Getting Back to Basics at a Primitivist School
At ROOTS, you can learn how to make a longbow the way our premodern ancestors did—but can you learn how to live?
This article appears in the May Issue of VICE magazine.
One of Brad Salon's most distinct memories as a teenager in the suburbs of Connecticut was bringing a roadkill coyote home and ringing the doorbell. "Would it be OK if I kept it in the freezer a couple of days?" he asked his mom. He was obsessed with books like Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain, in which circumstances force a young man to survive alone in the wilderness. "I watched Alive over and over," he told me. After finishing high school, he found himself spending more and more time out in the surrounding woods and swamps. He tried college for a year but dropped out. Then he signed up for Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracker School, in rural New Jersey, one of the oldest primitive-skills schools in the US.
It was at tracker school that Brad met his wife, Sarah Corrigan. In the New Jersey suburbs, she'd felt the call of the wild as a child, too. She would play in a drainage creek near her house and "tie grass onto my feet to make moccasins. I'd gather crayfish and put them on the porch to feed the raccoons."
Brad and Sarah delved into the primitive-skills community, apprenticing with elder practitioners, studying herbalism, tracking, learning how to make Paleolithic stone tools and weapons, salvaging roadkill, tanning hides and pelts, sleeping in snow shelters, being left in the middle of nowhere for days with nothing but a knife and some cord. In 2007, they opened their own school, ROOTS (Reclaiming Our Origins through Traditional Skills), in a frigid barn on a rented property in Calais, Vermont, eventually moving to their current 135-acre homestead in the wilderness near the New Hampshire border.
"With primitive skills, you have varying degrees of new age and spiritual bullshit you have to put up with," Brad said. "A lot of holding hands, songs and chants, bless the bows." But ROOTS rejects this in favor of a more secular approach. One of Brad's first mentors, Tom Brown Jr., exemplifies this sort of new age self-mythologizing within the community. According to Brown's biography—which reads like something on the back of some Whole Foods packaging—the best-selling author of The Tracker, Grandfather, and Tom Brown's Field Guide to Wilderness Survival received ancestral knowledge from a dying Apache elder named Stalking Wolf whom he met by a river. Brown has been periodically denounced as a "plastic shaman" by skeptical students and Native American activists for his alleged appropriation of American Indian mystique.
Brad and Sarah are dubious about the increasing commercialization and commodification of primitive skills. Cable shows like Bear Grylls's Man vs. Wild and the Discovery Channel's Dual Survival have begun attracting a whole new type to schools like ROOTS—the aspiring primitivist reality star. One of their students, a gluten-allergic 22-year-old named Tim, has his own YouTube channel and a Facebook personality page. Tim has applied to be a contestant on Naked and Afraid, which drops two naked skills practitioners into a distant, inhospitable country to survive for 21 famished days. Their genitals are blurred out until they fashion themselves loincloths. "I'm rude to them," Brad said of the show's producers, who regularly contact ROOTS in search of fresh blood. "It's like, 'What you do is bad. Do you have trouble sleeping? You're exploiting people for money.'"
In early March, I registered for a nine-day Bows, Arrows, and Flintknapping class at ROOTS.
Sarah picked me up in a Subaru amid desolate, waist-high snow piles in the parking lot of the train station in Montpelier, Vermont. An upbeat woman in her early 30s, she did not have dreadlocks or a veggie-oil car or seem like someone who eats porcupines, snakes, and rodents for fun. She told me she studied art history in college and found herself won over by the "strong aesthetic style and brilliance of Stone Age technology."
I'd always been a bit suspicious of primitivism, especially the anti-civilization rhetoric of anarcho-primitivism, which advocates "rewilding" and returning to a more egalitarian hunter-gatherer-style society. My brother is disabled and uses an electric wheelchair, and things like sidewalks, roads, cars, Medicaid, and the Americans with Disabilities Act all represent freedom and mobility. The handful of primitivists I'd met would go on and on about how beautiful it would be if we ripped up the asphalt and went back to living in huts and Ewok villages, and the only thing I could think about was, What about all the people who are not you?
