Archive for the ‘ancestors’ Tag

First meeting of the Native Awareness twelve month programme

Last weekend was the first long weekend of the Earth Living twelve month programme. I’ll try not to give too much away for those who might be thinking of signing up to the programme next year, but refer to the topics as listed on the Native Awareness website.

The main thing I took from the weekend was the camaraderie between the students, instructors and volunteers. Spending time with like-minded people was (as always) a pleasure, and we bonded well as a team, which bodes well for the survival immersion week next April, which we are all working towards. This is when we venture into the wilderness for a week with only the clothes we are standing in and the authentic primitive tools we have made throughout the year.

This first weekend was focused on advanced skills and crafts. I really enjoyed the pottery making and intend to find and process some of my local clay to make more of the utensils we’ll need in the immersion quest, hopefully in time for us to fire them communally at the next meeting in June. I managed to make a small pinch pot, larger coil pot and small oil lamp at the weekend, but have lots of ideas and inspiration for other pots I’d like to make.

Advanced bow drill was a revelation, and I’ve taken away lots of tips that will help me better understand, and become more proficient in, this type of firemaking. You never stop learning with the bow drill, and I’m already thinking about building my next set, in accordance with the time-tested theory that the more love and attention you put into your kit, the better the attitude with which you approach the process of firemaking, and the more successful you will hopefully be.

The other thing I took away from the weekend was the experience of finding and purifying water and foraging for wild edibles. These experiences brought me closer to the environs of the camp in all sorts of ways. Learning the skills of survival is not just about dealing with extreme situations; its about re-discovering our relationship with the natural world by removing the fear and distrust that separates modern humans from nature. Only when we can enter the wilderness with nothing, and without fear, can we re-establish the communication our ancestors enjoyed with the world… and our spirits so crave today.


A History of the World in 100 Objects

This series, on BBC Radio 4, follows Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, narrating humanity’s history through 100 objects. You can listen again using the BBC iPlayer.

Yesterday’s programme was on a two-million-year-old Olduvai stone chopping tool. Neil goes back to the Rift Valley in Tanzania, where a simple chipped stone marks the emergence of modern humans. He tells the story of the Olduvai stone chopping tool with contributions from flint napper Phil Harding, Sir David Attenborough and African Nobel Prize winner Dr Wangeri Maathai.

Today’s object was an Olduvai hand axe. In the presence of the most widely-used tool humans have created, Neil sees just how vital to our evolution this sharp, ingenious implement was and how it allowed the spread of humans across the globe.

Future episodes include a swimming reindeer carving, a Clovis spear point, and a bird-shaped pestle.

Castell Henllys

On Monday we visited Castell Henllys, a scheduled ancient monument and one of many prehistoric promontory forts in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park dating to around 600BC. What makes the site particularly important is that archaeologists have been excavating there for over twenty years and thatched Iron Age buildings have been reconstructed on their original foundations.

Castell Henllys

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.

Flint knapping with John Lord

Last weekend I drove over to Norfolk to spend a day flint knapping with renowned knapper John Lord, along with fellow HCA member Robin Wood. John and his wife Val were very welcoming and soon put us at ease, and before long we were getting down the business of breaking up flint.

Flint knapping is one of those things that are relatively easy to pick up, but need years of practice to master. There are two main techniques to flint knapping: percussion, which involves striking the flint with hammer stones or antler hammers; and pressure flaking, which uses copper or antler points to push flakes off. I found the latter a lot more difficult, as to get a decent sized thinning flake you need to put a large amount of pressure on the piece you are working on, while holding it steady in your other hand.

Me and John Lord

At the end of the day I had produced a small hand axe, two arrowheads and a knife blade. I had trouble getting my pressure flakes to be invasive enough so that is something I need to work on.

Flint items

John was very generous, and as well as buying us lunch and giving us copies of his book, he also gave us huge lumps of flint to take home and practice on. I’ll be trying to get a nice lot of arrowheads and knife blades out of mine, but the best part will be having the opportunity to learn more about the properties of flint.

John’s website can be found at I would highly recommend his courses.

My new bow

I got back late on Sunday evening from five exhausting but wonderful days of bowmaking at Bush Farm Bison Centre in Wiltshire. The course was run by James Watson and Alex Travers (Feathers) of the Native Awareness School. It was a challenging and emotional experience bringing a bow into being from bow stave to finished bow in just five days using only hand tools. As with a lot of these types of ordeals, it taught me as much about myself and my outlook as it did about how to make a bow.

Stages of bowmaking

On the first day we selected our bow staves from a selection of timbers. I chose a long walnut bowstave as I wanted to create a longish bow suitable for both field and target archery. The first stage was to remove the outer bark to expose a clean growth ring which was to form the back of the bow. This is one of the most important stages, as a bow back that cuts through a growth ring is more likely to snap or explode on being drawn. As my walnut stave was particularly pale, with close growth rings that were difficult to differentiate, I chose to back the bow with a rawhide backing, from a two year old doe. Each of these decisions were made in response how the materials responded, and each contributed to the essence of the finished bow.

