Tools and Skills

Posted on: July 16, 2013

Sunshine Brewer is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable people around when it comes to primitive living skills and Native American survival wisdom. She has spent her entire life learning how to live off the land. In this new blog, she will share with our readers not only quick tips and tricks but in depth information on wild edibles, medicinals, and otherwise useful plants.

Tools and skills should be interchangeable. If one has a skill, one can make tools and if one has tools, they probably have the skills to use them. In a survival situation, having skills generally increases your ability to stay alive, warm, dry and fed. Self reliant individuals use skills and tools to increase their independence.

If one can make string, one can catch food either by snares, traps, fishnets, fish traps, bird nets utilizing the skill of cordage making. String will tie a lean-to, wigwam or long house together and allow a person to make outer coverings for these types of structures. Cattails and other plant/tree materials can be tied together on a single strand using double half hitch knots, loose weaving techniques and other knot work will allow many uncommon materials including saplings, conifer branches and grasses to help provide wind breaks and weather protection. Additionally, the ability to make string allows individuals to create fire using the fire bow method.

Firebows are difficult to learn how to master. There is a lot to know about the platform, kindling and which rotten/soft wood to use plus the added problem of the primary stick. The speed of rotation and pressure on the primary rod is also something that requires practice. Once you master this skill it is like riding a bike. You will never forget.

Primitive hunting bows were something I used often as a kid. I’d grab the first green branch I saw, twist up some string and head off into the woods. While not perfect from an artistic or modern weapon they worked just fine for me. Feeding a small hoard of people would not have been possible nor would that type of bow take down anything larger than a small bird or rabbit.

Primitive skills can provide an edge that others may not have. It is important to remember that, regardless of what it is you do for yourself, it is an accomplishment.

Once you have fire you are in a position to greatly improve your situation. Fire can be used to hollow out cut logs to create buckets. (Eight ply cord can be fashioned to use as a handle.) This method also makes bowls, spoons and other necessary items. Fire can be used to harden clay which is also a plus, especially if you have an abundance of something you want to keep clean and dry. Fire can also be used to keep warm, purify water, cook and to improve or disprove an area.

Primitive tools can be found anywhere and may be made of anything. Picking up a section of pipe could be considered a primitive tool. With that piece of pipe, I could hammer something into the ground, pry something loose, dig a bit in the dirt and defend myself if necessary. I always laugh at the signs that say “Weapons are not permitted inside this building.” There are many people who can use a regular number 2 pencil as a lethal weapon. Does that sign mean all pencils should be left outside? It is a matter of perspective. When you learn to see things with different eyes regular objects become a variety of other things. An empty bleach bottle with the lid on cut properly becomes a feed scoop, cut a different way without the top it becomes something else, a seed starting pot for example. Intact (no holes with its lid) wired to a chain and hook it becomes a turtle line. The lid of a food can is capable of fleshing a hide, cutting a wide variety of things; plants, string, small saplings fish and meat for example. Many lids could be used to create a fire-back (reflective metal surface used to reflect heat from a fire back towards the open area), external water resistant siding etc.

Water has and can be used as a tool. It can move objects that are extremely heavy, fertilize and irrigate fields, cut through dirt if properly routed, and remove trees from a field for cultivation. It an also be used to polish objects, although that takes quite a while. It can be used to leach plant tannins from nuts and some roots plus, with some engineering, it is used in many industrial applications. (Turning a grist stone, loom, water wheel etc.)

In my opinion, the ability to make string from plant/tree fibers should be the first skill to learn as it provides so many benefits. Finding alternative water sources should be number two. There are many ways to find water other than locating a creek, river, pond or lake. Knowing how to make a shelter that is capable of retaining heat, provides a break from weather which is imperative regardless of the situation. Personal defense is another. It is difficult for me to rank primitive survival skills as they are all connected to each other. String provides shelter, safe water, protection from the elements, and tools, which are all equally important.

String: There are more fibrous plants than I have time to share, and there are many that go unnoticed. Milkweed is not often considered a fiber plant but it is. Cedar bark is not strong but it is available in large quantities and is easily gathered. Grape provides a nice fiber but like Milkweed it’s not strong. Once you’ve mastered string making, knot tying is important. Double half hitch, bowline and fisherman’s knots are some of the more important ones to master for a primitive world.

Fire: There are times and places for magnesium fire starters however one should not depend on them for every fire they need to start. Firebows are hard to learn how to use however mastering this method means if you can make string or wear some type of lace up footwear you will always be capable of making a fire. My personal fire starting favorite is flint and steel. With this type of fire starting material, I can make a fire as fast as a person with a match or lighter. Charcloth will allow a person to use a fuel-less lighter to make a fire just as fast as with flint and steel. Magnifying glasses are great as long as the sun is shining and provide a secondary use in creating art and decorations on wood, gourds and leather. Unfortunately magnifying glasses are limited in use. (Note: Plastic magnifying glasses lack the prisms to effectively start fires.)

Water: If you know your geographic area, locating a creek or river won’t be hard. Knowing what trees and plants indicate a good ground water location can prove very important. Sycamore, Old Men of the Forest as I call them, are excellent indicators of underground water. Marsh type plants including some species of wild grapes and Jewelweed also indicate underground water. If you are walking in a field and notice a darker green patch of foliage the odds of a sink hole where water usually pools, a crevice leading to an underground cave where water pools or a spring is likely. Avoid using black water pools found in deep woods as they are a location where the local wildlife go to get rid of external parasites and they are a haven for snapping turtles. The tannin from the decaying leaves causes the water in the pool to turn dark. The darker the fluid the longer it’s been there increasing the chance of infestation of amoebic life, parasites and exposure to dangerous predators.

Shelter: Shelters can be constructed of almost anything and the length of time they will be used should be a factor in material choice. Making an air tight structure in the middle of the summer is not prudent nor is a shelter that has open ends appropriate for the winter. Saplings can be bent easily and are often used in the making of lean-to shelters, wigwams, and long houses for temporary use. Long houses that will be used for more than one season should have strong supports made from wood like locust, cedar or oak. Cattails, Yucca, Johnson Grass and Willow branches are easily tied together to form mats that can cover a lean-to, wigwam or long house. Thatch, hide, or clay would be preferred in the winter to help insulate and retain heat.

There are lots of things that can be used in a pinch to aid in survival. Some of my favorite take alongs are plastic sheeting, duct tape, staple gun/staples, electrical tape, and garbage bags. With plastic sheeting, I can rain proof the top of a wigwam, using cattail mats for the sides for heat relief; with duct tape I can assemble a wigwam in minutes instead of hours; electrical tape can double for string in a pinch and garbage bags give me something to fill up to add additional insulation when necessary as well as improve the use of passive solar heat for the structure.

Modern tools have their place and many have multiple uses. More on that later.

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