A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to have been asked to help lead a 2 week expedition in the Cairngorms with the British Exploring Society. I was there as a knowledge leader helping to guide a group of young explorers through the hills and glens of the area and engage them with the environment and all it had to teach.
As someone who loves the outdoors and the idea of bushcraft I felt a little bit of conflict that we would be carrying our tents and getting resupplied with food every few days. We also couldn’t have open fires as we were on a private estate and the risk of peat fires was too great so we also carried Trangia sets with meths. All this had me worried that it would lose some of the wild element I hoped would act as a foundation to the trip.
However as the days rolled on and the landscape presented us with towering hills wrapped in low cloud some days and those same slopes stark with sun on the bare scree sides on others I started to shift my opinion. Although I wasn’t sleeping under a tarp or in a bivvy each night or gathering firewood to boil a pan of river water to brew up each morning I realised that there are many many more elements to bushcraft than the obvious ones. Yes, food, water, rest and shelter are the basis of a hierarchy of needs and this is something that bushcraft teaches by way of foraging, shelter building and finding clean water but if they are taken care of through abundant clean rivers, food drops and tents it doesn’t mean you can't engage with bushcraft it just means you more opportunity to look higher up the pyramid of needs.
I have always said that bushcraft to me is about being in the natural world in a comfortable way and enjoying it rather than fighting it. This is not to say that I subscribe to a view that nature is gentle and accepting, it isn’t, all plants and animals are in a constant competition for survival and they are part of a dynamic system where living till tomorrow is the perpetual goal and extinction is always a risk. But if you accept that and you prepare yourself properly with knowledge, skills and the right mindset you can take on the next layers of Mr. Maslow’s pyramid of needs and find a way to be safe and belong in that space.
On our trip we faced many potential dangers simply by choosing to place ourselves in the environment, risks we would not have faced were we not there but which gave us access to things we would have not experienced otherwise as well as a sense of fulfilment after the danger had passed and we managed it well. Being caught in a thunderstorm out in the open on high ground with the risk of lighting strikes or crossing a rain swollen river flowing strongly enough to sweep your legs from under you and carry you away were some of the situations we could only make safe by knowing how to behave and how to manage the risk and its this managed risk and the results of accomplishing a task despite it which can make you fall in love with the adventure.
There were less dramatic risks as well with ticks and midges a plenty as well as managing sanitation out in the open. While none of these were life threatening the effect on your immediate health, enjoyment and image of the outdoors was very real (Imagine having diarrhea and the only option being to relieve yourself in a cloud of midges!) and needed to be in your mind at all times. Keeping your body and especially your hands clean as well as understanding the environment you are in helps you keep your spirits up and your mood buoyant. We quickly understood that dawn and dusk were the worst times for midges as the wind dropped when the land and air cooled so organising your day round this and understanding natural rhythms became a big part of enjoying the area. As well as this the abundant water in the area was a boon allowing me to swim and wash my clothes as I needed and keep my hands and utensils clean when eating and so within just a few days we had all learned how to be comfortable and work with, instead of fight against, the world we were in.
Tromping along with 25kg of kit I might not have taken were I tarp sleeping or cooking on a fire I started to feel very comfortable with that kit and the place I was in. I knew the midges, as annoying as they were, would leave me alone during the day when we were walking and if I managed my mornings and evenings correctly I could be in my tent when they were at their worst and eat when it was breezy. The risks each day presented in the form of loose scree underfoot or the occasional adder in the grass were exchanged with the payoff of the sun glistening on a loch or wide valleys framing a huge sky and meant I got the best of that bargain by a long way.
By the end of the trip our little group were drawing chess boards on rocks during breaks in the day, picking bilberries and wild strawberries as we walked and understanding their place was to accommodate and manage what the world presented in the form of rain and midges, sunshine and scenery and not try to rule over it or control it.
So was this bushcraft?
I didn’t use an axe for two weeks, didn’t sleep in the open or tie a single knot, I didn’t cook each night over an open fire or forage for more than a sweet snack or two.
I did however spend two weeks outdoors, I kept myself clean and warm, I managed the risks of nature and stayed safe and I even helped the rest of my group to understand their place in nature, accept it and be comfortable there.