Posted on Mar 6, 2017
In the seventies, the ancestral skills community was created and informed by the field of experimental archaeology. These academics began to catalog, preserve, and teach ancestral technology for future generations to learn from and understand. The first time I really heard the term “abo” (shorthand for aboriginal) was at Rabbitstick Rendezvous, the oldest, most renowned and celebrated ancestral skills gathering in the United States. All other gatherings of this kind have been initially inspired by Rabbitstick. Here, the late Steve Watts taught a class he called Abo 101. This phenomenal class took people through the origins and evolution of humanity through a full-bodied learning experience. Many people say this class changed their lives, and it was pretty much a requirement for newbies at Rabbitstick. There was no, and still is no, ill intent by these communities in the usage of the word “abo.” This word fell into use among a predominantly white, male group of ancestral skills enthusiasts, in North America, in an era long before the internet. Mass culture, international culture, was not something at everyone’s fingertips. Native Americans had just been granted the right by the US Government to practice their religions once more.
Today, 30+ years later, the context we live in is both similar and completely different. The internet has been an amazing tool to connect people across the world. It has also made us more aware of oppression in other parts of the world, and the different use of words and language in those parts. It wasn’t until I was at Echoes in Time (another ancestral skills gathering that I now facilitate) when I learned the other meaning behind the word “abo.” A group of friendly people performed a classic campfire song, “If I were not a…” and used the word “abo.” After singing it, there was a suggestion of sharing the lyrics on the website for other ancestral-skills-inspired groups to enjoy. It was then that one of the experienced women teachers spoke up and explained to everyone that “abo” was the most racist word used toward indigenous Australians, akin to the “n” word used toward African Americans, or inj*n or redsk*ns to Native Americans. In the work that she does with international indigenous people, it would ruin her reputation being associated with lyrics such as that. It wasn’t that they had ill intent—far from it. They were super great people, and were just having a fun time and wanting to share that with others. It’s that they were uninformed, and this ignorance would cause pain for indigenous people, who we have learned many ancestral skills from, and who deserve respect. Who wants to cause them any more pain?
This is the contemporary context we live in: an international, English-language community via the internet. People come to ancestral skills gatherings from all over the world. Any online class or program reaches everyone in the world. We are currently living in a global context. What this means is that if you use that word, you are excluding an entire continent of indigenous people from participating in the ancestral skills and rewilding communities. Indigenous solidarity means that indigenous people band together across cultural lines, and around the world, to fight against oppression. This means that if you are excluding an entire continent of indigenous people by your use of a racist word, because of indigenous solidarity, you are excluding all indigenous people. Rewilding is a movement in solidarity with indigenous people. By using this word in a rewilding context, it makes rewilding look like an exclusionary practice that is comfortable taking from indigenous people, but not making a welcoming environment for them. Using the most racist word makes it a hostile environment for them.
As rewilding grows to include more people, we need to make sure that those people are informed and educated to the actual goals of rewilding. It is up to us to make rewilding as accessible and welcoming to as many people as we possibly can so that it will continue to grow and take hold. At its best, continuing to use the word “abo” is just really, really bad marketing. At its worst it serves to make rewilding look like a thing for ignorant white people. I love Steve Watts’ work, and others who came before me in the ancestral skills community. This has nothing to do with them, or the context in which the words gained popularity. It has everything to do with where we are now in this time and place. The word “primitive” is a similar example; people have discarded it in favor of “ancestral skills” because of the pejorative history of its use. This isn’t about being PC, it’s about being a nice person and not wanting to hurt other people with your words, or remind them of the hundreds of years of genocide and continued occupation of their people and lands. It’s a common courtesy. “Abo,” like “primitive,” is such an ingrained word with many of the old-timers, that I don’t think it will go away over night. In a person-to-person context it doesn’t hold the same kind of weight that it does online or in an official capacity. I still use the word “primitive” from time to time, mostly out of old habits or sometimes if people don’t understand the rebranded “ancestral skills.” Language changes over time, and rather than expect an oppressed minority (or those in solidarity with them) to change their own language and be more accepting of racial slurs, as white people with privilege, the need for decency and responsibility falls to us. We must abide by their wishes and cease using language that is tied directly to their historic and current oppression.
…It’s actually the absolute, very least we can do.
