Oh for a simple life!

Firewood for next winter

The decision to write this blog stems from the above photo that I put on social media of my pickup loaded with firewood.  Here’s what I said alongside the photo…

“Over 15 years ago I took the decision to start a journey towards living a simpler life. Over 5 years ago that led me to Bushcraft and a job I love. The last year has been tough financially as I’m one of the thousands of people that don’t qualify for any support from the government but for the most part it’s been alright. It’s the little things that make you feel like you’ve got money in the bank… and firewood is a big part of that feeling. Starting to gather seasoned wood for next winter is a great feeling and when it’s all cut by hand I don’t even have to worry about fuel for the chainsaw plus it’s a good workout. Filling the pickup and doing the 2 mile journey from home makes that an acceptable cost. Lovely to be out in the sun.”

The response I got was quite overwhelming with hundreds of reactions, comments, messages of support and others craving a simpler way of life as well.  This fits with what I often hear when I’m in the woods delivering courses; “you’ve got the best job in the world” or “I wish I didn’t have to work in an office” or other similar sentiments.  When these sorts of things are said to me it always leads to a conversation that I find tricky to have, as to do it justice I have to open up to a stranger about my life and what led me to my hard-earned Woodland Ways Instructor shirt.  The responses to my post and all those conversations in the woods have proven to me that sharing helps people, and at the moment, with the year we’ve all had, we all need all the help we can get.  Some of it will resonate with you, some of it won’t, some you’ll be able to implement, some you won’t but that’s fine it’s my story and you get to choose which bits, if any, become part of yours. So here goes I’m putting my big boy pants on and sharing my story in a hope it will help someone out there, if it’s you then that’s even better.

I’m soon to turn 48 years old but it’s important to start at the beginning with a snap shot of my childhood.  I grew up in an Essex sea side town with my parents, grandparents who lived with us, and my three older sisters.  Now my sisters all reckon I was spoilt being the only boy, and maybe I was, but they didn’t have it all bad; for instance my dad was not far off my age now when I was born so by my teenage years he was taking early retirement.  I loved him to bits but it’s fair to say my sisters had the best of him before I came along – my memories are of a hard-working, broken and tired master plumber whereas my sisters have far more energetic memories.  We never went fishing, or camping or anything even remotely Bushcraft based; we had the 2 week annual family holiday in the caravan where he caught up on sleep for the first part. He did, however, show me that hard work kept a large family afloat with everything we “needed” and that was a valuable lesson indeed. As I got older I vowed that when I had a family I wanted to have the energy to be a big part of their lives and I got my wish when I married quite young and had my first child.  It was a game changer to say the least.

The first arrival.
The first arrival.

There’s nothing quite like the responsibility of a baby to focus the mind, change all your priorities and put dreams on hold.  I soon started to climb the corporate ladder at the software company I worked at, going from packing orders to sales to graphic design to public relations and ultimately rising to marketing manager.  In my 12 years at the company I was part of a great team that grew the business from just 19 staff to around 150 and took it from an unheard of name to an international brand and a multi-million pound turnover.  All sounds like everything was great, doesn’t it?  Married, kids (more arrived over the years) and a well-paid job, I didn’t even have a bad commute as it was based in the next village and if the mood took me I could run along the river path to get there.  Here’s the rub though.  By this point in life all my kids were at key stages in their own lives, things like first year at primary school, first year at High School, SATS tests etc. and they were all struggling in their own way.  It didn’t matter how many weekends away we had, how many presents were bought, how many holidays to new places, nothing made the challenges any easier for them – it was a wake-up call, money wasn’t the solution.  With a little bit of savings to back me up I took the radical decision to give up work for 6 months and dedicate my time and energy in to putting things right as best I could and that’s where the story really gets going.

I believe deep down we all crave a simpler life, a more fulfilling life, a meaningful life, and an easier life.  So if that’s what we all want why don’t more people embrace it with both arms?  And that’s where the tricky conversations start – how hard would you work for a simpler life?

