Tag Archives: teaching

376. Live or Die

The core story of Spirit Deer is survival, and the corollary is a complete absence of help.

It doesn’t happen that way much today. If you get lost in the woods, they send helicopters to bring you home. Yachts carry emergency beacons to fetch the Coast Guard. If there is a smashing at your door, call 911. Then hide in a closet. Be very quiet. The police will come soon.

It wasn’t like that when I was Tim’s age. 911 hadn’t been invented anywhere. The police were thirty miles away, and we didn’t have a telephone until I was fifteen. Cell phone? Don’t be silly.

That was the situation I was trying to create in Spirit Deer, both in the original adult version and the stripped down core story that became a juvenile. It wasn’t that I was trying to go back to an earlier era. 1975, or even the late 1980s when adult-Tim became young-Tim, was already closer to the world of my childhood than today. No, I don’t mean arithmetic. I mean that in 2017, it is hard to even imagine being alone.

In a lesser sense, I spent half my childhood alone. I would drive a tractor for hours every morning, eat a brief lunch with my dad, then spent more hours alone until the sun went down. My dad was always there, of course, on his tractor five hundred yards away on the other side of the field. He waved occasionally. That isn’t the same as being absolutely alone, but you are alone-with-your-thoughts, and you don’t have to talk. I liked that.

Being all the way alone, in the woods, hunting, tracking, and surviving, was something every boy of my generation wanted to do. And there were a lot of books to fuel the fantasy.

Most of the early Andre Nortons followed a pattern that looked like this: The young hero is the lowest member of a group that mistreats him. He is separated from them by circumstances no one could have predicted. For a time, he is alone. Then he reintegrates, tentatively, with a new and previously alien group. He does not remain alone, but being alone frees him, and gives him the strength to reenter society.

It is a primeval story. The young hunter sets out on his spirit journey, alone, to fast and endure great hardships, to gain his spirit animal, and return to his people as a man.

Fors, in Star Man’s Son, the first Norton I read, leaves his people because he is cast out for being different, goes on a great quest, finds a prize (knowledge, in this case) despite great hardship, and returns to his people. Only, he gets to take a telepathic puma on the trip with him. That’s even better than being alone.

Proving your manhood, whether you set out to do it, or it simply happens to you, is a big part of these books. A scholar might call them rite-of-passage novels.

I remember one book which I no longer have. A boy was living in a cabin in the woods and he was temporarily alone. I don’t remember where his father had gone. He got up in the morning, fried eggs on the wood stove, slipped an extra two between slices of toast, and put them in his coat pocket, picked up his rifle, and set out into the snowy woods.

I don’t remember the rest of the novel, but he set out. That was enough to make it great. There was a lot of setting-out in those books.

The best of them all was Two Hands and a Knife, the original version. (see post 309) Our hero (aka, the reader in disguise) has to join his parents, who have settled in a hundred miles away across the Canadian wilderness. So naturally, he packs his gear and his dog and sets out by canoe. Alone. (Except for his dog. Every boy needs a dog like that, unless he can find a telepathic puma.) There is a storm; he loses his canoe with all his gear. With the help of his dog, he makes it to shore and all he has is his two hands and his knife. And his dog.

Does it get any better than that?

Lets swing this all back to Tim, hanging in the tree in today’s Serial post, knowing that he has to either summon the strength to make it up to where the pine cones are, or he will die a slow and painful death of starvation. No one will help him. No one even knows where he is.

If this situation scares hell out of you, you are reading the wrong book. Self-sufficiency is useful. Knowing you can be alone, takes the power away from those who would call you different, and demand conformity. It is no small thing.

Spirit Deer 13

His grandfather had shown him how to take Digger pine cones when they were ripe but still tight and roast them over a fire. As the scales opened in the heat, a bounty of bean sized nuts would fall out to be shelled and eaten on the spot.