But recent developments had led me to reconsider my position. Some time spent in museums learning about the highly complex material culture of the mysterious early Mesoamericans made clear to me that native people were not only preoccupied with the mundane business of survival—they clearly had time not just to make bowls and pots and trinkets but to make them beautiful. I also realized I had spent the past decade writing and editing in an office, mastering Microsoft Word instead of learning to forage wild plants, build cob huts, track wildlife, or even do basic carpentry or car maintenance. My adult life seemed suddenly misspent, the years wasted in an incorporeal cloud reality offering fewer and fewer real experiences.
I asked Sarah whether she and Brad identified as anarcho-primitivists. She laughed and said, "No, but a lot of our friends do." She illustrated the divide with a reference to the anti-technology British TV series Black Mirror. "In the first episode there is that artist who forces the prime minister to have sex with a pig, and Brad's and my response was like, That artist is so depraved! The anarcho-primitivists are a bit more like, Well, that's what you get for being a prime minister."
We picked up a student named Angie and drove the winding two-lane back roads to ROOTS. Deep in a moon-drenched forest, overlooking frozen meadows, barns, and a composting toilet, we settled into the top floor of an old timber-frame shop, lighting a woodstove to warm up. The walls and shelves were covered in skulls, antlers, bird feathers, and pelts. A little library had volumes of Animal Skulls, Insect Lives, Mammal Tracks & Signs, and Bobcat Year.
After Sarah went to bed, Angie and I stayed up talking. She'd spent seven months in Maine living in tepees and cabins, studying with a man named Grandfather Ray, learning how to make traditional snowshoes, birch-bark canoes, and mukluk moccasins. "We lived in separate cabins, but I shat in a bucket on the porch. Ray would just walk by and say, 'Good morning!'" She had spent the previous week sleeping in a snow shelter and completing a stone ax.
A couple of years ago, while working as a lecturer on wildlife conservation at Plymouth University in Cornwall, England, Angie became restless. The house she had bought began to "feel suffocating." She rented it out and moved into the garden shed, staying there for two years. When the shed became suffocating too, she left her job, got rid of her phone, and set off to live with the Inuit near the North Pole and the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. She recently started a trekking company that arranges immersive, slow-travel experiences among Cree Indians in Northern Canada, eagle trainers and reindeer herders in Mongolia, and mountain gorillas in Uganda. When she was done with the ROOTS course, her plan was to head back to England and build a tiny house on the edge of Bodmin Moor. "I'll summer by the sea, in autumn move towards the woodlands, and in winter hunker down like a bear at the edge of the moors."
The next morning, the 15 or so ROOTS students gathered in the shop around a collection of cured Osage orange logs that we would spend the next days carving into longbows. I had expected the other students to be white guys, some mix of doomsday preppers and crusty punks. Instead, I met a local woman in an Arthurian metal band called Chalice; a lady who dyed her hide skirt black so she could wear it to the office; a lesbian couple from Cambridge, Massachusetts; and an indigenous Mexican woman in camo and a fur hat. There was also a permaculture designer, a former Marine, and the owner of a Rhode Island motorcycle dealership.
"You're here to have a four-day conversation with a piece of wood," Brad began. "I don't say that in an esoteric, dreamy way. I mean that you need to ask the wood things. This is a slow process if you're doing it right. If you're not, it's Sisyphean."
Archaeologists believe the bow and arrow emerged between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago. Osage orange was the wood of choice for Northeastern and Upper Missouri Indians like the Shawnee and Wyandot, chosen for its ability to hold form. North American megafauna like mammoths, tigers, and dire wolves were likely hunted to extinction by hand spears and atlatls, while bows and arrows emerged to hunt smaller prey. According to Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, the European colonists' powder guns weren't as effective against longbows as is customarily believed. At first, natives were afraid of the smoke and the noise, but soon they realized the powder rifle had its limitations. In the early 1800s, Comanche Indians on horseback could outgun pioneers, firing 22 arrows a minute with their short bows. In Iowa at the time, a well-hewn longbow could be traded for a horse and a blanket. The repeating rifle put an end to the longbow's reign.
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The first step to building a longbow is scraping the bark off the log with a handsaw and getting it down to an even tree ring. It's tiring work, carefully cutting away the thin rings without breaking through to the one underneath. The rings alternate in appearance—the light, corky rings grown in spring, the darker hardwood in the summer—which serves as a blueprint. As I peeled back the wood, the rings were so well delineated by color and texture that they seemed almost man-made—it felt preordained to be manipulating these materials. Working alone hour after hour on repetitive tasks, I occupied myself with musings of this kind.
