We all have moments on hikes when we dream of being able to live directly off the land, plants, and animals around us. Norm Kidder, the recently retired supervising naturalist at Sunol Regional Wilderness, has spent more than 30 years studying and replicating Stone Age technologies (including some of the ones used in the Bay Area until Europeans arrived) to do just that. He’s taught thousands of adults and children how to make a livable world from the bounty of nature—and he’s also learned just how unforgiving that world might be.
NK: My initial programs took place at the Ohlone shell mound at Coyote Hills using a collection of artifacts from the site. In 1976, my future wife, Jan Southworth, was hired. She’d been a schoolteacher and wanted kids to have hands-on materials—I’d been content to just lecture. So I made an antler wedge, a bone saw, and an awl, using power tools.
The summer of 1979 we both signed up for a class in Yosemite with Craig Bates, a man who studied with Indian elders in the Sierra. We made string, split willow for baskets, and came back completely jazzed.
At Coyote Hills we started with a five-day summer program using pit ovens, building a small tule boat, and doing flint knapping. In 1983 we began Stone Age weekends that later became the yearly Rattlesnake Rendezvous. We had rattlesnake for dinner when they showed up in our camp.
BN: One of the things you’re most known for is your ability to make fire from sticks.
NK: Fire making is unique to humans. For me, it was another lesson from Craig. A teacher can take you to a point and then you practice. I had the advantage of being part of a community of people experimenting; that way, everybody learns faster. The Bay Area is a mecca for people who are interested in this sort of thing.
BN: What attracts people to Stone Age technologies?
NK: You can approach it strictly as technology, in a straightforward scientific way. Other people want to learn techniques for survival because they think the economy is going to collapse. Other people want to feel closer to original people and to Mother Earth. Some people do it because it’s a craft, an art form. Baskets are beautiful things. I’m probably all of those. I have my doubts about the long-term viability of our civilization.
BN: Anything surprise you?
NK: I found that when making baskets using Stone Age tools, I was trying to cut all the willow branches with a stone because we’re used to cutting things. Alice Tulloch, a Society of Primitive Technology board member, wrote that you can just break off the small stuff. When I tried it, snapping off the branches was even faster than using clippers.
Another example is cooking without pots and pans. I’ve cooked for as many as 75 people without any metal utensils. In our Rattlesnake Rendezvous, one of the fellas makes coffee every morning by putting heated rocks in a wooden bowl to boil water. Then he pours the water off into another bowl and adds the coffee. Stone-boiled coffee.
BN: Is there a tendency of some people to underestimate the difficulty of a Stone Age life?
NK: A lot of people think that it would be easy to go back if you just knew how to make fire, the edible plants, basic things like that. It isn’t that easy. You may know all these plants, yet you don’t realize that it takes longer to gather and process them than is worth the effort. You have to know where to get the largest amount of calories for the least amount of work. The more I know about Stone Age living, the more I hope I never have to do it. What would be a relatively minor leg injury to us today could be a fatal injury without antibiotics.
BN: Yet you’ve devoted the last 30 years of your life to keeping that window open.
NK: Yes, it’s possible that some of those things will become necessary again. And I suppose I’d have as good a chance as anyone of surviving if I had to, but it would not be something I would choose to do. If the civilization does collapse, you’d have to know the wild plants and animals intimately, where the water is, and how things change seasonally. These things take generations to build up. It helps us all to appreciate simpler ways of doing things, of getting gratification without having to use materials manufactured in faraway factories.
Find out about Kidder’s workshops and other local “primitive ways” events at www.primitiveways.com.