How to make your way in the wilderness

Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2001

A review of "Participating in Nature: Thomas J. Elpel's Field Guide to Primitive Living Skills" by Thomas J. Elpel (Fourth Edition, 1999, HOPS Press, Pony, Mont., paper, 156 pp., no price listed).

Nettle fiber was traditionally used by Tlingits to make fishing line and net bags. But how?

After all, stinging nettle stalks get their untouchable reputation from the fact that they contain formic acid in the hypodermic-style needles, or hairs, on the undersides of their leaves. How did Tlingits manage to use the fiber and not get stung?

This is one of many questions about using natural resources answered by Thomas J. Elpel in "Participating in Nature." Elpel harvests the dead stalks, carefully avoiding live ones. "The formic acid becomes weaker as the plants become coarse, and the dead stalks are entirely free of it," he explains in his chapter on water. Then he describes how to flatten the stalks and make cordage of them, as can be done with plant fibers from milkweed, fireweed, cattail, yucca, evening primrose and domestic hollyhocks.

Elpel, the founder of Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School in Pony, Mont., gives workshops about primitive living skills.

Among the topics covered in "Participating in Nature" are building a shelter, making fire, staying warm, finding food, felting with wool, making wooden containers, stalking, fishing and trapping. Bush skills learned from these pages could save people suddenly stranded by a boat or plane accident. Victims of such circumstances often panic because they have no idea how to use the natural resources around them. It never occurs to them even to salvage useful bits of wreckage.

This compendium of nearly-forgotten lore does not expect the reader to surrender the advances of civilization. Elpel is not averse to making use of modern appliances digging out his "aboriginal blender" to puree brains for tanning hides, or using an electric wringer from an old washing machine to soften hides for clothing. He recycles tires for durable footwear. He mentions conventional sandpaper for smoothing arrow shafts, but tells how to make "sand leather." He criticizes gold mining, but admits to using a computer with gold in its innards.

"Participating in Nature" contains fascinating information that could help city dwellers overcome their repugnance for getting down in the dirt and exploring the wonders of the natural world. Any Scout leader should own a copy. Digging, cleaning, drying, pulverizing and brewing dandelion roots for coffee or making nettle cordage and trying to catch dinner with it, for example, will elucidate subsistence to anyone who goes through the process.

As pristine territory becomes more and more scarce, it tends to be devalued by those who would develop it. Getting in touch with the diversity and value of flora and fauna helps to reacquaint human beings with their aboriginal past and is perhaps the best way in the long run to preserve wilderness for the future.

Other titles by HOPS Press include "The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook," "Earth Knack: Stone Age Skills for the 21st century" and "Botany in a Day." For a catalog, see


Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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