Not just ten days in the woods

I’ve just returned from ten days at Hazel Hill woods in Wiltshire on the Native Awareness courses Native Skills 1 and 2. Whatever expectations I had of the course were far outshone and I feel that I have developed more as a person the last ten days than I have in the previous three years, thanks to the others on the course, who by the end of the week I had come to regard as brothers and sisters. The week was like a bubble and I experienced that weird time dilation by which you feel things are passing ever so quickly and yet you struggle to remember what life was like before you were there.

Ostensibly the course focused on the various practical skills associated with survival and earth living – shelter building, friction firemaking, tracking, stalking, arrowmaking, cordage, basketry, preparing and cooking wild foods. The amount of learning that was passed on in the course of ten days was incredible. The more I learnt, however, the more I realised that these skills are not just tools of survival, they’re exercises in living in harmonious relationship with nature. The principles underpinning them cut across many disciplines. By learning about the properties of wood, bone, stone and sinew we were learning as much about ourselves and our relationships as we were about the tools of survival.

Highlights of the week for me included the drum stalk, whereby we were taken out into the woods at night and left blindfolded, having to return to the campfire using only the sound of the drum. This really made me realise how much of our perception is non-visual. The task become almost a meditation as I fell into pace with the drum, each footstep a prayer to the earth. An unintentional result of this exercise was that Emily lost her glasses during the stalk, and she and I made it our mission over the next few days to recover them (perhaps the most camouflaged glasses available for that terrain) using tracking skills, expanded awareness and personality profiling. We learnt perhaps more from this than anything else, seeing our environment with new eyes, eventually finding them by torchlight during a nighttime expedition after days of searching during the day. It seemed fitting that they were found at night around the same time the were lost, as though they were in the nighttime forest waiting for us to find them all along. A small triumph perhaps, but its elation was tangible, its excitement lasted days, and its lessons learnt and bonds forged are still with me.

Other highlights included a talk by Hanna, a wise woman in the Native American tradition, on the philosophies of awareness and relationship with the spirit that flows through all things. Skinning and gutting our own rabbits to make rabbit burgers was a lesson in gratitude and awe for the sacrifice that nature makes to feed us, and the debt we owe as caretakers of the world and each other. Watching two of the volunteers emerge from invisibility right in front of our eyes in full primitive camo was another one of many unforgettable experiences.

A pipe ceremony was another lesson to me in gratitude and the importance of not taking things for granted, for although nature provides everything we need to survive and thrive, we as humans are far from up to the task of attaining the knowledge and wisdom of how to live in harmony with it (and much, much further than our pre-agricultural ancestors). The message for me was not that we should censure ourselves too harshly for this, but that it is so important that we strive to be better, however small the steps we take, to learn more and to look after our brothers and sisters, human and non-human. The message of not taking things for granted was underlined when we went back to the kitchen area to find the electricity playing havoc. Eating dinner by candlelight was an unforeseen blessing.

I made personal connections with the others on the course that I was beginning to think I was unable to achieve. After the first few days I felt awkward and unsocialised as I am often accustomed to feel, but by the end of the week I felt at ease with, and fond of, everyone on the course. It was heartwarming to see how the group gelled and its members began to look after each other and provide the encouragement and support to allow each of us to achieve things we may never have been able to alone. The beginning of a community perhaps? … I hope so. It certainly alighted things in me that I had once known and have now come rushing to the fore with seemly infinite creative potential.

James’ and Alex’s approach to teaching these skills in that they want their students in turn to become teachers and help spread these skills, and the principles underlying them, to others. It is only by teaching these skills that we really learn them. So it was a real opportunity when on Sunday we were given the task of teaching friction firemaking to a group of conservationists also using the woods. Though nervous of our own abilities at first, by the end of the session we had taught all the participants how to make fire using the bow drill methods, two of whom managed to create a coal within an hour. Without meaning to we also managed to teach the basic principles of cordage, shelter, foxwalking and camouflage! Not only that, we had felt we had lit a spark of curiosity among them that would hopefully manifest itself again in the future. I was so proud of us, and so moved – elated and tearful at the same time.

One of the best things about the week was the chance to be childlike again, to play games, to sneak up on each other, to tease and to make games out of throwing sticks. Living in tune with nature is fun, and many indigenous tribal peoples are noted for their constant laughter and smiles.

Unfortunately my camera broke half way through the week, but I am hoping to get access to others’ pictures over the next few days, some of which I will try to post here, along with accounts of my dirt time over the coming weeks, months and years, developing my new found skills and passions.

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