Methow Valley’s Lynx Vilden Finds Solace in Prehistoric Practices
Going beyond digital-detox camps and foraged-food cookbooks
By Lisa Wogan August 28, 2015
Lynx Vilden walks down a dusty trail through a field of shrub and balsamroot. She wears a vest and shorts made of buckskin. A tangle of short dreadlocks frames her tan and weathered face. An arrowhead and a medicine pouch hang from leather thongs around her neck. Her belt buckle is fashioned from an antler, and tiny bone earrings pierce her earlobes. She is barefoot, and pads gracefully toward me undeterred by fear of thorns or sharp rocks.
I am late, delayed by a stop for a $4 latte and a muffin at the bakery in Winthrop. I stand in my North Face cap, trail clothes and cross-trainers, alongside my overheated Subaru, which clicks and whirrs. I feel out of place at her compound, about 11 miles south of Twisp on the Twisp River. I expected this. I’d read about Vilden in the Methow Valley News years ago, when a film crew was here to shoot a documentary about her Stone Age skills program. That story included a photo of a band of students looking very Clan of the Cave Bear. Occasionally, when I’m in town, I’ll see her acolytes running errands (grabbing lattes of their own, even), piquing my curiosity. Now, I’ve come to learn how and why she keeps the practices of fire starting and flint knapping in these days of infrared grills and instant gratification.
She greets me. And there is the accent. Vilden is from London, and it’s a surprise to hear a voice you expect “below stairs” at Downton Abbey issuing from this Calamity Jane–like figure. Small talk is brief. Soon I trudge behind her through a sparse forest toward a fire ring. We pass a log tepee, an earthen lodge and pine frames for tanning hides on the way to a small camp next to an outdoor kitchen.
Four men wait on rough-hewn benches, around a dying fire. They are dirty from a week of camping, also barefoot, and wearing mostly earth tones—but no one is in full primitive gear like Vilden. A banana—presumably not foraged and still in its peel—roasts in the dying embers. A knotty branch with feathers rests on the ground next to Vilden’s feet. It’s a talking stick.
This June day, I am sitting in on Vilden’s month-long class on medicinal and edible wild plants. It’s time for introductions, and everyone has taken trail names for the day. Vilden is Pippi, of Longstocking fame, a nickname given to her by her teacher this past spring in Lapland, where she went to learn to make a drum. The others, whose given names I never learn, are Dirt Naps, Maximo, Juan Primo and Tutu. When I am asked for my trail name, I draw a blank and call up what has to be the most incongruous choice, a name I attempted to take on in my early teens: Mercedes.
Naming continues. “You’ve come to us on a classifying day,” Vilden tells me. They are learning the scientific names and uses of plants they “met” the day before. She doesn’t like to identify the plants right away; instead, they just “come into relationship with them.” Now, they fill in the missing pieces. She reads aloud from a dog-eared reference book, offering names bestowed by “invaders,” and peppering the lesson with useful wisdom and personal stories, such as the one about drying balsam seeds on a blanket. The chipmunks were making raids, she says, so she sat with her arrow and shot them all to protect the food.
Born in London 49 years ago to a Swedish mother and an English father, Vilden spent summers in Sweden romping around the forest near her grandparents’ house and devoted many school-year days to exploring the semiwilds of Richmond Park in South London.
Vilden demonstrates how to start a fire using a hand drill, in the fire lodge on her property in Twisp
As she tells it, the forest gave her solace from a young age. “It was like, this is where I can take a deep breath,” she says. “It calmed my soul.” Something she would need. By her late teens, she moved to Amsterdam, where she spent “a couple of wild years” drinking and doing drugs. She was a punk, and went by the nickname Loo.
“You know, like the toilet,” she says, laughing. After three years “on a downward spiral,” she cleaned up her act.
She was 19 when she officially moved to Sweden. She changed her name to Lynx (drawn from the Swedish lo, pronounced “loo”). “Vilden” roughly translates to The Wild One or The Savage One. She asked me not to use her given name (which is still her legal name). If celebrities get away with it, why not someone who has so completely reinvented herself?
She hopped around Europe and the Middle East, and eventually traveled to Wenatchee with a South African man she met at a moshav (similar to a kibbutz) in Israel. There, she stumbled onto a book by Tom Brown, a popular tracker and wilderness survival expert. The moment she realized there were other people in the world who shared her attraction to living in the wild, she says, everything changed. She left her boyfriend, and after a stint working as a theater tech and designer in Sweden, returned to the U.S. to attend Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. She was 24 and decided, “This is it. This is what I want to do. This is what moves me.”
Focusing on plants and plant medicine, she attended other schools, including the Reevis Mountain School of Self-Reliance in Arizona’s Superstition Wilderness, where a stranger showed up on a wild mustang. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna marry that man,’” she says. “And sure enough, I did. We drove around in a school bus, hauling a horse trailer and a wild mustang.”
