|My friend Atlatl Bob Perkins was calling from the Rabbit Stick encampment on the banks of the Henry's Fork, just outside Rexburg, Idaho. Rabbit Stick is an annual weeklong gathering of people allied with the Society of Primitive Technology.
"How are you, Bob?" I asked, then winced. When you ask how are you of Atlatl Bob Perkins, he invariably says, "I'm at the top of the food chain."
"I'm at the top of the food chain," Bob said.
"The Society of Primitive Technology" — I didn't know how to phrase this — "has, uh, telephones at Rabbit Stick?"
"I'm on a cellular," he explained.
The irony was apparently lost on Bob, who in fact has his own Web site (www.atlatl.com).
"So," Bob said, "you coming down or what?"
The Rabbit Stick encampment is about a four-hour drive from my house.
"I'll be there."
"We still going to do Australia?"
For the past decade, Bob and I have been talking about going to Australia, where aborigine hunters in certain areas still use the weapons they call woomeras and the Aztecs called atlatls. The idea has been to get these gentlemen together with one of their own, for Bob Perkins, you see, is perhaps America's best-known atlatl maker and theoretician. Which is not to suggest in any way that he is universally respected. Bob lacks scientific credentials in the field of archaeology, for one thing, and for another, it is generally felt, not without reason, that he's nuts as a bunny.
But hey, since when has simple sanity been the measure of an artist? Bob does what he does because he can do no less.
Here's what happened to Bob. He was an engineering student at Montana State University, an institution that forced him to take some humanities courses in order to obtain a degree. Bob decided on archaeology, which he figured for a gut course. It was there that he discovered the spear-throwing system called the atlatl.
The device comes in two parts. The first is a stick, about two feet long, with a point, generally made from the prong of a deer horn, at one end. The second part, the dart, can be six feet long or longer. It is generally fletched, like an arrow. The feathered end of the dart fits onto the point of the stick. A Paleolithic hunter would notch the dart onto the point and, holding the dart with a thumb and forefinger, whip the stick overhand, in the manner of a man serving a tennis ball.
The dart can easily be thrown 100 yards and is heavy enough to pierce armor, as the Spanish conquistadores discovered in their first encounters with the Aztecs. Long before that, Stone Age hunters were bringing down North American mammoths with atlatls. Archaeologists speculate that the weapon has been in use for more than 14,000 years.
Bob Perkins, the incipient engineer, wrote a term paper on the mechanics of the atlatl. It was, he discovered, a system of fiendish ingenuity and not, as might be supposed, a simple harpoon. Quite the contrary. The atlatl was a device that stored energy and released it in carefully timed phases. The throwing stick was flexible, bending backward as the hunter served the dart. Toward the top of the throwing arc, the dart itself humped up like a hissing cat — storing energy — and then bent down as the throwing stick released its own energy. Or something like that.
Bob was awed by such Stone Age genius and was certain that the Paleolithic atlatl maker understood the principles of wave mechanics and propulsion physics. Bob graduated in engineering and immediately got into the manufacturing and sale of atlatls, an idea whose time has come and gone and — to hear Bob tell it — come again.
I purchased my first atlatl — the Mammoth Hunter, now a collector's item — from Bob 15 years ago and found that I could hurl a heavy dart the length of a football field with the kind of accuracy that would generally allow me to hit the side of a barn. Just the action of throwing the spear forced me to imagine how Paleolithic man must have hunted. It would have been like this:
The various animals, in their multitudes, would probably be found at the edge of the retreating glaciers, where there would be running water and strong katabatic winds to drive off clouds of biting, stinging insects. You'd probably want that giant mammoth, feeding over there in a field of alpine wildflowers.
You might have as many as 20 hunters in your clan group. If it was me, I'd position a line of atlatl tossers 100 yards or more from the great beast and loft darts at it until one or more hit. Then I'd send in the young hotshots looking to make reputations and have them finish off the wounded and enraged animal.
This process of both building and using Stone Age tools is called experimental archaeology. It forces one to contemplate prehistory in a fairly visceral manner, and it is precisely what Rabbit Stick is all about.