These cones had opened naturally. The nuts were mostly gone, but a few had failed to fall out, especially those near the top of the cone and he soon had a handful. He popped a few into his mouth – and almost broke his teeth. These nuts had grown to full maturity. They were as hard as pebbles.

Tim felt like cursing and he felt like crying, but he was too weak and hungry to do either. It took half an hour to return to his shelter, revive the fire, get two more baskets of water, crush the nuts to flour between two rocks, and cook up a thin pine nut soup. But when he was finished, nothing had ever tasted so good.

* * *

Tim rested and warmed himself by the fire. Soon he began to feel some strength returning. He took the time to drag up firewood, then returned to the Jeffrey pine.

His weakness had scared him, and he was determined to get the rest of the cones that hung so tantalizingly out of reach. He would have to climb now while he still had the energy.

First he checked his ankle. Some of the swelling had left it, so he removed the splint, boot, and sock.  Other than the white, wrinkled skin which came from not removing his boot for several days, the foot looked normal enough. He replaced the boot, lacing it even tighter, and bound the splint back in place. He still couldn’t walk without a crutch, but at least he didn’t think he would pass out if he hit his ankle.

Certainly, he had better not.

He took off his belt and left his knife, canteen, and cased firestone at the base of the tree. There was about ten feet of smooth trunk before the growth went wild where the lighting had split the tree. If he could get that far, he would be able to range about the middle area of the tree in search of cones.

Flipping the belt around the tree trunk, he grasped it with both hands and raised it high. He hoisted himself up by hanging from the belt, and gripped the tree trunk with his thighs. Then he quickly shifted the belt upward several inches.

He wasn’t going to make it. Already his head was swimming.

He gripped the tree with his legs and flipped the belt higher. Tears squeezed from his eyes and sweat beaded his face. He heaved the belt up again. His breath came in gasps. He flipped the belt higher again, but it slipped when he put his weight on it.

Here he was with his feet barely three feet above the ground, and anyone could see that he was already played out. Only there wasn’t anyone there to see it. He was alone. He had to live or die right here, right now, without anyone’s help.

He flipped the belt upward again.

How he made it to the lightning formed crotch, Tim never knew. The same determination which had carried him this far simply would not let him give up. more tomorrow

Spirit Deer 12

When he woke, the dream of his father would not leave him. He clung to it as he lay burrowed in the pile of pine needles that lined the floor of his shelter. Finally, Tim roused himself to put more wood on the fire. It was pitch black beyond the small circle of firelight. He had no idea whether it was early or late in the night.

He very carefully drew his splinted foot up and crossed it over the other so he could sit cross legged in the mouth of his shelter. He did not want to sleep again now. He nudged the remaining bark box of water and juniper berries onto the fire. Soon the smell of it swirled around him, setting his stomach to growling again. He sipped it as he worked.

Tim has saved some of the wood he had dragged up, setting aside those pieces best suited to the making of a deadfall. He was very hungry, and it might be days before his foot got well enough for him to walk out, so it was time to get food. He had seen squirrels about, and there were certainly many small rodents he had not seen, so he would make traps.

As he worked, he searched through his memory for other ways to find food. If he had been at a lower elevation, it would have been relatively easy. There he could have lived on the bounty of acorns and digger pine nuts, as his Miwuk ancestors had done.

Miwuks had not lived this high in the mountains. They had stayed down where the oaks were, since acorns were their major source of food. Tim would have to adapt his knowledge.

Tim caught his head nodding and realized that his thoughts had trailed off into a half dream. He laid the deadfall aside, and burrowed back into his pine needle bed.

* * *

Tim awoke confused. It took him a long time to sort out where he was. It was full daylight outside and his fire was down to embers. He sat up, then had to brace his hands against the ground until a wave of dizziness passed.

He dragged himself upright on his crutch and counted up the days. The total shocked him. Four days had passed since he had ridden away from home to spend the day with his grandfather, and he had not eaten in all that time.

The deadfall would have to wait. Tim needed food now!

