Footprints in the mud: brief reflections on bushcraft training

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.

Not bad for an after-hours tarp-tent set up!

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.

‘…the comfort blanket of modern living drops and the fire becomes symbolic of survival…’

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.

Honouring the multiplicity of therapy

For me, one of the great joys to be experienced when studying, observing, enquiring or reflecting on ecotherapy (and therapy in general), is the multitude of personal paradigms that exist within a unifying frame. There are, of course, universal ideas that act to broadly define the approach of outdoor work; an essence that connects the many shoots of eco-therapeutic practice and allows for a sense of synergy within the approach. Much like the existential approach to psychotherapy, the individual expression of each therapist’s beliefs, passion, and professional focus makes a unifying definition difficult to achieve. I would describe this as refreshing, refreshing that such difference exists and provides fertile ground for discussion, growth, and learning. I argue that the variety of paradigms are vital; just as our planet (especially in the UK) is in dire need of greater biodiversity, we need variety and difference within therapeutic theory and practice.

I would be remiss if I were to not acknowledge the blinkered nature of passion, and my own capacity for ‘single-lens thinking’, especially on a subject so close to my heart. It’s such a wonderful feeling when we find our own reflection hiding in the ideas and work of others, even if for us, it is an idea that has yet to become tangible; has yet to formulate its own language and expression, but even then it can resonate with us on a deep level and we recognise its prominence. This is wonderful. What is equally important to me is to stare at the ideas of another and feel completely lost, to have no bearing, and to be forced from the path with which we have hitherto been fixed upon. That is the good stuff, and I’m terrified of losing it… with the homegenisiation of the therapy on the horizon, and the often unbendable culture of the old-guard, cannot, must not, and thankfully, I believe, does not exist in ecotherapy. I often feel a discussion with another outdoor therapist to be a glorious respite from uniformity. I almost wrote that ‘it takes more than one tree to be a forest’ however I caught myself, even that is reductive as a metaphor! A forest is made up of trees, insects, plants, rocks, birds, bacteria, mycelia, micro-climates, seasons,… the list goes on. We need this; we must not let the landscape of therapy become a highly cultivated sea of commercially driven agriculture; domesticated crops as far as the eye can see. I have observed within ecotherapy, over the years, a network of ideas crisscrossing, that some of those ideas touch each other and the overlaps could be seen as emerging ‘camps’ and this is ok, but so too is being nomadic, so is allowing oneself to drift on the current of experience and asking, where shall I go today?

Jumping down the rabbit hole… (a journey into ‘blogging’)

High views of West Hythe

Beginning at the beginning is often the best place to begin I find, and so I suppose, an introduction is probably in order. To paraphrase Bill Withers (1971), if you have found my site, ‘then you know my name is what my name is’, but in case you missed it, it’s Nick! I am a professional counsellor/therapist (take your pick) investigating, through experience and study, the world of outdoor therapy.

I began my therapeutic career in 2008 having signed up for an introductory course in counselling skills. I quickly realised that the work, theory, and the fellowship was something highly compatible with my soul, and I found myself facing one of life’s ‘no u-turn’ signs; I was hooked. I continued with my training (originally in integrative counselling) and qualified in 2012 following the completion of my supervised placement. Over the years, I have continued to reflect on my experience and found myself drawn to the work of the existential therapists. I loved the honesty, the diversity, and the free-flowing nature of the therapeutic frame that existential therapy offered, and it has both informed and bolstered the foundations of my own practice as a counselling professional. A perennial student, I also trained as a teacher in further education, achieving my DTLLS in 2015 and I have enjoyed a side career as a counselling trainer; work that connected me with an incredibly rewarding and interesting bunch of people. My time teaching has been highly influential in both my professional-therapeutic development, my personal growth, and my political stance. Eventually, I was drawn to the idea of working outdoors, being inspired by my own relatedness to nature, the literature that I was discovering, and a drive towards authenticity. In 2019, I enrolled as a postgraduate student and I am currently studying for an MA in counselling and psychotherapy practice at Bath Spa University. My research focuses on ecotherapy, outdoor counselling, and the amalgamation of my passions. 

I have been gradually moving my private practice outdoors and I have now reached the point of offering a near exclusively-outdoor-experience for people wanting to engage in therapy. Outdoor therapy comes in many different shapes and sizes, and my own work involves walking, sitting, breathing, and reflecting in as natural space as possible, acknowledging the relatedness between human beings and the beings with which we share in existence, and supporting people in living as authentic and meaningful a life as possible.

This is probably a good time to warn you all, I am highly influenced by existential thought and the existential-therapeutic paradigm (in particular, but certainly not limited to, existential-phenomenology). Being quite philosophical in my thinking, I will likely (and most probably frequently) fall into what Lewis Caroll (1865) referred to as ‘the rabbit hole’, where for me, the good stuff resides. For some readers, this will end our relationship, and that’s ok, for others, it will resonate as a gravitational force, inexorably drawing together the fragments of possibility and binding them to form new rabbit holes all of their own… if that’s you, you’re in good company!

The marriage of existential ideas with outdoor therapy, or ecotherapy, is far from new and there already exists a wonderful reflection of one in the other (eg. Jordan, 2015; Jordan & Hinds, 2016; Langley, 2020). For me, this is an obvious union, but no less exciting to see it realised within a professional context. Here follows a blog that will consist of essays and reflections, thoughts, and questions, all focusing on the development of my own ideas, experiences, and growth as a professional outdoor therapist.

I would like to end on an important note: that anything I write will be entirely separate from my work with clients, and will always remain highly respectful of their privacy and the trust that has been placed in me as their chosen therapist. I will only be writing about my own thoughts and ideas and will make no reference to my clinical work unless it is highly generalised and focuses exclusively on my own process. This blog will remain autoethnographic, focused, and respectful.

References

Caroll, L., 1865. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. London: Macmillan.

Jordan, M., 2015. Nature And Therapy. Hove: Routledge.

Jordan, M. and Hinds, J., 2016. Ecotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice. London: Palgrave.

Langley, N., 2020. A Thematic Comparison Between Psychotherapeutic Theory And The Ideas, Theory, And Concepts Of Applied Ecopsychology; Viewed Through The Experiential Lens Of Practice. Postgraduate. Bath Spa University.

Withers, B., 1971. Do It Good. [Vinyl] Hollywood: Sussex.