Sandlines: Surviving Survival School

By Edward B. Rackley

The novelty of the New Year is only now dawning on me. Last year was exceptional; amazing and sad in equal measure, like the dynamics of any satisfying novel or credible cosmology. This year started with an unexpected blast in the face: a week of wilderness survival training in southern Florida.

I had expected to be tossed naked into a Florida swamp and told to ‘survive’ (I admit the idea still excites me), but the course proved long on lecture and short on real-time scenarios. This mix has its merits. Not of the ‘me alone against nature’ school, the Tracker School approach emphasizes the acquisition of primitive/ancestral skills over grin-and-bear-it privation and raw endurance. Its aims are far-reaching and total, merging the physical and spiritual. Provided one is ripe for conversion, the experience can be genuinely transformative. On the pragmatic level, its lessons will enable you to enter Nature’s green veil without a knife, food, water or clothing and still ‘live lavishly’, or so the instructors like to repeat.

There is no obvious reason to embark on a primitive survival course, unless you’re an apocalyptarian, a rabid Luddite or a very gung-ho Navy Seal. But there we were, a room full of seemingly normal people, eager with curiosity and our love of dirt. Both elements proved essential as the week wore on. Highlights of the course included fire by friction, emergency shelter, track identification, camouflage and stalking, trapping, skinning and tanning, edible plants, flint knapping, cordage, and safe water. We learned all of this and more, but the skills themselves mean nothing until you get out in the wilderness and practice–‘dirt time’, they call it.

Uncomfortably numb

Our instructors were often blunt but never repetitive. I heard this sentence only once, and it stuck: ‘By the end of this course, you will know how to make or do anything you see in a museum.’ I looked up from carving a friction fire tool, the bow-drill. Other students also laid down their handiwork. We stared for a moment of mental digestion, then resumed our cutting and scraping. Were these skills so lost as to require preservation in natural history museums? Those dusty diaramas of Stone Age domesticity are all that’s left of the knowledge that kept our species alive for hundreds of thousands of years?

Humanity has been around a while, even our Creationist friends would agree. Whether this makes us ancients or moderns–closer or further from history’s point of departure—we’ll let the philosophers decide. Besides this continuity in time, and a prehensile thumb, we share almost nothing with our distant ancestors. We would definitely not know how to survive in their world, nor they in the world we have built for ourselves. In fact, so much has been learned and lost in the passage from Cro-Magnon to Joe Sixpack that we need museums to house it all. The fact that our minds are now crammed with information needed to navigate our world—none of it serving the simple purpose of survival in the wild, the primary human activity for countless millennia—hit me in the head like a locomotive. If nature is a womb, we are test tube babies: functional and yet entirely oblivious of our true origins.

It took a full week of rumination over this breach of knowledge for the various pieces to come together. The school’s founder, Tom Brown Jr., spelled it out in his own way on the final morning of the course. ‘How can you expect someone confined to a hospital bed, for a full year, pumped with three meals a day, to walk out the door and be able to run, jump or do anything physical?’ Given the extreme state of our separation from nature today, who could possibly know where to start the process of reanimating the personal, immediate relation to nature enjoyed by humans of all previous eras.

Far greater than the sum of the survival skills we’d learned during the course, Tom continued, the quintessence of ‘living lavishly’ in the wild could not be taught. Wild animals fashion no tools and most lack prehensile thumbs, yet they manage to survive, and flourish using only this one skill. Tom refers to it simply, and deceptively, as ‘awareness’.  Sound flaky? Diss not, gentle reader.


When most of us enter the wilderness today, we do so for leisure, rarely survival. Such is our prerogative, our luxury, and our choice: we are after all Lords of the Food Chain. We bring in our own food, water, and gadgets to make our nature experience as much like home as possible. We treat the excursion as if we were scuba divers or astronauts. Inserted into an alien, potentially hostile medium, our comfort and security depend on the conveniences we import. Shelter, food, water, heat: without these we are naked, vulnerable, shit out of luck. As a result, our forays beyond domesticity are typically brief and highly choreographed: we stick to prescribed trails; we don’t touch the animals. The would-be naturalists and conservationists among us like the concept of ‘leave no trace’ because it reflects how we were raised, in pristine domesticity.

