A BRIEF HISTORY OF PRIMITIVE PURSUITS
By Kirsten Wise
Primitive Pursuits never set out to be a large non-profit organization. It started with a small after school program in Dryden. For years it was a word-by-mouth organization lead by two wilderness instructors who were learning how to teach along the way. But the love, appreciation and need of the wilderness beckons.
Over the past twenty years, Primitive Pursuits has become a fixture in Tompkins County, set standards for wilderness education in the region, and connected to thousands of those who searched for knowledge about the land we live in. This is a story of dedication, community, and most importantly, the love and respect for the learning process and nature.
The Tinder for the Fire
“Tim and I had an experience of running wild in the woods: making friends, making mistakes, learning life lessons, and developing a good sense of judgement.” – Jed Jordan
For Tim Drake, there was only the forest. The height of development in his neighborhood of Perry City in Trumansburg, NY, was a single stop sign. A city it was not, but even better for Tim, there were three glacier hills jutting out from the normally flat area. All around him was the forest to explore. “One of the keys things that has shaped my life was that my parents weren’t afraid,” he says of his and his siblings’ freedom to roam the area and teach themselves about the world around them.
Tim’s neighbor, Trevor MacDonald, is a son of organic farmers. Together they and other friends went out to learn about the woods. Tim says they camped by “cutting across neighbors’ fields and finding woods you don’t have permission to be on.” He and his friends didn’t use modern-day gear “not to test ourselves, but because we had nothing.”
When Tim was twelve, Trevor gave him a copy of Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature and Survival for Children. The book was written for those who wanted to teach kids. “It was sort of funny,” Tim reflects on it now, “that book was the one.”
After graduating high school in 1997, Tim worked various jobs while living in an 8×12 cabin on his parents’ property. One of them was subbing at a preschool, where he incorporated wilderness activities such as playing Lang Elliott’s Music of Nature CDs and asking the kids what birds they heard. After he saved enough money, he would go to week-long wilderness skills training programs, then back to work again.
Dave Hall also had an early interest in the wilderness. After graduating college, Dave would work his day job and spend his free time in the woods. At what first seemed like playing a game eventually turned into true skill-building sessions with results. He was amazed to realize that after a few months he was able to identify thirty plants on a trail and decided to turn his interests into a career. After working at the Adirondack Mountain Club and studying with esteemed programs run by Tom Brown and Jon Young, Dave finally landed in Ithaca.
The Original Primitive Pursuits
In 1999, Dave Hall started to work for Rural Youth Services Department at Cornell Cooperative Extension(CCE). He started an afterschool program in Dryden called Primitive Pursuits. Just like today, each session was five weeks long and had about twelve kids participating. By the second year, Dave realized he needed help. He had met Tim at a Mission Wolf event (an organization that promotes the wolf’s importance to the environment) and asked him for his assistance. Tim agreed.
The two co-taught at Dryden and also spent extra time trying out different survival techniques. During this time, Tim was still working part-time jobs that allowed him the flexibility to take wilderness training courses. It was at the 7Song Northeast School of Botanical Medicine that Tim met Jed Jordan.
Jed Jordan spent his childhood in Merrimack, a small town in southeastern New Hampshire. Through exploring the natural surroundings with his neighborhood friends, Jed became interested in navigation. Around 10 years old, he started a new hobby. For half a day, “every time I saw a road I didn’t know I would turn on it. I would keep going until I was completely lost.” Then he would spend another three hours trying to find his way back home. At his house, he would bust out a map and figure out where he had gone. Not only, he says, could he be the best mailmen at 12, but he had a lot of agency. “It’s great that my parents trusted me to do all that,” he says of being allowed to be away from home for hours in order to explore.
“I think one of the most compelling reasons for wanting to do this nature-connection work is to figure out how to recreate that safety and sense of empowerment that comes from kids being able to navigate their own world …so they feel safe and know how to confront whatever challenges are facing them. That’s such an affirmation to have as a child: you have the vitality and intelligence to have these wonderful adventures and be able to care for yourself and be responsible.”
