the end though, my draw towards wild food is not intellectual.  I feel better knowing where my food comes from.  I know where I got it, what it looked and smelled like, what I did with it after collecting it and there’s a connection from me to my food and to its food that goes on and on.  It’s so hard to have that feeling in the deli section of the Food Lion staring through a sneeze guard at overpriced marine bugs.

Please Note: Collecting wild food and roadkill requires some expertise.  There are things you absolutely need to know before heading out.  You should take some classes, read some books, and check your state and local laws.


Finding the Right Knife

I made my first knife, my father says, at six years old. I vaguely remember being just a shade knivesabove eye level with the bench grinder while I destroyed one of his nice steel rulers. At six, my understanding of losing your “temper” was what my father did, not what I was doing to that ruler.


I’m forty-three now and my conservative guestimation is that to date I have produced over 1400 edged tools: steel, bone, obsidian and rock blades.  A few years back I designed a few pieces for Martin Custom Knives in Texas, and I continue to produce custom pieces on a small scale for friends and for primitive skills gatherings.  I have a small knife shop and am starting a forge at the wilderness survival and primitive skills instruction school my wife Sera and I run. My personal collection numbers well over one hundred rare and unique pieces. Whenever I see a blade attached to a handle I have got to see what it feels like in my hands.  When I go to dinner parties I end up in the kitchen sharpening dull paring and boning blades with the sharpening kit my ADD tells me to bring. I consider myself a knife guy.


So, what is it that a cutting tool actually does? The simplest definition is that a cutting tool separates matter. With the appropriate amount of force and changes in edge angle, a cutting tool can adjust and manipulate materials allowing us to accomplish everyday tasks. In the domestic world, cutting a loaf of homemade sourdough bread, sharpening a pencil or opening a bag of pet food would be somewhat challenging without a knife. In the forest, shaping the components for a bow or hand drill fire, cleaning an animal for food or cutting saplings and branches for shelters would be all but impossible without the assistance of some type of cutting implement. But there are so many choices of knives, which one is best?


I’ll let you in on a little secret; there is no PERFECT knife.  Cutting tools are only as effective as the handler wielding them. I hear and read the never-ending debate over which new knife is “better” and which new alloyed steel will produce a “superior” cutting edge. I am amazed at what modern metallurgists can produce and look forward to seeing what tomorrow holds but I constantly remind myself (and my students) that until not very long ago, we used broken pieces of rocks and volcanic glass to accomplish all the tasks we perform today. I processed an entire deer out last winter using nothing but stone tools, it took a bit longer but you’d be surprised how sharp and effective a few fractured rocks can really be.


Becoming proficient with any cutting tools is a learned skill, not instinct. Purchasing a good knife shouldn’t rely on instinct either. Know why you’re buying a specific knife and if it will do what it is you want it to do. I recommend writing down ten things you need a knife for every day and tailor the tool to the task. Comfort in your hand is paramount, period. If it feels like a shoe that doesn’t fit, move on.


A knife has basically two parts; the handle and the blade. Each comes in a multitude of shapes and styles: survival knives and kitchen knives; fixed blades; multi tools; carbon and semi-stainless steels; full tangs and cut down tangs. Each shape and material will affect the way the knife works with you and for you. The material the handle is constructed from will dictate a lot about it’s potential strengths and shortcomings. If treated correctly, natural materials like wood or leather will give you years and years of excellent service. Materials like Micarta and some new thermo-plastics are impervious to weather and will be around long after we are, and so are also great options. Choosing the type of steel you want for your knife is more complicated than ever. Read every article available and introduce yourself to modern knife steel options.


When you begin to narrow down a few designs, research all the product reviews on the piece and see what people have to say. Knife purists are a picky bunch so remember to take single opinions lightly, look for actual performance reviews. Find any groups in your area that practice the skills you are looking for, join one or all of them and see if you can find someone who has the knife your looking for and put your hands on it. I have 20 or 30 different knives available for all North American Bushcraft School courses so students can try out designs I feel are efficient and practical. Most importantly, don’t purchase a knife until you’re comfortable with it. With a little homework you’ll find the best knife for you!

“Survival” Vocabulary

Television has certainly changed the images we conjure when we hear the word survival.  blog2 picMaybe you think of strategies to vote someone off the island surrounded by tiki torches, or former military operators with handheld cameras eating caribou genitalia, or maybe even bikini-clad families stockpiling canned peas for the apocalypse.  I think there are a ton of labels, a huge number of lifestyles and a confusing array of skill sets that I would like to try to explain and sort out.  My wife and I run a Bushcraft school and I find that there are no labels for what we do that make it clear to people what to expect so I think some definitions are in order.


There are two basic schools of thought for this whole genre: bushcraft and survival and the difference is all about timing.  Lets start with survival.  This generally refers to either urban or wilderness skills that allow you to manage some sort of emergency situation for a few days until you are rescued or walk out on your own.  A typical survival course will cover skills that will allow you to stay alive for a few days like building a shelter, making a fire, navigation, rescue signaling, and food procurement.  “Preppers” are survivalists.  In the event of some kind of apocalyptic disaster, survival skills are going to be valuable.  That’s not to say that some preppers haven’t stretched their survival window well beyond the typical 72 hour “rescue window” with technology and stockpiling, but survival by it’s very definition it’s still limited.


Now we get to my personal favorite, and most of what we teach at our school.  There is no one accepted word for it but I use “Bushcraft”.  I also like re-wilding, primitive skills, sustainable living and earth skills. Homesteading though slightly different, shares a lot of the same skill sets, but has a farming component to it. Folks aren’t typically thrust into bushcraft situations. Those of us who practice bushcraft willingly walk into the forest. These skills are for after the “rescue window” has come and gone.  These are the skills you need to build a sustainable life outside of the hyper-manufactured, hyper-money-driven system most of us live in.  We tell our students that bushcraft lets you replace “survive” with “thrive”. Many of these skills are learned from ancient cultures in North America and around the world.  Again, there are those who live off the grid in a yurt and grow their own grains, and there are those who enjoy learning to create fire with sticks on the weekend, and there’s everything in between.  While we focus on bushcraft, we also teach survival skills, and we have teamed up in the coming months with a local prepper group to host a celebration of outdoor skills “From Primitive to Prepper” that we’re very excited about.


The story of Western civilization is one of increasing specialization.  Where once humans lived in large family groups hunting and gathering, we now have IT specialists, management analysts, and pet therapists.  I’m not knocking those jobs, but one of the things I love about Bushcraft is learning to be a generalist.  It’s very satisfying to be able to build a log cabin, make leather moccasins and grow great tomatoes, to not outsource those things to corporations.  I’m learning to be my own IT specialist, and goats’ therapist and the biggest secret is:  it’s fun.  I get to learn new things everyday and no two days are the same.  Now maybe my goats would be better adjusted with someone who trained in ruminant psychology for many years.  Maybe my log cabin floor wouldn’t squeak in the corner if a contractor had built it, and I’m totally positive that my website would be less apt to crash if I hired an IT person.  These are the trade-offs of the generalist. goats who sleep on the cab of my truck, squeaky floors, and convoluted HTML code.


In the end, though, what preppers, survivalists, homesteaders and bushcrafters have in common is that they are not taking the future for granted.  They are taking control of their own relationships with the Earth and with our human society and in this one person’s opinion, that takes imagination, hard work and a little bit of bravery.