Stayin’ alive

At Vannie program, kids learn to use their wits (and a few plants) to survive


Before there were lights, grocery stores and rope, there were tinder bundles, cattail and dogbane.

None of this has anything to do with animals but instead plants that, thousands of years ago, were tools people used to survive. 

At last weekend’s Survival Series workshop at Van Cortlandt Park, rangers Ian Cleary and Daniel McElhinney taught a diverse group of city dwellers all about these natural survival materials.

Before the group began its journey into Vannie, one of the “survivalists” Sharline Parker told her son Ajani to put on his boots, and she did the same, unsure of what the two would encounter on the trail. 

“The series lets inner-city children learn skills for camping,” Cleary said. “We try to teach them as much about wilderness and we’d like them to know these skills.”

While Cleary and McElhinney shared these skills, a game of cricket was underway across the field. Following them were endless trees and park filled with everything the rangers said this particular group would need to survive. The marshes, plants and trees were all around them, and it was just a matter of putting them to use. 

The first find on the journey was dogbane, which were plants that looked like long flat sticks. When broken down properly, they could be used to make rope. McElhinney peeled the unnecessary parts of the plant away so that only the essentials for creating rope are left. 

As the group searched in the dirt for dogbane, Ajani held a long one high in his hand, calling over to his mother proud of his finding. When only the stringy parts of the plant were peeled away, the rolling process began. The rolling continued until all the hard parts had fallen off and an almost cloth-like substance was left. 

But for some, the entire plant simply crumbled in their hands.

“Just to think, people actually relied on this for survival,” McElhinney said, before telling the group to twist their plants. 

Soon they all held thin ropes in their hands.

Accompanied by both his best friend and father, Boy Scout Aiden Doran had done things like this before with his own troop.

“We worked with preparing knots, and so building your knowledge together is important,” the 13-year-old said.

Corn dog or cattail?

When ropes were mostly complete, the group moved to the marshier part of Vannie where the cattail grew — a plant McElhinney described it as like an extremely long corndog. 

The plant, he explained, was important from its roots to its fuzzy fiber-filled head. The roots could be used to make flour and complement a salad. The fibers, however, could be used in tinder bundles, helpful in starting fires. 

Cleary pointed out other plants that could be eaten as well as birch trees used by Native Americans to line their canoes because of the water proof oils in its bark.

As a Wiccan, Parker expressed steady interest in the use of each plant they encountered on the trail. In her hand she held a cattail, dogbane and a small branch of pine tree needles that could be used to make a tea that the rangers said had more vitamin C than a glass of orange juice. 

“I study plants and other sources,” Parker said. “It’s really cool to learn about the Paleolithic time when there was just forest and trees, and I wanted to learn how to conform better with nature.”

Old ways become new

Jessica Carrero, who has worked at Vannie for 17 years, held up the rear of the group, spouting facts like how dogbane is poisonous, and ensuring there were no young stragglers lagging behind.

“I went to a national park in Puerto Rico when I was little called El Yunque National Forest, and was like, I want to do that,” Carrero said. “People like that old knowledge, and it’s new and fresh to us.” 

At the end of the event, the rangers led the group back to base where they found a finished rope and a Native American shelter. There, Cleary and McElhinney made a fire. 

Kalema Boateng is a Columbia University student who had been looking for a survival-training event for a while. When she saw the Survival Series on Van Cortlandt Park’s calendar, she and her boyfriend could not pass it up. 

“Programs like this provided to the community are what brings people together and empowers people through this knowledge.” Boateng said. “The park is the unifier that brings people together.”