The main purpose of Master Woodsman is to Promote Outdoor Living Skills. Within that broad statement should be a discussion on skill level and the skill level of those that teach or even share knowledge. That is what this article is… a catalyst for thought and discussion, NOT a decree from me or anyone else associated with this site. Please keep that and an open mind when reading.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW?
“Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.”
― Karl Popper
If you have been around for more than a few years you’re already aware … the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. Listed below are the 3 Stages of Knowledge as outlined from the site Thought Clusters. I believe these stages apply to Wilderness Living Skills too. Some self-evaluation will hopefully give you an idea of where you are with your skills or even a philosophy.
3 STAGES OF KNOWLEDGE
- Ignorance: The person has superficial or no knowledge in the subject. They may have some or many misconceptions of or prejudices against it. If they have to be involved in some activity in that subject, they are likely to make many beginner mistakes. This situation continues until the person gains adequate knowledge of the topic.
- Arrogance: The person is very comfortable with the subject. This manifests into love and admiration for it. It also results in arrogance and hostility towards persons who do not share the same passion or knowledge of the subject. There is a deep suspicion of any competing tool.
- Enlightenment: The person recognizes the limitations of their knowledge. They learn to tolerate other viewpoints and interests. They understand the original rationale behind the subject. Principles become more important than rituals. Arrogance is replaced by humility and concern.
FROM APPRENTICE CAMPER TO MASTER WOODSMAN
From the 3 Stages of Knowledge, we gained context on the understanding of a subject. The levels used in this next section will assist in one particular viewpoint of outdoor living skill level as outlined by Master Woodsman David Wescott. Those categories include the Apprentice Camper, Journeyman Camper, Journeyman Woodsman, and Master Woodsman, all of which can be found in detail in the Master Woodsman Training on this website.
Take note, a woodsman (or plainsman, frontiersman, bushcrafter, etc) advancing his skills is on the path of eliminating reliance on gear by accumulating knowledge through education and experience. In other words, the more you know, the less you need. And yet another way to look at this improved skill proficiency is as Steve Watts says, the more you know, the less you DO, i.e., less knife stokes, axe strokes, etc.
“As for the complex ways of living, I love them not, however much I practice them. In as many places as possible, I will get my feet down to the earth.” – Henry David Thoreau
When it comes to Outdoor Living Skills, the Apprentice Camper (beginner) must supplement their needs to maintain an adequate level of comfort in the back-country with what they can carry. Knowledge is basic, thus limiting their time afield as they do not know how to take advantage of surrounding natural resources. Modern survival techniques should be known and understood first. Once skills such as firecraft, sheltercraft, navigation, toolcraft, cooking, trekking and first aid are mastered, then living off the land would be the next step.
The intermediate level Journeyman Camper and Journeyman Woodsman have some knowledge of how to use the natural resources around them. As an example, where once I had to carry a sleeping bag, I now can make a bed and warming fire, and yet be just as comfortable, if not more so. Again, a woodsman’s goal is to eliminate the need of those items the beginner must carry. It doesn’t mean he won’t take advantage of a sleeping bag, matches, or any other convenience when he wants.
A Journeyman Woodsman’s knowledge includes mastery of hundreds of plants for medicine, food, tools, and wildlife use as well as the ability of harvesting fish and small game with deadfalls, snares, and traps for their environment. Firearm use may be needed for both small and large game in northern climates.
For the Journeyman Woodsman, getting lost or forgetting a sleeping bag becomes an inconvenience, not a survival situation. However, the journeyman is also adept enough at prevention that true survival is a rare circumstance. Weeks at a time for recreation or survival are more than feasible.
A Master Woodsman (advanced) is approaching knowledge levels of the aboriginal peoples from that environment where if needed, for the most part, one could be independent of modern technology. To live off the land, knowledge must be at a level where wilderness food collection exceeds the energy required to gather and process one’s needs in all seasons.