After cutting the back of the bow with the draw knife, I then marked out the shape of the bow on the surface, avoiding as many knots as possible and following the grain of the wood. I decided on a 64″ length, tapering from half way down the limbs. The shape took advantage of the natural growth of the wood to form a slight reflex shape. Next came the lengthy process of cutting first the profile and then the back of the bow to shape using an axe and rasp. When this was complete, and the thickness of the back of the bow to the belly was just over half an inch, then came the process of cutting the nocks and tillering – of removing sections of the belly to ensure an even bend throughout the bow. If one section is too thick or wide it will resist bending and put pressure of the rest of the bow. If a section is too thin or narrow it will create a ‘hinge’ or weak point in the bow. After several passes the bow formed an even and pleasing bend and I could test shoot it for the first time at full draw.

The first few shots were successful – to great relief, although the fourth shot broke the nock of the arrow I was using, which shot off the bow into my forearm and produced a huge swollen bruise! The next day I began finishing the bow, painting the tips black with a mixture of charcoal powder and wood glue, adding a buckskin handle which I dyed red, and staining the belly of the bow with walnut husk dye. I then added coats of Danish oil. In subsequent days I replaced the red buckskin handle, which was a bit too bright, with a simple leather wrap handle sown on with linen thread and with red detail added. My bow was complete!

The finished bow

I highly recommend James’ courses. If you visit his website, like what you see and decide to book onto a course, please let him know where you heard about it.

New Native Awareness website

BowsJames Watson, founder of the Native Awareness School has relaunched his website this week. As I posted a couple of months ago, I am due to attend James’ bowmaking course in a couple of weeks’ time, which I am really looking forward to.

The new site, which is beautifully designed and features pages of useful information, now includes a section of published articles, including a two part article on bowmaking which James wrote for Bushcraft Magazine in December 2007 and April 2008.

The article goes through the process of creating a bow from felling the tree to finishing the bow ready for use. It also talks more generally about the application of traditional skills and their continuing  importance in the twenty-first century.

Part two starts with a story about snapped bows and how losing a bow that you have spent countless hours on – in a fraction of a second – can teach you a lot about yourself.

I agree with this – all too often we assume a subconscious position of mastery over nature,¬† so that when events turn against us we quickly become indignant and assume a victim mentality. Nothing is guaranteed in nature, and we should learn the humility to accept when things don’t always go our way. I hope my new bow doesn’t snap and that we have many years together, but if things don’t turn out that way I hope I am humble enough to accept that it wasn’t meant to be.

Check out the website at

Cosmeston Medieval Village

I went to Cosmeston Medieval Village last weekend. Cosmeston is a reconstructed fourteenth century village based on archaeological evidence unearthed in the 1980s. It is now a living history village open to the public, with guided tours and re-enactment events held throughout the year.

Taking the guided tour gave me a sense (albeit superficial) of what it must have been like to live there in the fourteenth century. Cosmeston would have been on a busy trade and pilgrim route from the City of Llandaff westwards, eventually to St David’s and the western ocean. Life would have undoubtedly been hard in the village, whatever rung of the social ladder you were on … and I imagine unbearably so for those robbed of their trade through injury or illness, both of which were rife.

Cosmeston is holding a re-enactment event tomorrow, which I’m hoping to go along to. I’m especially hoping to see some medieval archers.

I hope everyone is enjoying the Beltane fires and the inspiration of Spring!

New advocacy organisation for traditional crafts

For a long time I’ve felt strongly that traditional crafts have not been properly supported or championed in the UK. In the political sphere they have fallen into the gap between the arts and heritage, poorly placed to take advantage of either public funding stream.

The same is not true on the continent, where UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) makes Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) one of its major themes. UNESCO’s web pages list many of the Government-initiated projects to preserve and champion traditional crafts and other practices, with representation from most of the EU member states. The UK is a notable absentee, as for one reason or another, there hasn’t been the political will to do anything about it.

It was serendipidous then, that as my feelings that something should be done were reaching a peak, I came into contact with a group of people who were committed to doing just that. After corresponding for some weeks, I was invited onto the committee, and we met in London yesterday to form a new advocacy body for traditional crafts.

I’ll leave the rest of the details under wraps until we are ready to officially launch, but the task appears clear – to use the positive example of other EU countries, the terminology of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and the stories of real-life craftspeople, to make clear to policymakers and funders one stark fact – that unless we do something soon, we will lose many of our traditional crafts for ever.

There are several endangered crafts where few, or even only one, practitioner remains … many of these already in retirement age. It seems a crime to just stand by and let these valuable elements of our culture to die while a disproportionate amount of money is being spent on preserving stately homes and such like. Even a redistribution of funding of two per cent to ICH would make the world of difference.

More to follow…

What makes craft sacred?

Less than ten generations have passed since the mass-production methods of the Industrial Revolution properly took hold, and even then the majority of the population would have been involved in some form of craft work on a regular basis. Prior to that, thousands of generations relied on handmade items and tools.

As our ancestors learned more about the subtleties of their environment they responded with ever more sophisticated – and yet often startlingly simple – craft techniques. Knowledge was passed on and techniques evolved, forming an inextricable sympathy between craftsperson and natural world – a relationship that from today’s perspective (alienated as we tend to be from our modes of production) can seem almost mystical.

Sometimes it seems almost as if handcrafted items are imbued with the intention and consciousness of their makers, as if this is a physical trait that you could almost reach out and touch. In the voculabulary of spirituality you could say that handcrafted items are enspirited in a way that mass-produced items are not.

Can this be an objective quality – or does it require knowledge of the production method on behalf of the observer? Either way, it seems to me to be a vitally important link to a sustainable way of living that we seem to have mislaid … and increasingly need to recover.