Pre-Industrial & Low-Tech Tools for Rewilding


by Benjamin Weiss

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This essay was originally published in the Permaculture Activist magazine, winter 2014 edition.

There is a meme of self-identification, part of the “creation myth” of permaculture, that David Holmgren describes as a “focus… on learning from indigenous tribal cultures… based on the evidence that these cultures have existed in relative balance with their environment and survived for longer than any of our more recent experiments in civilization.1” And, Gregory Cajete, in his essential book Native Science, urges us to renew “our faith in the possibility of a sustainable future in tune with the truth of nature’s primal laws, because our images of the future are self-fulfilling… The images we create, the languages we speak, the economics we manifest, the learning systems we espouse… must all reflect and honor interdependence and sustainability.2”

The permaculture zone map is a conceptual tool for examining the relationships between the flow of human resources and the broader encompassing ecosystem. Zone 0 represents humans and their essential needs, Zones 1-3 are designed, managed systems of resource production to support Zone 0, and Zone 4 is the buffer between the human environment and the wild. In the design (or lack thereof) of modern civilization, Zone 0 is generally surrounded by an immensity of Zones 1-3 (industrial resource production) that have come to dominate the surface of the earth, ravaging the bounteous diversity of ecosystems and landscapes. Zone 5, the wilderness, is debatably nonexistent, and the labyrinthine semi-wild margins (Zone 4) are untended and ignored waste places. According to Cajete: “while Native peoples all over the world are diverse in their expressions of culture, their fundamental way of relating to the natural world is remarkably similar, a commonality of ways that allows for generalizations to be made.2” One such commonality can be observed and described via the Zone Map concept: native civilizations utilized a vast, semi-managed Zone 4 in order to produce the majority of their essential resources.

In her book Tending the Wild, M. Kat Anderson asserts that natives “protected and tended favored plant species and habitats, harvested plant and animal products at carefully worked out frequencies and intensities, and practiced an array of horticultural techniques. Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning, and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities. Regular burning of many types of vegetation… created better habitat for game, eliminated brush, minimized the potential for catastrophic fires, and encouraged a diversity of food crops. These harvest and management practices allowed for sustainable harvest… over centuries and possibly thousands of years.3” The scattered semi-wild lands that surround modern development still present such opportunities for yield. A contemporary methodology for managing Zone 4, widely employed, would present myriad benefits and solutions to social, economic, and environmental challenges such as:

  • generation of renewable resources in space-intensive perennial systems
  • reduced dependence upon industrial agriculture
  • reconnection with nature for individuals and communities
  • job opportunities and the creation of local economies
  • local control of resources and resource production
  • regeneration of wildlife habitat
  • protection for and regeneration of essential wild systems that maintain the biosphere

Such management practices require careful and subtle understandings and interactions between semi-wild ecosystems and the people who influence them. The techniques and information must be rediscovered and invented anew, and be suited to the novel ecosystems which, according to David Holmgren, now cover as much as 30% of the land mass of the earth4. The first step in any attempt to craft such techniques must be the establishment of an intensive and intentional observation practice (see my article in the summer 2013 issue of the Permaculture Activist). Beyond that, however, there are many small, appropriate interactions with semi-wild ecosystems that can lead to the wisdom required for the implementation of larger management practices. This article suggests some low-impact, introductory practices and outlines a low-tech tool-kit available to any permaculturist or rewilder who wishes to begin the pursuit of this endeavor.

Initial Interactions with Zone 4 Ecosystems

Although observation practices are the foundation-stone of any interaction with a semi-wild ecosystem, some small, positive-impact interventions into the landscape serve to deepen the observer's awareness and understanding and bridge the gap between observation and cooperation. Here is a list of appropriate first interactions with most semi-wild land-based ecosystems:

  • Clean up trash and manageable refuse (items that can be carried out in a trash bag or backpack).
  • Utilize, maintain, and mark existing trails. Exploring an area that does not already have a trail is a potentially disruptive exercise. Where I live in the northeastern US, I sometimes follow deer trails, which are generally large enough for humans to pass along. This requires a deeper ethical examination of the action than following a pre-made human trail, has dangers such as the presence of Lyme-infected deer ticks, and usually requires more physical exertion. While many human trails in semi-wild environments are poorly designed and lead through sensitive areas, it is still generally, a good idea to begin on these routes rather than “bushwhacking.” 
  • Drink some wild water. There is an essential connection to the landscape that can be formed by drinking wild water. However, there is also essential yet basic knowledge required to begin this practice. I often carry a filter/pump that is lightweight and easily stored in a small pack. These filters, available from any outdoor sports retailer usually have two components: a ceramic filter with tiny pores to block the passage of micro-organisms such as Giardia, and a charcoal filter which removes chemical pollutants from the water. Other filtering accessories include iodine pills and small UV lights that kill micro-organisms. Swiftly flowing water is almost always the safest to gather for drinking, especially where it cascades, as it will be very low in sediment, and very high in oxygen. I have spent most of the last decade drinking small handfuls of unfiltered, wild water, straight from creeks and streams that flow through deep woodland environments. Through this process I seem to have built up a tolerance for the potential pathogens in my eco-region and I am now able to fully hydrate myself with this unfiltered water on long hikes. This practice requires extreme caution and a knowledge of the up-stream waterway and potential vectors therein such as animal pastures and industrial sites.
  • Harvest abundant plant items for food, medicine, or craft. Here is a scale of ethics I have created to gauge the impact of wild-crafting (harvesting) from most acceptable to least:
    • Harvest plant parts least likely to kill a plant, such as fruits, buds, seeds, or leaves (a good rule of thumb is to take a third or fewer of the total of these parts per individual plant). 
    • Harvest stalks of non-woody plants, or roots of clumping or rhizomatic
      herbaceous plants.
    • Harvest tree sap or resin.
    • Harvest limbs of woody plants or trees.
    • Harvest bark, root bark, or inner bark of woody plants or trees (inflicts potentially lethal wound).
    • Harvest whole root from plants that do not run or clump (kills the plant).

