10 Tips, Suggestions, and Projects for Improving Your Mastery Over Nature

Inline_Nature_04.24.17Humankind’s home is in the wild. It’s where we spent our formative years. Even today, well after the advent of civilization, industrialization, and computerization, almost half of humanity still lives in rural areas. That close relationship to the land is probably why green and blue spaces offer so many health benefits, like lower stress and improved immunity. Going for a hike or picnicking on the beach is much like going home.

Yet we don’t simply exist in nature. We shape it. We’ve always shaped it, from ancient Amazonians building food forests to Neanderthals offing entire herds of mammoths at a time. We start fires, systematically hunt and consume its inhabitants. We make gardens—blends of nature and culture. In effect, we impose our will.

Imposing one’s will on the great outdoors has an understandably bad connotation. Sometimes our interactions with nature result in waste and abuse on either a personal and expansive scale. Nothing irks me more than seeing heaps of trash left behind at campsites or photos of the 19th century American buffalo massacres. But the human agenda can also be thoughtful, inspired, even fruitful. Without humans imposing their will on nature, we wouldn’t have the National Parks (thanks, Teddy and Woodrow), stable animal populations (thanks, hunters), or the millions of miles of hiking trails across the world. You can argue the subject for years and never come to a consensus, but it’s pretty clear that a ton of high quality wilderness, both touched and untouched, exists for our enjoyment thanks to some of the more visionary choices within human intervention.

I’ve suggested you camp in the past. I’ve encouraged you to hike. I’ve even told you how best to optimize your hiking. I’ve described the myriad benefits of spending time in nature. Today, I’m going to discuss how to interact with nature without destroying it. How to dig into it, meet it Grok-style. How to feel at home in your true home.

Subscribe to Primitive Technology on YouTube.

Always shirtless and slightly grey from clay residue, the anonymous star of the Primitive Technology YouTube channel has been making huts, tiles, tools, weapons, ovens and other technology using handmade tools and natural materials gathered in the Australian bush for several years. His instructional videos are well-shot, with no talking and no music. Enable closed captions for added details. He even figured out how to make iron last year.

It’s best to try some of the things he makes, but you can also tune in for inspiration with other, less primitive things using modern, store-bought tools. The display of human ingenuity is worth watching.

Get good at chopping wood.

Wood chopping is the perfect example of an effective imposition of human will on nature. You’re taking an unrefined, raw resource and making it more useful without changing its essence or chemical composition.

This is a good all-around axe for chopping wood.

It also turns out to boost testosterone. Carrying water is optional.

Figure out how you prefer to build a fire.

The last thing you want to do when tasked with starting the fire is vacillate between fire-building methods. It should be second nature. You should operate on pure muscle memory. If that’s not the case, it’s time you figure out how you prefer to build a fire.

The basic method is the tipi: building a small tipi of kindling surrounded by tipis made of progressively larger pieces of wood.

My favorite method is the roofless log cabin. You need a big fire pit to do this, and it consumes a lot of wood, but it really creates a hot flame and, if you plan on cooking over it (see the next section), great embers in a short amount of time. Start with two large pieces across from each other. Stack two more across the top on the other sides, forming a square. Continue until you’ve got a 1-2 foot structure. Then, place a small tipi inside the “cabin” and light it.

Some people build a roof of logs to contain the flames and provide more fuel, but I love the visual of flames spilling out the top. It also burns quicker this way, which is good if you need embers for cooking.

Practice building fires and figure out which way works best for you and your goals. Then get really good at building them.

Learn about foraging, then go foraging.

A little knowledge turns wild plants into human food. It might not be totally accurate, but you’ll at least feel like you could handle yourself alone in the wild.

Go on foraging trips with local experts. I guarantee they’re out there wherever you are.

Check the bulletin board at the local outdoor store.

Look for foraging groups on Meetup or Google.

Grab some foraging books from the library or Amazon. Be sure they apply to your area.

Be careful, of course. But don’t let caution paralyze you. I suspect we won’t see very many more Christopher McCandlesses. The breadth of and access to wild food knowledge is too great.

Cook outside over fire.

When we’re cold, we can turn on the heat. When we want to cook something, we can use the microwave, turn a knob and get the perfect flame, or set the oven to a specific temperature. If we need light at night, we flip a switch. We don’t need raw fire for these things anymore. Today, fire is a luxury, a frivolity.

We can certainly get by without direct exposure to fire, but I don’t think we should. Fire burns within us, and I’d argue within our very DNA. It’s why fire engrosses us and the campfire can coax stories and good conversations from those who gaze into it. Cooking is the most powerful and primal way to interact with fire.

Most people mistakenly assume camp fare has to be substandard. They’ll eat canned pasta, freeze-dried meals, garbage breakfast cereal. Even Primal folks aren’t immune; all of a sudden they revert back to the Standard American Diet just because there’s no stove or refrigerator. Nonsense. Cooking in the wilderness is the best.