The story is well known. From our origins as lowly, abundantly hairy yet edible items on nature’s menu, we have come to dominate the planet’s only inherent hierarchy, the Food Chain. Among the spoils of this conquest, we are granted liberation from the immediate risks and rewards of survival. In its stead, we bask in the Holy Trinity of Comfort, Safety and Security. Doubtless much is gained in this progression; what is lost is less clear. To illustrate my point, indulge me this simple exercise.

Pull out your wallet or purse and look at the cards and bills inside. Like yours, the contents of my wallet allow me many privileges. Among them, I am allowed entry to supermarkets where I wander the aisles, sway to the Muzak, ask the assistant for directions to gluten-free bread and unpitted olives, collect various comfort foods and items of irrevocable necessity (like non-frizzy dog shampoo). Occasionally option paralysis overwhelms me, I abort mission and curse the supermarket experience.

But usually my basic needs are immediately, magically satisfied, with a minimum of conscious effort. There is no stealth, no guile, no creativity involved (although if we drove our shopping carts like bumper cars things might get more interesting). Those parts of my brain get their exercise while I’m perched here on my hindquarters, gazing at this screen and poking intermittently at the keyboard. This sequence of perching, staring and poking ultimately results in the plastic cards and paper money that I find in my wallet. These baubles and trinkets in turn allow me a trip to the supermarket. On off days, when I use my body at all, it is to stand up, walk a few steps, open the fridge and ingest whatever consumables I find there.

All these actions I can perform on autopilot, a blissful state of full-blown mind/body dualism. So long Homo Faber. Meet Zombie Man, connoisseur of post-industrial carrion, the Twilight Consumer.

Zask1907f38jp5 As long as I fill my wallet at regular intervals, I can perform the minimal necessary actions to secure shelter, fire, water, and food. Nature’s immediacy recedes further and further from my life until it becomes pure idea. For the rest of nature’s creatures, of course, reality is nothing like a vending machine. There is no currency to exchange, no symbolic transactions, no passive remove. Awareness is their sole survival mechanism.

Farewell, Homo Faber

In a 2003 Sports Illustrated article on the Tracker School, Tom reflected on the place of his teachings in today’s society: ‘People are aliens to their own planet. I’m just trying to reintroduce people to their own natural landscape.’ This is certainly true of me, a creature of convenience, but it is not universally true. We co-exist on the planet with traditional peoples whose circumstances are not unlike the Stone Age diaramas in our museums. Their relationship to nature remains immediate, the awareness informing their survival skills is still vital. Clothing, matches and metal tools are now available to many of these peoples, but how these objects are made or where they originate not widely known. Many of the traditional peoples I work with in rural Africa use matches but do not, for instance, know what to make of a mirror or a lighter, nor do they recognize themselves in a photo. They’ll turn it over in their hands like an alien artifact, which it is. 

In Luzubi, a rural Congolese village where I spent two years, I once placed an ice cube in an elderly neighbor’s palm. Nzolene retracted her hand immediately, exclaiming tiya! (fire). The ice fell in the dirt as she turned to search my eyes and read my intent. I realized she thought I had tried to burn her. Suddenly she laughed, clearly delighted to have encountered something utterly alien.

In my two years in Luzubi, I learned a lot from Nzolene. Our friendship began rather mysteriously. The day I arrived in the village, she approached my the door of my mud hut, bowing low and avoiding eye contact. Silently she placed a cola nut at the threshold, turned and left. Locals later told me her husband, also named Edouard, had fallen from a palm tree while tapping wine and died. Nzolene believed I was his reincarnation, and the cola nut was a traditional gift to welcome me home.

When the time came to slaughter my first chicken, Nzolene’s son Masaba was climbing the coconut tree in front of my hut. He climbed down to watch me chase the chicken around the yard in vain, squawking and flapping for its life. When I stopped to catch my breath and reconsider my strategy, he nimbly snatched it up. I had planned on decapitation, but before I could reach for my machete, Masaba had wrung its neck, killing it instantly. I stared as he handed me the limp bird, then stepped back to watch me work.

