Primitive Survival Skills in the 21st Century by Mark Warren (6 of 6)


In case you missed Parts 1 thru 5:


~ your second-most immediate need in a survival situation ~

Can you name the three physical intakes – in their order of immediacy – necessary to keep the human body functioning and alive? In this introductory riddle, I’m not including HEAT; because, depending upon the season, your self-made body heat might suffice, and that gift comes from within. This series of articles has already addressed shelter and fire – the two adjuncts to maintaining body heat.

The most urgent requirement of the human body is air. How many times have you breathed today? How many times have you thought about breathing today? Thankfully, this is an effortless process to which we owe the green plants a daily blessing. And we should salute our brain’s automatic programming of the diaphragm to suck in air and expel waste gas. This might be the most easily taken-for-granted equation in our lives, which explains why so little regard is given to trees and other green plants in our current culture’s methods of “land development.”

Jumping to the third requirement, we need nourishment through food. This includes all the proteins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins and other compounds needed to metabolize for energy and heat, to assemble all the body chemistry and to run all the physiological functions. The average American holds plenty of fuel in supply in the form of fat. Most people, theoretically, could go for weeks without eating. It might not be a pleasant experience, but it is manageable if the mindset is right.

That second need – the topic of this article – is much more pressing than food.

Every bodily system depends upon the medium of water. Electrical impulses from the brain need it, as do digestion, muscular contraction, enzyme creation, etc. The level of bodily hydration is so important that people who have over-indulged in water intake have died. Twice in my lifetime I have read of misguided college fraternity initiations that forced a new member to drink too much water in too little time. This inundation so dilutes the brain fluids that nerve impulses cannot be sent to the vital organs. In each case, the hazed student died.

We will, of course, consider lack of water. If you find yourself in a survival situation – lost or stranded or broken down in a remote area – one of your most important priorities will be to keep yourself hydrated so that you can perform the many tasks that will serve to keep you alive.

In the ancient paleo-times of Appalachia this challenge would have been almost as easy as breathing, for the many small streams that flow across our land like the branches of liquid trees provided ready-to-drink refreshment. Inhabitants’ intestines would have adjusted to the local microorganisms living in these creeks.

Not so today. Most people drink chemically treated water and their gut is not “trained” to tolerate the wild microscopic inhabitants of local water. Besides, who is to say that fifty or a hundred yards upstream of your “innocent” sip from a creek, there might not lie the rotting carcass of a dead opossum or salamander? That intake of bacteria could hit you like a sledgehammer.

No matter how clean a headwater stream or spring might appear, the naked eye cannot make an accurate appraisal of water purity. Nor can the tongue in the test of taste.

The state of our streams is one of the hallmark deteriorations of our time. I believe that, if it were possible for the early Cherokees to return here from the past, of all the mind-boggling changes on their land that they would have to digest, the most heart-breaking of all would be the state of our urban streams.

Why has this happened?

Two reasons:

1.) Population explosion. Rivers do possess self-cleansing mechanisms, but they cannot keep up with the human volume of impact dumped onto them.  (Did you know that all of our municipal sewage is not treated? We ask the rivers to finish the work for us! ) Consider the industrial wastes that follow the evolution of our technology.

2.) Disconnection from nature. Because most people no longer have daily tangible contact with natural streams, no real relationship is formed between humans and the very streams that supply their homes. Human nature must also be accountable in this equation. Along with this disconnection goes greed, fear, lack of education and the temptation to cut corners blindly at the expense of the environment. If you have not seen the movie, A Civil Action, have a look.

Even modern bridges have closed off the view of rivers to drivers. When I was a boy, all bridges had slatted banister-like side rails or none at all. In addition to that, we played in those streams. We knew them intimately.

They were a part of our lives, not a simulated image on a computer screen. So often I hear today’s children relate to nature from their experiences with video games. To them, the game is the familiar reality. The river is alien territory, rife with discomforts and perils and the unknown. This matter of ‘Intimacy Lost’ should be a prime concern to all parents and to world citizens as a whole. The remedy? Go outside with your children and explore.

Consider a 14th century Cherokee woman, who daily walked to a creek for water. She knelt, scooped water with a cupped hand, and drank before filling her clay pot for home use. Such an act might be considered a ritual. Certainly the morning bodily immersion was. What an intimate connection this ablution was. Each day began with it.

Today morning showers generally serve two very different purposes. I’ve done informal surveys on it in my adult and children’s classes. 1.) To wake up after insufficient hours of sleep. 2.) To prevent a “bad-hair day.” The hot water flows in a seemingly endless and God-given right. During the shower, I would venture to say that virtually no child and few adults connect that generous supply to a water heater that relies on non-renewable resources and to the ground water or surface water that supplies the shower.