After graduating high school in New Jersey, Jed Jordan went to UC Santa Barbara before leaving the school to travel the US. He lived in Oregon for a few years before driving cross-country to Ithaca to get back to the hardwood forests of the Northeast and attend 7Song.
Tim and Jed became friends at 7Song. They took a road trip to find other training programs across the country. After the trip, both decided that they could not afford to go to a long-term program and decided to practice wilderness skills themselves.
Through the Dryden school, people started to ask Dave and Tim to teach one-day workshops for kids and adults in primitive activities such as basket weaving. Tim took the freelancing gigs. In 2001, a homeschool community in Corning offered Dave a job to teach a program for their kids. He recommended Tim take the opportunity instead. Tim invited Jed to co-teach with him, and Jed accepted. They asked Dave if they could keep the name Primitive Pursuits, and he approved.
Building an Establishment
“Having community support early on has made this organization possible.” – Tim Drake
Under the umbrella of Cornell Cooperative Extension’s 4-H programs, Primitive Pursuits started as a small non-profit focused on its homeschool program and events. In these early years, Primitive Pursuits was crafting its philosophy and method. Inspired by Tom Brown and other wilderness instructors, Jed and Tim developed a choreographed style of teaching that focuses on hands-on learning, discussion, and story-telling.
“There’s so much intention behind everything we do with the kids. When you’re out there, it looks completely effortless. But it’s very planned and structured and has a very strong philosophy behind it” – Megan Pugh, Primitive Pursuits Parent and Marketing Director
It took several years before Primitives developed into full-time work for the co-founders. Until then, Jed and Tim continued to work other jobs, such as construction at SONG EcoVillage. Luckily, Mike Carpenter, who headed the development at SONG, had a son in Primitive Pursuits and allowed for a flexible schedule. With every new opportunity, Jed and Tim could let go of other jobs and focus more on Primitive Pursuits. Tim says that the flexibility from employers and “having community support early on has made this organization possible.”
For most of Primitive Pursuits’ 20 years, Tim and Jed were steadily building not just nature connection experiences, but a non-profit organization. “We had to teach ourselves a lot of business and marketing practices. Accounting, record keeping, and grant writing…We were constantly putting ourselves in the role of frontiering. We were systemizing and working on the business structure and envisioning the impact we wanted to have on our community.” As their summer camp took off, Tim and Jed decided to pool their profits as partners and invest in the organization’s development. Primitives needed to up their advertise, which was mostly word-of-mouth. The problem was that they had no pictures to show what it was about. Luckily, homeschool student Lydia Ruffly’s mother took photos of the lessons and these pictures were in the first Primitive Pursuits brochure. It wasn’t the crisp design of today’s visuals, but it was a start from their small, word-of-mouth reach to the now wide, national audience.
Inspired Core Values
Jed and Tim’s experience during their road trip out west reminded them of the reality that wilderness education, no matter at what level, normally comes at a cost that many cannot manage. So they made a core value to have the programs be available to people of varying circumstances. Using the money they made with their summer camp and extra donations, they implemented a sliding scale fee and using the extra money donated to the non-profit towards families who couldn’t afford the courses otherwise. Having a fee-based program that did not rely on grants or endowments allowed Primitive Pursuits to sustain and grow their programming in ways new to the non-profit sector in the Ithaca area. After doing this successfully for several years, other fee-based programs in Ithaca came to Primitives for advice. Eventually this lead to a grant from the Park Foundation to document what Primitives had been doing in their marketing and registration systems to share with other non-profits looking to implement a similar system.
With a grant from the USDA Forest Service’s More Kids in the Woods received in 2007, Primitive Pursuits joined the efforts of 4-H’s Urban Outreach, to lead the afterschool program Urban Forest Adventures. During the school year of 2007-2008, Primitives taught nature observation and other skills, to the youth in areas near their neighborhood of West Village, Ithaca.
This experience was was important in so many ways, one in which Tim told The Ithaca Times:
“When you’re living in the modern world, you’re so far removed from the natural environment around you. We feel like we’re answering a call to address this growing divide between the natural world and the modern world… In experiencing the natural world in this way, we hope to bring people closer to our basic human identity.”