While using the term “abo” is racist in a global context like the internet, using the term “neoaboriginal” is problematic as well (I’ve also seen it shortened to “neoabo”). It’s no different from saying “neonative” or “neoindigenous.” It’s whiteness usurping the identity of a minority. I don’t condone either. While rewilding is about becoming place-based (one meaning of the word “indigenous”), we live in a context where identity and the language around it is important for minority groups. It dilutes their struggle when their descriptors are appropriated. To build allyship, to begin to collaborate, we can easily pick and choose language that isn’t offensive or appropriative on many levels. It’s really not hard. When crafting language as rewilders we need to do more research into etymology, current contexts, and differing communities. “Limitation creates art.” Compassion creates community. Roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Posted on Nov 24, 2016
Ricardo Sierra from Hawk’s Circle interviewed me for his Wolverine Way podcast series. We talk about running small businesses that are ancestral skills themed. [Listen Here]
Posted on Oct 10, 2016 2 Comments
“Forests are social, they are lonely, and they need us,” proclaimed Hazel, thus beginning a week-long workshop on “social forestry” that involved clearing brush, making charcoal, thinning tree stands, coppicing shrubs, reducing fire danger, weaving baskets, making wooden poles, touring various ecotones, and the main reason most of us were there: prescribed burning. There were lectures on topics including gender, forest systems, holding council meetings, biochar, permaculture forests, “retro-feudalism,” timber stand assessment, transition horticulture, and more. The central theme of the week was a simple yet complex question: “How do we bring back burning to the landscape?” For a wet, dreary week in late January, life couldn’t be more fun for a rewilder!
I’d been curious about using fire to manage the landscape ever since reading M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild back in 2006. The book explains how hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists have used fire to manage landscapes and assist with hunting for thousands (and quite possibly hundreds of thousands) of years. While Tending the Wild focuses on California, books like Indians, Fire, and the Land in the Pacific Northwest, Forgotten Fires, and The Biggest Estate on Earth have given rise to the understanding that land management among hunter-gatherers appears to be more common than previously thought and spans the globe as well as various ecosystems. These studies have blurred the distinctions between hunter-gatherers and horticulturists. Fire has long been a friend of the Homo genus, for warmth, cooking, and security. To what extent, and when we first befriended fire, remains unknown. Many theories link to archaeological hearth sites and physiological changes, but nothing is known for certain. Land management is perhaps one of the most difficult uses to prove.
Social forestry aims to return people to the forest with the practice of strategic burning. Civilization encourages fire suppression. Fire suppression in fire-prone habitats is, to put it bluntly, stupid. What kind of social forestry class would exclude a prescribed burn or two (weather permitting)?
Before burning, you must get the proper burn permits. Once you have permission from the state, you’re ready for site prep. To prep a site you need to establish fire lines, which are essentially barriers to keep the fire from spreading. They are generally wide, flat areas without a fuel source: a paved road, a stream, or a very wide trail with something like the top 6 inches of soil scraped away. Think of it like an invisible fence that contains the fire. We prepped two sites split in half by a gravel road. The lower half ended at a creek; the upper half ended in sparse star thistle and then a thicket of buckbrush. We had water on site, shovels, rakes, and other gear to fight the fire if it got out of hand.
Our goal with these burns was to burn out the seed load of the invasive star thistle, and help germinate the native seeds that are adapted to fire, so that the native plants would have less competition in following years. The first fire was a slow, cold back burn. Starting at the road, we lit the top of the meadow on fire and burned downhill. Imagine lighting a match and holding it upright. It slowly burns down the stick. The meadow slowly burned over the course of 45 minutes, with continuous fires being lit by us to keep it going. It was nice and gentle.
By the time we’d eaten lunch, the morning clouds had drifted on and it was time to try the uphill burn. Imagine lighting a match and holding it diagonally, with the flame rising up from the bottom. It burns hotter and faster, quickly consuming the stick in a large flame. The afternoon sun had come out from behind the clouds and began to dry out the fuel load on the upward slope. The sun also heated the air, causing a pressure change that encouraged the winds to kick up the hill. Then my friend Jesse lit the fire. The next 10 minutes would prove to be the most intense moments of my life in over a decade.
I first met Hazel when I took a Permaculture Design Course with Toby Hemenway in 2009. Back then they went by the name Tom Ward. Hazel is one of those rare humans with an extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge and a deep, everlasting passion for sharing the information they know and love. They were born and raised a Quaker on the East Coast, from a line of the oldest Quakers in the country. They have a degree in forestry from a highly renowned forestry school, and they’ve taught permaculture with Bill Mollison. Hazel is a botanist, peasant, forester, teacher, and underlying it all, more than a fair bit of a trickster. They stuck out in my class, not just because of their charismatic and unique presence, but because, of all the permaculture experts in that class, Hazel was the only one who seemed to have the vision of rewilding. I remember them saying something along the lines of “the future is bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers wandering the Willamette Valley between permaculture villages.” I remember thinking, oh, here is someone who actually gets it. Beyond getting it, they are creating it, experimenting with it, in their forest laboratory.
