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Into the Wild: Learning to Live Primitive

Primitive life skills instructor Jim Robertson is teaching more than outdoor survival; he is reconnecting people with the timeless wisdom of nature.

Jim Robertson may be living in a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica but a glimpse into his living room reveals a more primitive world, one that he inhabits often.

An expert on primitive skills and wilderness living, Robertson, 71, often takes groups out to Temescal Canyon Park and other areas in the Santa Monica Mountains where he teaches them how to survive in the wild—start a fire with twigs and stones, dig for water, pick out edible berries, or even build a shelter with natural materials. 

The hallway leading into his living room is adorned with handmade bows and arrows, baskets and musical instruments, each a testament to his outdoor living skills. His buckskin jacket was even fashioned by his own hands from materials found in the Southern California environment.

“I think it’s a great way to live even in times of prosperity. Unfortunately, this connection with Mother Earth is one of the things people in modern life are missing out,” said Robertson.

Crafted from a variety of wood, he tips the arrows with basalt or obsidian arrowheads. Other tools in his hunting arsenal include a lengthy blow dart device and a “rabbit stick” that resembles an oversized boomerang, made from heavy oak and a day’s worth of bending after being heated in a fire to make the wood pliable.

“I feel it’s a more honest way of hunting,” he said.

Robertson uses the hunting tools only sparingly, preferring to gather edibles. Baskets, hollowed gourds, carrying cases fashioned from sturdy yucca and agave stalks as well as fire-cooked ceramics are some of the less lethal items Robertson makes while outdoors.

Considering the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the thousands of people who were left to fend for themselves in the aftermath, Robertson’s skills could be useful during similar disasters, or simply for appreciating nature's gifts.

“I don’t think of these as survival classes,” said Robertson. “I think of them as one way of living harmoniously with the earth, somewhat like our ancestors did.”

This former insurance salesman and baseball pitcher for the Pittsburg Pirates began hiking almost at the same time as he learned to walk. He grew up around nature, often going on surfing, fishing and camping trips. 

After a serious illness, Robertson turned to nature to look for peace and comfort and has since then become a naturalist and a volunteer with several organizations that work in the Santa Monica Mountains. His wilderness survival classes attract several enthusiasts from all ages and professions, including more women, who now make up more than half of his wilderness classes.

According to him, clothes, shelter and warmth are all available in nature; you only need to know how to get them, he said.

“If something happens during a disaster, you can use wilderness survival skills to build yourself a shelter, gather food from the plants around and care for yourself through the use of medicinal plants,” Robertson said.  “It’s a wonderful way to live, disaster situation or not.”

For him, the focal point is to get people in harmony and connected with their natural environment. Once they forge a meaningful connection with nature, they don’t want to destroy it, he said.

A recent run-in with poison oak illustrated for Robertson how human beings are detached from nature. When the painful, unbearable itch began instead of buying over the counter medicine, he utilized a traditional medicine from the same woods that afflicted him—coyote bush.

Over the course of several days, Robertson eased his symptoms by soaking in baths with bundles of the plant once used by Chumash people in a similar way. 

“It was nature’s way of telling me, hey, hold on,” he said.

An article published recently in Las Montañas, a newsletter for volunteers of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which is published by the National Park Service, described how Robertson considers himself a “caretaker for the earth.”

On wilderness excursions with groups, he often carries samples of the fruits and trees he talks about so that people can see and taste what he is talking about.

“Getting people involved on a personal level, strengthening our environmental cause, that’s my goal,” he said in the article.

Robertson’s latest affiliation is with the San Fernando Valley Time Exchange, a concept that helps people learn new skills. In the four months that he’s been there, Robertson has had six wilderness survival classes.

“The idea of my wilderness classes is to help people get closer to nature. If you learn how nature works, you can use its resources optimally without wasting anything,” he said. 

For more information about his wilderness classes, email Robertson at j3rbrts@dslextreme.com

darryl smith February 08, 2012 at 06:55 PM
I want to leave society and go into the wilderness. Should i do it if i have to tools, and equipment for it. Also outdoor survival skillz?

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