On the other hand, there are people who heat with solar panels (and even some who don’t) who are acutely aware of their systems. I know of two people who turn off water when suds-ing up.

Would that Cherokee woman ever spit or throw dirt or urinate into her creek? Certainly not. Just as you would not befoul the water jug in your refrigerator. The Cherokee believed that to put body wastes in water invoked the fish spirit, which entered the body and made one sick. In an indirect way, doesn’t this myth hold truth?

Many people now treat a river as if it is something separate from their lives. They show it no regard. Why? Because they do not  acknowledge an experiential connection with it, even though they live with such a connection.

In a survival situation the value of clean water is quickly elevated to its former historical status as a priceless commodity. Without clean water to drink, dehydration leads to headache, fatigue and eventually death. And the more you wander in search of it or expend energy in other projects such as shelter and fire, the faster you lose what water you do have stored in your body.

Clean water does exist inside select plants. Hickories, maples and sycamores can be tapped for drinkable sap. It’s done exactly as New Englanders tap into the sugar maple in the syrup business. You need a drilling tool. A knife works fine. In a pinch a properly edged stone will do. Cut a ½ inch diameter hole 1 to 2 inches into several sides of the same tree. Make the entry cut at an upward slant, insert a stout hollow tube as a spigot. Plants such as Joe Pye Weed, river cane, and some sunflowers can supply these conduits. A container must be hung from the notched tube or set on top of a log propped against the trunk to collect the potable sap that leaks out.

Grape vines are a wonderful source of water from spring through fall. Sever a large climbing vine near the ground and place a container under it. At this point water struggles to drip out of the porous vine. To “open the valve,” climb the supporting tree as high as you can and cut a canoe-shaped notch from the side of the vine. The result is like taking your finger off the top of a filled drinking straw. The water (sap) drips at a good rate. Often I lie beneath the vine and collect a mouthful in a minute.

The most reliable method of obtaining quantities of drinking water is to boil creek water. But how can you do this without cookware? If you can build a fire and burn some hardwood, the coals produced can be used to burn out a concave bowl from a chunk of dead wood. Even a downed log would suffice. How do you boil water in a wooden bowl?

Using sticks or a bark scoop or hand-fashioned tongs, transfer a coal to your log and hold it down on the top of the log with a green stick. Blow on it with a 6 inch section of one of the hollow tubes mentioned above. The process begins slowly, and you’ll need more coals to replace burned out ones. But eventually a depression is burned out and then the bowl itself becomes the coal. Keep super-heating that coal, adding new coals when needed, and the cavity grows at a faster rate. If the bowl starts to migrate toward an edge of the log, paste mud over that side to arrest the progress in that direction.

When the bowl can hold several cups or a gallon of water, you have a serviceable container for boiling. Clean out the charred wood with sand and a smooth river stone. Then transfer water to the bowl by whatever means possible – a hat, cupped hands, a sopping bandana to be wrung out, a sun-bleached box turtle shell, etc.

Have you anticipated how to boil this water? While you are burning out your bowl, place into the coals of the fire hard a dozen smooth hard (not crumbly) stones smaller than a ping pong ball. Carry these red hot stones (the same way you carried your coals) to your bowl and immerse them as needed to achieve boiling.

A more time-consuming process for collecting water is soaking up morning dew from grasses and other plants by mopping with a piece of cloth and then wringing it out over the container. Avoid poisons ivy, oak and sumac in this effort. (Learn to identify those plants.)

Rain of course, brings plentiful supplies of water. You’ll need “half-pipe” conduits of stripped tree bark from tulip trees, hickory, willow, poplar or basswood to set up a sloped sunburst of “spokes” that guide water to the bowl. If you have a sheet of plastic or poncho, tie the corners loosely to trees and your funnels and container are one in the same piece.

Drinking Urine

Can you drink urine? Is this a myth? There are arguments for and against this sometimes unappealing form of hydration. To most survival victims, this might seem a last resort to replenish body fluids. But to practice this as a last resort would be ill advised. According to URAC (Utilization Review Accreditation Commission) drinking urine at the beginning of a survival situation is safe. The primary constituent of urine is water, next comes urea, which has some positive properties such as antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral characteristics.

But urine contains impurities filtered out of the body by the kidneys. The more often one drinks urine over a period of time, the higher grows the ratio of impurities to water, because those impurities are returned to the body to be filtered out again. For people taking certain drugs (legal and illegal) and people exposed to occupational environmental hazards, drinking urine is not advised.