Five minutes later, a wall of flame raced across the meadow toward me and the rest of us who stood on the fire line. Another moment later and I couldn’t see much because the flames and smoke had consumed most of my vision. I knew I didn’t really have to worry; I could run to my left where there was no fuel load and I would be okay. But there was one problem. On account of the wind, the flames were so long that they extended over our fire line and jumped it. All of a sudden, shit got real.
I will never look at fire the same way again. It was a sobering moment. Don’t fuck around with fire. Seriously. Stationary fire is not scary. I had never seen fire move before. A friend who had been a firefighter in her younger days told me once about a fire that ripped up an incline she was on, and how she had to jump off a 30-foot cliff to get out of its way. I never quite understood what she meant until now. Firefighters are no joke. Mad respect.
A few weeks after the social forestry class, I had lunch with a friend who had taken it the year before. It was too rainy that year so they didn’t get to burn, and he was eager to hear about this year’s burns. I shared the story of all that happened and he laughed, telling me that he had taken a TREX training once, a government-funded and -operated prescribed-burn education program, where the fire jumped the fire line and burned several acres before they could put it out. Even government professionals can have a hard time containing fire; even with all the safety measures in place, fire can surprise you and do something you didn’t think was possible.
Once we extinguished the fire completely, something unexpected happened. Stunned, adrenaline still coursing through my veins, but the threat gone, I started to cry. Then I started sobbing. I sat down on the hill and just let it out. I was laughing and crying. I just let myself emote. I saw the true, hungry, wild face of a force of nature that I had only ever seen before in captivity. Here, in the forests of southern Oregon, the only thing between the fire and a thick bramble of buckbrush (a plant that contains flammable resin) stood a handful of rewilders with a couple of shovels. The whole experience happened in a matter of minutes. The amount of meadow that took us 45 minutes to burn going downhill took 11 minutes going up.
Later some friends of the farm sent us this picture of our uphill burn seen from a distance:
Back in the lodge, everyone quite frazzled, we sat gathered in a circle. The silence was only to be broken when we felt called to speak. Once everyone felt heard, we would conclude. Aside from the fire itself, the council was one of the most transformative experiences of the social forestry class for me. Partly because it was charged, but mostly because it had the power to diffuse the intensity and collectively debrief the experience without a moderator, without a long list of communication tools.
The reality from my perspective was that the danger wasn’t as bad as we thought. We suppressed the fire in only a few minutes, in part due to the lack of fuel load at the top of the meadow. There was, in a sense, a natural fire line that was better than the one we dug ourselves: about 20 feet of sparse fuel allowed us to simply come in and stamp out the fire once it burned through the heavier load. Hazel, the farm’s forester, was in control of the situation the entire time. I remembered something that I had learned in a mentoring workshop about creating rites of passage. You want the experience to have a “perceived danger high, yet actual danger low.” I think our perceived danger was high and the actual danger very low. However, this led to a very important lesson: fire is no joke. Controlled burns are an important part of ecological restoration, and you must be very careful and have multiple backup plans in place.
We spent the rest of the week doing more mellow but important work. We chopped down trees. We made charcoal. We learned about Hazel’s “retro-feudalism.” (This is a hilarious yet very practical concept put forth by Hazel that I can’t do justice to here, so I won’t try.)
Near the end of the week, in the foggy fir woodland with axe in hand, I realized that this was probably one of the only places where you would find a group of hippies gleefully chopping down trees. That’s part of the magic of social forestry. It reminds me of how I gave up veganism once I realized that I could respect animals and still eat them. You can respect a forest and still chop down trees. (This in no way condones industrial logging or the senseless killing of trees.)
Prescribed burns are no longer a mystery to me. Now I’ve actually done it. It’s not just a theory that I espouse but a skill I have begun to learn through doing. I’ve moved beyond the theoretical stage of fire. Yet this intro class made me realize how much there is to learn in this field. I will probably never become a highly skilled burn boss. It’s not my lot in life. Still, as a spokesperson for the return to these lifeways, it helps to have actually done them. This class was everything I had hoped it would be and more. Perhaps it will be for you too (weather permitting).
Check out Siskiyou Permaculture’s website for upcoming classes on social forestry and more:
Heron’s Social Forestry Video (a different but related program):
Posted on Sep 24, 2016 4 Comments
Urban Scout had a reputation. Good or bad, it depends on who you ask. From 2003 to 2009, he evolved from a fictional movie character, into my full blown alter-ago and muse. In 2006 I began blogging under the moniker to encourage more people to begin rewilding. The end goal was to spark a movement that was large enough to where I could assemble a group of people (back then I used the term “tribe” but I avoid it now) to go live with the land in the style of immediate-return hunter-gatherers. Over the span of several years I wrote many short essays on my blog “The Adventures of Urban Scout”, received a lot of attention for my antics, and garnered a lot of fans. It wasn’t all roses though. I likened Urban Scout’s voice to George Carlin’s; angry rants filled with curse words and strong opinions. This style had a specific audience who “got it” and another audience who had a tendency to be offended by the work.