Collaboration on South Hill: Impact at Ithaca College
In 2004, Tim and Jed offered the first workshops for parents of the homeschool students so the education could extend beyond school. Jason Hamilton, Ithaca College ecology professor, was one of the parents. As a graduate student at University of California at Santa Barbara ten years prior, he was walking along with a professor at the Sedgwick Reservoir. The reservoir had been donated to the school five years ago and many scientists were exploring it. While walking, however, Jason noticed a hillside covered in a grass that he had never known before. It shocked him that he didn’t recognize it after years of studying and only the professor noticed it was an invasive species. Had the collegiate staff recognized it earlier, they could have intervened and stopped the population from taking over the hillside. Jason realized that many environmental issues could be taken care of if people noticed them soon enough. However, experts aren’t around every corner to spot these changes. It dawned on him that he could train everyday people to be environmental observers, who could then notice changes in the environment to tell others. Once Jason took the parents’ course, he remembered this long-ago idea and realized that interwoven between the many other lessons, Primitive Pursuits was teaching its students one of the most important skills of surviving in the wilderness– observation.
“It became very clear that Jason wanted more to do with Primitive Pursuits and it became very clear to us that we wanted more of Jason,” Tim says. Jason took two rounds of the Wilderness Skills Intensive program offered by Primitive Pursuits while incorporating what he learned in his ecology classes. During one of his IC classes, Jason was leading the students through the campus to a site, at some point passing a berry bush that he learned about during his Primitive Pursuits courses. On a whim, he stopped the class. He identified the tree and plucked a berry and ate it. The other students followed. When course feedback came in, Jason was surprised to find that a lot of students cited the berry bush as the one of the most memorable lessons of the class. That got him thinking—what if there was a class full of these lessons? Luckily, he knew two teachers who were experts at teaching discovery of your own backyard, or in this case, a college campus.
When Jason founded the Environmental Studies and Sciences department at Ithaca College in 2008, he made the lessons from Primitive Pursuits as a foundation for the curriculum. Environmental Sentinels, a required course for all majors in the department since 2010, is taught by Jason, Professor Jake Brenner, as well as Tim and Jed as lecturers. Using Ithaca College’s Natural Lands as the classroom, the course challenges students of all different wilderness experience levels to try skills such as fire and shelter making. The most important skill is to observe the world around them. Not only does this course give college students an out-of-classroom experience, it also inspires students to continue working in the wilderness. Many Environmental Sentinels alumni go on to work with Primitive Pursuits as volunteers, interns, camp instructors, and even full-year staff members.
A Growing Community
“The thing I love most is people thinking more deeply into a relationship with themselves and the earth” – Corinne Eisenmann
In 2009, Corinne Eisenman, a director at a massage school, was in need of a new challenge. So she volunteered with Primitive Pursuits’ homeschool program and Hunter and Gatherer days, and was struck by the kids’ understanding of and the affinity with the forest. She thought that the work Primitive Pursuits did sought to close the cultural gap that was between humans and nature, and she felt this was really important. “Fun, humility, curiosity—those are not the tools you need to just learn about your backyard, but in any community.”
She started as an instructor for the after school program and then worked in the office and trained the summer staff. Corinne really enjoyed meeting and training staff from all over the country because of the “diversity of perspective, skills, history, songs, stories” they brought to the program. The summer camp, at the time, was only four days a week because it lacked a state certification. Corinne worked through that process and in 2010, the camp functioned six days a week for the whole summer. “There’s something about people being outside and in their community,” Corinne says of her experience teaching in the wilderness.
In January 2014, Tim Drake and Melissa Blake started to develop a preschool program. Melissa, coming from years of extensive experience as a nature educator across the country and mentorship with master tracker Jon Young, didn’t wanted to wait until her son was six for him to be participate in Primitive Pursuits. Tim, having a several years as a preschool teacher and his experience at Great Horizons, wanted to get back to helping young kids discover the world around them because to him, “[Preschool students] are willing to let go and move into uncharted territory because everything is uncharted territory.”
That March, the Forest Preschool started a pilot one-day-a-week program with Melissa as the lead instructor. Three and five-year-olds bundled up for hours spent outside climbing hills, helping build fires, and navigating the world around them.