She got pregnant soon after, and Vilden’s daughter, Klara, was born in Sweden. She brought Klara to the Arizona desert, where they lived with her husband in a tepee “in community.” When her daughter was 2, Vilden and her husband moved into a “broken-down” cabin near Colville in Washington. Eventually, that marriage fell apart.
Next, she took her baby to Montana, where she lived in a yurt for 10 years. She homeschooled her daughter. In the winter, she tanned and felted and made other crafts to sell at fairs; in the summer, she taught at the Boulder Outdoor Survival School in Utah. “We lived on nothing,” eating mostly potatoes one winter, Vilden says.
Eventually, her nomadic spirit kicked in again, and Vilden prepared to return to the desert. But 12-year-old Klara had had enough, and asked to live with her father in Seattle. “What do I do: Force the child to go with me?” Vilden asks. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Do I do what she wants to do and give up my dream of what I think is a good way to live? That’s not a very good example for a child. Or do I let her go and let her do what she needs to do. That’s what I decided to do. That was hard.”
Dirt Naps, Juan Primo, Maximo and Tutu amble off to collect the plants they harvested on the previous day’s 12-mile hike. To me, it seems like everyone is moving in slow motion. There is no urgency. This is not a city pace.
Vilden’s prehistoric creations Include (clockwise from bottom left): a rawhide basket (inside another basket with a ceramic cooking pot with cattail heads), a badger-skin quiver with arrows, a cedar bark sun hat, a rolled up pelt, snowshoes, hearthboards for starting a fire, an elk antler, a “burden basket” (like a backpack) filled with handmade clothes and furs, a cedar basket, and a bow and a hand drill, also for fire starting
During a break, Dirt Naps sidles onto a log next to me. He is from Canada and looks to be in his mid- to late 20s. He wants to teach, and he’ll be spending most of the summer here as a sort of wilderness intern. A veteran of many aboriginal skills programs, he explains where Vilden fits in the world of survival training. She is not about preparing for the End Times or a natural disaster. “Lynx is focused on living in the wild, not just surviving,” Dirt Naps says.
Tutu agrees. Ex-military from Pennsylvania, he’s married with kids, but has managed to attend this month-long class and, to hear him talk, participate in plenty of other bush skills programs. He likes the earthiness of Vilden’s approach, “It brings you closer to nature,” he says.
Everyone gathers in a new spot, and Vilden spills dried morels onto a tray set up among some log frames. There is also wild mint, wild onions and a pile of nettles. She weaves some of the nettle stems together. Then, she spits into her palms and rubs the greens between her hands, passing around the twine that only Dirt Naps is able to break.
The group spreads a white sheet on the ground and sets about collecting the nettle seeds, which will be added to ash-cake batter cooked directly on the coals. The dinner menu will also include pan-fried salmon with onions and shepherd’s purse (they will bark-tan the fish skin), fried eggs with nettles and onions, wild salad with lamb’s quarter, burdock-carrot stir-fry, boiled bitterroot with berry mix, and yarrow and mint tea. It is a mix of store-bought, garden-raised, caught and foraged. This class is not Stone Age extreme; it is simply a bridge class that Vilden offers to help make ends meet. The next Paleolithic immersion (seven weeks of preparation, followed by four weeks of living outdoors and using only the tools and techniques of the Stone Age) starts here in November.
Next they pile wild onions onto the blanket to clean and braid for a pit bake. Vilden creates a Martha Stewart–perfect braided wreath. The men work carefully, but struggle to make a braid. Vilden calls them “SNAGs,” sensitive new age guys. And they settle into a conversation about living in nature. “I want to be wide open all the time,” Vilden says. “When people live in the city, the stimulus shuts them down. When they come into the country, they don’t see anything—at first.”
Dirt Naps talks about an animal stalking class he took, in which he learned to get into a meditative state, because “thoughts can put off energy” and the “mental chatter” can alert the animal you are stalking.
A FedEx delivery truck comes bumping down Vilden’s rough dirt drive, alerting everything within 10 miles. Dirt Naps sprints out and back, returning with a large cardboard box, and pulls his knife out of its sheath to slice through the tape. Inside is a longbow made out of hickory and stenciled with Native American icons that he made at a bush skills program in Arkansas. He found the icons in a Google search. Vilden steps up to check out the bow, debating rawhide versus sinew for bowstrings. She critiques a bend in the bow that could weaken, but mostly she is full of praise. He is obviously very proud of his work.
Dirt Naps fishes around in the box, looking for one more thing, and pulls out a small package. “They remembered,” he mumbles, unwinding some plastic wrap and donning a pair of sunglasses that wouldn’t be out of place on Capitol Hill. “Primitive-made Prada,” he says.
All I need is a beautiful place that’s somewhat wild,” Vilden says, “and I can teach anywhere in the world.” She started leading her own workshops in Montana, after teaching curriculums that were more survival style and focused on scenarios like “What happens if you drop out of your airplane and all you have is a little cup?” That’s not her thing. She asks instead, “What if you don’t want to go back to civilization, you just want to stay and live in the wild? All of our ancestors lived like that. And that always interested me more.”
