His arms plunged to the elbows in a bucket of gray sludge, Corey Drew learned this week that it takes a lot of brains to tan a hide.
About five pounds, to be exact.
“I just crank on this sucker, or what?” he asked an instructor, breathing heavily as he squeezed a handful of gushy bovine brains into a soaking hide.
At the third annual Earth Circle Primitive Skills Gathering, which concluded today, about 60 would-be mountain men and women gathered in the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains - about seven miles south of Grangeville and a thousand years back in time - to reduce life to its simplest terms.
Living the simple life, they found, is anything but a no-brainer.
Hungry? You’ve got three options: grow it, gather it or kill it. Wet? Shelter awaits beneath a complex lattice of cattail reeds. Cold? A fire is never farther away than two sticks - and 10 blistered fingers.
Standing near a pile of sticks that resembles a beaver dam crossed with a hay bale (a cold weather shelter), event co-director Chris Morasky explained his passion for primitive living.
“It’s awesome and phenomenal and magical to pick up two sticks and actually produce a fire,” he said. “We teach it because we love what we’re doing.”
Plenty of students are eager to learn. It’s all part of a “primitive skills movement” sweeping the country, said Morasky’s partner, Nils Behn.
“There’s a tremendous amount of interest and a lot of new faces,” he said. “The gatherings are getting bigger every year.”
So big, in fact, that last year the school surrendered to the march of modernity and purchased a laptop computer to track their 500-person mailing list.
“It’s frustrating at times, but it helps us put out our newsletter.”
There are no bells to announce the beginning of classes here, just the eerie wail of Morasky blowing a conch. Like extras in a scene from “Lord of the Flies,” students and instructors dressed in strips of tattered deer hide mixed with those wearing blue jeans and T-shirts. A man wearing a loincloth walked through camp bare foot on his way to make a felt blanket from sheep’s wool.
They take classes in pottery, edible plants and cord making. There’s even a class on the uses of road kill (coyote tastes great if it’s fresh) and edible insects (Mormon crickets taste like shrimp).
“We don’t like to waste anything,” Morasky said.
Pine smoke hung in the air as he announced one of the week’s activities, a “gift of life” ceremony.
“We’ll be killing a goat,” he told participants. “Knowing how to effectively, humanely and spiritually receive the gift of life from another animal is an important skill” for primitive life in northern climes.
In more temperate regions, vegetarianism is a viable alternative, he said. But not this far north.
“The growing season’s just too short, and there aren’t enough calories available during the winter,” he said.
It came as no surprise when his wife, Gaia Morasky, added a small caveat to her appeal for someone to adopt a stray cat that had wandered into camp.
“This cat is not to be eaten,” she said.
Students like Gabriella Toth, of Vancouver, British Columbia, came to the school because she worries about the direction of society.
“I’m just tired of the way society is progressing,” she said. “It’s all about materialism and commercialism.”
Her boyfriend, Corey Drew, agreed. “If you look at consumerism, it isn’t sustainable,” he said. “It’s going to collapse sooner or later.”
Tom Elpel, an instructor from Pony, Mont., is more worried about teaching students how to build shelters that won’t collapse than the imminent approach of Armageddon.
“We do it for fun,” he said. “I think of it as discovering nature.”
Here in the mountains, simplicity is king. When Behn noticed a photographer having difficulty with an autofocus camera setting, he was ready with an observation.
“Your life is too complex,” he suggested.
In addition to the day-to-day business of survival, aficionados of the aboriginal face a daunting challenge when it comes to maintaining personal hygiene.
Many wear dreadlocks, eliminating the need for a brush or comb. Baths are brutal and short - in a frigid creek running through the 300 forested acres that serve as Earth Circle’s classroom. A smoldering wad of sage leaves dispels any unpleasant odors.
Bumper stickers on a handful of cars parked nearby reflect the sentiments of attendees, some of whom have come from as far away as Germany and Japan.
“Bare Feet, Not Arms,” stated one bumper sticker.
“Will Hunt/Gather For Food,” read another, hand-lettered version.
Earth Circle participants from all walks of life paid up to $155 for the privilege of doing without. A woman from Olympia makes plywood at a factory when not honing her obsidian points, used as a cutting tool or arrowhead. A man from Spokane works with mental patients when not sharpening his fire drill, used to start a fire.
Jeff Damm worked for an electronics firm in Portland.
“I designed the guts of cell phones and satellite pagers,”he said.
After tiring of the fast pace of city life, the middle-aged man sold his share of the business. Now he focuses on a more fundamental form of guts as an instructor in the various uses of road kill.
Kirk Sass, 36, of Lewiston is a cytologist. “I look for cancer, basically. Sit behind a microscope all day and wish I was outside,” he said.
Sass is here on his first full week of vacation in eight years.
Life is a vacation for Colbert Sturgeon, a retired financial planner who came to the gathering from Georgia.
“There’s 900 occupations I do fairly well, but I don’t like to work,” he said.
Sturgeon’s priorities, however, are clearly in line with the rest of the group.
“You need food, water and shelter, friends and fun,” he said. “Everything else is just stress.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WEB SITE You can plug into the primitive world from the comfort of home at http://ic.net/tbailey/Primitive.html
Click here to comment on this story »