In Melissa’s experience, it’s evident that “young children naturally really want to be outside.” They are also capable of taking significant responsibility. “There’s so much required of them,” Melissa says of the students’ activities, which include working with steel pots and rocks, helping to build fires, and climbing over fallen tree branches. The kids, however, adapt to it well.
This confidence-building model for preschool was proven successful. Within two years of its inception, the preschool expanded to five-days-a-week and a second location, West Hill at the YMCA Outdoor Adventure Area. Primitive Pursuits is now truly available to anyone of almost any age!
Sharing the Primitive Pursuits Story
With each collaboration, the staff of Primitive Pursuits gains a new perspective, expands community, or in Megan Pugh’s case, finds a new employee. In 2006, Primitive Pursuits collaborated with Earth Arts, a nature education organization based in the Finger Lakes region, to run a program at EcoVillage, a sustainable neighborhood in Ithaca. Called Earth Mentoring, kids of EcoVillage learned about their environment. Still to this day, participants of Earth Mentoring, now in their teens, go to the places they found during that program to journal, reflect, and hangout. The idea for the collaboration came from EcoVillage and Primitive Pursuits parent Megan Pugh. Megan had her own marketing company called Blink Digital.
In 2011, she volunteered time to create a 6-page brochure for Primitive Pursuits’ summer camp. The following year, she made an 8-page brochure. Then she began brainstorming about the Primitive Pursuits logo and decided that it should embody a coyote as a reference to the organizations commitment to a style of teaching known as Coyote Mentoring. The coyote, known for its instinct, comraderie and mentoring skills – has a howl filled with a wild curiosity and confidence in its environment. Backed by the coyote are the flames of a fire. Fire is essential: for warmth, cooking, and the setting in which to gather and tell stories. Together, the coyote and fire symbolize the Primitive Pursuits mission to spark wonder and respect for the environment. The resulting logo has become a recognizable fixture around town as was even featured in the LogoLounge book series.
In 2014, Primitive Pursuits began a search for a marketing expert to spread the word about the non-profit. Tim asked Megan to help develop what that position would entail. Little did she know, she was creating her own job and later that year, officially joined the Primitive Pursuits staff.
For Megan, the courses Primitives Pursuits provides “aren’t programs to be marketed, but rather promoted.” She shares the experiences of the students by letting the pictures of foraging, bow-making, and gathering around a fire explain the possibilities the programs provide. The website’s blog gives a closer look at those experiences.
“If people knew how incredible this was, every homeschooler in the area would do this,” Megan says, her admiration a motivation for her work.
Investing In the Future
“It’s an organization that is truly investing in itself in both staff and technology. Although our program has been growing, we’re investing in way so that the size does not impact the programming.” Megan says, recalling adaptations made to accommodate Primitives’ growing popularity. Our summer camps have grown, and when the number of participants jumped up to over a thousand campers, more staff members had to be hired and trained. In order to ensure each child was receiving the best experience, the most seasoned and knowledgeable camp counselors were designated as “site leaders” and were tasked with overseeing the smaller groups. This change allowed for more professional development opportunities within the staff and a continuation of the close-knit learning environment that Primitive Pursuits values.
In the winter of 2016, Primitives took on the lease for Cornell University’s Arnot Forest Field Campus and rolled out the largest summer camp season to date, adding overnight camps in the summer of 2017 and 2018.
With over 4,000 acres of woods, grasslands, ponds and streams, the space also has a bathhouse, lodge, and a campground with cabins and areas to set up tents. “It’s the largest continuous woodlands in New York State,” Jed Jordan says about the property, “it’s as pristine as you can get” in the area and an essence of true quietness.
A Fire Burning Bright
Faces continue to change as new members join the leadership at Primitive Pursuits, but the survival skills of shelter-building, fire-making, archery, basket-weaving and plant identification, coupled with the attributes of teamwork, focus, confidence, and gratitude continue on.
From an after school program to one of the largest wilderness education programs in the Northeast, Primitive Pursuits continues to keep the flames of curiosity, consideration, and love for natural world, burning bright.