Firstly: thanks for all the lush comments on last week’s bushcrafting story, Forget the kit list. And my sincere apologies to those of you who I made spit out your tea in mirth. I’m happy you found my failure amusing.
But I also didn’t mean to leave you with the impression that I had an entirely miserable time. Once I got my fire going, the rest of the week was an unalloyed delight—so much so that, after only five days in the woods, it felt distinctly weird to be indoors.
For someone who lived in London for the best part of sixteen years, it’s really saying something to declare that I now find Bournemouth ‘too hectic’.
Last Friday, I was welcomed back to the sleepy seaside town by an extraordinary chorus of construction as asbestos recyclers drilled their way through the guts of the hotel opposite. Lugging my firesmoked bushcraft backpack across the car park, a phalanx of gardeners advanced on me with roaring hurricanes.
But it wasn’t just the terrorising leaf blowers employed on the denuded concrete that put me on edge. It was the silence.
Mucking about in the woods and sleeping in an arctic lean-to, I had been open to the elements for five days. Perhaps the most obvious difference between living indoors and living outdoors is the untidyness—hence the urbanite’s obsession with leaf-blowers. But the most striking fact on my return to ‘civilisation’ was the change in acoustics.
Even our most cherished homes are, unromantically, nothing more than a box. We live the days of our lives tightly enclosed by the six sides of a cube. Most of us have completely adapted to this foreshortened life and would never suspect what we sacrifice for the vaunted comforts of interiority.
But after a week in the woods I could literally hear the tightening of the trap. Even in the silence after the leaf-blowers, I could hear the shrinking of my acoustic horizon. Everything closed in. Like a bat in a belfry, my senses, even my thoughts, seemed to reverberate at an uneasy frequency off the close walls. Also like a bat in a belfry, I felt a bit lost.
The woods have no walls. Sounds travel for miles and you can hear the openness and opportunity. Of course, the unimpeded travel of noise is the bane of my delicate ears in the city, but in the woods the noise is restorative. The wishful hoot of an owl, the crackle of a Vaseline-induced fire, the slip-slap of rain against the deep thatch of a watertight shelter. (Ahem.)
I don’t think I would ever have noticed this acoustic variation if I hadn’t made my home in the outdoors for a week. A long sojourn in the woods felt good for my brain: disconnected from the attention-sapping digital workday and restored by birdsong, the antibacterial air of pinenes and the dappling of sunlight through the fractal canopy.
David Strayer, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Utah, calls this the ‘three day effect’. In 2012, Strayer and his colleagues discovered that multi-day backpacking adventures led to a huge increase in creative thinking and insight problem-solving. As he explained in an interview with Florence Williams:
If you can disconnect and experience being in the moment for two or three days, it seems to produce a difference in qualitative thinking.
I’m back in the great outdoors this weekend, getting paid to help kids go on big walks. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. For these expeditions, the young people are usually forced to camp overnight on the Saturday, cooking their own stove-top dinner and learning how to put up a tent (and with each other).
This weekend, however, they get to go home on Saturday evening. This is great news for me because it means I’ll also get to sleep in a nice warm bed, but both me and the kids will be missing out on something important.
Without the direct connection to the environment that camping brings, outdoor expeditions can easily just feel like a walk in the woods—wonderful in itself, but missing much. We usually think of ‘nature’ as a leisure destination to travel through before returning to civilisation, but bushcraft is the art of making the outdoors a comfortable home that you never want to leave.
Last Thursday, in the woods, I rose before dawn to sit in a quiet spot, camouflaged with my back against a western red cedar. I hoped to watch the hares, fallow deer, pheasants and robins as they shook off their sleep and foraged for breakfast. An hour later, frozen stiff, it was almost comical how little wildlife I’d seen. One crow in the mid-distance.
But what I heard, that riotous dawn, was something else. Chitter and chatter, cackles, calls and caws, hoos, honks and hoots, yips and pips. By the time I stumbled back to camp, on a swell of brainwaves, sunlight was sneaking across the understorey.
Saturday. Back in Bournemouth, back in bed, back in the box, I was awoken by a wild beast. Chuffing, rumbling, huffing, clanking. A bin lorry. I checked the time: 5:50. A riotous dawn. A headache.
If the woods taught me anything it’s that the sum of my experience is far more than the naming of my senses. What possibilities do we not realise through decades of habituation to boxlife? Let’s learn some skills and make the woods our home.