A few years ago, I took a weekend-long wilderness skills course that introduces its students to animal tracking, plant identification, and a variety of ancient skills such as flint knapping, making simple traps and snares, and bow-drill fire-starting. I have carried the lessons I learned that weekend out into the woods with me ever since.
It might seem like a strange, anachronistic indulgence to, say, struggle to make and use a stone knife when I have a well-engineered, extremely sharp Benchmade folder handy. Or to spend hours in sweaty frustration trying to create fragile embers with wood and friction when there are stormproof matches in my pocket. But there are a plethora of lessons to be learned by slowing down and doing things the hard way. It’s not something we’re encouraged to do these days—quite the opposite, in fact—and that’s a shame.
Outdoor pursuits can easily become focused on the very latest, highest tech, the most labour-saving gear. And I do love cool outdoors stuff, don’t get me wrong. I use gore-tex rain wear, paddle a Kevlar canoe, hunt with modern firearms and optics, and use Google Earth to plan trips and scout terrain from orbit. All kinds of technical advances let us go afield further and faster with less effort and more safety. But I’ve long been concerned at the notion—especially prevalent in the world of hunting and fishing salesmanship—that the right item or tool or weapon or clothing or lure will solve all the discomfort and difficulty of bushcraft or backwoods travel. Tools break. Wondrous products fail to perform as advertised. Human error is a constant possibility, even an inevitability. And nature remains as implacable and unyielding as it has since time immemorial. Which is precisely why we turn to it: for beauty, of course, and isolation, but also to pit our efforts and resourcefulness against the rigorous demands of travel and shelter and sustenance without the amenities and infrastructure of modernity.
The wilderness skills course encouraged us to get familiar with labour-intensive and failure-prone natural materials and ancient techniques that have been long supplanted by technical innovation. Being able to function—to find shelter and make fire, say—in the absence of technical advantages and familiar tools was the most obvious and in some ways least interesting result of taking the course. The more subtle lessons I took away and that I appreciate every time I return to the woods have affected my outlook more so than my abilities.
One of the first lessons we learned was “cat walking,” a method of slow, silent movement. Like most of these skills, this was a combination of physical technique, perception, and attitude. The technique of course meant moving one’s feet thus and so, and the perception aspect required paying close and strategic attention to the next few footfalls. But wanting to do this in the first place requires one to approach the outdoors with a desire to melt into the experience of place rather than disrupt it with heedless and accidental noise. Silent movement allows one to be more present to the woods by disappearing within them. Such silent presence can be an instrumental goal when hunting, but it can also more generally transform your relationship to the outdoors, opening up the possibility of becoming a part of it rather than disruptively passing through.
Much of the course involved cultivating such environmental awareness: not merely attending to the outside world but of my impact on it, how my presence and actions affect the immediate milieu. The course instructors refer to loud groups of casual hikers as “the bird plough” because their careless chatting and walking cuts into the stillness of natural place and scatters its wildlife into hiding or flight. A sharpened and deepened experience of place begins with self-awareness, of consciously taking part in a geological, environmental and biological context, of being thereby related to the web of dependence and behaviour and symbiosis and predation that are the natural world.
Being introduced to the skills of tracking and plant identification allowed me to begin to appreciate and make sense of that interconnected gestalt. Becoming expert at either takes a lifetime, but even being introduced to them offers valuable lessons about perception and interpretation. One is obliged to sharpen the capacity to discern and appreciate subtle details and slight differences. Animals can vary minutely or considerably between species and individuals, and animal evidence is often faint or partial, so interpreting it requires both perceptual acuity and contextualized, comparative analysis that tries to understand the signs in the totality of their environment. Similarly, learning to look at shape and structure, the number and texture of leaves and flowers, is a baby step to plant identification, but an utterly essential one. Learning to see turns the amalgamate mass of foliage into a world of differentiation and relationship that is constantly changing in space and time.
The simultaneous focus on the particular and awareness of the general has become very important to my sense of wilderness and the natural order of things. Organisms of all species and genera interact continuously with their environments to flourish in their evolutionary niche. Nothing about flora or fauna makes sense out of context, which for me has opened up the experience of the woods as a miracle of interconnection and interdependence. And being aware of my own presence, effects, and goals allows me to not merely observe all this but find a place within it. It might be as a casual observing presence or as a predator taking part in the food web, but when I head out to the woods now, I live in the wilderness, and some aspect of the wilderness lives in me.