A Photographic Journey Through a Wilderness Survival Weekend

I was forever changed by a wilderness survival weekend. Mark Suter of Primitive Texas led us successfully through a freezing night, shifting weather, edible plant collecting, and wild habitats at LLELA (the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area). If you want to see even more pictures, visit LLELA’s Facebook album.

Please note: We obtained permission to harvest certain plants. LLELA is a wildlife preserve; every part of the habitat is important to wildlife survival. This training was a special circumstance; please always do your best to Leave No Trace.

Edible plants so common they’re probably in your yard: Storksbill (Erodium cicutarium), Wild geranium[?] (Geranium carolinianum), and Chickweed (Stellaria and/or Cerastium species). And they were delicious!

Edible plants so common they’re probably in your yard: Storksbill (Erodium cicutarium), Wild geranium[?] (Geranium carolinianum), and Chickweed (Stellaria and/or Cerastium species). And they were delicious!

We REALLY ate them! Raw and cooked.

A cool tree on the Cicada trail. Commonly in areas managed for wildlife, trees are only cut and moved if they fall on the trail. Otherwise, dead trees (“snags”) are left as great habitat for mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates.

A cool tree on the Cicada trail. Commonly in areas managed for wildlife, trees are only cut and moved if they fall on the trail. Otherwise, dead trees (“snags”) are left as great habitat for mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates.

Mark demonstrates how to start a fire with a hand bow and drill. I didn’t learn it well enough to make a “fire kit” for myself, so I look forward to attending the next fire-making class Mark gives in North Texas (probably at LLELA).

Mark demonstrates how to start a fire with a hand bow and drill. I didn’t learn it well enough to make a “fire kit” for myself, so I look forward to attending the next fire-making class Mark gives in North Texas (probably at LLELA).

Feeding the fire is just as important as starting the fire. Left: A teepee of sticks with a “door” ready to receive the “bird’s nest” style tinder. Center: The nest of tinder is a perfect place for the tiny, delicate coal created with a hand drill. Right: Ah, a snack and break from making shelter.Feeding the fire is just as important as starting the fire. Left: A teepee of sticks with a “door” ready to receive the “bird’s nest” style tinder. Center: The nest of tinder is a perfect place for the tiny, delicate coal created with a hand drill. Right: Ah, a snack and break from making shelter.

Monarda citriodoraLemonmint/Horsemint/Beebalm (Monarda citriodora) in the winter

Wildlife TracksLLELA was alive with wildlife! Top left: Bobcat print (Lynx rufus) with gloved fingers and boot print for size comparison. Right: Whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Bottom left: Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), raccoon (Procyon lotor), and deer.

Bobcat TracksMore turkey and lots more bobcat tracks. It seems very wet and soft trails are required for bobcats to leave tracks, so I took photos excitedly.

Gathering GrassesSurvival is about teamwork; it took nine people several hours to build our shelter. According to Mark, shelter is of primary importance in a survival situation. (“Shelter, water, fire, food: that’s the sacred order, dude!”). We gathered pre-approved grasses to add insulation to our shelter.

Panicum virgatumAs the sun set on our second grass-collecting trip, I was captivated by the beauty of warm light through the Switch grass (Panicum virgatum). After a very cold and cloudy day, the light and warmth were welcome. But a clearer sky meant the evening would get colder…

Survival ShelterGood thing we built our shelter with plenty of time! Top: we roast a snack by the shelter’s frame. Middle: done! And proud. Bottom: A morning view from behind the shelter. Note smoke from two fires (cooking fire and sleeping fire).Where I Hang My Hat

This is actually, literally, where I hung my hat. I thought that log looked like a face.

I’ll leave you with a warm, cozy image, and tell you about the second day another time.

Happy New Year!

Cozy Campfire


Field Notes Friday 0003

It’s that time again! Field Notes Friday is for everyone – just share a quote, image, sketch, thought, or excerpt from your field notes or  journal to any social media you choose, and use the hashtag #fieldnotesfriday to encourage others to do so.

Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect, beautiful, or profound. The point is to DO it, and become a better (whatever you are) because of it. So join us!

Today I participated in the Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count at the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area. Here’s one page of my account (and the transcript below):

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Sore from lack of sleep, and probably hunger and thirst, but I’d have it no other way. Explanation of my notes from previous page (and on the same day, too!)