Over that 6 month sabbatical we had tantrums (me included), tears, arguments and… an absolute blast of so much fun.  Being able to drop them off at school, pick them up, do homework, go to the park, watch sports days and just be present in their lives was amazing.  So unsurprisingly at the end of the 6 months I didn’t want to return to work so I offered the family a choice – did they want money or time with me?  Needless to say my life, as it is now, would be very different if they’d chosen money.  My kids are all grown up now, with the youngest being 22 years old, but those 6 months and the many that followed are still something we all hold dear in our memories.  I hasten to add though that the change in me didn’t come without casualties – my wife at the time didn’t share my dream and couldn’t understand the lack of desire to earn the money I used to, so sadly we parted ways.  Was that a bad thing?  At the time it was horrendous but as the saying goes “this too will pass” and looking back now it was completely the right thing for us to do for everyone’s future happiness.  That’s enough of the back story let’s get on with the changes we made.

The initial change was the hardest for all of us – a change in mind-set.  Stop and ask yourself, how do you measure your success?  Or more to the point how do you think others measure your success?  Let’s tick off a few obvious ones.  Were house, car, job, money, holidays, mobile phone and clothes anywhere on the list?  I bet some or all were.  So that’s the change, you have to give up your attachment to stuff and truly understand the difference between want and need.  And this is where my former job was (in my eyes) immoral.  It was fundamentally my job to convince you that what you had in life wasn’t good enough and what you really needed was this new product – rinse and repeat every few months when the latest release dropped.  The foundation of modern life is based on never being satisfied so is it any wonder mental health issues are on the rise and consumerism drives us to seek fulfilment in the next gadget, diet, exercise regime etc.  How often do you stop and analyse a purchase and determine if it’s a want or a need?  Remember, having a need for Netflix, Sky, Amazon Prime and the latest iPhone doesn’t appear anywhere on Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs unless we buy into the thinking that’s what brings status. If the last year has proven anything to me it’s that what we truly need is actually very simple – I’d give up even more than I have now just be be able to physically meet up with loved ones, who are scattered around the country, and just have a hug.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying don’t buy anything, what I am saying is buy consciously and make it count.  Quite often when I buy something I pay a premium for quality, or durability, or ethics, or to support a small business but often what I buy is an experience or knowledge.  I know for a fact my children don’t remember all the plastic stuff that were the must have thing each Christmas, they remember the experiences.  And that was the choice they continue to have each Christmas and birthday “what would you like stuff or an experience?”.  I’m proud to say experience is where it usually heads and they can remember ever single one of them – can you remember what you bought for or received from a loved one over 10 years ago?

The changes we made as a family went a lot further but fundamentally it was a desire to not have money dictate our decisions – having sufficient was enough, a fair share.  Do I really need to work ridiculously hard and long hours in an office to then blow it all at the weekend or on a holiday to help unwind?  Surely the better alternative would be to lead a life you don’t need to unwind or take a holiday from?  This led to a fair amount of soul searching, was I really the only one that thought like this?  I’m happy to say I wasn’t as I found someone who wanted to share the journey with me.  Together we found Permaculture which in simple terms is a design tool for life which has its roots in growing food sustainably in harmony with nature.  The guiding ethics resonated well with us – Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares.  Sounds simple doesn’t it? An easy life guaranteed surely.

Kindred spirits
Kindred spirits from, well let’s just say a fair while ago.

Well sorry to disappoint but it hasn’t come easily or without setbacks (including some major and more routine surgeries for me) but that goal of living a simpler life, in line with those ethics, drove us on.  We’ve met inspirational characters that helped us to delve further into the simpler life.  We retrofitted our home with energy efficient heating, solar panels and more insulation than you’d think possible in such a small space.  We invested our savings heavily, stretching things uncomfortably tight at times, but always with a faith we were doing the right thing.  The modest garden now has not an inch of lawn as it’s a food forest and a home for our chickens.  The result of all this gave us the accolade of SuperHome with an over 80% reduction in our carbon emissions.  The solar panels generate enough for us to sell to the grid and earn us more than we spend on electricity so we now need very little to live on as a result.  But getting to a simpler life was and continues to be hard work – simple doesn’t mean easy.

At no point over the last 15 years have I earnt more than a third of what my full-time salary used to be and many years it’s been far short of even that – but I consider myself far richer than I’ve ever been.  I’ve also tried to instil this in my children.  They’ve all chosen very different pathways in life but the common theme is that they have made all those journeys with my full support and encouragement but NOT financial support or incentive.  I believe that to truly value and appreciate something you have to earn it yourself. So every single one of them has chased a dream – sometimes they fell short, sometimes they had to dig deeper, sometimes they changed direction but they all achieved knowing it wasn’t me doing it for them.  I gave an emotional safety net, not a monetary one.  I think this translates to what I see on courses too.  Yes I could get completely hands-on to help someone achieve friction fire easily but would they feel as ecstatic as they do by achieving it with me offering guidance from a distance? It’s about being a positive enabler and not someone who will always solve all problems for them.

