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Going Native

Seeking the lifestyle of ancient hunters and gatherers brings a new generation of survivalists back to nature.



At the entrance of a Food Town grocery store in a tiny Southern Utah community hangs a hand-printed sign that says, “No shirt, no shoes, no pants, no service.”

No pants?

But it has happened. A man named David Holladay once walked into the store wearing nothing but a buckskin miniskirt and a crown of cottonwood leaves.

Sound bizarre? Holladay has lived in a teepee, a wickiup, a pit house and a cave. He sleeps on the ground most of the year. He occasionally sleeps in the small house he bought for his family, which doesn’t want to live as he does.

Holladay is a practitioner of primitive technology, striving to live an aboriginal lifestyle. Aboriginal means indigenous, not necessarily to the Australian Outback—the reference we’re used to hearing—but to any land. These so-called “abos” try to rely on stone age tools, devices used before the advent of steel or electric power. These folks want to live apart from technology in the kind of houses you would find replicated in natural history museums.

The abo lifestyle is based on conviction and aesthetic—its philosophy is more spiritual than scientific. Abos don’t want easy lives. They want the purest, truest lives they can find. Abos would rather work hard to gather their needs directly from nature than buy them at Sears. They want to be completely at ease in the wilderness, expert at using its resources. Henry David Thoreau went abo when he walked into the woods with his plan to “confront only the essentials.”

Holladay makes his living as a wilderness guide, and he sometimes replicates artifacts for museums and national parks. He was asked to be a technical assistant for the movie Cast Away because of his knowledge of primitive living skills, like spear fishing and friction fire. (Wilson, the volleyball upon which Tom Hanks’ character painted a face, was Holladay’s idea.) He makes enough money guiding wilderness trips and selling his stone age art—arrowheads, spear points, stone tools and stone figures—to pay his family’s basic expenses.

He could make a lot more money, but Holladay wants to live an extremely simple life. A low income is the pursued result, not a sacrifice. He says having faith is about trusting in the truth of your convictions, believing that your interests—no matter how far from the mainstream—will lead you to live the life that best suits your nature. That faith led Holladay—a Mormon from Tucson, Ariz.—to live on the ground in Southern Utah (he won’t identify the exact location) and incorporate Native American spiritual beliefs with his own.

Holladay speaks slowly, softly. He pronounces each word like he’s chewing it completely before he swallows it. At 45 years old, Holladay has finally created his own world, mixing all of his traditions into something eclectic and sacred.

His interest in primitive skills began when he was a child, fascinated with the Native American artifacts he saw in museums. He especially liked the arrowheads and spear points he saw. This was the kind of art he’d like to make. “In 1962, art was a socially acceptable thing to do,” Holladay says. “We experienced a renaissance. It was considered a real possibility to be an artist and a caveman, to go back to nature.”

Holladay is tall and thin with a well-kept graying beard. His long hair is intertwined with a bandana in a braid and tucked under a straw hat. He looks groomed, meticulous. His blue shirt is bursting with tiny sunflowers. He looks nothing like a caveman, cleaner than a hippie.

He comes from a family that he calls “lovers of nature and lovers of God.” Not pantheists, exactly, but people who never let religion squelch their love of the wild. They also didn’t let the predictable world tell them how to raise their children. Rather than attending school, Holladay spent 7th grade camping out in Mexico with his father, who studied biology and archaeology. The week after hundreds of protestors were killed in Mexico City, 12-year-old David walked through the city and saw blood, skin and hair still stuck to the walls where the students were murdered. He began questioning the status quo.

Two years later, Holladay and his family lived in Guatemala with the Mayan people. But even in that secluded environment, Holladay was acutely aware of the counterculture movement going on in the United States. He loved the freedom that 1960s America represented. The path of nine-to-five and car payments and city blocks just didn’t have heart in it. Nor did it seem like a responsible way to live, in light of environmental and human destruction. “I started looking for ways I could become part of life in a good, sacred way,” he says.

