Bonding to nature: through the practice of primitive wilderness skills

Bonding to nature:
through the practice of primitive wilderness skills

By Chad Clifford


As a teenager, having already enjoyed years of diverse outdoor recreations, I became eager to understand nature at a more personal level. The types of outdoor recreations (e.g., backpacking, skiing, winter camping etc.) I participated in were often an end in themselves. In other words, the activity and setting were enjoyable, but my knowledge of nature and its processes seemed to stagnate. I realized that simply recreating in natural settings was not sufficient for fostering the levels of understanding and connection I desired. Hence, I began to focus my efforts on the study of nature.

As I nurtured these emerging interests, I became familiar with the local flora, fauna, night sounds, and other aspects of nature through observation and readings. I later began to take courses as offered by various traditional, survival, primitive, and nature-lore experts and became able to build diverse types of shelters, find food, and make a fire by rubbing sticks. As my skills increased, I began to learn advanced skills such as making bows, birch bark canoes, Inuit kayaks, tanning hides for clothing/craft, building snowshoes, and engage in the more spiritual aspects such as nature meditations and awareness. Collectively, I was learning primitive wilderness skills, which worked to connect me with nature physically, cognitively and spiritually. I later attained undergrad a graduate degrees in a related field and continued to share these skills in various outdoor skills programs.

Through this process, I have come to believe that the most precious aspect of learning and teaching primitive wilderness skills is for the development of a bond to nature, which Grob (1995) found vital for creating pro-environmental behaviours. Similar to Grob's conclusion, Stephen J. Gould (1991) stated that people will not destroy what they love-emotional bonds to nature and species are required to save them. The need to focus on primitive wilderness skills for creating emotional bonds to the natural world stems from the notion that we have been "overwhelmed by a multiplicity of consumer products, we seldom have a chance to see how few are really important or necessary….clearly, we also need a renewed sense of Earth as home; belonging to the land, connected to all other living things" (Susuki, 1996, p. 14).

Bonding to Nature

To expand on primitive wilderness skills as a method of bonding to nature, I will briefly consider literature related to the experience of an emotion, followed by the emotional response of both using technological objects and avoiding them (i.e., practicing primitive wilderness skills).

The Experience of an Emotion
There are dozens of theoretical perspectives and approximately one hundred theories on emotion (De Rivera, 1977). However, for purposes here, the experience of emotion will be discussed because of its close connection to the lived experience. That being stated, it is commonly accepted that the experience of an emotion is influenced by a cognitive component (Averill, 1996; Edwards & Dickerson, 1987; Kenny, 1963; Mathews & Wells, 1999; Mogg & Bradley, 1999; Parkinson, Totterdell, Briner, & Reynolds, 1996; Tallis, 1999; Tan, 2000) in the following way: a person (a) encounters an event or object and decides if it is threatening, pleasant or other, (b) feels a resulting emotion, such as being happy or fearful, and (c) is aware of the emotion being felt (Plutchik, 1984; Russell & Snodgrass, 1987). Further analysis of an experienced emotion has been taken through the structuring of an emotion along the dimensions of arousal (vertical) and pleasantness (horizonral) in a bi-polar circumplex of affect (Parkinson, Totterdell, Briner & Reynolds, 1996; Plutchik, 1984; Russell, 1980, 1997; Russell & Bullock, 1985). Therefore, all objects and events that surround us are potential objects (i.e., sources) of our experienced emotion. However, in that the natural environment is the backdrop for people who use modern and primitive technology, I will limit my focus to the objects we bring into nature.

Contrasting Objects: Modern Versus Primitive Technology
Advancements in technology offer new products, and therefore, new objects of emotion for the outdoor enthusiast, which results in improved safety and access to natural areas (Ewert & Shultis, 1999). This improved safety and accessibility allow more people to appreciate natural areas and develop bonds to nature-a process that furthers the protection of such areas. Moreover, It may also be argued that technology can alleviate the impacts on natural areas through no-trace practices. Conversely, in using this technology we further support consumptive activities such as: mining, smelting, burning of fossil fuels, wars, and over-packaging. But, what happens to the wilderness experience when we include these objects?

Beyond being aware of these objects in the light mentioned above, Aldo Leopold (1949/1986) clearly warned about modern technologically-based objects in outdoor recreations as follows: Then came the gadgeteer, otherwise known as the sporting-goods dealer. He [sic] has draped the American outdoors man with an infinity of contraptions, all offered as aids to self-reliance, hardihood, woodcraft, or marksmanship, but too often functioning as substitutes for them....where is the go-light idea....I have the impression that the American sportsman is has not dawned on him that outdoor recreations are essentially primitive, atavistic; that their value is a contrast-value; that excessive mechanization destroys contrasts by moving the factory to the woods or to the marsh. (p.180-1)

Modern technology use is still debated in various circles today. For example, a recent book entitled Controversial Issues in Adventure Education (Potter & Wurdinger, 1999) devotes a few chapters to technology-related issues (e.g., communications devices in nature). The problem lays in the notion that the wilderness experience is changed by using technological objects (Loeffler, 1999; Rowe, 1990; Shultis 2001).

Alternatively, Sigurd Olson (1956) believed that the sight of primitive (or timeless) objects like a wooden paddle could awaken ancient memories. So too, wool clothing and primitively tanned moccasins achieve the timeless element that Sigurd (and others) spoke of, not to mention an enhanced practical implications. These primitive objects have been tested over thousands of years and are (or can be) manufactured in the setting being used. Of course, our impacts on natural areas are a concern here. However, the impacts of primitive technology use allow one to be in control (a bio-regional practice) of our impacts, unlike the lack of control we have over the industry attached to modern technology. Realistically, we need to carefully consider the appropriate method for each activity we involve ourselves.

Among the benefits of practicing primitive wilderness skills are: learning about ecology, primitive cultures, connections, challenges, and teaching ourselves about the world (Epel, 1999). Likewise, Brown (1983) believes that the ultimate aim of practicing such skills is to re-establish connection and harmony with the earth. Moreover, the practice of primitive wilderness skills may offer an enhanced wilderness experience by avoiding (to diverse degrees) modern technologies, which turn the focus of the wilderness experience away from natural objects towards urban ones./p>


Creating pro-environmental behaviours require fostering (emotional) connections to the natural world. Wilderness philosophers' of the past and the present debate how the wilderness experience "should" be. The debate often considered the idea that modern technological gear leaves us with a more urban or domesticated experience. Conversely, practicing primitive wilderness skills limits the physical objects of our emotions to natural ones-keeping the wilderness experience nature-based. However, one problem I see is that there are very few people practicing, to any significant degree, such skills. But, to end on a positive note, we can start making our wilderness outings more primitive simply by leaving the more obviously un-needed technological objects at home.


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