And another scale for choosing which species to harvest, from most acceptable to least:

  • abundant non-natives (most ethical)
  • abundant natives
  • semi-common non-natives
  • semi-common natives
  • rare or threatened non-natives
  • rare or threatened natives (least ethical)

A Basic Tool-Kit for Zone 4 Permaculture

Here are the tools that I often carry with me when I venture into semi-wild spaces. These tools are low-tech, widely available, and easy to use. They are versatile and light, and as hand tools they are highly energy efficient.

  • Pruning saw (with a blade that folds into the handle for storage). I prefer a Japanese-made saw called Gomboy.
  • Hori hori. This is a Japanese tool that is essentially a trowel with knife-blade edges. I
    prefer a blade that is about a foot-long and keep the edges razor sharp. This tool can be used for digging or harvesting roots, and works well as a small machete for chopping.
  • Hatchet
  • I prefer a hand-held size that can fit in my back pocket. I utilize cheap snippers as this tool tends to take a beating in the field and needs to be replaced frequently.
  • Multi-tool. Mine, made by Leatherman,[caption id="attachment_1564" align="alignright" width="266"] Hori hori[/caption]

    contains knife-blades, a saw blade, scissors, and other useful implements.

  • For harvesting, and ideally made from fibers wild-crafted from a Zone 4 ecosystem. paper and plastic bags are also handy.
  • Sight-level. An essential tool for finding and marking contour lines on slopes. This tool needs to be used in tandem with a flagged pole, and the process requires two people working together.
  • Field guides. I cannot overemphasize the importance of carrying these books into wild ecosystems. In the US, the two main publishers of field guides are Audubon and Peterson. While I generally prefer Audubon’s field guides because of the quality of their photos, if I have to choose only one guide to carry, it is Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Forests. This book is essentially a guide to broad ecological patterns. I highly recommend it for any permaculturist living in the eastern US.
  • Work gloves and safety glasses.
  • Water filter/pump.

And here are some tools that I utilize less frequently and are more difficult to transport in semi-wild areas:

  • Loppers (for cutting thicker branches than snippers)
  • Rope
  • Digging fork

The Efficiency of Hand Tools

Hand tools are more energy-efficient than tools that run on a concentrated, industrial fuel source because they are powered by human labor, the energy of which comes from our metabolic processes. These processes are energy exchanges that have co-evolved within the broader ecosystem and are therefore essentially pre-balanced as a part of the dynamic equilibrium of the earth’s biosphere. This does not mean that modern industrial tools can never serve as appropriate technologies. In Zone 4 ecosystems, however, the likelihood of harm caused by complex machines and their outputs to delicate forces and flows that are not designed, created, or well understood by humans make hand tools a more generally ethical choice for the tending of these environments.

The Value of Pre-Industrial Tools and Technologies

I strongly encourage any permaculturist or rewilder who intends to engage in the work of tending Zone 4 to learn the skills required to create pre-industrial tools and technologies, and to incorporate these into their routine interactions with semi-wild ecosystems. Such skills and technologies include:

  • Fire-starting; hand drill, bow drill, fire piston etc.
  • The making of cordage
  • Wood harvesting, curing, carving, and finishing
  • Animal stalking
  • Trapping
  • Hunting techniques and the crafting of hunting tools; archery and bowyering, atlatl, throwing stick, sling etc.
  • Knapping
  • Shelter building
  • Cooking
  • Basketry
  • Weaving
  • Hide tanning, leather making.
  • Fishing
  • Herbalism

Many of these technologies have the potential to be perfectly efficient when properly applied within ethical constraints based on real information about the supplies and limits of resources within an ecosystem. Speaking of the application of appropriate technology in native cultures, Gregory Cajete states that “adoption of technology is conservative and based on intrinsic need, and care is taken to ensure that technologies adopted and applied do not disrupt a particular ecology.”

Furthermore, the creation and use of these technologies provide insights into the subtle aspects of an ecosystem. These insights can catalyze a sense of reverence for the landscape and the community of life that is essential for the application of the three-fold ethic of permaculture: earth care, people care, fair share, an ethic which guarantees appropriate interaction with the wild.

1: Holmgren, David. Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Holmgren Design Services; 2002.

2: Cajete, Gregory. Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. Clear Light: 2000.

3: Anderson, M. Kat. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge & the Management of California’s Natural Resources. University of California Press; 2005.

4: Mann, Scott. David Holmgren on Permaculture: An Interview. The Permaculture Podcast with Scott Mann; April 4th, 2013.


Ruth KComment