He pared down his belongings until he was living in a teepee with his wife and son, eating fresh greens and berries he gathered and fish he caught. He allowed himself to make only friction fire, rubbing two pieces of wood together with enough speed to produce heat and tiny, powdery wood shavings. As the heat builds in the pile of shavings, they begin to smolder and become an ember. The ember is placed into a nest of dry grass or tree bark and blown gently until the bundle bursts into flames. If you saw Cast Away, you saw Tom Hanks try and fail, try and fail, and then shout deliriously when he finally made his first friction fire.

Although Holladay gave technical input on Cast Away, Hanks’ character is nothing like Holladay. In the movie, Hanks is almost driven insane by his life on an uninhabited island. You have no sense that he gained confidence or joy or spiritual depth during his time alone. By contrast, Holladay finds depth almost exclusively in his wild life. He tells a story about the time his son, at 4 years old, did the morning chores by himself. Holladay tells it not only with a father’s pride, but also with the satisfaction that his son learned something essential and real by living outdoors.

“I woke up one morning next to the fire where I had fallen asleep the night before,” he says. “My son was right next to me, cooking grasshoppers on a rock. I asked, ‘How did you get the fire going?’ He said, ‘Just like you, Dad.’” Holladay laughs. “He got those grasshoppers a quarter of a mile away, and he had them cooked and the fire made before I got up.”

The story is about a child who can handle tasks that most Americans wouldn’t think of assigning to a 4-year-old. It’s about the thrill of discovery and the freshness of living outside. Hell, it’s about eating grasshoppers.

But the element at the crux of Holladay’s stories is this: He perceives what he calls “magic” in aboriginal life. It’s his way of talking about spirituality, of saying that his church has slickrock walls and a sagebrush floor. Holladay will claim to be shy about his homespun religion. He will say he’s a “closet spiritualist.” But he’s vibrant when he’s talking about it. He frequently stops tapping on the stone-age rock hammer he’s making to gesture, hunch forward, laugh. “When you’re by yourself and in touch with yourself and your environment, it feels as if life offers itself to you,” he says.

Say the word “survivalist” and you’ll probably conjure images of army fatigues and arsenals, maybe a barracks in somebody’s backyard. But there exists a group of wilderness survivalists who don’t subscribe to Soldier of Fortune and whose weapons are flint-tipped arrows and homemade bows.

Maybe the negative connotation brought forth by the word “survivalist” has caused wilderness lovers to sometimes refer to themselves as abos. Abos are interested in survival as a means of learning to live on the land as indigenous people have for centuries. It’s a pursuit of interaction with wilderness and harmonious living, rather than overtaking and outwitting a vicious opponent, as the word “survival” seems to suggest.

The abo lifestyle is part of a greater movement to rediscover or preserve ancient ways and cultures and to live simply. A lot of us only see the watery marketing residue of these ideals: the proliferation of quickie burrito chains and $15 bars of soap imprinted with the word “simplify.” Simple living in the abo sense means making one’s own supplies and requiring few or no resources that aren’t locally available and sustainable. But type in “primitive skills” or “Earth skills” on a web search and a variety of sites come up. The group of people interested in primitive technology is broad. They’re not all interested in living the primitive life, and some of them just might buy that soap.

Academics justify time spent playing with atlatls (ancient spear-throwing devices) and making pottery by calling their work experimental or reconstructive archaeology. These archaeologists study ancient cultures by reproducing artifacts and using them in the ways these people did. The documented interest in experimental archaeology started in the 1800s, when archaeologists first tried to replicate the artifacts they found on the excavations. In the 1960s, Hans-Ole Hansen tried to reconstruct a Neolithic house and eventually created the famous Lejre Research Center in Denmark.

Larry Dean Olsen is one American who can take credit for the booming interest in primitive skills. His Outdoor Survival Skills is possibly the best known wilderness survival book and is now in its sixth edition. Olsen began teaching outdoor survival classes for BYU’s continuing education department in the 1960s. He has since founded courses and institutes across the U.S. and Canada, including Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS), the Anasazi Foundation and the Rabbitstick Rendezvous. It’s estimated that Olsen has directly taught wilderness skills to over 25,000 people. His sphere of influence through books and programs is immeasurable.

