Episode 2

Primitive Fish Trapping with Victoria Wikler, Spiritual Survivalist


Primitive Fish Trapping

Featuring Victoria Wikler, Spiritual Survivalist

Victoria and I crossed paths by sheer chance. Or at least, so says my skeptical nature. Others more inclined to attribute such a well-timed meeting to the orchestrations of the universe would likely argue it was meant to be. Regardless of whichever you choose to believe, I’m certainly glad that it happened.

Years of teaching wilderness survival and self-preservation skills has always been predicated upon a singular foundation: ultimately, all survival occurs first in the mind. Attitude is everything.

It’s the attitude from which Embrace the Animal was born. It’s also why from the start, I realized Victoria was a living embodiment of many of the aspects that E.T.A. champions. The attitude that intentionally seeks discomfort and challenge in the name of growth.

Anyone that marches naked into the hills of Ireland, digs a grave for themselves, and sits through a rainstorm in it for twelve hours in search of a transcendental perspective certainly meets the criteria in my book. Especially when they follow that up with a miles-long trek over shale mountains until their bare feet are cut to ribbons and trailing blood.

I met Victoria at a local climbing crag two summers ago via a pair of mutual friends, and the connection was nearly instant. Despite our differences, there was a fascination with the common ground between our professions and philosophies.

Admittedly, when she first told me that she made a living as, amongst other things, a spiritual advisor and shaman, I was piqued with a combination of curiosity and skepticism. The instant desire to learn and understand more about a different way of living and thinking clashed with my previous experiences with those who had touted themselves as shamans, or other such related things. Some of them had left me with some serious lingering doubts regarding their authenticity, to put things diplomatically.

On top of that, like most of us, I’m not without my subconscious biases: you start talking about drum circles and such and I have to fight my eyes from rolling back into my head. Not because I think such things are wrong, or bad, in fact I often find it quite the contrary: very often I find an underlying theme of positivity in the philosophies behind such things. But my stark sense of realism leaves little room for pageantry as far as my personal taste goes.

There are also plenty out there with a sense of pageantry, a good vocabulary, or a dashing appearance that can and will capitalize unfairly upon others, particularly in the social media age. Let’s be fair, there are people out there that believe the world is flat, or claim to survive solely on breathing air.

Victoria, from the onset, was a beacon of authenticity. For starters, she wasn’t trying to sell me on anything, or really tell me anything about her line of work that wasn’t prompted by my questions. What spoke to me even more was her propensity for taking things more often shrouded in mysterious, or perhaps “cosmic” or “spooky” terminology, and breaking them down into simple, biological or psychological explanations of what was actually occurring with clients. While she acknowledged that there were components, and aspects of her experiences that were difficult to explain or quantify within words, she kept the scope of her practices well within the realm of feasibility for a skeptical mind such as my own.

I was impressed in particular at the similarities in our approach to attitude, despite many evident differences in practice. This common ground gave a sense of effortlessness to finding common bridges, something that had occasionally been notably more challenging during experiences with others in similar lines of work.

Most notably the understanding that all survival begins first in the mind, and that little in the physical realm can be truly overcome if this battle is not won each day and every day, over and over again. Secondly, we shared a firm belief that much can be learned from our ancestors that can improve our modern lives, without romanticizing their time, or being ungrateful for the many advantages we have as a byproduct of living in our own.

We agreed that while there was plenty that was beyond our understanding or explanation as humans, ultimately there was no such thing as superhuman. There was only human, and if our ancestors could do it, then so could we.

Victoria’s attitude fit so well into the Embrace the Animal ethos, it felt only fitting that she helped us spearhead it’s birth by being the platform’s very first guest. And no adventure seemed more fitting than a day practicing some primitive skills while discussing her thoughts and approach to what she dubbed “spiritual survival.”

Our plan was to track our way via canoe down a series of tributaries to a location that would be suitable for building a primitive fish trap, using only the resources available from the natural setting. In short, we’d use a large quantity of rocks to build a weir, or dam of sorts, high enough to funnel a section of the river through a narrow constriction. Once the weir was built stable enough to resist the current, and any holes through which our quarry could slip were patched, we would set about building a gate for the constriction using the long, hollow stalks of plants harvested from the river banks.

By splitting them down and weaving them together, we would create an obstruction that would allow current to pass through unimpeded, but not fish. If the trap worked correctly, the force of the current would be sufficient enough to pin the fish right to the grate for us to simply remove. However, in the name of both passing the long wait for something to swim along, as well as keeping up our practice of primitive skills, we fashioned ourselves some fishing spears out of saplings as well.

