An interview with our Woodsmoke host, David Wescott

Discussion in 'Events' started by abo4ster, Mar 12, 2012.

  1. abo4ster

    abo4ster Banned Member Banned

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    http://www.codylundin.com/wordpress/interview-rabbitstick-main-man-dave-westcott/

    An Interview with Rabbitstick Main Man Dave Wescott
    March 6, 2012
    by Cody Lundin

    Many thanks to Dave Wescott for his time and generosity in me asking so many questions of him. If you don’t know Dave is one of the orginal founders of the Primitive Living Skills movement who has spent that last thrity years gaining knowledge of skills that have long been lost to know be able to share them at gatherings at Winter Count and Rabbitstick.


    What started you on the Primitive Technology path?

    I started with an intense love of Tarzan and Robin Hood movies, the comic book Turok Son of Stone, and anything to do with Africa, Native Americans and Cowboys. Quite a mix, but all very tribal. The mystery and magic of the outdoors was ground into me through hours of wandering around our country property in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Artifacts of previous eras from local Maidu culture to the Gold Rush explosion were everywhere you turned. It wasn’t until 1961, when Theodora Kroeber published Ishi In Two Worlds, that I became familiar with the story of Ishi- the last stone age Indian - who emerged from the wild in 1911. I devoured that book and still have my original dog-eared copy. I did my best to recreate everything I saw in the photos, since his last stronghold was only about 50 miles from my home. The environments were exactly the same. In 1968, Larry Dean Olsen published Outdoor Survival Skills. If you compare the photos in his book and Ishi, you’ll see some striking comparisons that I recognized right off. I met Larry by total accident in 1970 and it was love at first sight. I have been doing ever since, what he told me I would be doing the rest of my life, and that’s teaching these skills.

    2. How long has the Rabbitstick gathering been going and what has changed since the first gathering?

    Larry Olsen started the original Rabbit Stick Rendezvous in 1978. He ran it for about three years when his then business partners, Dick and Linda Jamison took it over and changed the name to Woodsmoke Primitive Skllls Conference. They ran it for a couple of years and then discontinued it along with the short-lived Woodsmoke magazine. Over the years, Larry held on to the Rabbit Stick moniker through several youth program incarnations, and Jamison’s still use the Woodsmoke title for their book and video productions. In 1988 I went to Larry and asked permission to revive Rabbit Stick through my company, Boulder Outdoor Survival School. I wrote to every primitive skills teacher of note that I could track down and asked them if I hosted an event, would they show up. The first year we had 48 instructors and 2 paying students. It was an amazing week I’ll never forget. We modified the name to Rabbitstick, and have been hosting it for 25 years. We sold BOSS in 1997, and formed Backtracks, LLC to house the Rabbitick offices. Rabbitstick now averages about 400 attendees, about 90 of these are instructional staff.

    In 1995, we had moved to Arizona, so we started Winter Count as a winter gathering alternative for the primitive skills set. It took off and has grown to be bigger than Rabbitstick as of this writing. We moved back to Idaho in 1997, and have run both events from our Idaho offices. The programs comprise over 60 classes each day on topics ranging from primitive technology, to wilderness living skills, and our latest addition Homespun – skills for self-reliance.

    This year we will be reviving the old Woodsmoke gathering. Jamison’s have given us their blessing to use the title and have said they will be at the inaugural event to support us. This event will be at a new Idaho location near Tetonia, Idaho and focuses on my latest love, classic camping. With the recent explosion of interest in what are now being called Bushcraft skills, we saw a natural fit for these two topics to be merged into this new event.

    A note – Probably the most amazing thing about these gatherings is that over 300 practitioners have come together to form a community of people who all share an interest in primitive skills through lifestyle, hobby or profession. This community has helped foster these events to the point that they have assumed a kind of ownership of these gatherings that is unusual in our time. They volunteer their time and talents, and share skills for which they have a passion. I respect these people as colleagues and love them as friends. They are the best.


