Buzz Mill's Lumber Society Teaches Primitive Survival Skills in a Modern Setting

Everything you need to know to survive the great outdoors

Camp Master Chris Hyde's menagerie of nature's treasures (Photo by Jessi Cape)

On a Thursday lunch break, I learned how to make fire. Or, at least, I had the privilege of observing a highly trained expert demonstrate the techniques our ancestors used to keep themselves warm, fed, and alive. The miniclass was a sneak peek of an upcoming fire-building class (normally held in the evenings) at Buzz Mill Coffee through their survival school, Lumber Society. A sort of adult version of the Boy/Girl Scouts with Camp Master Chris Hyde at the helm, they teach hands-on basic survival skills such as knife carving, plant foraging, navigation, and water purification – and because it's hosted by Buzz Mill, there are options for coffee, adult beverages, and food galore. The best part? It's free, family-friendly, and open to anyone who's interested.

As the Lumber Society origin story goes, in 2013 or so, Sean "Peppy" Meyer was hosting wilderness-centric classes at Buzz Mill and hired Hyde to teach a few. After Peppy, who now raises goats at Jester King, moved on, Hyde successfully positioned himself as director of Lumber Society. Now the founder and director of Natureversity, Hyde has a laundry list of accomplishments, including work with Alamo Area Search & Rescue, a stint as a survival consultant for Discovery Channel's Dual Survival, becoming a certified specialist wildlife tracker and first responder, contributing to Texas Parks & Wildlife, and earning the titles of Master Naturalist and Nature Guide to name a few. His skills include bow-and-arrow-making, basket weaving, flint knapping, hide tanning, pottery crafting, primitive hunting, and pretty much anything else you'd need to know to survive the great outdoors.

“The first time you light a fire and see it glow, and you did that, you just want to sit there and care for it. It’s like your baby.” – Chris Hyde

"I've always been under the impression that you can reach people with wilderness skills beyond a survival school. You can do it in a bar, you can do it at a public school, you can do it wherever, but you can reach people with these skills and it kind of sparks something within them that I think is inherently within all of us. It's like the first time I give a kid a bow and arrow and they pull it back, there's like this DNA that becomes active. The first time you light a fire and see it glow, and you did that, you just want to sit there and care for it. It's like your baby."

The three pillars of the Lumber Society – education, outreach, social – are clear in all they do. There are events like trivia and game nights, plant walks, and hikes, and every month Buzz Mill creates a special, themed menu that falls in line with the class. The focus is almost always local, but to correspond with January's fire-building class, a portion of these proceeds will go to the Sierra Nevada Camp Fire Relief Fund in California. Special menu items include the Campfire Burger from Plow Burger, s'mores cupcakes from Zucchini Kill Bakery, Buzz Mill's Red Hot Mocha and Smokey the Bear – the latter an old fashioned made with house-infused whiskey, tobacco bitters, cola, and a cherry – and the George Washington cheesesteak with cherry peppers and smoked cheese from 1776 Cheesesteak Co. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. is also donating 100% of the sales from their Resilience IPA.

Another key part of the Lumber Society equation is keeping things bioregional. "We want to keep everything local, just like Buzz Mill is so keen on doing. Not only food and drinks, but education purposes and social outreach. So within the two-square-mile radius [around the compound], there's a wide variety of resources and opportunities to help us facilitate these experiences within the community. It's what we call the Neighborwoods." (Same goes for the upcoming Buzz Mill location on Shady Lane.)

Lumber Society Crew (l-r) : Chris Hyde, Camp Master; Roky Moon, Chief of Enrichment; Mark Fagan, Chief of Community; Joe Lucky, Chief of Engagement; Jason Sabala, Chief of Culture & Exploration (by Jessi Cape)

Hyde's office/workshop/classroom is anchored by a table of oddities: a found deer carcass he tanned with leftover innards, a rescued bobcat skull, birds of prey wings, crushed pigment and beeswax crayons in a buckskin bag, arrowheads, a pressed horn spoon, handwoven baskets. He strategically arranges his essential tools and begins the lesson, Fire by Friction, with a story his friend relayed from a trip to Africa: "She asked the oldest guy – he's, like, 88 – of a particular tribe what method they used to start the fire. 'Did you rub sticks, did you get it from another tribe or lightning – how did it start?' The man says, 'I don't know how it started because when I was born, it was already going.' Wow!

"To have that type of relationship with an element is why, I think, Lumber Society exists. It's to establish those deep roots, those deep connections, and foster and cultivate those types of relationships with the elements that surround us. When you start decoding [our landscape], you learn, like, 'Oh, this ash tree built my bow, it heals my psoriasis, it gives me opportunities to do these things,' then there's a relationship. Then you want to protect it. I think the more people who build relationships with nature, the more apt we are to say, 'Hey, let's not destroy all of this anymore and use it for terrible things. Let's protect it.'"

As he speaks, people start to gather around, absorbed by his genuine enthusiasm – apparently par for the course. Attendance and participation are free until the tangible resources are exhausted, but with a purchased ticket, you're guaranteed a spot that comes with a drink ticket and a relevant take-away like a carving knife, compass, or LifeStraw. Hyde is mic'd with a PA so that even passersby can join. In a recent class, people joined until the space was almost at capacity, and latecomers were encouraged to remove their own shoelaces so they, too, could have a hands-on knot-tying lesson. Every completed class also earns students a custom woven badge that is not only a great humble-brag, but a conversation starter out in the urban wild.

And that's exactly the idea: to spark interactions. Show up as a group or as an individual. About 50-60% of participants are women, and while most are adults, kids are always welcome. Hyde says, "We're not just trying to educate people, we're trying to make it a social interaction. It creates a camaraderie when you're like, 'Dude! We just rubbed some sticks together and made fire!'"

When the fire officially sparks, he says, "This is a very important moment: You have literally just given birth to an element, and it is to be revered and completely treated with respect. We simply turn it upside down and begin to give it little, tiny, baby food. We can't shove hamburgers and steaks in its mouth, so we start with small baby food [like furry kindling] and we let it grow. Once it's bigger, we can begin to feed it sticks and things. And that's how to make fire."

So Hyde is definitely the guy to pair up with during the imminent zombie apocalypse, right? "Maybe," he laughs. "I might want to take out a couple of you so I can eat! But, no, really, if there was actually to be a postapocalyptic, disaster-type scenario, the Buzz Mill would be the place to go and people to hang out with because of the resources and education and experiences we provide."

On Sat., Jan 26, the Lumber Society is partnering with the Austin Fire Department for a community outreach event to complement the fire-building class on Jan. 17.

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