The process made for a very long day. It’s easy to underestimate the time and effort required to build such a thing successfully, despite how inherently simple the design. Simple, and impressively genius, as I find myself unable to practice such a thing without a nod of reverence to those who figured this out entirely on their own, just for the hope of a shot at dinner, not to mention living another day. It wasn’t until we began to creep near dusk that we had some fortune in snagging our own.

It’s a pretty eye-opening reflection to take a moment to appreciate that we live in an era of human history where being a survival expert is not only a job, but actually a specialization. There was once a time when every member of our species had to be a survival expert just to make it through a Wednesday, and even then, many of the best didn’t.

Skills that were once passed on from one generation to the next as absolutely critical were now on the verge of being entirely forgotten by a large and ever-growing portion of the world’s population, kept alive in the practice of an ever-dwindling few.

As we sat around our stone-built chiminea, cooking our catch, we began to delve into this reality even deeper. As millennials, our attention turned in particular to the development of our own generation. Millennials, and understandably I must note, receive a particular degree of criticism for a distinct lack of mental toughness, and a crushing sense of entitlement to success without a matching willingness to strive for it.

I do believe that history will be kinder to our generation than the contemporary has been, despite that I agree that our current reputation has for the most part been rightly earned. I feel this way because there are many millennials out there with their heads down, grinding hard to build a better world for both themselves and those around them. And they aren’t the ones you hear all that much about compared to a louder and more infamous sub-section of our overall generation, and the one after. I imagine that when our group reaches our fifties, a reputation that better embodies resilience and hard-earned victory will have come to better represent us.

Nonetheless, it raised the interesting question of why modern man, and our generation in particular, seemed so lacking in the mental edge that once allowed our ancestors to cross ice ages and hunt mega-fauna.

There is certainly the lack of simple, physical exposure to the hardship of the elements. There is the lack of effort required to eat. And there is virtually no appreciation that even a hundred years ago, humans faced the very real possibility of sudden death in a single week exponentially more than many of us do in the bulk of a lifetime.

While in agreement, Victoria posited that this was only compounded by a profound lack of deeper spiritual connection, both to oneself, to others, and to the world around them. This too, in particular, she attributed to an overwhelming urge to avoid suffering. Given the comforts of our time, doing so became all that much more important.

In earlier times, one started down the path of becoming a Shaman after contracting what Victoria called “The Shamanic Sickness.”

It sounded spooky right away. Yet despite the connotation, the reality of what this meant was far simpler. The precise definition of the Shamanic Sickness, she went on to explain, varied from person to person and era to era. Essentially, it was whatever the hardship of the current time placed upon those around it to experience.

For example, let’s say a particular group had endured a long stretch of famine, followed by a bout with a rival group that decimated a large portion of the group’s population. The suffering experienced by an individual that had survived all this, and the harrowing and challenging emotional journey that came with such a thing, was the manifestation of what she called the Shamanic Sickness. As a result of their struggle and the consequent growth, this individual was now in a unique place to help future generations navigate similar hardships, or hardship in general, based on their own experiences and their eventual ability to overcome them.

In a sense, a Shaman was the original therapist, something I found all the more interesting by Victoria’s repeated explanations that ultimately what she is doing is therapeutically getting individuals to face the parts of themselves that they have avoided or repressed, with the ultimate goal being to help them live a life as a better version of themselves.

Essentially, culturing mental toughness by assisting individuals in confronting the challenges and pitfalls of their internal landscape.

Or, as she had eloquently phrased it earlier, spiritual survival.

The ultimate tool in a survival situation of ANY kind is attitude. In the end, the correct mindset will often pull someone with little practiced skill through over someone with immense skill but a poor attitude.

Despite all that we don’t know about them, it’s not hard to speculate that our ancestors probably had a very profound appreciation for the smallest of comforts and tranquilities. Imagine the sunshine after a long winter night. Or a meal after days, or even weeks without food?

Imagine surviving a brush with a fucking saber-toothed tiger?

What kind of appreciation must such adversity have built, not to mention physical and mental edge? And to be clear, I’m not saying we need to live in their time to find that same appreciation. We just need to do a better job of understanding and appreciating ours. How we do that is too wide a perspective to contain to a single person or a single set of experiences.

But it’s good to meet other millennials like Victoria, who are out there helping others to find their way.

For more of my conversation with Victoria, check out the podcast.