The Master Woodsman has mastery of most plants (several hundred depending on the environment) for medicine, food, tools, and wildlife use in his area, as well as competency in harvesting game. Knowledge is exponentially greater than that of the journeyman and acclimation to the environment exists. Mastery is also demonstrated through the ability to teach and write, as well as maintaining spirit, mind and physical body.
The intent of the above chart is to put context around the proportional knowledge from beginner to advanced. The numbers themselves are unscientific, and if anything, the graphic is conservative for most environments. Keep in mind, outdoor experience takes many, many years. As an example, just to get one year of experience in a specific winter environment really takes four years as a season doesn’t last a year. Training with the right person can greatly accelerate this learning curve.
“Simplify, simplify.” – Henry David Thoreau
“One “simplify” would have sufficed.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson in response
Accumulate knowledge, eliminate gear. Always keep in mind, skill progression in the art of woodcraft points towards simplicity. Seeking that simplicity offers experience. It also leads to enlightenment, which includes the realization we can never know too much or be too skilled.
“The height of cultivation runs to simplicity.
Halfway cultivation runs to ornamentation.”
— Bruce Lee
PHILOSOPHY OF A CAVEMAN
From Larry Dean Olsen’s Outdoor Survival Skills first published in 1967.
“It is asserted from time to time that true survival is measured by a person’s capacity to stay put and prepared with a super pack of hauled-in safe-gaurds; that learning edible plants and trapping and hunting skills are not necessary since most lost persons are rescued within seventy-two hours anyway. Without negating the wisdom of preparation and safegaurd, I would say that philosophy behind this modern dependency is still a dangerous one. Because of confidence and practice, when one learns to live off the land entirely, being lost is no longer life-threatening. Any manufactured item, such as a good knife or sleeping bag, then becomes a useful and appreciated luxury, but not a dire necessity!”
I shared Larry Olsen’s philosophy as the assertion he refers to “that true survival is measured by a person’s capacity to stay put and prepared with a super pack of hauled-in safe-gaurds” is unfortunately more alive than ever. I also included the Stages of Knowledge and Master Woodsman Training to offer a context around experience and skill level, the purpose being a background for the following comments…
From the majority of educational sources available today, the skills being taught are a regurgitation of what has existed. This is to be expected and not the issue. What is the issue, however, more than ever, it is poorly taught and comes with very little context due to the presenter’s source of information, slack research, and minimal experience (ignorance or arrogance stage of knowledge).
This poor dissemination of information can be seen across all outdoor living skill disciplines. And while I get there is overlap in primitive skills, woodcraft, and even homesteading, to the casual camper the volume of information must be overwhelming, especially with so much of it commercialized. While this loss of context sucks, what should be of extreme concern is how much gets lumped into the word survival. For the purpose of this article, survival means dealing with potentially lethal stresses in a unfamiliar or challenging environment (credit M. Kochanski).
In today’s world, ANYBODY can call him or herself a survival instructor, or expert, and do. If you are good at editing a video and have a little charisma, you are an instant ‘expert’ on YouTube to the uninformed public. Not to mention, self-publishing, blogs (this site included), online forums, and even professional publications provide ample opportunities to expound on information, correct or not.
Please know, I truly believe that 99.9% of what is shared is done with good intentions (TV is not included in that statement). Sadly, in our fast-paced society, everyone is looking for a shortcut, and information that is literally shared in the blink of an eye must be good if it saves you that most precious of commodities, time… Right??? WRONG! Experience will always be the best teacher. You can however accelerate your learning curve through good teachers.
Regrettably, good teachers are harder to find these days with so much noise. What is explained in the next paragraph is a problem with some instructors, but in reality, the problem is everywhere thanks to World Wide Web. Simply insert any modern medium of communication into the example below.