Tim limped down to the ponderosa pine with the driftwood pile at its base, and found nothing but old, open, empty cones on the ground. There were a dozen pines in the immediate area, all ponderosas and Jefferies. He circled each one without finding anything edible. Above him he could see the cones, but they were mature and their scales were all flared open. Most of the seeds would have fallen out or have been harvested by squirrels.

One Jeffrey pine had been lightning struck. It had regrown twisted and dwarfed compared to its tall, slender mates. The remaining cones hung lower, but still well out of reach. Tim found a piece of down wood the right size for a throwing stick and tossed it up toward the cones. It was hard to be accurate while balancing against his crutch, but he managed to knock down five cones in about twenty throws. By that time, he was exhausted, so he gathered his cones and sat down against the bole of the tree to search them for nuts. more next week

374. Outdoor Education

In case you missed 364. The Core Story, let me remind you that Spirit Deer, now posting in Serial, began as a novel for adults, and only reached it’s present incarnation years later.

I wrote the original of Spirit Deer in 1975. By the mid eighties, finances led me back to college to add a teaching credential to my resume, and I began teaching middle school. I started  teaching sixth grade and worked my way up to eighth, over twenty-seven years.

One feature of sixth grade in central California schools was outdoor education week, during which the students lived in dorms at a foothills facility and went out twice a day for half-day hikes with naturalists. Teachers accompanied their students.

I had spent my childhood out of doors, and had added rock climbing, camping, and canoeing to my skill-set while in college. I still learned a lot preparing for outdoor ed, since my critter knowledge was based on Oklahoma and Michigan. That’s common. Any time a teacher has to brush up on a new subject, he learns a lot more than he will be able to teach his students.

I learned — then taught — all the common native trees and shrubs, the mammals and birds, a few of the reptiles and amphibians, and the manner in which the local Native Americans, the Miwuks, lived with nature. I took my students through a couple of weeks of intensive study before the week in the foothills, so they would be able to better appreciate their experience.

Even after I moved up to teaching seventh grade, I continued to go with the students on their outdoor ed week. When it came time to rewrite Spirit Deer, stripped to its core story, I called on that experience to tighten up my descriptions, calling trees out by their actual names this time.

One of the things that Tim-the-adult in 1975 did not have was the survival shelter that young-Tim builds in the present version. During the late 80s and early 90s, one of the hikes our outdoor ed students took was called the survival hike. They were taken to a place in the far end of the property and shown how to take a long piece of down wood, jam it into the crotch of a bush or tree, then stack shorter pieces of down wood against it. Next, they thatched the result with twigs, leaves, dirt, and moss, carpeted the floor with duff, then crawled inside their self-built shelter.

They were not taught how to make a fire. In the dry foothills of California, making a fire to  keep warm is a good way to burn down the forest. It happens every year.

They don’t do the survival hike any more. I can’t blame them. They trained hundreds of kids each week in what was a useful survival skill, but that also meant that hundreds of kids each week were ripping up the local environment. The area where the shelters were made eventually came to look like a bombed out battlefield.

Fortunately for young-Tim, he was one of those who learned how to make a survival shelter. It saved his life in the rewritten Spirit Deer.

#                 #                 #

There is another writer’s learning experience in this. When I was newly published, I met Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and started reading her St. Germain books. I was impressed, but also intimidated. Her descriptions of architecture, about which I knew little, and of the clothing worn by all classes of society, about which I couldn’t care less, made for a rich and dense reading experience. My own books were comparatively bare bones.

Then I read Path of the Eclipse, St. Germain book number four, which begins in China and ends in India, with an arduous journey through the lower Himalayas in between. About half way to India, I had an epiphany. In thousands of miles, Quinn had never called a tree by its name.

I had been holding myself to a false standard. She was writing the books that she wanted to write, and I was writing the books I wanted to write. Forget better or worse — they were supposed to look different.

