The Realities of Wilderness Survival - Part 10 / Coming back to your senses!

Wild Wanderings Blog – April 26, 2012

Hello everyone! It’s been an incredibly wet week down here in the Smoky Mountains and throughout much of the East in general. The plants, wild and domestic are going crazy. We’re easily three weeks ahead of schedule with most plants. I’m not much of a grass cutter, but I’ve been forced to succumb and have officially fired up the weed-whacker. I eat my share of weeds, but even I can’t keep up with them without the fear of getting colicky:) With gas prices soaring, maybe a goat would be cheaper!

I finished up “The Big Four” with grasses last week and it should be obvious that there is much to learn. Wilderness survival/living requires knowledge and a keen awareness. Being able to recognize food, medicine and other resources at merely a glance, is in my opinion a critical aspect to surviving in the outdoors whether by accident or design. Understanding how our senses really work is another topic that needs to be discussed. We’re all aware that we have 5 major senses, but rarely do we engage more than one or two of them at a time. What do I mean by this? Let me explain…

Obviously our known physical senses are vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell. But what are our most dominant ones? Understanding this will help us develop our less dominant senses and create a more holistic and balanced awareness as a whole. Out of these 5, our sense of sight is clearly our most dominant. Vision is definitely a good thing…I’m rather fond of it in fact. Through it, the physical World can be appreciated for all its vast beauty and complexity. It also keeps us from stepping out in front of buses or sticking our hands in a campfire. It helps to keep us safe. But how does our vision really work? What are its weaknesses?

Every time we look at something our eyes try to match it up with a file in our brains. Yes, we all have a file cabinet in our heads:) It’s filled with files that contain everything we’ve already seen and experienced. In essence, our vision works closely with our brains and usually matches up this file in a millisecond or two. When we encounter things like a coiled up rattlesnake or a charging bear, this relationship comes in rather handy:) So what are its weaknesses? Well, I contend that our vision can actually interfere with us truly experiencing in the present moment. For instance when we look at the bark of a tree, our file cabinet tells us what that bark is likely going to feel like before we even touch it. It could be rough, smooth, wet…or whatever. Here’s an exercise I share with my students. Walk up to a tree and feel the bark with your eyes open for about a minute. Now, take your hand off the tree, close your eyes and explore the bark again, slowly running your fingers across it. Most people experience quite a difference, though sometimes subtle. It forces you to see and experience the tree through your fingertips, keeping you firmly planted in the moment!

When we look at the forest our eyes are drawn like a magnet to vertical edges (trees etc). Much of the space in-between these edges is scanned over, not explored or even seen at all. I call these areas “dead space.” This dead space is where animals dwell usually undetected. The fact that animals are horizontal, coupled with their natural varying coloration makes them very difficult to spot if you’re not paying close attention. Quite frankly, most of us don’t. Missing an opportunity to harvest a rabbit for dinner could have consequences in a wilderness situation. Understanding the blind spots in your awareness will remind you consciously and subconsciously to simply look closer. I’ve been aware of this fact for about 20 years and I constantly scrutinize the bushes and vegetation without having to think about it much anymore. I just do it. Nobody can teach you to be more aware. All they can share with you are tools to help you on this path of a heightened awareness. Obviously, being fully aware of ones surroundings can help you greatly in many facets of your life, not just in the woods.

The best tool I can give you is simply this…Stop yourself several times a day and ask this question…”What am I missing right now?” This will automatically slow you down as and engage your other senses, effectively allowing you to take in larger spheres of awareness. Realizing when your awareness switches are turned off, is simply the key to turning them back on. The goal is to reach a point where you don’t have to remind yourself as much…you hit the re-set button automatically:) Life is so amazing, I don’t want to miss anything! Do you?

Next week I’ll shed some light on our other senses, hopefully to help you experience more in Nature and in life. The physical survival skills without a developed sense of awareness are very weak and incomplete. When our outdoor skills and our awareness are brought together, it makes our Nature experiences much more comfortable and profound. We start to develop what I call “The Eye of the Survivalist.” That’s where the real power lies. More on this later…

As always, I welcome your thoughts and input. Please consider joining a group I started called “Traditional / Primitive Living Skills” and I do encourage you to ask questions and contribute.

In Wildness,


 Richard Cleveland lives in Asheville, NC. He is the founder and director of Earth School. A self-trained Naturalist, fishing and nature guide, he has taught traditional native skills to thousands of people, of all ages. For info about his programs visit

Views: 139

Comment by zac on April 29, 2012 at 1:04am

Stopping and asking "what am I missing right now?" reminds of me what my friends call "indian walking" while we ground hunt.  The technique requires you walk only just a few steps at a time as stealthily as possible.  In between steps comes a long delayed pause and you overly scrutinize every sense you have in hopes to pick up some minuscule sign of prey.  It really forces you to close your eyes, listen, and smell.  All the while you are straining your senses you're praying for only the smallest indicator that your quarry is nearby.  I have also found that hunting on an empty stomach sharpens my senses and wits - certainly has way of altering sensory perception.   

Comment by Earth School on April 30, 2012 at 5:05pm

I agree Zac! Slow is always the best tactic. Something we, "society as a whole", seem quite incapable of:)) Imagine how aware we'd be if our lives weren't dependent on the local grocery stores?? 

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