    3. Who are your mentors and why?

    Once I found a real path through all of these interest areas – of course as a native westerner, cowboys will always be in my blood – I first gravitated to Native American ethnography and the re-creation of the many skills and crafts related to it. In high school I traveled in the summers with 1 or 2 other guys and danced on the powwow circuit of southern Canada and the northern states. This was in the mid 1960s when relations between whites and Indians was not so good. But, we were mostly treated well, and had a hell of a good time – I started traveling when I was 16. My mentors at this time came from loads of books. Remember, what’s available now – access to teachers through the internet and the sheer number of sources related to topics of interest to me – just didn’t exist. You had to become an ethnographer yourself, and literally root out information from sources that trusted you enough to share it.

    I was 21 when I met Larry, and finally started to get a handle on how I fit into all of this stuff. I was 35 before I gave up the notion that I was ever going to become an Indian. That’s when I met two of my best friends, Steve Watts and David Holladay, and started Rabbitstick. Both of them came into my life in the same year, and they cranked my head around. They were both fostering ideas concerning our stone age connection and how the stone age is the great common denominator. I no longer had to “play-Indian.” I finally figured out that I had a legitimate birthright to primitive skills, and it was way older than I had ever imagined it to be.

    Larry has always been a significant player in how I got started, but it wasn’t until I started Rabbitsick and started meeting the “master of the craft” who were hiding all over the country, that it really broke lose into what we now call “Primitive Technology” – the term was not in general use until we started the Society of Primitive Technology in 1989; now it’s everywhere. Larry called them survival skills, and that was always confusing to me. Now that I have figured things out and gotten them into context, I can make sense of it all. Back then, the mastery of most skills was still in its infancy, or relegated to just a few specialists – hand-drill fires were the holy grail, deer skins to buckskins in 3 days was like climbing Everest, and pottery that came out of the fire unexploded was like discovering a cure for cancer. It was an amazing time.

    One note, Errett Callahan and Steve Watts are to blame for my recent passion – classic camping. Errett, as a kid, attended the same camp where Ernest Thompson Seton was a leader years before. He had collected all of the Straight Arrow Nabisco cards, and was a treasure trove of information – this is besides his knowledge of primitive skills – on our shared camping heritage. Steve was a disciple of Errett’s, and came to many of the same conclusions that I have about how important the preservation of our camping heritage really is. So blame them for my current evolution.

    Another note – I went to the dark side for a brief time while I worked for Outward Bound as a wilderness guide and for a few universities as an assistant professor of Outdoor Recreation. During those years I held certifications and a guides license in mountaineering, dog-sledding, rock climbing, horse packing, back-country skiing, wilderness medicine and more. It was a formative time that has affected everything I do in the primitive skills world.
     
  2. abo4ster

    abo4ster Banned Member Banned

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    4. What do you think we could use from Primitive Technology in today’s on the go, instant world?

    #1 – Neil Postman has said, “we live in a time of instant problems and instant solutions, and the solutions are usually tied to technology.” That’s a poor position from which to fight a battle, but it’s the position that our culture has chosen to accept. Our job is to rattle their comfort zone and make them think twice about how tenuous this position has become.

    #2 – David Pye has said that we can allow ourselves to be involved in a workmanship of certainty or a workmanship of risk. Most of us have chosen the former and our reward is a paycheck, vacation benefits, and a retirement plan (we’re now seeing how great a deal that’s been). All we have to do is sign over our lives and everything becomes SAFE and SECURE. What more could one ask for. I kind of like Pye’s other option, the workmanship of risk. This work is where the outcome is not known – which is the definition of adventure by the way. The pursuit of learning primitive skills is a workmanship of risk. Using these skills to work with people in the outdoors used to be a workmanship of risk. Of course now with informed consent, risk management, and all of the other controls that have been put in place, much of the adventure is gone because the outcomes have become predictable and regulated. The programs have succumbed to certainty; the skills are still an adventure. I know people who have pit-fired hundreds of pots, and the outcome of the last firing is as thrilling as the first.