Spirit Deer 11

He had placed his fire near a wrist thick manzanita with a convenient crotch. Now he searched through the pile for a twenty foot chunk of driftwood and dragged it back to his campsite. Working with one hand and hobbling along on his crutch made the job harder, but he managed to jam the heavy end of the log into the manzanita crotch. This would form the main beam of his survival shelter.

It took many more exhausting trips to the driftwood pile to find the four to eight foot pieces of driftwood that he piled against the main beam to form the walls of his tent shaped shelter. Then he spent an hour carrying dirt, moss, bark, and pine needles to mound over it, saving the best armloads of needles to make his bed inside.

Tim had built survival shelters a few years earlier during outdoor education week, but then there had been a dozen kids working together. Working alone, hobbled by his crutch, and weakened by hunger and exposure, it took Tim most of the afternoon to make his shelter. By the time he had finished, he put more wood on his fire, then simply crawled inside and fell asleep.

Hunger and cold woke him. Outside, it was growing dark, but he could still see well enough to make his way through the brush. He went to an aspen he had spotted earlier and cut two squares of bark. He folded these into boxes and laced the rims with bark strips. He filled them at the pool and stopped on the way back to his shelter to strip off some juniper berries. He put one of the bark boxes at the edge of the fire, knowing that it would not burn as long as it was filled with water.

It was raining again now, and Tim was glad that he had dragged wood up from the driftwood pile to keep his fire going through the night. He sat in the mouth of his shelter, hunched over because of its low roof, and sipped his juniper tea. It was very bitter, and it did nothing to ease the hunger he felt, but the warmth of the heated water went all through him and brought his body back to life.

He was lost and hungry, and he was trying really hard not to think about how his mother must be worrying. But the darkness held no terrors for him, and the fire was friendly. He loved the hiss of the rain falling into it, and the moist smell of fungus that came from his wood and dirt shelter. Surrounded by the familiar smell of the fire and the sound of the rain, he felt at home.

He burrowed into his pine needle bed and fell asleep.

Chapter 4

Tim dreamed of his father. Once again he was at the outdoor center learning how to make survival shelters, but this time his father was the instructor, and working side by side with the rest of the kids to bank the shelter with dirt and leaves.

Then Tim was hunting with his father and, in the manner of dreams, he did not feel strange that he had slid from one time and place to another. He smelled again the vivid smells of campfire and damp forest earth, and felt the warmth of his father’s presence. more tomorrow

Spirit Deer 10

Tim was completely familiar with the outdoors, but he had never realized before how much technology was tied up in a backpacker’s gear. A down sleeping bag seems so little to carry, but it represents the work of hundreds of people. Take the nylon shell alone; from the geologist, to the oil rigger, to the trucker, to the workers who run the refineries and factories that turn oil into nylon, to the workers who cut and sew the cloth into the final bag, it represents a chain of effort stretching through dozens of links.

Tim had taken his gear for granted before, taking care of it because it was expensive and because his father demanded care, but not really thinking about what it meant. He would never take it for granted again.

As he limped downward, the slope of the ground increased. Within a hundred yards, he could see better. He could look across a tree studded valley to another broken slope beyond. He worked his way gingerly downhill, holding his injured ankle above the ground and leaning heavily on the crutch. He knew that he would eventually come to a stream if he kept to the lowest ground.

The rain came again in scattered droplets, but luck was with him and it did not rain hard. He had to reach a source of drinking water and construct a shelter before the rain started again in earnest.

Now he was among low, twisted trees. The ground was very uneven underfoot. A gully some twenty feet across cut across his path and he was forced to detour along it. Eventually that gully widened into a miniature valley. Tim found a slide and worked his way down to the valley floor thirty feet below. On the way down, he fell and slid, stopping himself by digging his crutch into the talus like an ice axe. He lay panting for a while, until the pain in his ankle eased enough to let him go on.