I actually used the Fox walk (which I learned from the Wilderness Survival weekend), rolling on the side of my foot with each step and gingerly testing each leaf, twig, & rock! Of course I couldn’t use it the whole time but when I did, MAN did I notice a difference. Sometimes the others sounded like elephants – or armadillos! I’ve never heard an elephant but I know armadillos are bad. Can’t wait for warm weather to break out the Vibrams again.

I don’t have binocs (but now I know I’d like Nikon Monarch) … and at first it was like I was blind and deaf. Birding takes practice, and a new perspective. But eventually I started hearing what some weren’t. and looking for movement. I wasn’t useless; I saw plenty! Although I couldn’t identify I could certainly help in that way (locating). I think I was more keen in this 7.5 hours than any other time I’ve been out here (except @ night or alone). No wonder I’m exhausted!

Actually I think I’d encourage people to go birding the first time without binocs. It forces you to hone skills you’ll still need when you have binocs: hearing, wide-lens view, watching for movement, walking softly, looking @ habitat & more.

Every layer of practice in a new field of expertise changes my perspective[…]

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Field Notes Friday 0002

Yep, I chose that ambitious number as a sign of my committment, and as encouragement to me and to you. (I’m referring to the number of zeroes, indicating room for 1000+ posts before I have to change my numbering system.) But I won’t just be Erin of the Thousand Days; you and I are getting something big going. When you post your field notes via whatever social media you choose, you’re encouraging others to be more cognizant of their surroundings, more scientific and considerate in their thought processes, more creative and more sharing. You’re helping change the world for the better. And hey, you’ve got a lot of Fridays coming up! You could choose any of them to do one little thing to make the world a better place. (Remember to use #fieldnotesfriday to more effectively share with others.)

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My main lesson from this #FieldNotesFriday is that I do a good job capturing reminders of my myriad thoughts, but I need to finish the thought, or else my notes look like cryptic nonsense.

Now for the interpretation of my chicken scratch [and my additional translations of the seeming nonsense in square brackets]:

  • Date: 12-18-13
  • Number: Unknown + 12 [I lost count earlier this year, so restarted from “unknown”]
  • Location: Pioneer Prairie
  • 57 degrees
  • winds 4mph
  • humidity 60%
  • [Mostly] clear sky but high level fluffy cirrus
  • # vol[unteers] _________

What gives us the right? [to rescue/remove plants from a prairie] – Should have seen it since ’83, said [Dr.] Ken [Steigman]

I felt better as seeds popped off when I gathered [meaning I wasn’t removing ALL the seed]

Paper bag = good; DON’T USE PLASTIC BAG!

Near new hackberries, not with maroon curly [plant], dif[ferent] colorish, thick dewberry close [Wow, this makes no sense without explanation. I was searching for patterns in the vegetation to make my seed gathering easier and more efficient.]

Gathering is good work for learning [plant identification]

I want to create cans with labels of colorful spring photographs for storage of tinder… by species! [Will be] good for species ID and for teaching fire making. [Drawings of cans, labeled thusly] Cattail, Maximillian [sunflower], shredded cottonwood bark

? Why is so much Rattlesnake master lying flat? Trampled? By us? Chewed?

Echinaceae & r.s.m. [Rattlesnake master] seed heads look like sisters

Echinaceae liked this plant, which appears maroon [arrow to next page, where I have a sample of Little Blue Stem]

“Prairie Pirates!” [the volunteers (and I) really resonated with this term that was thrown out for our “motley crew”]

A Wilderness Survival Weekend

My weekend forecast changed from normal to amazing when I decided to participate in Primitive Texas’ Winter survival trip at LLELA (the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area).

For two days, seven ‘students’ and myself were guided by Mark Suter, a master survivalist and primitive living skills guru. We learned not just to survive but to thrive in winter weather using our wits, skills, and natural, local resources.

And yes, it was below freezing overnight. We deserve ‘polar bear’ credit.

I’ll share photos from this trip soon (and if you want to see more, visit LLELA’s Facebook album), but first I’ll share some things I wasn’t expecting to learn.

Machetes are actually useful.

