When Wade Myslivy makes trips to the nearest forest to better connect with nature, it’s not simply a therapeutic stroll through a wooded area. It’s also an opportunity to collect resources for his next tribute to native works of our ancestors.
Myslivy is self-trained in a variety of primitive skills sparked by a lifelong interest in how pre-industrial people used available resources and basic technologies to make smaller artifacts from baskets to beads, to much more work-intensive items like stone hand tools and hunting weapons such as bows.
“I think that it’s a valuable way for people to have direct interactions with the natural environment and to be more connected with the things they can make with their hands,” Myslivy says. “To not have the degree of separation that we civilized people have with all things that we use to live every day.”
His knowledge of ancestral arts and techniques have served the Lawrence region in workshops promoting sustainability and awareness through the Kansas Area Watershed Council and Grassland Heritage Foundation. Myslivy will offer hands-on introduction to skills such as cordage and twined basketry making from native plants, soap-stone bead making, fire by friction, and natural pigment face/body-paint making.
“It’s a good excuse to go walking out in the woods or the prairie, and it leads a person to investigate what people did here historically and prehistorically, and what the environment was like before, and some of the materials they used,” he says of the foraging expeditions that precede basketry workshops.
It’s an opportunity to explore the overlooked uses for local plants, he says. Like cattails for example; not only do the stems make for dry tinder for starting palm drill friction fires or materials for woven baskets but also the fluff on the plant can be used as a lining, like in diapers.
“Doing these sorts of practices definitely makes a person more inquisitive,” Myslivy says. “It’s makes you notice a plant and really look at it and notice its qualities. Feel it, maybe break it to see its fibers. See if it has an interesting smell and if so, could it be medicinal?”
His bead-making workshops are popular with children of all ages (as young as 3 years old), showing how to make a bead from soft stone, bone or shell, first showing them fire by friction using a bow or palm drill technologies.
“Kids really connect with making beads, which is a very ancient thing,” Myslivy says. “People have been making beads for 45,000 years.”
Kids aren’t hesitant or intimidated when encountered with natural materials, he says. Even if they don’t quite understand the instructions, they will pick up on it by trial and error. Myslivy’s 10-year-old daughter is now becoming more interested in ancestral arts, assisting him and his wife with instructing basket-weaving classes, and encouraging her father to relearn pottery practices. After all, if he’s going to do it, he has to prepare the clay from scratch and fire the creation in a pit, two things he hasn’t done in a while.
Some practices are harder to replicate in public workshops. A leather knapsack, for example, is a labor-intensive process that involved tanning a deer hide by breaking down fibers overnight by applying a pureed mixture of lightly cooked animal brains to the skin. Then he smokes the skin over a fire to create supple leather.
“It’s not only back-breaking work, but it would be too smelly to do in a workshop,” he says. “But I’ve had people ask me how to do it.”
The community has shown interest in primitive skills now more than ever before, Myslivy says. He credits the heightened trend to television shows that carry a survival element.
“In general, I think people feel more disconnected with where things come from or how it’s made,” he says.