Sustainable living

People participate in a former survival camp at the Sustainable Homestead Institute in Ridgeway.

RIDGEWAY – Scott Vernon hasn’t competed on “Survivor.” He hasn’t ventured out into the wilderness with Bear Grylls. However, he has braved the same elements, foraged for the same foods and constructed his own shelter, just like those reality television stars.

This past week, he taught people how to live in the wilds of Martinsville and Henry County. While people don’t wish for a catastrophic event to happen, such as a terrible snowstorm that knocks out power for days, a tornado that wrecks an entire community or a spill that contaminates a major local water source, acts of nature, accidents and even planned attacks could happen at any time.

At the Sustainable Homestead Institute, located at 190 Eastridge Road in Ridgeway, Vernon, the director, teaches people how to survive on nothing more than what nature gives. A five-part series, which kicked off last Friday and culminated on Tuesday, encouraged people to get outdoors and learn about their area in advance of a major event.

“We’re an educational nonprofit, so our goal is to get people reconnected with the land and teach them how to build self-enriching, abundant agricultural systems. The survival class is probably our sledgehammer approach to doing that,” Vernon said. “It’s amazing how people come out, and just to see the way that their thinking shifts by the end of the week, it’s pretty amazing.”

The course started completely primitively as Vernon covered the survival basics and essentials – that’s shelter, fire, food, water and tools that people can craft from the landscape.

“We’re rubbing sticks together to make fire. We’re building shelter out of sticks and debris,” Vernon said. “We’re filtering water with just what we can find on the landscape.”

After learning the essentials, Vernon noted that many people realize how time-intensive and calorie-intensive living in nature can be. Several elect to bring a few modern tools on their next survival adventure.

The experience teaches the fundamentals, like Vernon learned firsthand as a teenager. Growing up in Baltimore, Vernon said, he and his father enjoyed a similar survival class experience when he was 18 years old.

“It was a week in the woods,” Vernon said. “Then I went back and took a lot of classes at the same school.”

Vernon then moved to California, where he learned even more about living off of the land at the Regenerative Design Institute.

“It taught about horticulture and how to design efficient farms so that you’re not using so many fossil fuels,” Vernon said.

While in California, Vernon lived with a Native American group for approximately nine months off-the-grid.

“For me, that was the solidification of, ‘Oh man, I could actually do this.’ And not only could I do it, but it was something I needed to do as well,” Vernon said. “The closer everybody comes back to the land, I feel like you can’t positively effect change without knowing what the most basic things that bind everybody together are. There’s no better teacher than nature.”

When Vernon moved back to the East Coast, he chose to teach others how to live sustainably. The course that took place this week is one of several offered throughout the year.

Not entirely primitive

“This is for everybody,” Vernon said. “There’s really nobody that doesn’t get something out of this class. I’ve had 70-year-old women to aviation survival technicians from the Coast Guard, the guys that jump out of helicopters and save people from the water. Everybody gets something.”

He said he suggests that survivalists interested in similar camps be at least 13 years of age, with parental supervision, because of some of the items used in the camp, such as knives and saws.

“The beauty of it is we’ll do the completely primitive stuff and the modern equivalents of things you can put into a backpack,” Vernon said.

Even though the class is geared toward teaching wilderness survival, modern amenities are never too far away.

“All they really need to bring is a tent, or a hammock or a tarp – just something to sleep in and something to stay off of the ground,” Vernon said. “And we do have some more advanced survival stuff where we take away some of those more luxury items, but not this class. We want everybody to be comfortable so that it’s not such a sheer download of information that, if you’re uncomfortable, you’re not going to get.”

Port-a-Johns and water were provided for survivalists, as well as intermittent cell phone signal and opportunities to practice hygienic routines.

“We do have showers back at the house. Just a short walk away, at the end of the day, you can clean up and be happy again,” Vernon said. “So we’re not lacking in anything, but you should expect to spend the duration in the woods most of the time.”

Sustaining and surviving

In most catastrophic situations, people expect to survive for 72 hours. This camp taught sustainability longer than the average wait for help to arrive.

However, if something unforeseen happens and the people of Martinsville and Henry County are forced to live solely off of what nature provides, there are pretty good odds that the average Joe would stand a chance at surviving.

“We are stacked as far as wilderness survival goes,” Vernon said. “I know we don’t have as much land, just open space, like the national parks do, but we’ve got a great trail network, and the rivers are really beautiful. There’s lots of deer and so much food around here that’s seasonally dependent. There’s so much protein in the woods from turkey to squirrels, you name it. There’s a lot of resources here.”

Knowing where to go, what to do and how to do it are important factors to an area’s sustainability.

“Again, the landscape can’t handle everybody going out and raping and pillaging whatever they see. That’s why we focus a lot on the sustainability and leaving it better than you found it,” Vernon said. “That’s what’s important. You don’t want to take more than nature can hold, the carrying capacity of the land. How can we make it better for the next generation? That’s the biggest goal, is just making it better and using less resources.”

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