The term “primitive skills” is often used when discussing popular TV shows like “Survivor” and “Naked and Afraid,” but what does it really mean? In short, primitive skills are survival techniques passed down through generations, including fire building, tracking, foraging and wilderness navigation. Nowadays, many people go without ever learning these skills, yet they continue to be taught by outdoor enthusiasts around the world.
To learn more, we turned to the Maine Primitive Skills School, a wilderness education school that’s based in Augusta and offers workshops, apprenticeships and immersion programs. The following is a Q&A with Mike Douglas, director of adult programs at the school.
How do you define “primitive skills”?
Mike Douglas: Our ancestors, with a better diet and more extreme need to learn, came up with “first” skills, also known as primitive skills. These techniques and crafts are simple in design, efficient in operation and ingenious in their use of natural materials to solve problems and provide for life sustaining needs.
Why learn primitive skills in this day and age?
Douglas: Primitive skills practice leads to a deeper understanding of natural process and our needs versus wants in a modern world as much as it does in the out of doors. The practical aspects of the skills empower the participant to act to improve their condition with no reliance on gear. The standard of skills isn’t to suffer until rescue comes but to improve the situation until comfort is the baseline. Survival is a commentary on ones skill level; the nature literate person well versed in field craft is operating from a baseline of proactive improvements and relationship building. It is much more than just trying to survive in an alien environment.
Many people struggle with addiction to social media and a general dissatisfaction with the modern work environment. We are one of the most modern societies in the world, yet we struggle to find time to engage in meaningful exchanges with our neighbors, our loved ones, even ourselves. Being immersed in nature and learning how to promote bounty through life sustaining processes of our ancestors helps remind us who we are and what is important in our modern lives. Being able to flourish unplugged in the out of doors helps to put the rest of what we do in perspective.
Does Maine present any unique challenges or benefits to learning primitive skills?
Douglas: Maine is one of the most difficult of regions in the lower 48 because of our unique winter conditions. In many cases the extreme cold of the Arctic is easier because it is always dry. In Maine, freezing rain, followed by above freezing temperatures, followed by the temperatures plummeting well below freezing can all occur within eight hours. The benefits of honing skills in Maine is that there are four distinct seasons and many unique environments to work with. One couldn’t ask for a more diverse and extreme area to work with. We are blessed here when it comes to honing our nature literacy and field craft.
If you’re new to primitive skills, what are some of the first things you should learn? What are some “beginner” skills?
Douglas: We place a priority on safe and responsible outdoor practice. A Foundations in Survival Course will make sure you have a working knowledge of trip planning, navigation, emergency signalling and the skills required to sustain life. These would include protection from exposure, water gathering and purification, fire safety and construction, stewardship and signalling. From this foundation we can begin responsibly interacting with the landscape.
For people who are new to primitive skills, what is one thing that you teach at your school that might surprise them?
Douglas: The series of skills that support increased nature literacy, such as wildlife tracking and understanding bird behavior regularly receive comments from graduates who have used both to provide for their needs or help them notice things they would have normally missed.
In closing, can you suggest one small thing that readers can do today to expand their knowledge of primitive skills in Maine? Perhaps an excuse to get outside?
Douglas: How many of us know which direction “south” is from observing the features visible in our yards? Going outside, do you know where to find the nearest spring? Looking at the tallest tree in your area, can you read the limb lean to determine direction?