Over a decade ago now, I found myself booking onto a week-long bushcraft training course with the lovely people at https://www.wildhuman.com/. It was also around that time that my wife and I discovered that we were going to have a baby, and so I emailed the owner and cancelled my place vowing to return when life was a little less busy! And so some years later I found myself sitting on a train with my rucksack, heading to the utterly beautiful region of Cumbria. The first thing that struck me as different (and this may have been in my mind only) was the light… the only word I can use to describe it is ‘refreshing’. Now, this may have been the time of day, as I often find that as the sun sinks closer towards the horizon, its radiance becomes more soothing; it may be that I romanticised the experience in my anticipation and ‘needed’ it to live up to the profound experience that I had held for so many years in my mind. Either way, it felt good, and that is good enough for me.
On arrival, we congregated in the twilight, and knowing that we would be spending the week with each other in the middle of the woods and blissfully distant from digital escapism and the clutches of perpetual consumerism, the introductions began in earnest,. We bundled into the transport (provided) and wound our way towards the site. We eventually arrived, parked up, and continued on foot with head torches attached and (thankfully) rucksacks being transported in the centre’s 4×4. I had been travelling for five hours.
We arrived and each set up our space, as far or as close to the others as we liked. This was done in the dark, the cold, and on unfamiliar ground. I loved it! I felt both at home, and a guest not of the host centre necessarily, but a guest of the forest. Once we’d all stumbled around we headed for the communal fire and therein lies my first realisation: I (and I would venture many of you) have missed the experience of staring at the flames. Drawing on the warmth, light and safety that it provides.
Having been such a feature of human experience for so many millions of years, it seems to me that the connotations of sitting around a central fire reach deep into the soul, and it feels like a return home. This is something that I have been pondering… what is it exactly that draws us to the fire pit? Through an existential lens, what is it that being with the Beings (in the Heideggerian sense) of flames and smoke does for us, and how might we describe the relatedness that seems typical, albeit individually nuanced between a human being and the flames? My thoughts on this are in their infancy and will undoubtedly be in constant review, but for now, they are as follows: the fire can act as an intermediary, a universal factor that all those sitting around value. This is especially true once the comfort-blanket of modern living drops and the fire becomes symbolic of survival: no fire, no potable water; no way to cook food; to harden wood; to produce warmth; to have light; to keep away uninvited guests, etc. However, I would like to look past the functionality of fire and give a nod to the tension between solitude and connection. My observations of the group, from my own experience of sitting with them, was that words became less important in developing a connection. We were able to sit alongside each other, bask in the universality of fire-human relatedness, and feel closer to each other for it; connected somehow.
Even when the smoke stang our eyes (and it seemed to pursue a different person each evening, which I’m sure is a relatable phenomenon) it provided an opportunity for the group to connect; usually with a ‘thank f**k, it’s not me this evening!’ followed by an unspoken yet sympathetic shuffle to make space on the other side of the pit. It didn’t just connect us with each other but seemed to nurture an appreciation for the connectedness of Being: the fuel; the soil; the air, the radiation, the birch bark that got the whole thing going, all connected in their Beingness and the interaction of their being. I could write a book (and I’m sure many have) on the anthropocentric value of fire, however, I took far more from this week-long experience and want to pay my respects to each key moment, and therefore I shall move on.
On one of the days, we formed a ragged column and headed out. I was at the front and speaking with one of the instructors when I was advised to avoid the mud…. a strange thing to say when we were already fairly caked! It transpired that the walk we were on was (unsurprisingly) a walk with purpose: we were tracking. It was a profound experience to get down, close to the track, and to get to form a reflective relatedness with other-than-human beings; to consider the gait, activity, size, diet of an animal as intimately as and skillfully as the instructors did. I found it to be humbling, and the art of tracking seemed to me a rich source of learning, not only about the animal that had so unknowingly carved their story in the landscape but a lesson in balance. All variants of symbiosis are evident in nature, from mutualism to some of the more parasitic relationships; however, balance prevails. There is a lesson here, and one that has been echoed by many others throughout time immemorial: the natural world is not a resource, and we are not separate from it, but are of it and reflect it in all but our arrogance. The tracking for me was more than an information-gathering exercise, it was an acknowledgment and appreciation for the lives of the animals living in the woods. I see it as an invitation to reconnect, to return to a mindset that our hunter-gather ancestors would think as inconceivable to stray from, that it is a treasure to protect, and to see it in any other way is tantamount to cutting our own legs off and wondering why we can no longer run. It was a humbling experience, and I’m more ‘whole’ for it.
A final takeaway and a pleasant, albeit anticipated observation, was the respect and passion that the instructors had for the life around them. Every tree was looked at admiringly; every plant was studied with fascination and each animal that we learned about was clearly respected at a deep level. The camp was a busy one, but on the last day, there was very little evidence of us being there. Leave no trace is a mantra that forms the backbone of bushcraft and harmony with the environment, to the serious practitioner is more than a priority: it’s a responsibility and should be for all of us.