AERO Member Spotlight: Thomas Elpel
used with permission of the AERO Sun Times
(AERO is the Alternative Energy Resources Organization)
by Janet Zimmerman
QUICK - which AERO member can start a fire rubbing sticks together; catch a trout with his bare hands; is a published writer, builder of energy-efficient homes, self-taught web-master, producer of educational videos, takes to the wild in winter with nothing but a wool blanket; AND is taking the lead in establishing an exciting new public park at the Missouri headwaters? If you guessed Thomas J. Elpel, take a bow. If you had no clue, read on for the goods on this dynamic individual.
When Tom Elpel helped me identify a "mystery plant" in my Pony garden in 1986, I could not have predicted the path that this shy and unassuming teenager would take. Less than twenty years later, Tom is the author of four books, an experienced builder and alternative-energy consultant, photographer and producer/director of educational videos, primitive-skills expert, a student of holistic philosophies, and dedicated husband and father of four exuberant children ages 3 to 15.
He started his own publishing business and created a successful internet mail-order business through his website serving an international community interested in Stone Age living skills and nature awareness. The webpage features hundreds of his own wildflower photos, plus weed ecology articles, sustainable building resources, and news of his current passion: the development of 3Rivers Park to expand recreational opportunities along the entire length of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers.
Tom and his wife of 15 years, Renee, recently expanded their operation from Pony to Silver Star, where they own and operate Granny's Country Store which houses the community post office, grocery, and serves as headquarters for the mail-order business. Two interns have recently arrived from Windsor, Ontario, and New York City for a summer of intensive hands-on experience honing their knowledge of nature and outdoor skills. They will assist with living history programs for tourists in Silver Star through the summer.
Starting out, Tom had no interest in the typical teen social culture. His idea of a good time was to go walking in the woods with his grandmother and mentor Josie Jewett, a descendant of pioneer homesteaders in the Gallatin Valley. Whenever possible, he spent his days in Pony hiking the Tobacco Roots, studying the area plant life, and practicing his "skills." Tom noticed that practicing the survival skills of our ancestors in a natural setting seemed to inspire a mindfulness that supported a desire to live a sustainable life in the present.
It was no surprise to anyone when Tom and his high school sweetheart Renee Nansel were married in the Pony Park after graduation in 1989. Renee, an aspiring artist, shared Tom's interest in the outdoors. A year before Tom and Renee had left Pony with little more than two small backpacks, a couple of wool bedrolls, and a few dollars to set out on a cross-country walk across Montana, ending 8 weeks and 500 miles later at Fort Union on the North Dakota border.
"We figured that if we could do this together," Tom said, "then we could do anything together."
After the walk, they got jobs working with troubled teens on wilderness survival trips and saved up enough money over the winter to get married, buy land in Pony, and move into a luxurious 8' x 10' wall tent while they constructed a passive solar stone and log house. They paid for their house a project at a time and successfully avoided getting a home mortgage. A year ago they added solar electric panels that generate all their household electricity.
When Tom announced his plan to start the Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School (HOPS), some would have wondered if it might be more prudent to look for work. Instead, Tom wrote his first book, Direct Pointing to Real Wealth, outlining concepts for succeeding financially while making the world a better place. "I write books for myself first," Tom said. "When there is something I desperately need to know, then I write it down to clarify my thoughts. I use my books to guide my actions, then come back and revise the text again and again as I refine my ideology through real-world experience."
Tom found his mentors in books, studying the works of sustainable-living visionaries like Amory Lovins, Allan Savory, Masanobu Fukuoka, and Wes Jackson. As a teenager, he read every copy of the Mother Earth News he could get his hands on.
Today Tom preaches a unique blend of Stone-Age survival skills and modern sustainable living. "It is all the same to me," Tom said. "We have the same basic needs now as in the past for shelter, energy, water, and food. We are just using different technologies to meet those needs. Practicing primitive skills enables people to discover an intimate connection with the earth as they meet their basic needs. But you can't just play in the woods all the time. At some point you have to bring that experience back and look for ways to apply it to everyday life."
Janet Zimmerman has lived in Pony for 25 years. She is a veteran participant in Tom Elpel's wild food forages and continues to propagate the "mystery plant," Chenopodium capitatum (strawberry goosefoot), a traditional food source for Native Americans in southwestern Montana.
Return to the Primitive Living Skills Page
Return to HOPS Press, LLC.