Bushcraft - what does it all mean? By Matt Lloyd, Survival School Bristol
In this, my first article on bushcraft, I thought it appropriate to examine what bushcraft really is, where has it come from? Why does it exist? How does it link with modern life? And what can we learn from it?
I often get asked by participants on courses, especially by children, what does bushcraft actually mean? The term 'bushcraft' as we know it is a fairly modern phrase which is believed to have been used in its current sense since the 1800's. Derived from the Dutch word 'bosch' which was used in the Dutch colonies to describe country in its natural state covered by undisturbed woodlands, the phrase was soon adopted by the British colonies who used it to describe uncleared or un-farmed districts therefore 'the bush' can be used to describe any area that exists in a natural state, or areas that we might describe as wilderness. The 'craft' aspect refers to tasks that you would need to undertake on a day to day basis to live in the bush, therefore i often find it more useful to use the term wilderness living skills to describe what we teach, as i feel it better describes the whole range of skills that are encompassed in living in areas that lack all the comforts of modern life.
It is at this point that we can chuck the term 'survival' into the mix, and it is at this point that the lines start to become slightly blurred between Ray Mear's who is a bushcrafter and Bear Gryll's who is a survivalist, this is due to the fact that a lot of the skills and knowledge that we obtain from studying bushcraft can also be highly useful and potentially life saving in a survival situation. The fundamental difference between bushcraft and survival is that bushcraft is very much focused on working in tandem with nature, only taking what you need, when you need it, and making sure that you manage any resource you have effectively in such a way as to preserve and maintain it in the long term, prolonging your existence also. In contrast, in a survival situation you would use and consume every available resource in an effort to stay alive, until such a time that you are rescued or rescue yourself.
Although the term bushcraft has only been around for a short period of time in relative terms, the crafts, skills and knowledge contained within it has been around since the dawning of the human race. In essence everything humankind has done in the past to get to this point, is due in part to bushcraft and the huge technological advances are early ancestors made in relation to advancements in hunting, domestication of livestock and crop cultivation.
It was during the Palaeolithic period that our ancestors became the masters of fire and this meant they were able to cook the meat they hunted, this leads to a breakdown of the protein chains in the meat which makes it more easily digestible. This huge leap in technology resulted in the development of bigger and more advanced brains and an increase in intelligence, which in turn lead to more advanced hunting and trapping techniques and more meat. At this point in time humans lived in small hunter gatherer tribes that were largely nomadic, moving around from season to season to look for fresh areas to forage as well as following the herds of animals that provided for the bulk of their diet.
It was during the Neolithic period (Stone Age), around 10,000 BC, that our ancestors began to settle down, cultivate seeds and domesticate livestock and start to work the land rather than live off it. From this point in time society and culture started to flourish and intelligence and ingenuity increased until we reached the Bronze Age in 3,300BC when humankind started to modify natural materials to transform them into useful materials to make more advanced and long lasting weaponry, household items and decorative sculptures and artwork. The Iron Age dawned in 1,300BC and marked a turning point in the human civilisation where we became masters of our own destiny and could achieve great things as a collective society with structure and a driving purpose where everyone had a different role to play which contributed to society as a whole. Like bees in a hive, this has been true up to the modern day where we now have a structure of leaders who make decisions for the good of the hive, managers who implement those policies and workers who keep the cogs turning in the mass industrialisation machine. Heating, lighting, water and shelter are for the most part taken for granted, and supermarkets and shops provide for the modern forager keeping us fed and clothed, although we still rely upon animals for food, we no
longer rely upon them for transport or working the land, and collectively we have a great deal more leisure time which can be spent doing anything from travelling the world to sitting in front of the television. In short, our every need has been taken care of in one shape or form, and the average person does not need to concern themselves with hunting for their dinner or purifying water to drink.
It is due to these advances in technology and the creation of a society with set roles and jobs that at some point in time, when we no longer relied on having an intimate knowledge of nature and its ways to survive on our own, that we started slowly but surely to lose some of the bushcraft and wilderness living skills that would traditionally have been passed down from father to son and mother to daughter. Thankfully there are still isolated pockets of people who still maintain the 'old ways' and preserve this knowledge to the present day, it is thanks to these people that all is not lost, although a lot of what we discover is due to archaeological digs and findings that shed light on the day to day activities of our ancient relatives. Two of the founding pioneers of the modern day bushcraft revival are Mors Kochanski in the Northern Hemisphere and Les Hiddins (aka the bush tucker man) in the Southern Hemisphere. They are both specialists in their given field and have devoted part of their lives to re-discovering and practising traditional bushcraft skills, but their individual studies go to show that different climates and environments call for a different set of skills and knowledge in relation to techniques used, edibles to be foraged and animals to be hunted, anything written by these leading authorities is worth reading and digesting.
