Modern Families Learn Primitive Skills

Sunday, September 28, 2014
Corinth — Nowadays, when people spend more time in the glare of a computer screen than the glow of a campfire, and everything from work boots to applesauce is just a mouse click away, humans’ reliance on the Earth can seem more quaint fable than hard fact.

But in this age of convenience, some are working quietly and intently to nurture ancient survival skills. Earlier this month, about 100 students and teachers gathered in Corinth to learn handicrafts and so-called primitive skills, such as hide tanning, “fire by friction” and animal tracking.

Practicing such arts, sometimes referred to as wilderness living skills, means adopting the perspective of those who lived on the land without metal, glass and plastic, “and taking care of your needs from that angle,” said Sarah Corrigan, who organized the event with her husband, Brad Salon.

The seventh annual Roots Rendezvous drew people from across New England, New York and Canada, as well as local residents. Mariah Lawrence and her family drove up from their home in Tunbridge. She and her husband are interested in homesteading skills and learning about living in a more sustainable way, Lawrence said. Over the course of two days, she took part in a bookbinding workshop, mushroom walk and fiber spinning class. She also crafted a pair of shoes from buffalo leather and a discarded conveyor belt.

Making the lace-up shoes was “really cool,” she said. But it wasn’t easy. ”We had to use pliers to pull the needle through.”

The four-day event was hosted by the Roots School, whose name reflects its mission: “Roots” stands for “reclaiming our origins through traditional skills.”

T he school sits on 135 acres of mostly forested land on a dirt road in Corinth. Corrigan and Salon, Roots’ founders, also live on the property, which is traversed by a branch of the Waits River.

The couple and several other instructors teach throughout the year there and at a site in Marshfield, Vt. In addition to passing on skills, they hope the school will spark in students a deeper relationship with the Earth, one that leads naturally to careful land stewardship.

“When you build a bow out of a tree, you can’t look at that tree the same way anymore,” said Salon, an avid archer and hunter. Harvesting natural resources in a sustainable manner requires thoughtfulness, he said, so rather than cutting down the lone tree of a certain species in an area, he might chose a type that’s abundant or one that is crowding out another tree.

For Corrigan, cultivating a relationship with the land is a path to contentment and happiness. While making plans to weave a basket, for instance, she might harvest some willow, and the part she snips away will die.

”I can connect with the rawness there,” she said. “The willow gives so freely and just engenders this wonderful sense of gratitude.”

More than a dozen people led workshops at the get-together. Corrigan offered classes in rope-making, cooking over a fire and mixing up something called fire cider . The folk remedy made from honey, raw vinegar and herbs is said to stimulate digestion, boost the immune system and improve circulation.

For Salon, “just meeting a whole lot of people who are interested in the skills,” was a highlight. And the teachers were also students. “You get to learn a lot by watching someone who’s good at what you are interested in,” he said.

His workshops included flint knapping — making sharp-edged stone tools, such as knives, hide scrapers, and hand axes, which Corrigan called one of “most niched” and important primitive skills.

“Stone axes work really well,” she said. “People have been intelligent for a really long time.”

On Saturday evening, the crowd gathered for a “mead circle.” Making several gallons of the honey-based fermented beverage is a rendezvous tradition. This year’s batch, to be uncorked next fall, is a fruity concoction containing elderberries, their relative, highbush cranberry, and wild grapes. Participants, “a bunch of herbal-minded folks,” bring along their home brews to share, Corrigan said.

A “big to-do,” the mead circle is one of the event’s highlights for her, she said. A version made with lemon thyme and jasmine tea “was particularly good.”

Earlier that day, people spent time swapping items they had found or made. Animal bones and dried mushrooms shared the stage with handmade baskets, tinctures and botanical illustrations at the “trade.” One young girl offered up crystals she’d brought from Arkansas. In exchange, she received a chipmunk hide. Luckily, it wasn’t the only one; the item proved a favorite for at least one other child in the circle.

Most of the participants camped out in a large field on the property, sharing food around a central fire. Among them were regulars — those who’d attended classes at the school and their families, as well as curious newcomers. They want people “from all creeds” to feel welcome, Salon said.

“We try not to push any political agenda,” he said.

“At the same time, we facilitate experiences where people’s eyes are opened to the reality of our impact on the natural landscape.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at or 603-727-3210.

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