In Survival School, Learning the Fox Walk May Lead to a Better Life
In an effort to live a happier existence, modern man has a variety of means to relax and refocus. From gadgetry and apps with meditative melodies to opulent vacations and cars, people often look to consumerism for contentment and to technology for peace of mind — but with little relief.
East Texas Survival School, located on a bucolic stretch road in Winnsboro, shares key principles for living a more self-reliant and peaceful life by learning to feel at home in the woods by connecting deeply with what nature provides.
Founders Renae Williams and husband, Shawn Keon, inspired by their passion for the environment, conservation and native American culture, opened their school in 2012 and teach classes to families, curiosity seekers, naturalists, as well as veteran outdoorsmen.
“We mentor people between old ways and new ways like a middle ground,” explained Keon, who attends Texas A&M for Wildlife Management and studied environmental science at Austin Community College, “and there are a lot of different levels to the schools. We teach survival skills, along with sustainability and personal growth.”
Class offerings include earth skills like finding shelter, water, fire, food and tracking in an emergency situation, as well as sustainable living skills like solar water heating, composting and gardening.
Few people will ever find themselves in a life or death circumstance in the woods, so most may not see the relevance of a survival training class. But survival training isn’t just about finding food, water and shelter — it’s about living a more meaningful, self-sufficient life with a deeper connection to the natural world.
“From lawyers to doctors to military personnel, we have had all types of people of all ages take classes here,” said Keon, who at 15-years old had his future career in the military sidelined due to a medical condition. “They all have one thing in common — wanting to reconnect. Students want to reconnect both internally and externally with the natural world and within themselves.”
Whether it’s the basic survival course or self-defense, the school’s curriculum focuses on the key concepts of confidence and self-reliance.
Each course begins with a brief introduction, followed by a personal interview. The interview is akin to an assessment which helps to pinpoint the client’s needs and interests, as well as help the instructors determine the student’s sense of awareness and connectedness.
“Every class is different because there is a basic outline, but we design the course according to what piques the student’s interest” explained Williams, who met her husband while attending a survival class at Tom Brown Jr’s Tracker School in New Jersey. “Some students stay for the day, but others may require a longer stay for intensive courses.”
Accommodations include a camper, as well as backcountry campsites.
After the assessment class begins, the first field lesson is fox walking.
Fox walking is the technique of treading barefoot across terrain for heightened awareness, and for Williams and Keon it’s all about mindful connection.
From the beginning it’s easy to recognize that they live their craft and years of survival training has given them a profound awareness of the people, places and things around them.
“Congruence,” explained Keon, whose martial arts training includes Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido, Ju Jitsu, “is being able to think about something and act upon it so your whole being is behind it. It’s what we teach.”
Keon, the son of an Army Ranger, was born in Peabody, Massachusetts, and began martial arts practice very young with the encouragement of his father. His lifelong martial arts studies gave him the tenor of an old warrior, as he explains every lesson with calm precision.
Williams, a petite natural beauty, was home schooled in rural East Texas and grew up on the land where she and her husband now conduct survival school classes. Her fascination with flora and fauna started at an early age. The Cherokee descendent recalls her mother read her stories of native local tribes and primitive cultures, which inspired her to study survival skills and master the arts of basket-making and pottery.
“What kept the Apache alive when the cavalry was after them for years was awareness,” she noted.
Plant identification is a major part of the basic course curriculum and remarkably Williams identifies a wide variety of native plants and flowers that dot the landscape.
She recognized a cluster of plantain and explained how the plant can be used to make a poultice which draws out poison, then proceeded to note honeysuckle, blackberries and dewberries amongst the grass and foliage.
Pointing to a leafy green yarrow plant topped with blooms, she detailed the medicinal use as a hemostasis, but also explained the binomial name and meaning.
“Small white clusters of flowers identify the most medicinal, as well as poisonous flowers including water hemlock,” she stated and added that deadly water hemlock is currently in bloom on their property.
From bad breath to snake bites to indigestion, she readily calls out a dizzying amount of flora and its uses.
After the intro field lesson, the classroom moves into a wooded area for shelter building and other training.
Artfully, the couple built a debris hut to illustrate what type of structure is needed to keep alive when shelter or blankets aren’t available. They delve into the materials, ground conditions and architecture required, even outlining the pitfalls of fire ants and other hazards.
Later, class moves creek side and the duo begins to instruct the how-to’s of carving and fire making. Basic fire skills require bow drill know-how, which is a primitive fire making method which takes patience and lots of practice.
For Williams and Keon, it’s not only an opportunity to show off more of their amazing skills and knowledge, but it’s where the lessons become more interactive.
During the bow drill exercise they take time to remind students to maintain a grateful mindset. Gratitude might be the school’s most important principle, Keon said, and added that there are seven tenets, including inner vision or gut feeling, sacred silence, and passionate choice, that guide their school’s practices.
Throughout the days’ lessons students are reminded to breath, be present, and grateful, which gives every task a spiritual element.
Under close instruction and supervision, students learn to carve the bow drill’s spindle and fireboard, as well as make the twine necessary for fire starting without the help of matches.
For neophyte fire starters, it may take a lot of pulling and determination, but a spark is guaranteed.
Other instructions of the day include wildlife tracking, as well as trap and snare setting.
In summation of the day’s training, the couple’s final lesson is the blindfolded field stalk. To test student’s gained sense of awareness, the barefooted and blindfolded participants are asked to follow drumbeats across a field.
“The process is the journey guided by God and the sacred question essentially,”Keon said. “The stories of Hercules and Achilles are stories about us. They teach morals about living. Everybody’s life is a hero story and they are all tied together.”
Treading lightly over thorny vines and unruly tufts of grass, students must trust in the process and tap into their confidence, as well as newly learned skills in order to make it across the rugged turf.
From the moment they are fox walking blindfolded across the wild topography, it seems easier to enjoy the touch of the wind, the song of the birds and the warmth of the sun — at last, a peaceful journey.