It Doesn't Really Matter What You Do

Uncovering ancient skills

Featuring sections on how to make a bow and arrows, how to fashion rope from animals and a chapter on ancient wisdom, Ancient Skills by Stephen Coote could have been written by monks in medieval England.

Instead, the book was self-published in Nelson in 2002. A barebones production with stark white pages and a cover heavily peppered with comic-sans. Despite the marketing and distribution challenges, a copy found itself to the Wellington Library where I tried to hurriedly skip through it but ended up reading it from cover to cover like a novel.

The combination of homemade publishing and an earnest writing style perfectly matches the skills Coote describes. In efficient conversational detail, he ignores the usual authoritarian how-to style and encourages trial and error, adapting to what you have at hand. At one point after describing how to skin an animal he concludes, 'it doesn't really matter what you do.'

I've yet to find myself a sturdy sapling and start seasoning it for a bow and I probably never will, but reading this book and imagining myself working the timber, running my thumb over the grain and testing it for 'weight' and 'draw' brings another kind of pleasure. One that only a good intimate book can bring.

And this book is strangely intimate. Perhaps it's the lack of publishing production combined with Coote's humble writing style. It feels like the collected wisdom of a kindly grandfather. A grandfather who is on the porch smoking a rollie while you go over his latest draft. Maybe the next time you read it there will be a new sentence here, an amended diagram there.

Without slick marketing and graphic design to get in the way, you're as close to the author's experience as you can get. In the end Ancient Skills is better for it's homemade, forged-in-the-backyard approach. Simple words on simple, forgotten skills.