Over the years my own pathway changed a fair bit too – I’ve been a carer to the elderly, lunch time bouncer in a high school (affectionately known as the “dinner-lady man”), charity fundraiser, teacher to children with autism, Education Ranger in country parks and many more besides.  But none of them quite fit the bill of what I was looking for until one year I had an opportunity…

My manager at the time asked me if I wanted to go on a trip to the Sahara Desert.  The job I was in was for a charity that used nature to help adults and children with mental health issues.  Sadly it was only a 6 month contract under a grant they’d received but in that role I worked with over 2,000 individuals to make a difference in their lives – the impact, however, was possibly more profound without me realising at the time, because it brought me to Bushcraft.

Goat herder
You think you live a simple life and then you meet a 6 year old in the desert looking after his goats.

The trip to the Sahara turned out to be with this company I’d never heard of but they seemed to be offering an awesome experience.  I dug deep and took the gamble of investing a chunk of my earnings from that year and handed it over to Woodland Ways.  Aside from the experience and skills learnt, I met people on that trip that over 5 years later I still consider good friends.  Just a few months later I found myself on the 2 year Woodland Wayer course juggling a job in a primary school with learning skills in the woods each month.  By now I knew Bushcraft was the thing that slotted neatly into my life and my wife fully understood and supported that decision because it made all the simplification make sense.  It was also a time tinged with other emotions; the two years of the course neatly coincided with my dad being diagnosed with a terminal disease caused by working with asbestos in his plumbing days.  Each month his condition would be worse until towards the end he was completely bed bound and on high doses of pain killers.  That final weekend of the Wayer, in January 2017, saw me leave the woods and drive straight to see my dad as his time was almost over.  I was able to tell him I’d completed the course without missing a single weekend and he said “I’m proud of you”, he died just a couple of days later aged 86.  I remember it well as I’m almost certain it’s the only time in my life he ever said it to me – he was a product of his generation and upbringing and saying stuff like that just wasn’t in him.  What I am certain of is that since he passed my mum has started saying it a whole lot more and that my children have never been unsure about my pride for them.

The Woodland Ways Shirt
The moment I got my Woodland Ways Instructors shirt at the end of delivering a successful weekend to customers.
Hugging may have followed.

Fast forward to 2018 and I ended up as a Bushcraft Instructor proudly wearing my Woodland Ways shirt.  The skills I’ve learnt and continue to learn add to my life so that things continually adapt and improve.  For example, I used to run and go to the gym, now I just live and work to keep fit – who needs weights and trainers when you’ve got over 5 cubic metres of firewood to process by hand? I used to crave kit, now I make my own to the exact specification that work for me.  We used to buy most of our food but now we grow and forage.  But does this mean we don’t have what we need?

Absolutely not, we have everything we need and more.  The Woodland Ways Team is a family and that means the world to me, far more than a high paying job ever could.  We’ve shared highs and lows together, we’ve overcome challenges and we’ve shared experiences (some involving rubber gloves that will never be acknowledged or spoken of again).  I’ve seen the beauty of Sweden from a canoe, I’ve lived with the Maasai in Kenya, I’ve seen the impact our modern lives have on the animals of South Africa, witnessed the wildlife and mountains of Croatia, I’ve seen the spark of change within hundreds of customers on courses and all of this has been done, not through something as simple as a job, but a way of life – Bushcraft.

Social media is littered with posts about craving time in the woods, needing to unplug, to have peace and it’s an important thing to be able to do, but I’ll leave you with the question I started with, if that’s what you both want and need in your life “how hard would you work for it?”. What would you be prepared to go without? Does the work that makes up the bulk of your life have to be a traditional career path that doesn’t fulfil that deep need within you?  Chase your dreams, make the sacrifices, leave the stuff behind, open up to the possibilities and who knows where life will take you. This story was mine, I hope parts helped but if all it achieved is to make you stop and think about re-writing the next chapter of your own story it’s done everything I could have hoped for – now get off your screen and get writing what comes next.

Nature time with my granddaughter
Nature time with my granddaughter – what priorities will you pass on to the next generation?

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