The Rabbit Stick Primitive Skills Conference was a conglomeration of about 350 people, instructors and students, all interested in learning various skills now considered useless and time-consuming: tanning buckskin, making watertight jugs from reeds, knapping flint, creating friction fires, finding and preparing edible plants, and in general eking out a living in the wilderness. These skills are invaluable to the person who, for whatever reason, finds himself wandering around in the woods completely naked. Rural exhibitionists, for instance.
The encampment was set along the river, which was lined with aspens and cottonwoods just turning gold in the early autumn weather. There were dozens of tepees set up, and people wandered about, many of them dressed in buckskins and other homemade duds. The morning I arrived, a school bus from nearby Rexburg disgorged a phalanx of orderly preteens, who strolled among the groups of people sitting in the sun weaving blankets and making soap. I followed them about. Steve Watts, a calm, bearded man who is the president of the Society of Primitive Technology, told the students that human beings and their predecessors have been on the earth for over two million years and that for 98 percent of that time they lived as hunter-gatherers. "I don't care what race you are or where you come from," Watts said, "you are standing here now because your ancient ancestors were successful hunter-gatherers." Today, he said, there is no reason to tan a hide in order to make a shirt. The urge to do so, he thought, comes from somewhere else, somewhere deep inside the human soul.
I peeled off from the kids and met some of the instructors. Almost every one of them has a nickname: Dogface George, who runs dogsleds; Abo Boy, who makes containers and atlatl darts from river cane; and Roadkill, whose specialty eluded me. I asked around for Atlatl Bob.
"You mean the big Neanderthal-looking guy?" someone asked. "He's sitting over there." Bob's thinning hair was longer than I recalled and hung down over his shoulders. He was wearing a buckskin shirt, along with some kind of strange woven skirt. Since he was barefoot, I couldn't help but notice that every one of his toenails was painted a different garish color.
Several students were sitting around a washtub working on their atlatls. The tub contained buffalo tendons soaking in water. The buffalo had been donated by a local ranch, and the tendons, taken from above the loin, could be peeled in such a way that they formed thin strings, which were being used to tie what's called a timing stone to the back of each carefully crafted throwing stick. Like rawhide, the tendons would tighten as they dried, holding the stone tight to the stick. The stone delays the flex in the throwing stick in order to store more energy in the dart.
"Hey, Bob," I said. "Where's Buddy?"
"Ah, you missed it. We ate him last night."
"Top of the food chain, huh?"
"Sadly," Bob said, in a rare moment of introspection.
Buddy has come to the Rabbit Stick gathering with Bob for years, and he always sleeps in the same tepee, which makes some people think that Bob is strange, in that Buddy is a lamb.
Every spring, Bob buys a new lamb, and the lamb is always named Buddy. Bob stakes Buddy out on a rope in his yard in Manhattan, Montana. Buddy mows and fertilizes the lawn in exchange for food and beer. Buddy drinks beer out of a nippled baby bottle. Occasionally, when I've visited Bob, we've all sat in the backyard — me, Bob, and Buddy — swilling beer and talking about atlatls and Australia. Bob's theory, not surprising considering his obsession, is that human beings are differentiated from other animals not by language or laughter, but by our ability to accurately throw stuff. Which makes us, Bob declares, the supreme predator. "We're small, we're weak, we're slow," he likes to say. "What other advantage do we have against, say, a mammoth?"
"So a major league pitcher is at the apex of human civilization," I suggest.
"Bahhh," argues Buddy, speaking for the nonhuman world.
Bob can't bring himself to personally slaughter the poor lamb. I'm afraid it happens this way: One day, when the leaves on the aspens have turned yellow and the grass has stopped growing, Buddy downs as many bottles of beer as he wants. After Buddy passes out, he is taken on a short drive and comes back several days later, wrapped in little white packages of freezer paper.
"You know I became a Mormon," Bob was now telling me back at the encampment.
"What? No more beer?"
"Haven't had one in a year-and-a-half."
