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For Denise Ellen Ashman, calling something "stone-age" isn't an insult. It's a compliment.

In fact, Ashman is rarely happier than when she's teaching students stone-age skills, such as how to start their own friction fire or turn deer hide into brain-tanned buckskin.

"What I've been finding is that when kids are making cordage out of dogbane, when they're flint-knapping a stone, when they're cleaning a gourd, when they're making a fire by friction, there is an infallible connection with that moment that they never forget," said Ashman.

"They daydream about it. Nature calls them back, and the relationship grows."

That's one of the keys to what Ashman does through her Heartwood Wilderness Skills School on the Western New York Land Conservancy's 130-acre Kenneglenn property in Wales.

She teaches courses on everything from using stone tools to tracking animals. On Saturday, she will be offering a course on stone-age cooking -- including the meal. On May 15, she will be teaching fire craft -- learning to make fire without matches.

Whether teaching or not, Ashman -- a slight woman with intense green eyes -- is likely to be found wearing a buckskin vest made from a hide she tanned herself, perhaps making her own longbow.

Ashman says that while she is teaching students those kinds of skills -- ones that helped humans survive their first 2 million years on the planet before the beginnings of agriculture about 12,000 years ago -- she also is teaching skills that keep people connected with nature and their environment.

"The way it works, the further we get from taking a walk, identifying an oak, looking for the acorns, understanding how to take the tannins (a bitter compound) out before we eat them, the further we get from being able to collect fire materials and make fire without matches, the further we get away from basic knowledge and practice," she said, "the more we have to go to stores, we have to buy our heating materials and food packaged by someone else.

"These days, we're getting our basic needs from packages that are put together by people on the other side of the planet. Our relationship with nature is compromised because we no longer go directly to the source."

Ashman's approach isn't to preach about it, though. It's to teach the ways people survived for millennia and to open people back up to nature.

Ashman has been teaching wilderness skills for over 20 years, since she was an 18-year-old battling cancer -- a malignancy in her femur -- in her native Maryland. She said she would take her wheelchair, and later crutches, as far into the wilderness as she could go.

"There's a huge state park called Gunpowder that was just the most healing, amazing place for me," she says. "At that time, it was the only place I felt free of the stigma of cancer, and it was not anywhere in my mind, when I was hiking.

"I started just watching everything, observing everything. I used to challenge myself to crutch as far as I could and as high as I could up these rocky hills. It became a lifestyle."

She recalls sitting on a mossy knoll looking down through the trees over the Gunpowder River and making a promise that if she recovered, she would spend her life helping reconnect people with nature.

She recovered totally.

"I got my first outdoor education job when I was 18, and I've never left it, and I never will," she says. Along the way, she learned from a series of mentors, immersed herself in books and experimented on wilderness solo trips. She spent several years traveling between the United States and Australia, learning from indigenous people, and designed a program focused on revitalizing traditional ways. She wrote a book, published in Australia, about aboriginal rain forest cultures.

Ashman, who had previously worked in Western New York in outdoor education, came back to the area in 1995 and started Heartwood. At this point, it's a school with a faculty of one -- her.

She teaches in schools, schools bring students to Kenneglenn, and she also offers sessions for businesses to use for team-building and leadership development.

Heartwood's partnership with the Land Conservancy at Kenneglenn has been mutually beneficial, offering Ashman a place to teach with a variety of settings from creek pools and ravines to quiet stands of pine.

"In the history of Kenneglenn, it's always been a place where groups could come out and spend the day," said Amy Holt, executive director of the Western New York Land Conservancy. "We were looking for someone to partner with who could provide that, to bring people out."

The Land Conservancy bought the estate in 2000.

Ashman says it's an ideal place for people to learn skills that were essential for human survival: building shelters, making fires, making tools, procuring water, working with plant fibers to create nets and baskets, tracking animals, learning what plants can be used for.

There's a unifying message in learning those skills, she says.

"Stone-age skills represent our shared wisdom and ingenuity," she says. "All over the world, we were all hunting and gathering at one time. Certain skills and material culture rose up around the same time oceans away from each other. So not only does it help reconnect people to nature, it recognizes that even though we live far from each other, we're all the same. Homo sapiens sapiens is homo sapiens sapiens."

For information on Heartwood, call 655-7622.


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