Ancestral Skills That Do Something to the Brain

When I was small, smaller than most, I wanted to run away to the Amazon and live in the jungle. I lived in Lincolnshire (actually in South Humberside, a now dead and disappeared county) and would look out of my bedroom window at the smudge of trees beyond the fields — the moor, a place of wild things, a place where the murmurations of starlings would descend in the dusk, feathered smoke clouds swirling into the reeds and trees. This moor had snakes and was dangerous. I was not allowed to go there.

At this time I was barely new, I left England behind me when I was eight, so it was understandable I was not allowed out into the wilder places around our village. Had I stayed, perhaps I would have spent time among the bogs and swamp-woods of the moor? Instead, I dreamt of the Amazon, of trees which spread as far and farther than the eye could see. When we moved north, beyond the mainland of Scotland to Mainland, Orkney, there were very few trees indeed. I missed them and talked with friends about building a raft to take us to the jungles. I had a globe, so I knew the way.

I never did make it to the Amazon. Perhaps it was a good thing we never finished the raft — I’m not sure half a dozen biscuits each would have quite sustained us on the journey.

Instead, I learnt about my surroundings on the island. The hills with their heather and gorse cladding, hiding adventure along deep stream courses and sudden peat hags. The coasts, with their differing edges: the cliffs, the rocky shore, the sandy beach and dunes and the shingle. Each held food and fun, and I began to learn how to find sustenance from nature. I read as much as I could on the subject now called bushcraft, but there was perilously little available to me at the time. The books would show how to make shelters from trees, but that was practically useless on the island — the few trees were precious, sacred, wind-bent and gnarled. I began to understand that much of living in nature was about compromise — if I couldn’t follow the instructions to make a shelter with branches, I would improvise, using rock, heather, reeds, and flotsam and jetsam.

I think this is when I first realised I was addicted.

I needed to learn more — learn how to use nature to keep me alive, how to make shelters, tools, how to gather, track, trap, and hunt food. How to fish, how to find and purify water. How to light and maintain different firelays, how to use plants as medicine. How to make paints, clothes, baskets and bags.

This is an addiction I still suffer from. There is so, so much to learn — and I know I am still a novice.

To me, being in nature is me. Everything else is peripheral and heavily influenced by the pitiful knowledge I have accumulated over the last thirty or more years. If you practice these skills you approach life differently, it changes you forever. You walk taller, you lose fears you never knew were present. To know that, should a need arise, you can find shelter, food, water, and heat, is a powerful, confidence-building thing.

Alexander Michael Crow, sitting across a campfire in the wilderness.

If you would like to know more, click here to be taken to a tumblr* I put together detailing a three-month wilderness adventure I experienced in 2010 — after I decided to quit my “proper job” and become an itinerant writer and adventurer. It is not a decision I have regretted.

The Author’s Shelter, with Hammock

*I intend to import this tumblr here at some point in the near future.