The last day Atlatl Bob drank, he was driving south, down Interstate 15, on the way to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada to participate in the World Atlatl Competition. His van broke down somewhere south of Mesquite, which is about 80 miles from Las Vegas. It is desolate country with sage-littered hills rolling out forever in all directions.
Bob, of course, had Buddy with him in the disabled van. Now the sad fact is this: No rational driver is going to pick up a big Neanderthal-looking hippie guy leading a lamb on a leash. Hitchhiking was out of the question. But there was a dirt road running off into the hills that must have been a ranch access. Bob figured he could walk to the ranch and call a tow truck. He began moving west, and the rising sun cast shadows before him: There on the ground was a long pastel-pink silhouette that was Bob, and a shorter one that was Buddy. They walked for half an hour. Buddy gamboled out ahead. He leapt and ran and circled Bob, and then, about a mile-and-a-half from the highway, Buddy decided he was done for the day.
So Atlatl Bob picked up his lamb and put him over his shoulders. Carried him back to the van on the interstate, walking directly into the sun and into what was, for Bob, a new day.
It seems he'd been considering joining the Mormon church.
A few years before, he'd been driving down the same road, going to the same event, and stopped at the casino hotel in Mesquite, where he gambled for a time while his girlfriend chose to sleep in the room. When he came upstairs, she made it clear that she wasn't interested in anything that Bob might have in mind. Not entirely happy about this turn of events, Bob slunk off to the bathroom and read the Book of Mormon, which he had found in the drawer of the bedside table. Much of it made good sense to him.
So there he was, out in the cool of the morning desert, carrying Buddy to the van, thinking about Mormonism and reflecting that, with Buddy over his shoulders, he must look a little bit like Christ carrying the lost lamb back to the fold.
In the midst of this divine perception, Bob felt a spreading warmth flowing down over his shoulders. It seems that Buddy had urinated on him. "I wonder," Bob thought, "if this ever happened to Jesus."
And then another, much more life-altering idea occurred to Bob Perkins. He thought, "I believe I ought to stop drinking and become a Mormon."
The last full day of rabbit stick featured various events on the "weapons range." Bob and a dozen others tossed atlatls at a paper target on stacked hay bales from distances of 15 and 20 meters. Bob scored the only direct bull's-eye but lacked enough consistency to win. "At least I didn't embarrass myself," said the Neanderthal Mormon with painted toenails.
Later we all stood around tossing rabbit sticks at fuzzy toy bunnies of the type carried about by toddlers at Easter. A rabbit stick looks a bit like a boomerang elongated on one end; American Indians used them to brain bunnies and other small game. The stick is thrown underhand, in the way you'd skip stones across water, and it spins low over the ground like a helicopter prop. At 20 meters, most of us proved that we'd have made excellent Paleolithic conservationists. The toy bunnies sat before us, motionless and mocking. After several dozen attempts, one fellow hit the largest of the toys and literally knocked the stuffing out of it. We whooped and howled from that portion of our souls that still resided in the Stone Age.
On our way back to the campsite, I asked Bob about his toenails.
"Oh, some women staked me out on the ground and painted them," he said.
"They were from Canada," Bob explained.
Atlatl Bob is a star at Rabbit Stick, and women — inexplicably in my view — seem to find him fascinating. As we strolled through camp, Bob talked about a type of atlatl that cut through the air in such a way that the act of throwing and the flight of the dart were very nearly silent and so would not startle grazing animals. "It's stealth technology," Bob said. He was quite excited about it.
I considered the terrifying prospect of Australia. I'd have to sit next to Atlatl Bob for a 15-hour flight, another four-hour flight, and a six-hour drive. The payoff was that, in the end, we'd meet guys Bob had studied and admired for all his adult life. It would be as if an art historian was offered the opportunity to meet Michelangelo.
I saw, in my mind's eye, that artist's image of God and Man, reaching out to touch each other, as on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Except that in my vision, God was an Australian aborigine and Man was a big Neanderthal-looking hippie guy.
I decided that, like Atlatl Bob Perkins, I shouldn't let such a simple matter as sanity stand in my way.