Do you have the skills to survive in the wild?
I like to think about a fire as a living creature. It needs a home, it needs to eat, it needs air to breathe, and it produces waste,” said Sarah Corrigan as she knelt beside a stone fire pit, gathering twigs into a cone shape.
Turning away from the fire structure, Corrigan began the process of making a fire with a bow drill. She pinned her front foot down on a notched plank of wood, picking up a small bow made from a twig and a piece of cord. Twisted into the bow was a carved spindle, which she pushed, point down, into the plank with her left hand.
Corrigan drew the bow back and forth, drilling the spindle into the wood with increasing speed, dark pieces of hair falling from her braid. Within seconds, a thin wisp of smoke rose from the spindle’s point. She pulled the bow away, emptying the ash into a bundle of tinder and blew on it lightly. I watched in awe as flames popped from the embers.
Stretched out behind Corrigan was 35 acres of river-front property in Corinth, Vermont, where she and her husband, Brad Salon, own and operate Roots, a school that teaches primitive and traditional skills to anyone with an interest.
This was the first afternoon session of Root’s weekend-long Wilderness Self-Reliance course, which had attracted (among others) several schoolteachers, a couple celebrating their 28th anniversary, a veteran, and a woman who drove from Philadelphia. In total, we were 16 students who had come to learn how to gain independence in the woods.
That morning, we had dropped off our overnight packs and gathered in a big room inside Roots’ post-and-beam schoolhouse for an introduction and pep talk of sorts from Salon and Corrigan. “A big part of what we teach is allowing you to remember your original programming,” Salon said, his tone at once encouraging and gruff, like he wished for our sakes that we already knew these things. “You all share a lineage and an ancestry with everybody on the planet, and you have what it takes to live in the woods.”
But it wasn’t going to be effortless.
“You’ll watch Sarah start a bow drill fire, and she’s going to make it look ridiculously easy,” he said. “And then you’re going to do it, and you’re going to feel like you have four arms.”
Sure enough, after carving spindles and notching our own wood planks, I knelt beside the fire pit. Twisting the spindle into my bow, I braced my arm against my shin and pushed the bow back and forth, just like Sarah had. But the motion was awkward, jerky, and less natural than Sarah had made it look. The spindle squeaked against the wood, creating black scratches, but no flame.
The Original Manual
Unlike other ‘survival’ schools, Roots is not designed to help humans prepare for the apocalypse. It’s not founded on spirituality, and it’s not meant to celebrate any specific culture. Corrigan and Salon roll their eyes at the mention of shows like “Survivor” and “Naked and Afraid.” Really, the couple’s desire to practice traditional skills is based in practicality.
“I find that the skills save the day in a more day-to-day way,” Salon tells me, sitting on his porch a few hundred feet from the schoolhouse. “Somebody loses their dog, and I track the dog. Somebody loses their keys, and I track the person to where they were and find their keys. You went out for a picnic in which you were going to cook something, but the lighter won’t light, and I’m like, ‘actually, I could start a fire in like 15 minutes. I have a knife and I have a piece of cord–I can just make one.’”
Roots, which stands for ‘Reclaiming Our Origins through Traditional Skills,’ teaches traditional craft and knowledge from crafting stone tools to basketry to animal tracking to bow building. A nine-month course called Origins, which culminates with a week-long “stone age” trip, allows students to practice living only from tools they’ve made themselves. In two days, Wilderness Self-Reliance covers the basics: shelter, water, fire and food.
Salon, 35, and Corrigan, 33, started Roots ten years ago after casually teaching friends how to create bows, forage for wild edibles and make fires. For wilderness gurus, both hail from unlikely regions–Corrigan grew up in suburban New Jersey, and Salon, suburban Connecticut.
“One of the things that happens in the modern world, especially growing up in the suburbs, is we have it too easy,” Salon said. “If you’re not into sports and academics aren’t doing it for you, the challenge of these skills–seeing that there’s something much, much tougher than you–I think that’s definitely kept me coming back to it.”
The couple met at a wilderness school in New Jersey. Since then, they’ve traveled across the country together, attending schools and programs that teach traditional skills. Corrigan is an herbalist and a certified Wilderness First Responder; Salon designed his own Bachelor of Arts program at Goddard College in primitive bow hunting. To hone their knowledge, they read constantly, talk to experts, and plunge themselves into the history of human tradition.
“In some ways I feel like we’re preserving the original manual for being a human on the planet,” Salon said. “That information used to be really common, and now everybody’s forgetting it. I feel like it’s important for somebody to be holding this knowledge: how do you skin an animal? How do you turn bark into a vessel? How do you turn skin into clothing, or a stick into a bow?”
Don’t Be An Alien
Before lunch on Saturday, Salon led the 16 of us on a short walk to a grassy meadow near the school’s garden. We formed a large semi-circle facing Brad.
This hour’s lesson: awareness. Re-teaching basic human instinct, he listed off the senses. In the woods, for example, we should try to see more broadly, keeping ourselves in this so-called wide-angle vision until something calls attention. Then, zoom in, inspect the distractor, and zoom out again. This is how animals see when they move throughout the forest.
“We walk with focused vision. We pick our next spot, and we go there,” he said. “The birds see that, and they make a sound signaling that there are weird predators around. Then, everything hears the birds, and those animals go away. You can hike the entire Appalachian Trail and see two squirrels and a bird because, based on the way that you were walking, you were plowing all the animals away from you.”
For those on a quest to see wildlife, Salon suggests notching that quick-paced stride down to a wandering meander. While through-hikers on the AT might be sticking to a schedule, the rest of us can relax and take slow, careful steps while practicing awareness.
“When we distribute behavior that shows that we’re not paying attention to anything going on around us,” Salon said, “the animals see us as alien.”
As Saturday came to a close, I walked with a student, Teresa Dillon, from our campsite to the schoolhouse, where dinner would be served. A yoga teacher from Boston, Dillon came to Roots after learning survival skills at the Firefly Skills Gathering in North Carolina. At Roots, she hoped to learn skills that would apply to her life in New England–the types of wood that make the best fire, the best edible plants in this corner of the country, the potential dangers here, etc.
“This should be required education,” she told me. “The root of anxiety is the question ‘can I survive?’ But when we’re in nature, and when we’re learning these skills, that kind of anxiety fades away.”
I knew what she meant. Roots had taught us physical skills–how to make a fire, how to carve and fold a bark container for water–but in doing so, the class showed us how far removed we are from our basic, natural instincts. As the program wrapped up, I felt almost gypped, like I was learning these skills decades too late.
Corrigan and Salon served a homemade dinner with ingredients from the garden, and afterwards, students gathered around the bonfire to practice bow drill for the remainder of the night.
Corrigan strolled from student to student, correcting technique. “You want to really lean over it,” she told one woman. “Put your body weight on the spindle.”
At the edge of the lawn, smoke rose from Dillon’s wooden plank. Carefully, she emptied the ashes into the dry leaves and bark she had gathered into a tinder bundle. Cupping the mass in her hands, she blew slowly, once, twice, three times.
Then, suddenly, a flame popped from the embers.
Featured photo courtesy of Roots School. Sarah Corrigan breathes fire into a tinder bundle.