Standing there holding a lifeless chicken, I wasn’t sure what to do next. Should I gut it then de-feather it, or the other way round? I put down the machete and, cradling the bird with my left arm, grabbed some feathers with my free hand. I pulled hard—nothing. I tightened my grip and yanked harder, still nothing. A pot of steaming water appeared, brought by other boys who’d gathered to watch. Masaba laughed, taking the bird from me and plunging it into the pot. The feathers came out like pins from a cushion.

When I wasn’t working, Masaba and I would head into the forest and catch things—mostly birds, fish, and insects. Striding along a forest trail, Masaba could swat a grasshopper in the weeds, set it on his fishhook and have a line in the water in a single seamless motion that announced the joys of boyhood. After a heavy rain, we’d pick through underbrush to find a forest clearing where flying termites were taking to the air in droves. Masaba would catch a few in his cupped hands, eat some and affix others to the poles I’d cut and pasted with sticky tree sap. We’d step back into cover and watch small birds and bats swoop down to nip as the insects twitched, stuck to our poles. If the sticky sap did its job, birds and bats would get stuck alongside the live bait. Then we’d make a fire and roast our catch, munching as we sat on the forest floor.

Cro-Magnon Love 

In whatever country I happen to be, children always reveal themselves as a ‘traditional people’ in their own right. Mostly because they are curious and unashamed of their ignorance—like Nzolene’s unabashed delight at the sensation of heat left by an ice cube. We all start out that way, ignorance setting the stage for the wonder to come. I like to quiz my friends’ children when we’re eating together. Anybody know where this mayonnaise comes from? ‘The mayonnaise plant’–my favorite answer. How about my hamburger? ‘Uh, the refrigerator?’ If it’s meat we’re eating, they often don’t know the animal or understand that death was involved. But they want to know, and there is always joy in their curiosity.

Tom often referred to his teachings as having originated from nature itself, gleaned through direct observation and years of solitary ‘dirt time’. By the end of the week, a full circle had been drawn around the human and animal worlds. ‘Living lavishly’—the mark of success in any survival situation—was not the re-conquering of the Food Chain using arrowheads, deadfall traps or high-speed invisibility techniques. These were the glitter and sheen of Tom’s teachings. Successful survival required something far more elemental, a basic disposition of mind and spirit. By foregoing our modern trappings of convenience and comparative advantage (rifles, sleeping bags, MREs, etc.), we meet the animal world on equal footing, where survival is a matter of wits and senses. In short, awareness.

If you’ve read this far, you may be wondering what you can do to ‘increase your awareness’. Many techniques were shared with us, but the following can be practiced almost anytime, anywhere. On a summer night, stand at the edge of a garden, forest or field and listen to the cacophony of insects. Try to isolate one insect song, and approach it. Or listen to trees blowing in the wind, and try to identify one in the chorus. Next time you get up in the middle of the night, don’t turn on the lights. Let your vision adjust to the flat dark world, compensating for reduced vision with your other senses, including memory.

255pxugh_computer_game_screenshot1Curiosity is the condition for wonder, and wonder—I like to think—the condition for gratitude. For Tom Brown and his School, awareness is the synthesis of gratitude, childlike curiosity and wonder. Without awareness, the survival skills themselves are empty acts performed in a barren, non-responsive landscape.

Another word for the type of awareness being described here is love. Whether this has any bearing on our broken link with our distant ancestors, who knows. I’ve no idea, for instance, if love Cro-Magnon style was anything more than a monosyllabic, grunty affair. But after a week of survival school I came away certain that the Cro-Magnon definitely had their own version of the boob tube. No doubt about it, fire was Cro-Magnon TV. To watch a fire as it transforms solids into air is mesmerizing, its flames in constant motion and yet without mass. Starting a fire, feeding a fire, and watching it burn: a truly timeless showcase event. Ugh!