Higher-Tech Methods of Purification

Normally my teaching does not extend beyond those skills practiced by the Cherokee, but it is worth mentioning a few other water cleansing systems. One is a time-consuming method called the solar still. Dig a 3’ X 3’ X 3’ pit in the earth in an open sunny area. Throw in torn green plants and place a container at the bottom center of the pit. Loosely cover the pit with a sheet of plastic anchored by rocks on the sides and position one rock on top of the plastic at center, directly over the container. Water from the earth and the added plants evaporates and condenses on the lower side of the plastic. The inverted cone shape of the plastic (due to the center rock) allows gravity to take the adhering droplets downslope, where they collect and cohere to one another. The amassing weight breaks their adhesion to the plastic and big drops drip into the container. By inserting a hollow tube (Joe Pye Weed) from one side of the plastic, you can draw clean water from the container up to the mouth. Otherwise you’ll need to dismantle the solar still to access the water.

Another primitive method of water purification promoted by some survivalists is a three-tiered filter of grass, sand and charcoal from your campfire. This structure requires the making of a small tripod and three pieces of cloth tied like a high rise of hammocks to hold each tier of filter material.

First, the water is allowed to settle out any silt and other solids overnight in a container. Next day, the water is carefully poured (sans sediment at the bottom) over the top tier of grass, through which it trickles down through the sand level and seeps to the charcoal level and finally drips into another container. Though good results have been achieved with this system, I believe it isn’t fail-proof for people who have regularly relied on municipally cleaned water.

Technology has afforded wilderness wanderers some other light-weight, time-saving tools. Pump filters can take stream water and convert it immediately into potable water. It’s a matter of submerging a hose and pumping through a filter into a container. And filter-straws are available. With these you can sip directly from the stream. After a certain number of gallons of use, a straw should be replaced.

The Green Twig For What Ails You

Though people do often get away with drinking directly from springs, the price one pays for ingesting “bad” water is severe. The sickness can be debilitating. Nausea and cramps begin. Then dysentery leads to further dehydration. Together these symptoms can keep you from performing simple tasks within an hour after ingesting bad water. Over time, unchecked dysentery can lead to death by dehydration.

But nature has its wonder cure. A single cup of sassafras root tea can destroy the harmful microorganisms and have you back on your feet within another hour. This works for spoiled foods as well.

To make this tea, dig out a sassafras root comparable in size to a ¾” length of a #2 pencil. Score it with your knife and steep it in just-boiled water until the water is well-tinged in pink-red. Drink up.

Sassafras is a native word meaning “green twig.” This color of new bark is just one identifying characteristic of the tree. But other trees have such colorful new growth also, like sourwood and high-bush blueberry and sweet gum. If you don’t know sassafras, make it a priority to learn how to identify it in any season. Its uniquely varying leaf shapes (3 of them – a football, a mitten, and Casper the Friendly Ghost) are easy to learn. But beware: another tree also makes these leaf shapes and this one – mulberry – should not be made into a tea. Its sap is toxic.

Differentiating between the two is easy. Sassafras leaves have smooth margins. Mulberry leaves are serrate. Sassafras bark shows a cinnamon color when the outer flake of bark is scratched away. Older trees show diamond-shaped ridges on the bark. But most important is the scent of the root or rhizome. It has a distinct root beer aroma.

As always, buying technology and bypassing the primitive way makes one depend on the longevity of the device. What happens when a pump fails or wears out? When plastic breaks down from UV exposure? You’ll want to know the ancient ways, because the resources of the forest never run out. You’ll always have streams and wood and hollow stems and vines and rocks and herbs and all the other gifts that nature supplies without a single degree of management on the part of humans. You know … that same nature that worked just fine before we made our entrance upon the historical stage?

And once again, the ability to create fire from scratch becomes a treasured skill.


This article is posted here with permission from our friend, Mark Warren.  It is the last in a series about Primitive Survival Skills.  Mark Warren is a naturalist, composer, novelist, and director of  Medicine Bow, a ”primitive school of earthlore” in the North Georgia Mountains. Classes range from Bow Making, Tracking, to Basic Survival and more.  However, where Medicine Bow shines is Mark’s intimate knowledge of Cherokee plant use backed up with science from his degree in chemistry / pre-med.  Many classes are plant focused.  Over 30 years experience as a full-time outdoor educator, former Slalom/Downriver combined U.S. National Canoe Champion and World Longbow Champion to boot.  He is also the author of Two Winters in a Tipi.  His book can be found at Books-A-Million, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, etc., however, if you would like to buy from a local bookstore, please visit Hall Book Exchange.

Mark’s publisher is going through edits on his second book to be released later this year!  This one will be on survival and plants.  Will post an update on a release date and do a review as soon as we can.


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