A journey into Bushcraft and our natural environments

A few weeks ago I had one of those rare long weekends with absolutely no jobs lined up and a free rein to do as pleased. As this is an unusual occurrence I decided to use the time to finish off a range of projects and primitive skills that I’d been working for some time. Throughout the first day, I started to think that it would be great to have somewhere to focus my skills and have a place where I can develop crafts. Luckily for me I live a 30-minute walk from our Bedfordshire woods so I decided to pack up some basic primitive tools and set about making myself a shelter from where to base my learning, using only the tools that nature can provide.

If you are thinking great a ‘How to’ blog on primitive shelter construction I’m afraid you are in for a disappointment. There will be blogs covering this subject in some depth over the coming months. Instead, I’d like to look into some of the deeper aspects behind utilising ancient equipment and tools and how this is then reflected in your work, your relationship to the environment around you, and ultimately your relationship with yourself. Before you turn off, thinking ‘here we go on another peace and love article about nature, please bear with me.  Those who know and have worked with me, will appreciate that I am not a particularly spiritual person but I am someone who cares deeply about bushcraft and also the environment and having the deepest understanding possible between the two.

I will make it clear now that what you are about to read is purely my own thoughts on spending time in nature, and is by no means a way of me trying to claim some ‘higher understanding’ of any subject. The subject of bushcraft is many things to many people and we are all heading along our own separate journeys to the ends we desire. My aim of this article is in some small way to enhance that journey and hopefully, provide a new perspective when you are spending some time in the woods.

Nature’s tools: the simplicity of stone and hands
The first port of call in order for me to make a shelter using natural tools was to sieve through the debitage from the previous days flint knapping. Finding a couple of suitable large pieces that would serve as a cutting device and stone wedge, I headed off to the woods, picking up some sandstone and stripping the bark off some sweet chestnut that had been coppiced a few days before, whilst on the way.  The stone flakes were extremely crude tools, having come from the beginnings of a blade core I was working on, with chalky cortex still attached to the back sections. My main tool used was very characteristic of Oldowan tools of the Lower Paleolithic, being a simple ‘chopper’ for felling hazel rods. The key thing for me was that it had strong angled cutting edges with some weight in it to make the harvesting of Hazel simple.

Wishing to get on with the task I was using the tool in the hand and did not make any attempt to haft the tool. This would have likely made a considerable impact on the efficiency of the work, but I was curious at how useful such a crude tool  could be. Used in conjunction with the two stone tools I found myself a good stout hawthorn stem that was at the base of an old tree. With this I was able to use one of the cutting stones as a wedge to split some sweet chestnut stems length ways to minimise the materials I needed to collect for my wickiup.

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Two simple, yet effective, flakes for shelter construction

The final tools that I was utilising were my hands. I do not say this in jest, although I appreciate that it might seem obvious that we would utilise our hands in making a shelter, but they are sometimes an unappreciated part of our toolkit. My experiences of relying on stone, as well as other primitive technologies, is one of shifted mindset and developing a different outlook on problems.

I have started to realise that all of what is termed ‘primitive technologies and tools’; flint cutting edge, buckskin, natural cordages etc.. work in a very different way to conventional equipment.  There is too often a belief of new development equalling improvement. There are of course many benefits to modern materials, clothing and all the equipment we have access to, but it is not the simple one-way ticket that it first appears. The main reason I can say this is that, everything has its time and place. Nothing is universal and for that fact some items are better suited than others to a task. In addition, we have to approach different equipment in different ways and this is very true when it comes to primitive technologies as we are having to ‘re-learn’ how they work and how best to use them for specific applications.

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Simple flint wedge and baton to split rods

I am in no way a purist when it comes to bushcraft. I do not feel that everything has to be done the ‘old’ way or it is being untrue to the subjects that we study. What I do think though is that there can be a transfer of knowledge back and forth throughout the ages so that we can utilise all of the tools, techniques and materials available to us. The use of primitive skills and techniques, for me, fits into this development of understanding through challenging our preconceptions of how things work and forcing us to problem solve. By going through this process it can improve your every day conventional outdoor skills through having a greater array of skills to pull on should you need them. By dismissing older technologies and ancient techniques you are missing out on a whole chapter of an unwritten survival book and some amazing experiences.

The relationship that everyone has with the environment is a very personal one and this is something that I fully appreciate. As a result, I am wary of generalising about experiences as they can become misleading and worthless in their broad scope. In the same token, I feel it is fair to say that most people who spend time in the woods do so because they love being out in natural environments and enjoying the peace and quiet that it brings. There are many aspects of the what we call bushcraft that link into this enjoyment; tracking, camp craft, natural history and simple relaxation away from the bustle of life. The use and reliance of primitive tools and skills can greatly further your enjoyment and connection that you can gain from the natural world. As you progress through the subject of bushcraft and learn to utilise an expanding range of natural materials and processes you are engaging with your environment in a much more personal level. As this progression takes place you will find that you start to look at your surroundings in a very different way. Where before you may have only seen a beautiful woodland scene you are know confronted by a broad range of opportunities, resources and solutions to problems. I will hasten to add that this does not result in the beauty being lost, on the contrary it enhances it,you start to work in harmony with your landscape and act within it rather than simply venturing out for the day to visit it. You are part of that world. This is a powerful realisation, which does seem to turn up un-noticed until you are out in the woods and become aware that you are seeing, hearing and sensing the world differently.

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A stand of hazel and a fallen birch become the building materials for a home. At other times the meas to construct containers and kettles

Culturally, I think that this way of aproaching our relationship with the outdoors is something fairly at odds with the norm. Over the years we many of us have lost our regular contact with the natural world, and see it as somewhere to visit or tack advantage of. Now there are justifiable reasons for why this might be the case, the pressures of work and family life, financial constraints, etc… however, it is a shame that we have lost the necessity of the outdoors. Many people have lost the need to regularly engage with nature as a fundamental component of their life. We do need to be outdoors, what ever the weather. We do need to sit and watch and listen to woodlands at dawn and we need to feel the vibrance of life as you utilise the world around you to help make your life possible.

For many of you reading this you may feel that I am preaching to the converted and many of the reasons why you love bushcraft is to do many of the things I have just described. This is great and for me is proof that I am right about its importance. The very fact that as a subject, bushcraft is growing in popularity, is because our modern urban lives lack much of what is needed. For those of you who do get out into the woods, rivers and mountains I encourage you to start, or continue, on your primitive skills. Not as a sole focus, because as I said earlier, all skill sets interlink and have their use and place, but as a means of increasing you awareness of the richness of our country and what it has to offer. As a means of seeing so much more than just blackberries in your local hedgerow or Oak as a superior fire wood. For me over the past three years increasing my skills in primitive technologies has enhances and enriched my life and respect for the natural world. As humans we have an almost unique relationship with utilising tools and knowing the broadest means of acquiring them allows you to explore the wilder places of the world with increased joy and satisfaction as well as adding depth to a stroll in your local woods.

I hope that my ramblings encourage you to get out and further your skills, what ever they be, and remember that we all need to continue to learn this extremely important knowledge to ensure that it continues to live and thrive into the future.



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