Bushcraft, therefore, can be described in its purest form as a phenomenon that has been ignited through peoples re-interest in the romantic idea of living off the land, becoming more self sufficient or simply out of curiosity for our historical ways, and it aims to re-educate people in the lost skills of our ancestors, knowledge that has diminished with time and our lessening reliance upon those skills. Our current 'survival system' is one that is largely consumer and technology based, our whole existence is reliant upon computers, electricity, fossil fuelled means of transport and producing electricity and shops providing for the rest of our needs. We only need to reflect on the panic buying that takes place during fuel strikes, market crashes, flooding and other events to realise how reliant we are on this technology based system, a fragile system that has only been in place for roughly a century. So why not take some responsibility for our own destinies and re-learn and practice some of the skills that has helped the human race survive and thrive for well over 10,000 years, surely then we are once more becoming masters of our own destiny, reliant upon our own knowledge and wits, and able to overcome any obstacle placed in the path of life. It is important to remember that until we fully understand where we came from, we cannot plan where we are going next, and you will soon find that the more you know, the less you need to carry.
What do we promote at Survival School Bristol?
At Survival School Bristol we like to take a holistic approach to bushcraft and wilderness skills, and we like to try and look beyond the basics. Of course everyone must start with the basics such as fire, shelter, water and cutting tool safety and techniques, but on the face of it those are very much the basics of survival, once those have been studied and practised it opens up a whole world of exploration and discovery for the bushcraft enthusiast. As part of our holistic approach we like to look at the wilderness or woodland eco systems as a whole and promote the idea of environmental stewardship. We like to promote best practise and educate everyone on the countryside code and environmental management practices and conservation. We use foraging to look at plant and tree life cycles including transpiration and photosynthesis, studying chemicals within plants to find out which ones are poisonous and why, which ones are edible and which medicinal ones can be used to fix us or make us better. Water cycles and river studies help us think about where and when to find water, predict the weather, make camp and find food. Animal life cycles and food chains to look at where and when to find different species for the purposes of tracking then hunting or trapping them, the current laws for what species you can hunt, and what approved methods and humane dispatch techniques can be used. This then leads into game preparation sessions, whether it be fish, bird or mammal, which can help educate on where our food comes from, how it is dispatched, how to identify signs of disease, how to butcher an animal and extract the useful protein and nutrients, the biological make up of animals, and overall provide a hands on
experience which helps people relate with the meat they purchase in the shops, which then in turn helps them understand why issues of animal welfare in the rearing process are so important. Hunting and trapping techniques get us to think about physics, whether it be stored potential energy in a bow, or using gravity in a deadfall trap, the same for which can be said for fire because if we understand the science behind fire we are better informed to look at why something isn't working, question it, and modify the situation for success, this can be true from creating a spark, right up to using the traditional bow drill to create an ember (rubbing two sticks together!).
The list becomes endless when you start to consider, natural navigation, natural cordage, why water is so important, making primitive weapons, making primitive tools such as knives and axes, spoon carving, bowl carving, digging sticks, cooking equipment, fishing equipment, skin and hide tanning, using domesticated animals to hunt, building permanent shelters, the list goes on.
You then need to consider the more traditional craft based side of bushcraft, weaving for basket and trap making, decorative carving, primitive artwork, weaving for making cloth, clothing and shoe manufacture, leather working, traditional fencing, green wooding to make furniture and other items of treen, the specialist tools associated with these all these crafts, woodland management in the form of coppicing, hedge laying and other activities, smelting ores to extract metals, casting in bronze, forging iron to make tools, charcoal burning for use in forging and a means of more efficiently heating a shelter without the masses of smoke, and again the list goes on.
As you can see the idea of bushcraft is interlinked with every conceivable aspect of wilderness living and personally providing for your every need, whilst also maintaining the resources at your fingertips. Our role is to provide the right information from the start but also to enthuses and enlighten people so that they realise that there is much more to be learnt beyond the basics, but then also to provide provision for people to be able to come back and study any one or a number of these topics to satisfy their own curiosities and interests. We strive to be all inclusive to people of all ages and backgrounds, and whether they are new to bushcraft and just starting out on their journey, or have been practising for many years and would like to learn something new, our fundamental goal is always quality not quantity.
I would not class myself as a bushcraft 'expert' due to the fact that the term expert implies someone that has acquired and mastered all of the skills within a subject, and as we can see from the list of topics contained within bushcraft it would take several lifetimes to become a true expert in all of them. Of course, someone can become an expert in one particular aspect of bushcraft, which is why we use a team of instructors that have come from different walks of life and have different specialisms, so that we maintain an extremely high level of instructor knowledge throughout. It always amazes me that after years of instructing you can still learn something new every time you go out into the woods, whether it be a nugget of information that a student provides, or something another instructor has discovered, and more often than not it is something that happens during the course of a session which makes you think about doing or trying something in a different way. Therefore we like to keep our sessions very fluid and dynamic, and although we have a lesson plan to follow we are not adverse to receiving a question from a student which leads to us chucking the rule book out of the window and marching off into the woods to look for or try something new. Bushcraft is very much a journey of discovery and we like to let learners lead the route that any particular session takes, we believe that a question left unanswered means that we are not doing our job as teachers and mentors properly.