I thought machetes were an anachronism from bygone explorer days, or else a ridiculously hyperbolic tool. I thought they were only used for shock effect or for cool book titles. But no, we used them – often, for all kinds of tasks – and shared, because I don’t have one. Now a machete is truly, unexpectedly, on my shopping list.

The best plant-learning is experiential.

You might think remembering plants is not your forte, but when you interact with a plant intimately – hunting for it, identifying, tasting, harvesting, cleaning, cooking, and eating it, or fashioning it into a digging tool or soap or rope – recognizing a species will be like recognizing a family member.

Sometimes it’s ok to cut down a tree.

Let me be perfectly, completely clear: we had express permission to harvest certain plants. Cutting a tree is NOT a normal part of leaving no trace or enjoying a wildlife preserve. This was a survival skills class, and some skills require using trees. (It was weird to cut down my first tree, even if it was a sapling. Watch for a later blog about the experience.)

Soapberry and poison ivy have differently-shaped leaf scars.

This was very practical information where we set up camp. The two plants share shady habitat, look similar when the tree is young and the poison ivy grows in shrub-form, and are deciduous (lose their leaves). Here’s a drawing I jotted. I’ll go back and take a photo soon.Image

This is a great way to build teamwork and camaraderie.

Our group bonded very quickly because we were meeting a common challenge: group survival. Gathering wood for a fire, leaves for a shelter, plants to eat… lashing fallen logs together, clearing sleeping space, hunting for animal signs, sharing tools and expertise… The bond we formed and time we shared were deeply gratifying.

I highly, highly recommend this trip (and other primitive living skills classes) if you want to:

  • feel an all-encompassing sense of accomplishment
  • develop profound respect for European settlers and Native Americans
  • deeply appreciate modern conveniences
  • feel more comfortable and able outdoors
  • change your perspective.

Besides, when is the last time you slept outdoors in a shelter YOU made…Image

and opened your eyes in the early morning and saw this?Image

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Absolutely raw and unbeautified, yet poignant and occasionally powerful – that’s what moments taken from our field notebooks can be. That’s what #FieldNotesFriday is all about.

Here’s the challenge – no – the invitation. Post a page, thought, picture, quote, or any tidbit from your field notebook every Friday. Or even some Fridays. Do it via Facebook, or Twitter, or WordPress, or any and all of the above and more. Share  thoughts you had and/or observations you made while outside or while learning about the universe. Use the hashtag #FieldNotesFriday.

Are you already journaling? Whether it’s a nature journal, field journal, science notebook, or whatever – share!

Are you an interpreter, scientist, wanderer, amateur, professional, naturalist? Share your thoughts!

Haven’t started your field notes/nature journal? Now is a great time, with a growing community of fellow journalers/observers/musers to support you. There are no rules, no wrongs – but there is certainly advice, and lots to be learned and gained from sharing.

So here is my first ever #fieldnotesfriday – not beautiful, not doctored, not deep or even in focus. But I’m grateful to have been introduced to keeping field notes, and I’m ecstatic that I kept these memories and realizations.

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I’m not often going to post a full explanation of my notes (though I might this week). I don’t want the explanation and amount of words to become a barrier to posting. I just want to post, share, inspire, and I want you to do the same thing. And together, we’ll inspire more people to go outside and just sit… and walk… and play… and explore… and be… and observe… and enjoy… And you know what enjoying a place leads to: Loving it. And protecting it.

And now, I make a prediction. You and I, and all who participate in #FieldNotesFriday, will:

  • Go outside more often and for longer
  • Enjoy the outdoors more completely
  • Make keener observations
  • Write more boldly and freely
  • Write field notes more often
  • Build a community around nature and journaling that benefits others and ourselves

So won’t you join us?

To learn more about the spirit of Field Notes Friday, check out my friend Aryn Young at The Ecology of Ignorance, especially the post that started Field Notes Friday.

Happy #FieldNotesFriday!

How to Be Green Without Being a Grinch

Green Grinch

You need this 10 minutes in your life. Before you compile your holiday gift list. Before you go shopping. Before you make your New Year’s resolutions. You want the breath of fresh air this video will bring.

Compare those solutions to a modern vision of the holidays: mounds of colorful toys, hours opening presents, wrapping paper strewn across the room, cameras clicking and recording devices whirring. Some attentive consumers are bound to occasionally juxtapose visions of sugar plums with images of sweat shops, brimming landfills, and animals choked on plastic.