The stream that had cut the valley was dry now. Once Tim found a pool, scarcely a foot across and drank there, saving the water in his canteen. There were a few wild flowers still growing so late in the season. Tim could not remember their names, but he chewed on them as he walked, and tried not to think of how hungry he was. There were probably many edible plants around him, but there were also poisonous ones, and he didn’t know which was which.

The sky had gone dark, although it was far from evening, when he came to the pool. A ponderosa pine growing close to the stream bed had been undermined some previous season and had fallen across the stream. Gravel and sand had shored it up, forming a natural dam. The pool was eight feet wide and stretched for thirty feet upstream, becoming more narrow and shallow toward its upper end. At most, it was no more than eighteen inches deep.  Last night’s rain had filled it with muddy water and there were tracks of small animals at the water’s edge.

Tim stopped short and did not approach the pool so that he would not leave his scent there. Then he searched about for a place to make his shelter. Another ponderosa pine grew a few dozen feet upstream. Like the tree that had dammed the creekbed, this pine had roots denuded by erosion and a mound of driftwood had gathered at its base. There were several willow saplings, shade killed and still dry beneath the ponderosa.

Tim chose his campsite with care, near the driftwood pile but above the flood line. First he cleared a small area of debris and built a ring of rocks. He cut tinder and fuzz sticks from the dead saplings and soon had a fire going. more tomorrow

Spirit Deer 9

He stood again, propping himself with the juniper, and measured it against his body. Then he sat to cut his makeshift crutch to length. The narrow tip that he cut off would make a crosspiece later, but now he just jammed the base into his armpit and started out looking for firewood. It cut him painfully, but Tim couldn’t worry about that.

Everything was soaked from the rain. All of the down wood he dragged up had to be dried by the fire before it would burn. As he nursed the fire, he lashed a crosspiece onto his crutch with another strip cut from his shirt sleeve.

Rain soaked him through and turned the granite shiny in the firelight as the last light of day faded. Nearby, a nest of boulders caught the runoff and made a finger sized waterfall. Tim set his empty canteen under it, and had his first drink of water that day. It made him feel better.

Out there, a quarter of a mile away, were trees which would give him shelter. But he could not move his fire, and he could not be sure of starting another one with wet wood.

His second night on the slope was even more miserable than his first one.

* * *

Tim awakened when the wind began. The rain had stopped, but the wind was even more dangerous. It cut through him with a deadly chill. His campfire was nearly out, and so was the fire of life within his body. He knew that if he did not get warm soon, he would die.

He added new fuel to the fires and started a third one.  Within that triangle of fire, he stripped. Off came his left boot. His jeans would not go over his splinted right boot, so he split his jeans from waistband to cuff and pulled them off.

Off came his wool shirt and he sat nearly naked, shivering as he dried his shirt over the fire. When it caught fire, he squeezed the flames out with his fingers. The wind tore at his bare skin and carried away the heat from the fires, but he would not let himself take half measures. He held the shirt to the flames until it was dry, and when he put it on again the warmth was unbelievable.

Drying his jeans took even longer. By the time he had them on, and had laced up the split leg with strips cut from his handkerchief, the sky was beginning to turn light. He used his makeshift crutch to stand and turn around, but the clouds were so thick that he could not tell which section of the sky was lightest.

Tim knew that he had to get off the bald side of the mountain and into shelter before it rained again.

He could not put his fire out properly, but on this bare, wet rock it would do no harm. He scattered the wood with his crutch, and took stock. At his belt he had his knife, canteen, and the precious firestone in its canvas case. Since he had laced his pants leg with handkerchief strips, his pockets were empty.

Or were they? He suddenly realized that he had dried his jeans over the fire with the three remaining rifle cartridges in the pocket!

He swallowed hard and started down the slope. It was rough going with the crutch, but at least he could move. The crosspiece cut into his armpit, but he didn’t want to sacrifice any more clothing to pad it. When he got to cover, he would find something to use as a cushion. more tomorrow