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"This" Magazine
July-August 2002
David Armstrong

THE SKIES ARE TURNING RED, THE SEVENTH SEAL IS BROKEN, DEER hunters are stockpiling porn, and financial collapse is imminent. Bin-diving becomes de rigeur and your breath smells like cat food. The truth is irrefutable: the end times are nigh. Do you don your sandwich board and stake your corner, or take flight--and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune? What the hell are you going to do?

I did some time stalking around the Pine Barrens of New Jersey dodging automatic machine-gun fire and monster trucks with welded I-beams on the front as they drove indiscriminately over one of the last stands of wilderness in the Garden State. Arguably the best survival school in the world, The Tracker was founded by Tom Brown, a grey-haired-bulldog-drill-sergeant with the bedside manner of a hand grenade. Brown started the school to pass on the wealth of information he garnered in his youth under the tutelage of Stalking Wolf, a Southern Lippen Apache elder.

There, at The Tracker, I learned skills that would allow a "return" to an environment that was as foreign to me as it was frightening. Brown proved to be one of the most arrogant, terrifying and knowledgeable human beings I have ever met, and my experience at The Tracker was one of the richest and strangest of my life. People from all walks of life and far-reaching places, both earthly and otherwise, assembled to ingest as much information as possible in a week's stretch. Each course drew 100-plus students into a crash course in survival techniques and group dynamics. The motivations that carried us there were as diverse and bizarre as we were. Some wanted out of the system, and others anticipated the end of the world. Burned-out corporate lawyers built bows and arrows, studied plant lore, and sniffed scat alongside Ozark carnies with too-tight genes. Navy Seals and Swiss computer programmers shared their feelings about the "magic of silence" while we all celebrated the carnival of the absurd that is American marginalia.

I took seven of Brown's courses over four years, in hopes of deepening my nascent connection to nature. The fourth, The Scout, taught advanced stalking and wilderness survival skills--a true test of the lessons received in the prerequisite courses. I found myself corralled into a group whose self-anointed leader, a paternal Midwestern kung fu expert with chronic halitosis and a mean temper, steered our group of 10 through a kind of manic purgatory until mutiny was our only recourse. As we stumbled through the forest trying to avoid exploding firecracker tripwires and flares, we were, in turn, stalked by Shadow Scouts, who in turn were stalked by Spirit Scouts, in a seemingly unending hierarchy of expertise that reached ridiculous proportions.

Our romantic notions of a return to nature were quickly dashed by the stark reality of surviving in an environment from which we had been thoroughly divorced these past 2,000 years. Ubiquitous tics, broken beer bottles, and the inevitable issues that arise when people are allowed to celebrate their neuroses in a terrifyingly uncontrolled environment, made me, at least, realize that the real challenge might lie elsewhere. What began to dawn on me was that I was less interested in learning to escape what everyone around me claimed was "inevitable" and more intent on learning how to see everything as "natural." First, I decided, I would try to survive the prodigal journey home.

Seven courses later--my faith in humanity flexed, contorted and strained to the limit--I wanted to see if I could survive the city before heading into the woods. The city, with all its demands on our senses and the constant urging to be a drone, was the true wilderness. I wanted to find out if any or all of what I learned in the Pine Barrens was translatable into urban terms.

What I found amazed me; our cities abound in hidden repasts. With enough foresight and creative adaptation, even the hardships of winter can be embraced without resorting to bobbing for offal or sleeping on heating ducts. Ironically, some of the most powerful and delicious plants thrive in quarries, on the edges of highways, and anywhere else the Earth has been the most abused. Mustard seed and Colt's Foot crack our sidewalks. Mullen and Queen Ann's Lace flower in profusion wherever they're allowed. Our yards and parks are rife with medicinal plants, as yet unclaimed by Monsanto's patent lawyers, that--if they weren't marinating in a biochemical broth--could sustain and heal us. Witness the suburbanites' impotent war on dandelions that are both edible and highly nutritious.

As a rule, lawns--being the preferred repositories for pesticide and herbicide disposal--are to be avoided. Stay away from golf courses, with their swinging patrons and alien hues. Graveyards make for better harvesting of what gardeners commonly refer to as "weeds," and besides, there's no shortage of compost.

Having survived survival school, I can personally attest to the exciting, nay, liberating feeling that comes with the conceit that you can waltz into the woods wearing nothing but a terrycloth bathrobe and a confused expression--and not only survive, but thrive. And the truth is, we needn't wait for Armageddon to learn what stubborn vestiges of nature's garden have survived the paving of paradise. Your ability to find shelter, produce fire from sticks and stones, or pass unseen and unheard, is limited only by your imagination.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Red Maple Foundation
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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