Late that night, I sat by the woodstove and talked with Jazmin, an indigenous Otomi woman from the state of Mexico. When she was a teenager and seven and a half months pregnant, she crossed the US border in Texas to join her family. "I had a good coyote, but it was hard, all that crawling, climbing, and running while pregnant," she said. Now she lives in Sacramento, California, works on an organic farm, and is learning Nahuatl, the most widely spoken indigenous language in Mexico. I asked her what had brought her to ROOTS. "I've been praying to be able to do this, to make a bow, for three or four years, saving money little by little," she said. She took time off from work and left her nine-year-old daughter with her mother so she could attend a couple of primitive-skills programs. She said the idea of Vermont had come to her in a dream—now that she had seen it, she was thinking she'd like to move to the state, homeschool her daughter, and "maybe have another baby with someone who is on my same path." She'd raise the second one differently, she said, more in line with Apache and indigenous Mexican approaches to child rearing—teaching the child to track animals before she learns to read, and acclimating her at an early age to being alone in nature. "Babies cry—but by having them be still in nature and observe the world outside themselves, it builds self-awareness and ultimately makes them more confident."
In Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe, the tragic, tortured protagonist toggles between feeling blessed and forsaken by God after he is shipwrecked. Washing up alone on a paradisiacal tropical island, he finds plenty of food and supplies to survive, still it takes him months to accomplish the most basic of tasks—he spends 18 days widening the entrance to his cave; sewing barley and firing earthenware to make bread takes him a year. In one section, he spends two months chopping down a tree and shaping it into a canoe, but the log he cuts is too heavy to move into the water. As the years go by, Crusoe starts reading the Bible he scavenged from the ship and stops pining so much for his old life of sin. "I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this life I now led was, with all its miserable circumstances... and now, having changed both my sorrows and my joys, my very desires altered." After four long days and nights, I finished a longbow.
The skill of stone-tool production, known as flintknapping, is the oldest provable technology on the planet, long predating human beings. Most of the anthropological record rests on the discovery of crude, 2- to 3-million-year-old scalloped stone tools called hand axes discovered in Europe and Africa.
The hand ax was the hominid and Neanderthal's Leatherman tool, used for everything from chopping to scraping hides, shoveling to hunting. About 40,000 years ago, stone tools made a drastic leap forward. "That's when shit started to go crazy in Europe," Brad said.
Stone tools, honed in a process known as flintknapping, are believed to be the oldest technology on the planet.
Flintknapping sounds deceptively simple: Bash two rocks together, get a sharp edge. Not so. Flintknapping is more like laser surgery or solving some atavistic Rubik's Cube. The hammerstone has to hit the rock at the exact right spot with the exact right force to produce a conchoidal fracture and flake off a precise piece from the underside. This has to be repeated over and over, the sharp edge maintained as the rock gets increasingly smaller. "It's an eight-hundred-step process, and if you mess up one time, you fail," Brad advised. I broke stone after stone, my hands bloodied by stone splinters. It took me three days to make a hand ax—something an ape-like hominid could have done easily 2.6 million years ago.
"Are people still flintknapping?" a student named Eli asked.
"It's largely forgotten," Brad said. "There are academic communities of archaeologists and hobbyist flintknappers. There are these 'knap-ins' where hobbyists get together to break, trade, and buy and sell rocks. A lot of knapped red, white, and blue American-flag arrowheads and that kind of thing. The best flintknappers are really gnarly old-timers, out in Kentucky and Virginia."
Before I left, Sarah and Brad arranged for me to have dinner with their friend Harlan Morehouse, a lecturer on political ecology at the University of Vermont. Morehouse talked about his research, explaining how doomsday prepping and primitivism, with their focus on a purer life and preparing for shit to hit the fan, can be a kind of cop-out. "Primitivism has to do with the malaise and despair people feel in reaction to modernity," he said. "You see this crop up with Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents. Primitivism is this space where people can imagine a better version of themselves." Morehouse believes that Brad and Sarah are doing something a bit different with the ROOTS school.
"They don't narrate their version of primitivism and say, 'This is a return to a primitive state.' They see it as an opening to possible future states of being."
See more of Aaron's work on his website.