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Could you survive in the woods? These NC experts teach how to cultivate your wildness.

Rewilding experts teach students how to live simply outdoors

From fire by friction to tiny house building, primitive skills experts and rewilders share their wilderness knowledge at workshops and retreats in the mountains of western North Carolina.
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From fire by friction to tiny house building, primitive skills experts and rewilders share their wilderness knowledge at workshops and retreats in the mountains of western North Carolina.

Many people don’t know how to make fire from rubbing sticks together and can’t identify wild edible plants. They might not survive a night in the woods without camping gear. And with all our modern conveniences, do we really need to know all that survival stuff anyway?

Natalie Bogwalker thinks we do. The founder of Wild Abundance near Weaverville, Bogwalker wants people to get off their computers, put down their phones and go outside.

She teaches permaculture, homesteading and primitive skills and is among numerous outdoor educators in the Carolinas who promote the concept of “rewilding.”

“We evolved to have a very intimate connection with the natural world every single day, every single hour and to meet our needs from wild foods,” Bogwalker said.

She described rewilding as “doing activities and putting yourself in a situation where you’re cultivating your wildness as a human.”

That could mean anything from making baskets and identifying trees to walking barefoot in the woods and building a house. The point is to develop some self-sufficiency apart from manufactured goods.

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A woman at the Wild Abundance rewilding weekend weaves a kudzu basket. Jennifer DeMoss

Luke McLaughlin is the founder of Holistic Survival School, a primitive skills school also located in Weaverville. He noted that during most of history, humans lived without technologies like large-scale agriculture or smart phones.

Humans without regular exposure to nature, McLaughlin said, are like animals stuck in a bad zoo: they are unhappy and unable to move with ease. He suggested that living close to nature, using our hands, hunting and singing songs around a fire at night can actually promote human health and happiness.

At a primitive skills school

On a Sunday at the end of June, Bogwalker’s homestead was fragrant with the smell of milkweed flowers. The plants provide a haven for monarch butterflies, and are part of a permaculture lifestyle that provides food for her family and habitat for wild animals.

On this particular day, a group of women were sitting in a circle on a gazebo, learning how to weave baskets out of kudzu vine from instructor Nancy Basket during a women’s rewilding weekend. The group of about 15 women learned how to split firewood, prepare medicinal plants and shoot bows and arrows.

Stephanie Berst found Wild Abundance five years ago. She explained that the rewilding weekend focused a lot on ancestral skills, such as the ones that German or Irish immigrants to the Americas may have used. To her, some Americans seem lost without a sense of heritage.

“For me it’s about empowerment, it’s about taking some of our daily needs and processes and bringing them back into the home instead of paying a corporation to do that for us,” said Berst. “I learned more about growing food myself and processing food, saving food and not relying on something with a nutrition label to sustain me.”

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Women at the rewilding weekend at Wild Abundance take an archery lesson. Merideth Finney Garrigan

At Astounding Earth in Asheville, Luke Cannon also hopes to help people build relationships with the natural world. Students at his programs might learn to identify mushrooms or interpret bird songs. He also has classes on making rope from natural materials, animal tracking and outdoor cooking.

A favorite part of his programs is just getting together with people to admire nature’s beauty.

“People are amazed when I take them on walks,” said Cannon. “They’ll say, ‘I didn’t know this lived here, I had no idea this ecosystem was here.’”

The website for Earthskills wilderness self-reliance school in Pelzer, S.C., boasts a Master Survivalist Program on a 10-and-a-half-acre property. Its founder, Alexander Garcia, explained that though students work on survival skills, the purpose of his school is sustainability and instilling a responsibility for keeping the earth clean. Otherwise, how could someone forage for food or find safe water to drink?

“We all are lacking the confidence in ourselves because we think it’s so hard to learn these skills,” said Garcia. “One of the things I consistently hear my students say it, ‘I see the world so differently today than before your classes.’”

At home in the natural world

All the instructors mentioned a sense of belonging in their chosen landscapes. McLaughlin said he no longer feels like he is a tourist in North Carolina since primitive skills make him feel at home. Garcia said he feels the same spiritual uplift when in nature that some people describe from going to church.

It’s possible to feel at home in more ways than one: at Wild Abundance, students can take carpentry classes and learn to build tiny houses. While Bogwalker is no stranger to primitive skills, she also has a deep love for using power tools to build sustainable homesteads.

Noted Cannon, “I think these hands-on activities seem to open up a lot of connection to the natural world.”

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Students at Earthskills school harvest fish using a homemade fish trap. Alexander Garcia

Wilderness skills instructors weren’t all born this way. Bogwalker was planning on going to school for genetic engineering, but after being struck by a car and then taking time to travel, she moved into a bark hut in Madison County before building a homestead in Weaverville.

McLaughlin was a high school biology teacher in a former life, and Cannon, who grew up in Washington, D.C., was 14 before realizing how calm he felt when he spent time outdoors.

Garcia had a different story. Growing up in Key Biscayne, Fla., he was always exploring the outdoors with his sister.

“My first attempt at a survival situation was when I was about 14, when I borrowed somebody’s boat and sailed away to a faraway island that was deserted and tried living on it,” said Garcia. “It was a catastrophe.”

Garcia had only his father’s knife and a mayonnaise jar full of water. The bay side of the island was swarming with mosquitoes. As night fell, the sand flies found him. After coating himself in a layer of mud failed to protect him, he spent the night in the water, wrapped in the boat’s sail like a burrito. The miserable experience, complete with a face swollen with bug bites, encouraged him to learn more outdoor skills.

Not just for ‘granola-eating hippies’

However, people don’t need to be hardcore survivalists to attend the classes.

“Some people think it’s only something granola-eating hippies do, but really it’s something that people from all walks of life do,” said Bogwalker. Financial advisors, nurses, doctors, computer programmers and choreographers have all taken their classes, instructors say.

These programs, with the exception some of Garcia’s offerings, are only open to adults. Cannon suggests checking out Forest Floor programs for kids in Asheville. Firefly Gathering, a primitive skills gathering near Asheville, takes place every summer for people wanting to gain experience of multiple skills in one place.

“My prediction is that nature connection — spending time outdoors in nature — is going to be as essential to human health as exercise,” said McLaughlin.

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Jennifer DeMoss is a science intern at The News & Observer through a fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Jennifer, an anthropologist with training in forest ecology and botany, is looking forward to covering the latest research in the North Carolina area.
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