Eventually, she wended her way to Twisp in 2006, where she leads her Prehistoric Projects. These are opportunities to live in the wild for extended periods using only prehistoric tools and techniques. One such immersion in White Clouds, Idaho, became the basis for a French documentary called Living Wild by Eric Valli. In the film, a group of dirty but radiant 20-somethings in buckskins and fur with hand-made burden baskets and stone-and-bone tools wander through epic wilderness like some sort of Outward Bound–Dawson’s Creek mash-up. Their perfect teeth and skin: very un–Stone Age. They all appear totally sincere about the enterprise.
“It’s so beautiful and fulfilling to be out for a long, long time,” Vilden says. “A magical thing happens after a few weeks: You don’t think about appointments, and money, and bills and all that stuff. You fall into presence, essentially. It’s a spiritual awakening.” When “doing it Stone Age,” the only reminders of modern civilization are airplanes streaking the sky or when your fellow travelers tire of dried buffalo meat and pine for pizza and ice cream.
At home, Vilden tries to maintain a simple, unplugged life as much as possible. But the world encroaches. After 25 years of an itinerant, nature-tied life, things are changing. Her mother and stepfather died a few years ago, and she came into an inheritance that allowed her to buy 5 acres with a tiny cabin on the Twisp River. That same year, she also acquired a cell phone (a gift from her daughter that she mostly uses as an address book), a truck and a motorcycle—on which she looks like the star of a reality show, which she came close to being. (She says plenty of film and TV folks see the potential in her story but talks break down when she refuses to give up editorial control). She also set up a website (lynxvilden.com).
“That was the year. It was like: Plug!” she says. “I was a little concerned that maybe I was just going to fall away from what I’d chosen, what has been my life’s work.”
She resists the lure of modern life in big and small ways. She tries to keep to a diet of paleo and wild foods, and spends most of her time outside. In her cabin, she does yoga, makes calls and reads by lamplight, but she sleeps in a yurt or elsewhere on her land. She started pulling the electricity out of the house last year, and doesn’t plan to repair appliances or her water pump when they break down.
As attractive as conveniences like plumbing and a music player are, they come, for Vilden, with a loss of meaning. And that’s what this strange life of living like early humans comes down to.
The way she lives, everything has a story, and with it, meaning. Take the buck she shot to make the shorts she is wearing today. “I close my eyes and I can see him. I can see his chest, and I can see his head and his neck,” she says. She sang to him while he was taking his last breaths, and he provided a bounty of food, clothing and tools. “It’s deep, rich and so vibrant and beautiful, and it has so much meaning,” she says. “And that’s one of the things that people lack a lot today; we don’t have that relationship that makes us care for things.”
It is heating up, and it’s time for a swim, but first Vilden and her SNAGs stop to pull invasive knapweed on a neighbor’s property. She is a machine—focused and strong, pulling three weeds to every one pulled by the men. She cracks jokes, sings and encourages them to sing as well. “Knapweed,” Juan Primo sings, “let me give you a pull.”
Prehistoric Project students make everything using early tools; courtesy of lynx vilden
Then we walk, through woods and meadows, reviewing the names and uses of plants as we go until we reach a private, shimmering bend in the Twisp River. Maximo eats an avocado. Juan Primo strips down and takes a cold plunge. Dirt Naps and Tutu rest on a shaded bench. Vilden stretches out on the ground.
After a few minutes, Vilden calls out, “Yip. Yip” like a coyote. She tells the SNAGs to each gather a pair of rocks and circle up. She asks if I can sing. I am categorical: No.
She has no such reserve. “We are a band,” she says, smiling. “Forest Got Talent.” It’s her only pop culture reference of the day.
“Close your eyes. Tight,” she says. “So tight you see colors. Does anyone see a flower?” Dirt Naps, Maximo and Tutu each sit with a rock in front of them and another in their hands, eyes squeezed closed. Juan Primo has sticks. Someone says “basil.” “Balsam flower.” “Cicely.” “What are the flower people trying to tell us?” Vilden asks. “I want us to focus on that.”
She starts tapping her rock onto another rock. The others join in. They are a drum circle, of sorts. Juan Primo starts humming. Vilden chants. Maximo’s rock breaks apart as he plays. He laughs self-consciously and seems less able to give himself over to the moment. The song fades. They open their eyes.
Vilden tells the men to go and meditate with their plant allies. “To tap into different levels of relationship,” she says. For the next two hours, they will have lunch, nap and be with their plants.
Walking back, everyone is quiet. I am thinking about the tomato-and-mozzarella sandwich wrapped in plastic back in my car. Vilden sees one feather and then another, and absentmindedly stakes them into her hair, warrior-style. About halfway to the compound, we enter a pasture where a striking white mare with black spots waits. Vilden calls, “Karma.” The horse trots over.
They walk together to a gate, where there is a simple harness, which she loops over Karma’s head. Then she mounts the horse and rides off through the tall grass.
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