Get comfortable with the tempestuousness of fire.

Cooking over a wood fire is more art than science, and you have to embrace that.

It won’t be the same each time.  You can’t reliably attain “medium high heat” or “425° F.” Open fire doesn’t work like that. Hold your hand over the embers. If you can only manage one second or less, that’s “high heat.” 

But even that’s more a guideline than a rule. The key is that you have to practice. You have to get out there and actually cook over fire to learn how fire works. You’ll burn some stuff. You’ll ruin a few meals. That’s okay. Experience is the only teacher that matters.

Don’t fly by the seat of your pants, though.

Cooking over a wood fire is still cooking. Planning matters, especially if you’re doing your wood fire cooking away from home.

Know what you’re going to make for each meal and assemble everything you need the day before.

Prep the ingredients back at home—or not. There is something rustic and gratifying about doing meal prep at camp, fire crackling beside you, chopping veggies directly on the wooden table.

Get (or chop) firewood before you reach the sticks. It’ll be more expensive if you buy on site, and gathering wood is usually illegal. Hop on Craigslist or Yelp to find a vendor that sells in bulk and fill a trunk. I like almond wood for cooking.

Get yourself some cast iron.

For my money, cast iron is the only way to cook outdoors. It’s impervious to heat damage. It holds heat incredibly well. It looks gorgeous gleaming black against a raging fire or glowing embers. There’s no material better for searing a steak.

You’ll want a Dutch oven for stews, chilis, and soups. Enameled works great if you’re worried about getting too much iron from acidic foods.

You’ll want a portable grill. This portable Tuscan grill is the best widely-available option I’ve seen. It’s a 14×14 cast iron grill with legs that screw on. You can plunk this thing down directly over embers, or remove the legs and lay it across an existing grate. Buy two or more to boost your cooking surface.

You’ll want a large cast iron pan. Francis Mallmann, an Argentine chef featured in Netflix’s Chef’s Table (watch the trailer of his episode, then go watch the actual episode), suggests a chapa—a large cast iron surface about 30 inches by 30 inches set on legs for placing directly over embers. Get one of those if you can. You’ll likely have better luck finding extra-large cast iron griddles.

Mallmann also roasts whole lambs and pigs on the Patagonian cross, a 6 foot tall vertical piece of iron with two parallel crossbars and a sharpened end that sticks into the ground in front of the fire. If you’re really gung-ho, find a metal shop near you, draw up some plans, and have them build exactly what you want.

Try cooking over embers, not flames.

Manning the grill as flames lick up and char your food is a romantic image, but it’s not the best way to cook with wood. Embers are far hotter and produce less smoke and more reliable heat.

Start your fire early. Give your embers time to develop. Start your fire no less than an hour before you plan on cooking.

Bury your treasure.

Once you’ve got a nice fire going and embers and ash are accumulating, move a blend of hot ash and embers to the side of the fire and bury your thick skinned vegetables. Don’t wrap them in anything. They can take it. Winter squash, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, onions. I’ve even buried a pineapple—rind on—to great effect. Just throw it in and come back in an hour.

You don’t have to backpack for five days through untamed wilderness to explore these concepts, although you should make a point to get away as often as it’s feasible. Most of these can be practiced and enjoyed in your own backyard. After all, nature is everywhere. There’s no escaping it, so get out there and embrace it.

How do you embrace and tame—or at least attempt to tame—nature? Got any tips or suggestions? Has anyone else out there got the wood fire cooking bug like me? Something about it that just feels right… Take care, everyone.


About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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26 thoughts on “10 Tips, Suggestions, and Projects for Improving Your Mastery Over Nature”

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  1. Heading out on our first camping trip of the season this Friday, we will definitely be doing most of these things! I’m so looking forward to sitting around the campfire, cooking and being surrounded by nature 🙂

  2. Cooking over an open fire in a beautiful setting is really fun. As Mark says, it doesn’t have to be limited to wieners and roasting marshmallows. We’ve cooked pork chops, steaks, chicken, stews, chili, full breakfasts, desserts–you name it, we’ve cooked it over a campfire somewhere in the mountains. A tip about fire wood… don’t use any kind of pine. Your food will taste like it was marinated in Pine-Sol Cleanser.

  3. So inspired by this, I will be doing this in my backyard with wife and boys this weekend. Another great, life enriching post.

  4. This has done a great job of gently reminding me that I need to start camping. I’ve been using the excuse of not having the equipment, but that’s pretty much what craigslist is for. I’m going to make it a personal goal of mine to get at least some of these this year! Thanks for the great ideas Mark!

  5. Creating a garden that is a blend of my local landscape and food source. My flower beds and front yard have California native plants to attract and support local wildlife. My backyard has a raised bed veggie garden, fruit trees and six hens. My toddler has watched a hen lay an egg, planted sunflowers, plucks sugar snap peas and raspberries if he wants a snack, and has famously tasted a clump of soil ? And I get to go outside, get my hands dirty and lift heavy things.

