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Participating in Nature
Thomas J. Elpel's Field Guide to Primitive Living Skills

      Participating in Nature: Thomas J. Elpel's Field Guide to Primitive Living Skills provides a strong, quiet, thoughtful view of contemporary living and man's place in his ecosystem. The text's voice shifts easily between the author experiencing the wilderness in sight, sound, smell; musings about his past; his perceptions of what he has learned; and directions for meeting daily needs while in the wilderness. The author covers creating shelter, starting a fire, edible and medicinal plants, and tanning buckskin, among other skills.

Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.      This is a different sort of book than what might be gleaned from the title. Elpel accepts the contemporary world and its technology. He himself has chose to have a house, wife and family. But primitive living is an important part of his psyche. He runs a school that allows others to experience it for themselves. He believes that experiencing the wilderness helps people get in touch with the reality that all resources come from the earth, not from a store, and what impact they have on the earth and other beings just by meeting their daily needs. It helps them understand that life in any form requires the use of energy and resources. This is a fine book, one that should be appreciated not only by those who want to spend time in the earth's wild places but by anyone looking for a different perception of contemporary life.

--Ecology Action Newsletter. Willits, California. November 2002.

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Participating in Nature
Thomas J. Elpel's Field Guide to Primitive Living Skills

     Ever wonder how to start a fire with a bowdrill, weave a basket, build a stone oven, blow a coal-burned cup, or make reliable and comfortable shoes? Which plants are edible or medicinal, and what material makes the best bows and arrows? I've thought about these things and others, never really dwelling on them for long. None of these were on my list of things to learn to do for 2001. But they should have been. I moved to the country to be closer to nature and to be more a part of it, and it's about time. So where do we start?

     Take a beautiful quiet morning, before sunrise. Sit on a peaceful overlook with a view that you know will be breathtaking once the morning light touches it. Watch the stars shine until they fade into the half-light. Feel the dew on the grass and in the air. Listen to the day birds begin their chorus. Notice the smells that waft by on a soft breeze.

Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.      Watch the animals begin or end their regular rituals as the morning breaks. Write a book. This is how Pony, Montana resident Thomas J. Elpel wrote Participating in Nature. It begins before daybreak, and is written so that as you grow in understanding of many things natural, a day unfolds and runs its course. By evening, near the end of the book, you have learned how to do several things, and why.

     This is not a survival book written for guerrillas, though they might find it very useful. It is a book written for the average worker who wants to get away from it all or the family that wants to do something special together. It's those who want to learn something new, a new way of doing something old, or enrich their relationship with nature. It's a must-read for anyone who is interested in doing something on a personal level to help maintain and restore Earth.

     Even if you don't consider yourself an environmentalist, you probably don't mind saving money, stimulating your brain, or learning a new stress-relieving habit. Learning skills such as those found in Participating in Nature could also help answer questions like "what do you want to do this summer?" or even the ever-annoying "are we there yet?"

     Throughout the pages of this "Field Guide to Primitive Living Skills," you'll find pictures of the author's work with other medium also. Some of the photography is his, and most of the artwork, making it a book that is not only useful but attractive as well. Now that you understand the utilitarian and aesthetic qualities of the book, I'll move on to the style. In this, I've saved the best for last. He may describe it as a field guide, but don't let the name fool you. This is no dry instruction manual filled with only technical descriptions and directions for use. Oh, the step-by-step is there so you'll know you're getting it right, but there is so much more than that within these pages.

     As I mentioned before, he wrote this as a day that progresses, and his details take you to the very spot where he sits wrapped in a blanket, leaning against a fir tree as the morning gradually pushes the night westward. By sunset, he has explored and explained Mind, Shelter, Fire, Water, Cooking, Plants, Animals, and Clothing. These are the chapters of the day that is the book. Of course, he adds a bibliography and a fairly comprehensive index.

     "My tea is hot. I put away my journal and my pen... Then I sit back and think about what it is that I am seeking....

     "I have always been drawn towards the idea of being able to move lightly, freely, almost invisibly through the ecosystem, to be like the breeze, being present, but invisible.... and I am referring to the Indian scouts from another era, is symbolic of that desire.      " is something I seek distinctly for myself. It is my dream to be able to move and live as the scout, to travel unhindered, hopping, skipping, and gliding through the wilderness."

     Of course there are "trade-offs" that the author recognizes: "For me taking less gear means I can travel farther and faster, but it also means I have to spend more of my time providing for my sustenance....

     "Thus I seek to balance what I take and what I bring so that I can have both the lightest load and the most free time."

     Thomas Elpel writes from his experience with nature. "Primitive living is a metaphor we participate in. We journey into the Stone-Age and quest to meet our basic needs. We learn to observe, to think, to reach inside ourselves for new resources to deal with challenging and unfamiliar situations."

     Aren't those the skills we need for everyday living even in the Space-Age?

-- Deb Anne Flynt, Island Park News. Island Park, Idaho. January 11, 2002.

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How to make your way in the wilderness

     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.).

     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?

Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.      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.

--Ann Chandonnet, Juneau Empire . Juneau Empire. Web posted Sunday, October 21, 2001.

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Participating in Nature
Thomas J. Elpel's Field Guide to Primitive Living Skills

Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.

     If you want to separate yourself from the modern world and get intimate with the Earth, grab a copy of Thomas J. Elpel's Participating in Nature and head for the woods. Not for a day, or even a week -- with this primitive living guide you'll learn enough to survive on your own till long after the cows come home.

     Not your average "How to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together" manual, Participating in Nature is more like a Boy Scout Handbook edited by Thoreau. Elpel covers the basics, of course -- fire-starting, field botany, hide tanning, and fishing by hand, all with little or no supplies -- but he also packs in loads of useful material for the more advanced outdoorsman: weaving baskets from willow branches, constructing a toasty, rainproof lean-to, making durable rope from plant fibers, and building functional , effective hunting weapons.

      Elpel also offers primitive living courses and other outdoor education programs at his wilderness retreat in Pony, Montana. Website:

--Mike England, Outside Bozeman. Bozeman, Montana. Vol. 1, No. 2. Winter 2000-2001. Page 45.

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      Looking for life-changing resources? Check out these books by Thomas J. Elpel:

Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams.
Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit
to Reality
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction
Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.
in Nature
Foraging the Mountain West: Gourmet Edible Plants, Mushrooms, and Meat.
Foraging the
Mountain West
Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
in a Day
Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids

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