It seems as though people are standing in line for a chance to walk out into the desert with almost nothing. Some of it has to do with land-use ethics and spirituality. As we believe we’re losing touch with the Earth and its rhythms, or as we feel more stress and less satisfaction in life, or as we debate the appropriate use of the Southern Utah deserts, we want to get outside. We want to touch the land that is being covered more and more by concrete.

Primitive technologists teach land use rather than lock-up, and they don’t espouse the ‘Leave No Trace’ ethic. The survivalist is a steward of the Earth, using the resources at hand but leaving a positive trace rather than a negative one. He might dig biscuit root for sustenance, but he’ll leave enough of the edible tuber intact so that it can grow and spread. Plants like biscuit root have been known to thrive on this kind of spot harvesting and, in time, grow more abundant than before.

At the same time, survivalists are careful not to cultivate too much. The idea is to be a hunter-gatherer, not a farmer. The end result is a quiet, active environmentalism. The strict abo life produces little trash and uses almost no resources.

Survival skills might even have a place on a city dweller’s resume. Instructors of primitive wilderness courses say that as students become self-sufficient in the field, they gain confidence and self-sufficiency elsewhere. If a person can learn to act instead of panic when the food runs out, he’s more likely to be an effective employee during a merger.

Recognizing this has led instructors, including Olsen, to open wilderness-based emotional growth programs where people suffering from drug addiction and emotional trauma come to heal. A student’s livelihood and comfort becomes dependent on his own skill levels, not on convenience foods and television. The essentials of life begin to surface and require care. The individual has value and purpose once again.

After a long list of nicknames and translations from her native Swedish, Lynx chose her name after coming to the United States. It’s the kind of animal name that a person who lives in the woods might adopt. But you might not know how to take Lynx at first. She fulfills the Swedish stereotype—beautiful, blonde and tall—yet she’s covered in buckskins. You might wonder if she’s some backwoods diva. But spend an hour with Lynx and you’ll realize that you’re talking to a concerned mother and an expert woodswoman who wants to live as an “example of a healthy relationship between humans and the rest of the Earth.”

Lynx’s arms are slender but solidly muscled. She’s tan from spending so many days like she’s spending this one: leading a BOSS course on Utah’s Boulder Mountain, overlooking a chiseled red desert.

As Lynx mends a buckskin shirt, she talks about shopping. She’s cognizant of the entire process: the gathering, construction and shipment of materials and the number of workers it requires to produce a single product. Maybe the most significant part of the scheme to her is that manufactured goods are so detached from the raw materials from which they are made, to the point where we don’t necessarily recognize the impact their production makes on the environment.

This woman wants every detail of her life to matter. She doesn’t want to take anything for granted. She tries to make everything she owns. Her family built their own house, a 21-foot yurt, which loosely resembles a large dome tent. Lynx and her husband and daughter cut and milled the trees on their property and treadle-sewed the canvas cover. This is what Lynx means when she says she has a relationship with everything she owns. It’s an appreciation of the work and resources that each project requires. When you cut trees from your own land, you see the results immediately. You begin to ask yourself whether your desires are worth their impact.

In the same way spirituality is at the heart of everything David Holladay talks about, Lynx talks constantly about relationships. On her Montana property, she grinds whole grain manually, rather than buying bread or even flour. She hafts steel blades onto sheep bones to make knives. The payment for her work is a parcel of self-sufficiency, satisfaction and free time.

“If only we stopped seeing simplicity as having less and start to see all the benefits of it,” she says. “People could feel sorry for us that we don’t have a lot, but the flip side is that every morning we get up and wonder, ‘What will we do today?’”

On a typical winter’s day, Lynx practices yoga, cares for her horses and home schools her daughter, River. There are daily chores: haul water, grind grain, cook meals on the coal stove. The family requires a yearly income of only about $10,000. Some of the money comes from animal hides that they tan. Other hides are used to make clothing and moccasins. Each family member wears through about three pair of moccasins a year.

It’s a bold step to choose such an austere life. “Simplicity has nothing to do with wanting to be simple until you can choose it because you have the choice,” Lynx says. She has noticed that most, if not all, of the people she knows who live primitively come from middle class backgrounds. “I think that having the opportunity to have everything gives us the freedom to try to have less,” she says.