  6. I think “tame” and “mastery” are indoor words! The urge to subdue isn’t natural at all – it’s one of those unfortunate consequences of civilization 🙂 As you say – outdoors is our natural habitat. We’re not something other than nature, so this isn’t about getting hold of something wild and scary – it’s Going Home.

    If we’re looking to overmaster or subdue or escape nature – well, good luck with that! (In fact, that’s kind of what CW has attempted to do with our foodways, and we know how that’s going.)

    And now, to tweak this recipe for a delightful wildcrafted cocktail… truly, best of both worlds. Have fun out there!

    1. Right on Sara–instead of “master” or “subdue” I think the better model would be learning how to have a good relationship with the natural world: finding food, water, safety, and comfort, while contributing to the health of the ecosystem is the ideal. As true today as 100,000 years ago.

      Hope you had a good wildcrafted cocktail!

    1. Hmmm … from doing a little research it does seem like it could be a concern for men not giving blood and same for post menopausal women Merry. To use a few times a year for out-of-doors would be fine I think, everyday use might be problematic … my two cents worth.

    2. It’s possible to find something wrong with everything if you try hard enough. Unless you have hemochromatosis or cook everything you eat in cast iron 24/7/365, I seriously doubt that you have anything to worry about. I wouldn’t give it a second thought.

  7. Last year my adult son and I spent 3 days in Big Sur. We had our food, cooler, wood, newspaper, coffee pot, iron skillet, spatula, aluminum foil and a lighter. We hiked in the red woods and climb rock by the ocean. We cooked all our meals on the fire, and did not burn anything, it was all delicious.. Great quality time with my son and with nature.

  8. As a former Eagle Scout used to do all of that, including a week of survival hiking and camping in the mountains of New Mexico a couple of times. Now the closest I come to any of that is a “stroll in the park” LOL.

  9. Nice to see Mark write in support of cooking over a real fire. There really is something to it.

    I grill almost all my meals. Quick, easy, and little clean-up (very important for a busy student like me). When I lived on-campus my first year of college this presented a bit of a challenge, as there was only a charcoal grill. Cooking inside was definitely not an option, as the kitchen was ancient, without a range hood, and down the door from the resident associates and their newborn baby who didn’t take well to smoke drifting into his room. So I found myself starting a fire from charcoal twice a day. It certainly had its frustrations (finding the best fire starter combinations, making the wind didn’t blow out the starting fire and make me have to skip a meal), but a good skill to have. Though now that I’m off-campus with a gas grill I can’t say I miss it!

  10. The only reason we think that nature and being outside (and being present without cell phones!) and dealing with the weather is that we have preconceived notions that we should be “living in a mall” comfortable.

    You can be happy in the cold, damp rain with lukewarm coffee. Your choice.

  11. Great post Mark. I think I could give the chopping wood a try – love the sound of that!

  12. Don’t overlook a long handle carbon steel wok. More versatile than cast iron and lighter. A wok is perfect for cooking over roofless log cabin fires and doubles as a bucket to extinguish the fire when done. The clang of the spatula against the steel attracts other campers who stare in awe at twice cooked pork, Thai shrimp, beef and broccoli, bananas flambe, Etc. Prep the veggies ahead and pack in Chinese take out boxes. Use the same boxes to serve the cooked meals and burn the disposable wooden chopsticks in the fire.

  13. Will soon be going to a camping trip. Very good idea about the food i was gonna take a bunch of snacks with me as food :3 but your idea seems more fun will still take just in case I burn the food haha.

  14. Primitive Technology is one of my favourite channel on Youtube. It’s so relaxing to watch. I can’t believe you didn’t note the fact that he never wear shoes!

  15. Fiskars makes a great Splitting axe too. Very good for the soul. Of course if you are splitting cedar shingles, you use a machete and two hammers. Wooden hammers for maximum style points.

  16. I’d like to point out that in a lot of areas bringing your own firewood is illegal because fire wood can transport invasive species. Your, mine, and everyone else’s money saved by not buying local firewood is lost in the cost to nature when the emerald ash borer, or its like, decimates a tree population.

  17. This makes me so excited for camping season to begin! We harvest and chop wood all year long- it is the best exercise. 🙂 I also REALLY love foraging. It is almost fiddlehead season in Alaska! I never though to look for other foragers via Meetup. As always, thanks for the awesome tips.

  18. You can have a wonderful time cooking like this, enjoying nature, and feeling primitive, even in your back yard! I’m in standard suburban house/neighborhood. My sons and I frequently cook over the fire. This isn’t reserved for weekends either. It’s a great way to pull them a way from their screens and devices. Cooking like this consumes attention and breeds creativity! I also let my boys plan and cook the meal as much as they are able. The experience is rewarding every time (even if we burn our dinner)! For beginners, this is great because you’ve always got your kitchen close if you need to cheat a little 🙂