“It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. So get out there.. and ramble out yonder and explore the forests... breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air.. and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over.. those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box... I promise you this; you will outlive the bastards." -Edward Abbey
“I promise that I will not quit my job or leave my relationship within the first month of leaving.” Students obediently echo the recitation and scribble it in their field-books, not yet knowing how the experience may transform them. The Maine Primitive Skills School draws wilderness-apostles of all stripes to its Augusta backyard. On an average weekend, students might be winnowing tree branches into hunter gatherer weaponry or encircling forest fauna they address on a first name basis in yoga postures. One ceremony involves stripping down to a raw presence with the wild. They shuffle bare-skinned and blindfolded through the snow, guided only by the beat of a drum. Beholding the dispersion of bodies, their nudity conceals the diverse origins that brought them here; some Obama-revilers seek to hone their survival knowledge pre-government takeover apocalypse, other hemp necklace-clad varieties hope to absorb native philosophy on a deeper level than the dream-catchers dangling in their dorm rooms. They wander into the pure air as if impelled by some gravitational instinct—a pull reflected by the school’s 2,600 facebook fans and anecdotes of lives ruptured and reformed.
The school’s owner and founder, [Mike Douglas], explains it simply, “I like it when people come out and play in my backyard.” A former Boy Scout and Marine, Mike just always felt happiest in the woods. He came to the plot of land 25 years ago and soon after, the idea of a school emerged. Sipping on a jar of pine needle tea in his fleece camo pants, it appears the establishment might just be a guise to preserve his natural habitat. The Maine Primitive Skills School (MPSS) has ascended in the wilderness-training world as a leader in survival techniques through ancient wisdom. Nearby, an apprentice peels fox fur off of bone with what looks like an obsidian relic of the Paleolithic era. Everywhere in sight, signs of boyhood make-believe abound: bows and arrows, shelters that look like forts, concoctions stewing from road-kill, inexplicably large holes.
Indeed, they are just playing in the backyard. Where else do grown-ups get to spend all day imagining the best fire-powered syrup distillation machinery? But behind the folly lies a more serious mission; “we’ll have a strong community to reach deep into society to those nine to fivers who are struggling to jump off the little wheel.” Without clearly defined dogma, every workshop reveals glimmers of a worldview that challenges contemporary society. Students voluntarily depart their insulated homes and fingertip conveniences to live off the land the way their distant ancestors might have. Maybe they feel oppressed by the cubicle. Perhaps they aspire to abandon empty consumer gratification. Whatever the source of alienation from modern demands, their choice to enter the wild affirms the school’s core belief and goal: to fill a key piece of our mental health that is missing.
Learning to generate flame with nothing but a few sticks might seem gratuitous in the age of Duraflame ® and propane lighters, but for MPSS, it means reconnecting with the most elemental and suppressed parts of ourselves. They argue that humans have been domesticated, and in the process, forfeited a critical awareness about why we are here on the planet.
Against the distant white noise of the Augusta freeway, a calmness hovers in the unadulterated air. LCD screen distractions wait dormant. Only calories, heat, water and shelter merit attention as the daylight wanes. In this climate, the societal baggage that might have divided each student falls away; A Haliburton executive gets paired with a fervent activist from Earth First to identify animal tracks left in the snow. “Nothing is more equalizing than our common ground, the earth,” Mike pronounces. They forget artificial lines of belonging, focusing only on what is required to stay warm and fed through the night.
Reducing life to its rawest elements re-contextualizes the meaning of “need.” When you retire to a fresh bed of cedar brush and turn to celestial formations for entertainment, the idea of Lazy Boys and flat screens seem foreign, even corrupt. Some might argue the frivolity in utilizing Neanderthal technology when thousands of years of development has rendered them obsolete. But for Mike and the apprentices, it is this ease that robs us of the basic relationship to nature: “We can identify the McDonalds theme song, but we can’t identify the difference between a wood thrush and a hermit thrush.” Within this cosmology, recognizing a bird song means “wilderness literacy”—the understanding that humans belong to an ecosystem, and a purer way of being alive.
A lone hammock dangles above the dirt floor. “Please excuse the mess.” Nate apologizes with the cordial refinement you might expect in a mansion, for the gaping hole dug into his dank earthen home. He’s re-designing the heating system. For now, a wood burning stove is nestled below ground where a huge boulder waits to be buried for insulation. Every night he curls up with nothing but a wool blanket, pulling the fabric over his head when the Maine nights grow notoriously cold.
The Earth Lodge
In addition to the transient workshoppers who pass through for long weekends, the school hosts a collection of more permanent fixtures, whose shelters pepper the 40 acre woods. Apprentices cycle through to the rhythm of the seasons and sometimes choose not to leave, as Nate, little Mike, and Colby have done. The school affords them a comfortable threshold to straddle the “civilized” “primitive” divide. For Colby, it has become a buffer to re-integrate after living for years cut off in wilderness autonomy. Sometimes he wears a vest made from half deer, half shark skin. He used to carry an iPhone case fashioned from someone’s dead housecat, but bartered the black tail for a better trinket. “They’d look at my phone and pretend not to know what it was, but they knew,” he erupts into giggles. Colby seems inured to anyone’s judgment, perhaps from the contempt he feels for the systems they inhabit. Mike explains,“ he’s lived wild and without any support from community or technology...so he’s learning how to come back and speak to people in modern society without losing his mind.”
Students arrive to MPSS expecting to learn animal tracking, bow-making, edible-plant identification or anything else on the gamut of primitive skill, but like Colby, the competency they gain can threaten their domain of belonging. Survival does not just mean the ability to prevail through physically extreme situations. It is not, as Mike and his apprentices say, about suffering. People come into the wilderness expecting to suffer, but through the skills, instead learn to thrive. When that happens, they must endure a different kind of adversity—one that confronts them upon return to their prior lives.
The Maine Primitive Skills School lies just an hour drive from Portland, Maine’s largest city in the outskirts of Augusta, a town replete with modern conveniences. They have a refrigerator and an electric coffee maker, in addition to the composting toilets that seem more ideologically consistent with primitivism. Every student who walks off of the premises must navigate the same tensions: if reforming their relationship with nature has provoked the profound lifestyle awakenings that instructors allude to, how must they respond?
For the apprentices, they choose to inhabit a liminal state, taking refuge in the school where they can suspend between the reality of nine to fivers, and a Thoreau-like isolation in the woods. But not everyone can retreat on the premises, and even if they could, Mike acknowledges that, “ if you run away to the woods and stay there long enough, they’re going to build a Walmart, you cant’ just run away from it.” Still, some of them try. One Google executive left his job and mansions to teach outdoor education in Yosemite Park. Others resign themselves to re-habituate to the cushioned world now alien to them.
Mike carries a great weight knowing he has a hand in this suffering, but all he can do is educate students about balance, an idea he sees reflected in nature itself. “A perfect world is always in change. Nature loves change...humans are part of the great dance and they are in symbiosis.” He has grown used to students passing through what he describes as the wall of grief. They harden in the “righteous anger” characteristic of tree-tying forest activists, frustrated with the world but impotent to change it. He has answered calls at 3 a.m. for problems like bulldozers leveling an apprentice’s secret spot in the forest. But he says when the trees are cleared, a new meadow grows for the deer to graze and hawks to land. It is this monkish acceptance that keeps the school sustainable. They may not endorse every facet of the modern condition, but to build a community as rich and diverse as the one that flocks to their backyard, The Maine Primitive Skills School keeps a humble vision: tend to your sacred fire first, then the world will follow.