    #3 – John Naisbitt said that for every development of high tech, there has to be an equal and balancing development of high touch, or the high tech is rejected. That’s job security for me folks. The idea of crafting things by hand, experiencing nature on its’ terms, opening yourself to people who share ideas that are different from your own – there is power in that. Primitive technology is the ultimate high touch experience.

    #4 – In their book, The Axe Maker’s Gift, James Burke and Robert Ornstein address the issue of what happens to a culture and individuals when they change from a stone to a steel axe. The new invention is so powerful and attractive, there is no choice but to adopt its’ use. The problem comes when you realize that by adopting the new invention, you have to give up something as a trade-off, and usually what you sacrifice is knowledge. The fascinating thing about primitive technology is that it reverses that process. The teaching of traditions is a heritage thing – passing on knowledge from teacher to student through a face-to-face shared experience. When you realize that when you compare a stone axe to a steel axe you are really making a bad comparison. What you should be doing is comparing backwards – how good is a stone axe compared to no axe at all? What do you gain by asking that question? Knowledge my friend.


    5. Some people may look at Primitive Technologists as “preppers” with all doom and gloom, what would you say to people curious but to afraid to ask.

    I don’t see that at all. Although, I must say that a contingent of people who are looking at primitive skills as a lifestyle choice rather than an exploration of prehistory or arts and crafts is increasing in size. Many young people are realizing the problems inherent in what I addressed in the last question, and are really looking at what alternatives are realistically available to them by taking David Brower’s advice – When you get to the edge of a cliff, rather than leaping off because you have no alternative, perhaps the smart thing to do is turn around and take one giant step forward.

    To me that’s not doom and gloom at all. That’s being proactive. Doom and gloom would be storing up arms to fight your neighbor from stealing your food storage. I have never felt that among this group of people. I do see it in related interest groups who are enticed by many of these primitive skills, but they also have a healthy love for their guns and knives. That’s not primitive technology.

    You can’t watch any of the videos about Rabbitstick that have been posted on the web and say that doom and gloom is our mantra.


    6. What’s your favorite technique to make fire, no matches now?

    I have an affinity for BIC disposable lighters – transparent of course. And the ability to master the use of a match is in danger of going the way of the 35mm camera. When was the last time you tried to buy strike-anywhere matches? Use them or loose them folks.

    I guess if you’re talking friction fire, I have to bow to the bow-drill. I have developed calluses on my hands from too many hand-drills, so it’s no longer comfortable to do it that way. I also have a theory about the bow-drill that makes it a perfect classic camping skill. I have never seen a bow-drill set in a museum display of prehistoric artifacts; Eskimo, maybe, but nothing from the lower 48. I’ve seen hundreds of hand-drills, but never a bow-drill. I think the bow-drill was primarily a northern tier skill – in cold wet country where inferior materials could be overpowered by mechanical advantage to bust a coal. My theory is that Ernest Thomson Seton made it his personal mission to use the bow-drill as a metaphor for the magic of woodcraft. He was a master of the craft – in fact, I’ve seen a photo of him teaching a group of what appears to be Blackfoot Indians.

    It was his passing along of this craft through the many youth organizations that he helped found, that the bow-drill became synonymous with outdoor skill. It spread like wildfire. In our contemporary Bushcraft movement, the bow-drill is front and center. I did my first bow-drill as a kid, but never got really good with it until I had to use it twice a day every day on the trail. It’s exciting to watch 50 year old guys on the internet sharing their newly discovered skills.


    7. What’s your favorite skill and why?

    My favorite skill is simply the ability to make something…anything. I’ve been at this for 40+ years and last year I made my first set of skis from a birch plank. The year before that, I made a skin-on-frame kayak. A couple of years before that I made a 14’ Cree-style freight sled. This past Thanksgiving break I got a bug to make a wooden cup – kuksa, noggin. When I finally quit, and had to get back to work, I‘d made 10 of them.