In 2008 I assembled many of the short essays into this book, Rewild or Die. I couldn’t afford a professional copy-editor, so I had a few friends proof read it for me (including my mom!). In defiance of standard writing rules (the book itself written in an experimental form of English) I left in some typos and grammatical errors. This was partly out of laziness and partly in protest. It felt appropriate to publish the book with some rough edges. While many people appreciated the book, the lack of standardization, consistency, and conformity to American English “rules” of writing made the book less broadly appealing.
Two published reviews exemplify the polarization of subjectivity in regards to how the writing was received. One of the reviews said that the book was:
…emblematic of a text filled with poor grammar and misspelled words. It was difficult for this former teacher to gloss over the poorly edited text…I have serious problems with the messenger’s butchering of the English language…Scout should have stayed in school a little longer, if only to polish his writing skills…as if I have time to deal with juvenile delinquents who do not know how to write.
The other review couldn’t have been more different:
Urban Scout writes really well; not only does he write well, he appears to be constructing text in the manner of an artisan: few words are wasted or superfluous, and the style matches the context effortlessly. Or rather, it seems effortless, though I have little doubt that a great deal of effort has gone into each and every one of the essays…
This dichotomy shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. Therein I realized that Urban Scout was a niche. If my goal was to encourage more people to rewild, this voice was limiting to that goal. Beyond just its limits, it also had the potential to alienate; during a book tour my car was totaled by haters. Tires slashed, windshield smashed, and an insult scrawled on the passenger side. That was when I decided that Urban Scout was finished. It was time to hang up the loin cloth and find a new muse. I stopped blogging regularly, discontinued the book, and began focusing all my efforts on Rewild Portland, a non-profit organization that I founded.
Almost immediately I received some angry messages from long time supporters of Urban Scout, asking me what happened, why could they no longer find my book. Initially I ignored them. One in particular was persistent. A man named George Steel (who is now a dear friend) threatened me that if I didn’t make it available again, he would create a bootleg. In a sense, any damage from the book couldn’t be undone. Once something goes online, it lives there forever. Since the essays in the book were formerly blog entries, they couldn’t be erased. Apparently they couldn’t be forgotten either. I conceded and told George that if I were to put it back out there, I would want to have it copy edited and have a better design. So began a journey that has lasted a few years. I met a professional copy editor who took on the work. George created a new typeface. I redesigned the cover. If I can’t get rid of it, the least I could do was polish up a little bit.
I was still really apprehensive about putting it back out. Then I got a message from an old-timer of the Rainbow Gathering tradition. He had sought me out to thank me for writing the book. He said that the Rainbow Gathering had originally been created to do something like rewilding, and that over time it became just a party scene. The elders lamented, but the middle generation didn’t seem to care. He said that he found my book among youngest generation, duct-taped together with notes in the margins. They were bringing back the original intention of those gatherings, through rewilding, through my book. I’m sure they had other influences, but the image of my book in the hands of some teenagers, duct-taped together with notes scribbled in it made me realize that Urban Scout does have an audience, and that it was worth keeping alive if not for me, for them.
I still love the book and I don’t think it’s bad. I’m embarassed by parts of it, but in the way that I’m embarassed that I wore JNCO jeans in high school. I don’t agree with everything I wrote in it, and it’s not really my voice. I was 25 when I wrote most of it, drinking large amounts of black coffee and typing out long, angry rants at the behest of my peers. I’m nearing 35 now. My rewilding journey has taken me in many unexpected places, and I’m more excited about the work and writing that I am doing today. Still, it feels like a great time to re-release this book, as most of the rewilding literature I see in the mainstream these days feels more like Rewilding Lite™. While I disagree with the tone, and some of the content, the end goal is the same. Urban Scout had a sense of intensity, wholeness, and urgency in regards to rewilding that I don’t see much of elsewhere. Rewild or Die isn’t a book for everyone, but maybe it’s just right for you. There’s only one way to find out. Get yourself a copy here:
Posted on Sep 4, 2016
Rewilding starts September 12th. All other dates TBA.
Posted on Aug 11, 2016
I did this interview with some students from Evergreen for their research last November at the portland plant medicine gathering. I enjoyed it and felt like posting it online. The questions were deep and wide-ranging. It was a really fun interview.
Posted on Mar 28, 2016