Dave Nessia: Primitive Skills Instructor on Simplification and Appreciation


Primitive living is a lifestyle that encourages an individual to embrace nature and distance himself from technology and materialism, to some degree. Dave Nessia is an individual who has devoted considerable time to this lifestyle, forging a close bond with nature. On May 14, 2010 Dave consented to giving an interview while in Coyote Gulch, Utah in order to explain some aspects of primitive living as well as provide his personal perspective. Dave has been mentoring me over the past five years, and I have spent around 30 total days with him in the field. I recently met with him and decided to write about the interview and how his life and experiences perfectly match the ideals and goals of Me Simple.

How It Started

When asked if there was a time he made a conscious decision to transition into using primitive outdoor skills, Dave described some of the events that took place in 1999, “There was a time (when) I was living in Colorado, working for a framing gallery. I was having a tough time with all the waste that was going on there. I went on a vision quest.” During his two-day vision quest at Red Rocks, he had only water and a sleeping bag. He did not eat and simply stared east while contemplating his life. Having been reading a lot of books written by wilderness survival instructor Tom Brown, Dave decided to move to New Jersey, take some classes with him, and start his new life. When asked if he was immediately taken with the experience, the response was, “Yes! I immediately was, because it gave me a purpose above myself… I could change the world, change my perspective.”

Having decided that he wanted to be more aware of himself and those around him as well as of nature, he became increasingly involved in his new lifestyle. He described a desire to live a life that was different from that of his parents and most of society. Primitive living gave him a new passionate outlook on life. “You could experience life in such a way that every moment was just a beautiful prayer to the earth, a beautiful experience. You could really be alive.” As he increased his outdoor survival skills and gained in confidence, Dave eventually transitioned into the role of a teacher.

Benefits of Simple Living:

Dave firmly believes that taking time to be alone with nature is an excellent way to gain insight into oneself as well as into the natural world and society, since it allows one to escape the overwhelming distractions of everyday life. “In society, I mean half the time many people have never been alone, truly alone, without some sort of distraction.” A sense of empowerment and taking trips by himself has become an important part of his life, “I definitely gain my energy from time away from people, time to recuperate my thoughts and to think.” This time has had personal benefits as well as helped him teach others who are involved in primitive living.

As important as it is to have time alone, community is vital. “More and more I’m starting to understand that… I can’t be this solitary hermit that’s going to just take off into the woods and walk off without a pack. Much of my life has been trying to find a way to wander. I love wandering, I love that feeling of wandering and being out in the woods and how beautiful it is to feel that close connection, but now I’m starting to realize more and more the community is such a big part of that.” He also passed on a definition of an introvert as “someone who gains energy by being alone” and an extrovert as being “someone who gains energy by being with other people”, claiming that he should definitely be classified as an introvert but is working to become more comfortable developing relationships. Community is an especially important aspect of primitive living, since storytelling and teaching skills are the most natural and effective ways to share knowledge. Storytelling was described as vital in that it passes on history, while also allowing people to teach valuable lessons based on their own experiences. When asked about the importance of sharing personal stories, the reply was: “Those mistakes you make, if you don’t share them, someone else is going to make those same mistakes.” This has led him to dedicate an entire course to the art of storytelling.

Teaching Survival Skills

As a mentor, Dave has spent time teaching others various survival skills. When asked if one such lesson was particularly popular or memorable, he responded, “Fire. Fire is probably one of the biggest ones that I see… when we stare at a fire it is just so primitive, so deep into our genealogy that when you start a fire with a bow drill or a hand drill, I mean there’s this light that goes off, there’s this connection, there is this understanding that, ‘Ah, this is where I am.’ I really enjoy that a lot”. A bow drill is a common tool used by primitive survivalists to create the friction needed to start a fire. Another important course is the Hunter-Gatherer course, which teaches individuals how to live off the land for ten days using only handcrafted tools, which they make themselves during the first few days.

Participants in these courses are taught to hunt for their own meat as well as gather edible plant materials. This is a huge change from the grocery stores and processed foods relied upon by the current society. These experiences not only help one learn how to be self-sustaining, but also create appreciation for how readily available food is to most people. He encourages individuals to learn and use these skills for the valuable lessons they teach, “Put yourself in that place where we are actually killing an animal and processing it and eating it and feeling that life. I think that’s such an important thing. That’s an amazing, amazing thing to me.” He described the difference between eating meat that one has caught himself and eating a hamburger in a restaurant. Without such experiences, people are likely to take their food, and the animal it may have come from, for granted. This is just one of the many ways that Dave described how living simply can make an impact on a person’s life.

Family and Other Values:

One of the biggest changes many students of primitive living experience is the way they view nature itself. A strong sense of gratitude for the things one has can change a person’s entire perspective. Dave now greets every morning with an address of thanksgiving. He makes a conscious effort to take notice of and be grateful for both the large and small gifts found in nature and relationships. “I’ll try to feel it; to feel thanks for all of that… and after that, sometimes I’ll ask for guidance in my life; what’s going to guide me to walk well on this earth. And when I can do that, when I feel like I’m almost about to cry, when I get that feeling in my chest… to me that’s very very true, it’s very simple.” This attitude has allowed him to pay attention and enjoy things that usually pass unnoticed, “I can tell you that the things that I find most simple and most enjoyable to me are walking slow and looking around.” He is striving to reach a mindset in which he “gives thanks for every step.”

When asked about how family ties into primitive living, he responded, “family is what our propagation and future entails. It’s the most beautiful thing there is.” He then talked about how in the past the entire tribe would participate in the care, raising, and teaching of children. He compared this history to the idea that many modern children are raised, at least in part, by technology, learning many of their values and lessons in front of a television or computer screen. This comparison has managed to teach Dave a lot about his own preconceived notions of community and relationships as well as helped him cultivate deeper bonds with loved ones. When asked if there is a certain age to begin teaching wilderness survival and primitive living skills, he expressed the belief that there is no certain age, but it is important that the person participate because he wants to, rather than be forced by a parent or coerced by a loved one, adding, “I like to teach someone who wants to learn.”

Personal Challenges:

While he has come a long way from where he was in 1999, Dave does still struggle to distance himself from some aspects of his old life. Having described himself as a “movie addict”, he has decided to quit watching movies, so he can devote more time to the things that matter. This has been a surprisingly challenging endeavor, especially since so much of his time was once devoted to watching and discussing them. “You know I will watch 5 movies at a time at one sitting if I had the opportunity, and… I don’t want that anymore. I just don’t.” This personal experience mirrors other struggles individuals may have with letting go of unimportant or time-consuming habits as well as more dangerous substance-abuse habits.


Primitive living has had a huge impact in the life of Dave Nessia. From learning valuable skills and becoming part of a community to enhancing his own understanding of himself and the natural world, he has come a long way and still has a lot to learn and experience. When discussing the best way to learn to live a simple, natural lifestyle, he recommended taking and fully immersing oneself in a course. He does recommend reading works by Tom Brown, who is currently his favorite author. One question asked was what he was most proud of and he responded, “If I died right now, I feel good, and on my deathbed, I’d like to say… I was very open to this life and the life that I lived and the people around me and everything around me… just trying to comprehend everything, just trying to be open to people and the experience of the moment. The moment is a big one, isn’t it? It is to me.”

Interview Conducted by Scott Edwards

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One thought on “Dave Nessia: Primitive Skills Instructor on Simplification and Appreciation

  1. Never easily remembering the names of the people on Alone, my husband and I name David: the Smiling Guy.
    He’s my very favorite survivor and I truly hope that he is: the last man standing !
    Georgia Browne

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