    Crafting – the making of functional art with hand tools from locally harvested natural materials is something we all need to do more of. I can’t limit myself to any one medium. I know many people who are masterful flintknappers, and they’ve only been at it for 5 or 6 years. They have applied themselves in a way that has never captivated me personally, but you can bet that even though they are new to the scene, if I can learn something from them, I’ll be their first student anytime.

    The thrill of making hand-made items has not escaped the general populace, it’s the total realization that you can actually make something of quality from scratch that befuddles them. Try skiing down a slope on a set of handmade skis without getting mobbed by people wanting to know where you got them. When you tell them that you made them, the reaction is almost always “What do you mean you made them?” The possibility that it can be done is nowhere in their frame of reference. That’s sad.
     
  3. abo4ster

    abo4ster Banned Member Banned

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    8. When you go into the wilderness what do you take out with you? Besides the modern stuff?

    You’ve got to realize, I’m nearly 65 now, and I started guiding full time when I was 21 years old. That was sleeping on hard ground with a blanket on a good night, and eating things you’d never tell your mother about. I did that off and on full time for a living for over three decades. The first year I owned BOSS I did three 30-day courses back to back, and two 14-day courses with only a day off in between courses. I owned BOSS for 12 years. Before that, I ran courses that had been started by Larry Olsen. I did those for 4 years while I was going to school. I’d be happy to compare trail time under primitive conditions with anyone.

    I did the modern thing too. I have started outdoor programs at 4 universities. I know how to hit the trail with all the essentials. But, I’ve done that too. I still like to do short trips with a backpack, but today, woods-loafing is what I pine for.

    Give me a canvas wall tent with an air-tight woodstove, some cast iron cook-wear, the soft glow of an oil lamp, good food and great company, and I’ll stay out for as long as my wife will let me. With that scene in mind, let me remind you about what I said about technology – when you accept the axemaker’s gift, you give up knowledge. With all the umbilical impedimenta of the backpacker, you don’t need to know anything about the outdoors. In fact with today’s ethic, you are merely a tourist who is welcome to look, but don’t you dare touch. On the other hand, to manage a cherry-red stove under a covering of flammable plant fiber fabric, you need to know a few things. To cook a meal fit for a king over unpredictable coals in a cast iron pot, compared to pouring hot water into a foil pack of glop, a thorough working knowledge of hearth management helps.

    Now some would say how do you get all that heavy stuff into the wilderness? How did camping ever become a “wilderness” activity? I can camp in my backyard and have a great time. Backpacking and it’s association with wilderness is not the only way to camp. I’ve tried them all, and the sylvan retreat of yesteryear is what I consider the best way to learn about the outdoors and about yourself, and you can be comfortable doing it. Remember, Aldo Leopold said, “woodcraft is a working knowledge of the land.” How can you beat that for an endorsement?


    9. There seems to be resurgence in getting back to a simpler life and having a better understanding of our past, but people may not know where to go to learn Primitive Living Skills. What can you tell people about Winter Count and Rabbitstick?

    Ever tell a story that you thought was great, and your listener just sits there with no reaction? Then you say “Well, I guess you had to be there.” That’s the very best thing I can tell someone about Winter Count and Rabbitstick. You’ve just gotta be there. Take that giant step forward and find out for yourself what it’s all about. As I said in question #3, there is more information available, more highly skilled people, and more ways to access teachers than in any time in our history. We used to be a culture that was experience rich and information poor. We are now not only rich with information, but we are at the poverty level of real experience. We are “virtually” dying from lack of real life. Get out and do something. It won’t hurt you, and perhaps it might change your life.



    :50:
     
  4. Longrifle6

    Longrifle6 Tracker

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    Excellent interview and thanks for posting it here. Thanks to you David Wescott for all your doing.

    Brian
     
  5. ModernNessmuk

    ModernNessmuk Tracker

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    Wonderful interview, this interview really makes you stop and smell the forest. Thanks for sharing!
     
  6. Redwolf

    Redwolf Guide

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    Outstanding words!
     

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