Television has certainly changed the images we conjure when we hear the word survival. Maybe you think of strategies to vote someone off the island surrounded by tiki torches, or former military operators with handheld cameras eating caribou genitalia, or maybe even bikini-clad families stockpiling canned peas for the apocalypse. I think there are a ton of labels, a huge number of lifestyles and a confusing array of skill sets that I would like to try to explain and sort out. My wife and I run a Bushcraft school and I find that there are no labels for what we do that make it clear to people what to expect, so I think some definitions are in order.
‘Bushcraft’ vs. ‘Survival’
There are two basic schools of thought for this whole genre – bushcraft and survival – and the difference is all about timing. Lets start with survival. This generally refers to either urban or wilderness skills that allow you to manage some sort of emergency situation for a few days until you are rescued or walk out on your own. A typical survival course will cover skills that will allow you to stay alive for a few days like building a shelter, making a fire, navigation, rescue signaling, and food procurement. “Preppers” are survivalists. In the event of some kind of apocalyptic disaster, survival skills are going to be valuable. That’s not to say that some preppers haven’t stretched their survival window well beyond the typical 72 hour “rescue window” with technology and stockpiling, but survival by it’s very definition is still limited.
Now we get to my personal favorite, and most of what we teach at our school. There is no one accepted word for it but I use “bushcraft.” I also like re-wilding, primitive skills, sustainable living and earth skills. Homesteading, though slightly different, shares a lot of the same skill sets, but has a farming component to it. Folks aren’t typically thrust into bushcraft situations. Those of us who practice bushcraft willingly walk into the forest. These skills are for after the “rescue window” has come and gone. These are the skills you need to build a sustainable life outside of the hyper-manufactured, hyper-money-driven system most of us live in. We tell our students that bushcraft lets you replace “survive” with “thrive”. Many of these skills are learned from ancient cultures in North America and around the world. Again, there are those who live off the grid in a yurt and grow their own grains, and there are those who enjoy learning to create fire with sticks on the weekend, and there’s everything in between. While we focus on bushcraft, we also teach survival skills, and we have teamed up in the coming months with a local prepper group to host a celebration of outdoor skills From Primitive to Prepper that we’re very excited about.
Learning to Be a Generalist
The story of Western civilization is one of increasing specialization. Where once humans lived in large family groups hunting and gathering, we now have IT specialists, management analysts, and pet therapists. I’m not knocking those jobs, but one of the things I love about bushcraft is learning to be a generalist. It’s very satisfying to be able to build a log cabin, make leather moccasins and grow great tomatoes, to not outsource those things to corporations. I’m learning to be my own IT specialist, and goats’ therapist and the biggest secret is: it’s fun. I get to learn new things everyday and no two days are the same. Now maybe my goats would be better adjusted with someone who trained in ruminant psychology for many years. Maybe my log cabin floor wouldn’t squeak in the corner if a contractor had built it, and I’m totally positive that my website would be less apt to crash if I hired an IT person. These are the trade-offs of the generalist: goats who sleep on the cab of my truck, squeaky floors, and convoluted HTML code.
In the end, though, what preppers, survivalists, homesteaders and bushcrafters have in common is that they are not taking the future for granted. They are taking control of their own relationships with the Earth and with our human society and in this one person’s opinion, that takes imagination, hard work and a little bit of bravery.