John Baylis Photo by: Christopher Nyerges John Baylis

From bark to bowl

John Baylis uses ancient skills to create useful items from the forest

By Christopher Nyerges 04/29/2010

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We were standing by a mountain stream at the 3,000-foot level of the Angeles National Forest — learning how to use yucca and periwinkle vine to weave baskets, brushes, twine and sandals — when John Baylis spotted a large piece of pine bark.
Baylis knew that we would be collecting a wild-food salad later in the day, and he knew that he’d forgotten to bring along with him a bowl. Scanning the area, he found a flat shard of a rock with a pointed end — an ideal tool to peck out the bark, which Baylis did while the rest of us learned how to start a basket.
Once we finished weaving, members of our group collected wild greens from the mountain and created a delicious salad. Meanwhile, Baylis made chopsticks from oak twigs and enjoyed his salad in his new and wholly natural bowl.
Nature is full of containers and bowls of all sorts. Flat rocks make good bowls for eating, as do various pieces of bark. Clay and shells are also good materials, as are the woven dead flowering stalks of yucca and agave.
It is our modern pre-fabricated cultural affinity to “buy something cheap” that has led to the decline and loss of many of these arts, which our forebears took for granted. But less than 100 years ago, the concept of a container for everyday uses was very different than it is today. The ability to quickly and cheaply make bowls, dishes and bags from plastic has rendered the skill of fabricating a container from nature somewhat obsolete.
Baylis’ ability to find a suitable piece of wood and an appropriate rock is the result of years of studying these so-called primitive skills at various survival skills schools.
So while everyone else that day made an acceptable basket — which Baylis did not —Baylis still got a “gold star” for the ingenuity required to take a piece of bark from the forest floor, find a rock on the spot and, with persistence, create something both useful and beautiful. 

Christopher Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine and the author of “How to Survive Anywhere” and other books. He can be reached at or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, Calif., 90041.


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