After attending just one survival school, a student starts their own school, and then one of their students starts a school after attending just that school… Or perhaps someone in the arrogance stage of knowledge makes a skills video for YouTube from something they just learned at that school, then someone else tries to make the same video from what they saw online to post on their channel… and then they tell two friends, and so on, and so on… What happens when you make a copy of a copy? In this case, you get an inbreeding of skills, loss of context (everything is survival now) and my earlier complaints on instruction.
Take a moment right now to think about the last YouTube video or TV Show about survival you watched while sitting there in your chair. Did you see a skill and say to yourself, “that’s cool, I will add it my quiver of knowledge.” Did you actually try it after adding your view to the list? Do you think you could duplicate it a year from now? Do you remember the context in which the skill was presented? Did the presenter offer any context as to where the skill came from and when it should applied? Do you even remember what you watched? What about the video you watched two weeks ago, or last month? No? I bet you remember that training, whatever it was, you got years ago from that knowledgable instructor in the environment it was meant to be. The good lessons last a lifetime.
SO WHAT HAVE “WE” TRIED TO DO ABOUT THAT
My above statements about poor instruction and misinformation are nothing new and something I have experienced first hand numerous times over many years. In fact, roughly four years ago in a frustrated attempt to rectify, I approached several survival instructors about certification. Coming from a forestry background where certification exists through the Society of American Foresters as well as professional licensure in most states, I have knowledge of the subject. For that matter, many others do as well, they just don’t realize it, CPR/AED/First Aid Certification or Swim Instructor from the Red Cross being an example of a relatively simple certification process.
That being said, based on the feedback I received then and sentiments I have seen from most instructors, it will never happen, at least not anytime soon. Why? Those that teach survival are to say the least, highly independent, and the last thing they want is an entity providing guidelines. Add to that, there are some who teach that literally lack the marketing capability and technical savvy to take advantage of a certification program. Some purists won’t even do business cards as they are too commercial. And then there is the politics…
Shortly after those initial conversations I realized one of my visions, the creation of Master Woodsman, an online repository of reputable Outdoor Living Skills information for the public. I never intended to spend so much time doing this site or being a blogger, but the writing has been educational in itself to say the least. And whenever possible, those things that I have written about, I have tried to encourage the reader to seek professional training or original sources of information.
BACK TO CERTIFICATION
As we continue this discussion on certification, please note I am speaking specifically about wilderness survival.
Most people only have one point of view on certification, the clinical definition: a designation earned by an individual identifying that they have demonstrated a standard level of skills, experience, and expertise within their field.
Certification should really be considered an incentive to improve, not a procedure of regulation or professional status. Quality of instruction and the safety of students should be in everybody’s best interest. Not to mention, certification is voluntary.
Professional organizations (associations, societies, etc.) normally get ahead of licensure and government regulation through organizing a body to develop their own criteria. Failure to do so eventually results in a concerned public asking government for laws and regulation of a profession (or the government is looking for more revenue and finds your profession).
Registration is normally licensure from a government entity such as a state. For example, under penalty of law, a person cannot represent themselves to the public for compensation as a forester in most states unless they are registered. In Georgia, where I first got registered, I had to meet the educational requirements of a four-year degree, work under a professional forester for two-years who was also registered, have five letters of recommendation (3 from Registered Foresters), and then pass an examination from the state board. And then there are the continuing education credits. Let’s avoid this much government intervention.
You should know, state boards and tough registration criteria came long before the Society of American Foresters started a certification program. As the popularity of Outdoor Living Skills increases it is inevitable there will be government involvement. It is better that instruction criteria and voluntary certification comes first from those that teach survival.
So how high should the bar be set and what should be the criteria? I have my thoughts, but they are irrelevant for this discussion. It would take a body of instructors to get the thing started and agree.
Obviously though, the least common denominators would revolve around a instructor’s judgment, of minimum age, student safety, wilderness medicine, rescue, thermoregulation of the human body, physics in hot and cold environments, and other basics. Think along the lines of a Lifeguard/Swim Instructor certification as offered by the Red Cross.