Lynx has a clip from a British tabloid in her bag. It’s an article on the British Broadcasting Corp. series Surviving the Iron Age, for which 17 British volunteers recreated and lived like people did during that era. They lived in thatched-roofed roundhouses with wattle and daub walls, ate spelt bread, cabbage, kale and beans and brushed their teeth with willow bark. Participants spent their days in much the same way that Lynx does: fetching water, grinding wheat, milking cows and goats and hunting wild animals.

The article calls the chores monotonous. But Lynx has a response. “Sometimes it’s good to do monotonous tasks,” she says, noting that modern culture over-stimulates us.

As for the article’s claim that life during the Iron Age was “nasty, brutish and short,” she has a response, as well. “You could say that life in downtown L.A. could be nasty, brutish and short, too,” Lynx says. She has the skills to keep herself and her family safe, warm and well fed. That’s not a brutish existence, she says.

Who cares if you can’t explain why you do it?” Chadd Petersen asks. “If you feel you have to, then go for it.”

Twenty-eight-year-old Petersen is wearing old Gramicci pants, Chaco sandals and a cotton shirt. But as the day warms, he removes the shirt to reveal a buckskin tank top, a homemade knife on a leather thong around his neck and a bobcat paw talisman.

Petersen lives in his teepee year-round. It’s a pre-fab model he bought second hand for $250. He has lived mostly on public land, where it’s required that you move your camp every 14 days. Now a friend is letting him live on a secluded piece of private property, where he only needs to pay for and maintain a port-a-john. His expenses are about $65 a month—about $50 for food and the rest for the port-a-john pumper. Petersen’s staple foods are freeze-dried or canned leftovers he brings home from his backpacking job and the wild edibles he collects. Stinging nettle, watercress, cattails, dandelions and wolfberries can be gathered near his teepee.

Petersen’s inexpensive style of living means he can work when he wants to. He’s an occasional wilderness instructor for Alternative Youth Adventures, an emotional growth program. When they want him to work, someone has to pass a message through a friend of a friend, or walk down to his teepee—Petersen has no phone. He prefers to work very little so he can devote time to his primitive skills. He is currently making a felted quilt of llama wool, a winter fur-lined jacked from buckskin hand sewn with sinew, rawhide shoes, wooden bowls and wooden utensils.

It seems to be a condition of abo life to feel like a lone wolf until you finally make concessions to a community. Holladay and Lynx have been through the loneliness and have come to terms with it. Holladay now lives completely primitively only in weeklong stints, so that he can be with his family. Lynx works summers at BOSS and teaches primitive skills camps to meet her social needs. But Petersen, the youngest of the three, is still searching for the right mix of social life and seclusion. He is wavering on the edge of an idea of wilderness Puritanism, wanting to live as close to the bone as he can, but feeling the human need for a tribe. Finding a balance seems to be a rite of passage.

“One day I want to be a full-fledged hermit,” he says. But when the fear and the reality of the thought kick in, he says, “No, just kidding.”

The way he lives now, Petersen can interact with the community. He has a next-door neighbor, a man who works in the same wilderness program and lives in his own teepee. Friends wander in to visit and give Petersen rides to town. But his goal is to become more self-sufficient, to require nothing from society that isn’t locally produced in a sustainable manner. That will require him to live on a larger parcel of land, farther from town, where he can gather enough wild edibles to live on.

He’s not sure it’s the right move. Petersen secluded himself as a kid, experimenting with Earth skills alongside the Provo River where he his family lived. As a teenager, he secretly taught himself to tan animals hides. His family didn’t support his lifestyle and it’s apparent that community is important to him. So, even though it’s a bit of a contradiction, Petersen is saving up for a truck. He’d like to visit a few more friends before he settles down into solitude—if he ever does.

Lonely or not, Petersen is living this way because he has to. Like Holladay and Lynx, he felt an urgent need to get outdoors. “I felt this call, this urge to be close to our natural world and by following that, I found out who I was, what I was interested in,” he says. “I think that living this way helped me open my eyes to all the things we’re doing to this Earth, the mass trauma we’re creating by all the amounts of shit we make and produce. It took me a long time to not only just see, but to think, wow, maybe that isn’t the right way.”