What’s a festive but ethical person to do?

As naturalists and ecologists – as any human with modern awareness of our position on the planet – we must understand that the game needs to change. We have to change ourselves to change our culture and our world. Being a conservationist means knowing what’s worth conserving, and realizing the excesses of our lifestyle are not sustainable.

But not everyone has realized change is needed. So how can you be green without being a Grinch? Especially during the holidays, when we don’t want our eco-ethics and decisions to seem Scrooge-like. There are plenty of people who still associate the holidays with gifts, and lots of them. How can we participate in the modern holiday season without making the world worse?

You can make the world better and participate in the holiday spirit by giving gifts that are:

  • Reused – There are lots of places to find wonderful, gently used gifts (for example, Goodwill).
  • Reusable – Make sure what you buy is good enough quality to last.
  • Consumable – Food, candles, and other goods that don’t permanently clutter the house are a great way to minimize what ends up in the landfill. Bonus if the container is reusable or recyclable.
  • Low-to-No-Plastic – If you haven’t heard how bad plastic is for the environment, visit Plastic Pollution Coalition.
  • Nearly Local – The less something has to travel, the lower its carbon footprint.
  • An experience (instead of a thing) – Memories last longer and make more of an impact than cheap trinkets or fads. Why not give a membership to a nature center, or a local theatre, or a museum? Even better if you join your loved ones during the experiences you give them.
  • Compassionate – There are many wonderful organizations poised to improve lives in honor of your friends and family who don’t want more junk. Heifer Inernational is a great example.
  • Wrapped eco-friendly – As a finishing touch, use biodegradable and/or easily reusable wrapping. You can present your presents well without gobs of plasticized wrap or bows.

I hope it’s clear sustainability and the holidays complement each other. When we value the best of the holiday – time with loved ones, experiences and memories, service to others – rather than disposable stuff, we improve others’ lives and our own, and have a very merry time indeed.

There’s No Such Thing As Bad Weather

Even the most extreme weather doesn’t have to keep you inside.

During North Texas winters, as we enjoy balmy days near 70˚ and simultaneously brace for freezing cold fronts, it’s easy to feel we live in a land of extremes. And perhaps we do. We know it’s possible to bake cookies in a car during summer, when we see asphalt run liquid. Yet we endure chap-your-whole-face dry cold and chill-you-to-the-bone wet cold. We endure floods; we suffer droughts. But I’d like to challenge us all with a Norwegian proverb:

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.

Not convinced? Check out this outdoor kindergarten in the arctic.

In the last decade, Norway, which is renowned for its education system, has increased its outdoor preschools by the hundreds. Yes, outdoor preschools. The school featured in the video increases students’ outdoor time until there are only 1 or 2 days a year the children aren’t outside for most of the day. And this is in a town which is snowbound for 6 months every year.

How do Norwegians whole-heartedly embrace their unique climate and ecosystem? And how can we?

What challenges does the weather in your area present to outdoor time? How can you deal with those challenges in a way that embraces your unique place and enhances others’ love of it?

Pointers from an outdoor preschool:

  • Taking refuge in a building is not the answer. Small mobile shelters are for rest time only. The best action, enjoyment, and learning is outside, in any weather.
  • Curriculum and standards are still key, and they’re enhanced by being outside.
  • Risk and reality are far more life-enhancing than artificial surroundings.
  • Adults set the tone. Our attitudes can influence others profoundly.

I think this last point is the most salient, and the most actionable. Even if you haven’t completely embraced your surroundings, you can keep from negatively influencing others just by keeping your mouth closed and letting others experience the outdoors without bias.

Everyone begins as a child by liking Weather. You learn the art of disliking it as you grow up. Noticed it on a snowy day? The grown-ups are all going about with long faces, but look at the children – and the dogs? They know what snow’s made for. […] Any child loves rain if it’s allowed to go out and paddle about in it.  ~ C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

I recognize there’s more to dealing with cold than mind-over-matter. And I’ll address another challenge – dealing with heat – in a later entry. But let’s remember an important reason for regularly enjoying the outdoors, regardless of weather: familiarity leads to love, and love leads to preservation.