Survival is a lot like learning to swim. However, in the case of swimming, the instructor has the student in the ‘real world’ as they are taught in the water. The instructor is right there with their student, sink or swim. Failure is obviously not an option and the student learns to swim.
Whereas, in survival training, the student is usually NOT in the back-country, dog-tired, dehydrated, sleep-deprived, wet, suffering, and/or in the cold when needing to make tough decisions and execute on a skill such as lighting a fire; all with the ever-present fear of the unknown, discomfort, failure, being alone, darkness, personal guilt, and death creating a chemical cocktail in their bloodstream impacting their judgment, dexterity and they way their body regulates temperature.
Therefore, the survival instructor can get away with the poor instruction where the swim instructor cannot. Nonetheless, both involve life saving skills. Wouldn’t you rather learn how to swim from someone who is certified? I hope you see now, it should be the same for survival instructors.
“Mother Nature is a terrible instructress. She will give you the exam first and the lesson after, if you are still alive to appreciate it.” – Mors Kochanski
Imagine if an entity (society, association, etc.) of survival instruction existed. The public would be more reassured in the instruction and their safety. Also, more people would likely want instruction. A entity of that nature could also pull resources for liability insurance, marketing assistance, information sharing (including best practices) and more.
The sharing of information alone would be a boon. While some instructors readily share and continuously train with peers, other schools are in essence an island which can obviously lead to an inbreeding of skills as we discussed earlier.
The bottom line here is that if an instructor is truly willing to take responsibility for the well-being of his or her students, they should not have a problem with certification. That well-being is not only for the time of instruction for which they are being compensated, but for the knowledge they are instilling in the student. As it is that knowledge on which the student’s life may depend.
OK, NOW WHAT?
First and foremost, I hope this article will make you consider your source of information more carefully. If you are planning to attend a school, we have some suggested things to look for in the Schools section under Survival Training on this website. When it comes to YouTube and other mediums of information I never meant to imply don’t use. There is some great content out there from reputable sources, Lord knows I have picked up more than a few things online if I spent the time practicing it in the field. Nevertheless, if you didn’t before, I hope you realize now the importance of getting information from a creditable source. And for goodness sake, realize you can’t get experience while you are online.
Yes, I said there is very little that is new in the world when it comes to Outdoor Living Skills. For those things that are revolutionary, there is no reason not to go to the original source, be it the person or their writings. AND, for that regurgitated information, look to sources with experience and perhaps even from your geography. Do they have real back-country experience? In which environment(s)? How many years have they taught? Who did they learn from? What do their peers think of them? Are they a full-time instructor or part-time? Do they have a resume? The number of subscribers and likes should NOT be a major criteria for a source of information. More times than not, you don’t know who liked it, why they liked it, or even if they have knowledge of the subject being liked. And I could go on about the demographic of most likers and more.
While not so much survival and very much recreation, one of the more original sources of information out there comes from the Classic Camping era. Like I said, most of it has done before. Well, it was folks like Seton, Beard, Kephart, White, Sears, Miller, Harding, Jaeger, Mason and others who first started to capture many of these outdoor living skills we see coming back to the forefront. Perhaps, even unknowingly, people are looking to these original sources because they know in their hearts something is missing today.
“This instinct for a free life in the open is as natural and wholesome as the gratification of hunger and thirst and love. It is Nature’s recall to the simple mode of existence that she intended for us.” – Horace Kephart
There’s that word simple again, thank you Kep.
As far as certification, I felt someone had to bring it up. I have heard too many sidebar complaints that it doesn’t exist then no one does anything about it. So there, I kicked it out there and we will see what happens. Please know, I have no designs on starting the thing myself, a group of full-time instructors should do that. And to be honest, I don’t think anything will come of it.
All that being said, Master Woodsman will simply continue to go off-trail, being as true a voice as possible in Promoting Outdoor Living Skills. A voice of the past bringing to the forefront those pioneers before us AND a voice of the present inclusionary to ALL outdoor living skills.