Monday, June 4, 2012

The Meaning of Bushcraft in a World of Urban Dwellers

Three people find themselves stranded in the wilderness.  Two of them say, “This is a survival situation.  We’re in real trouble!  We’ve got to find a way out of here."  But the third person looks at the other two and says, “What’s a survival situation?  You mean, here?  I don’t understand.  What are you two talking about?  Why do we have to get out of here?”

In another place far removed from the wilderness three people are in a car driving down an expressway.  Two of the people in the car say, “Man, we got to get out of here.  This is a survival situation.  We’re in real trouble!  Pull over!  This is nuts!”  But the third person, the one driving the car says, “What are you two talking about?  What survival situation?  There’s nothing to worry about?  Oh wait a second I’ve got a call on my cell phone.  Just relax.  Everything is okay.”

I hope you get the point: One person’s “survival situation,” is another person’s way of life.  And ultimately, if you have to consider something a “survival situation,” then more than likely you are not an expert.  Said another way, we tend to be experts living in the world we grew up in.  Bring an African Bushman or a New Guinea jungle dweller to the highways of America and you will find a true survival mess.  Likewise, take an urban dweller from Dallas, New York, Los Angeles or just about any place in between, be it city or hamlet, in the good old USA and place them in the Kalahari or Amazon or some similar place removed from electricity, shopping malls, grocery stores, city water supplies and emergency medical centers and they will be in deep trouble.

The truth is that ninety-nine percent of the people who indulge in bushcraft as a hobby will never under any circumstances have to use those skills.  But if they were to find a need to use primitive skills they had better be rescued quickly because they are neither psychologically ready or are they sufficiently adept at surviving long term in the wilds.

Furthermore, if practicing bushcraft isn’t coming naturally (no pun intended) and you find yourself frustrated and feeling guilty if you go out into the woods or forests and use a tent and carry a propane burner then perhaps you need to wonder why you have allowed yourself to fall into the trap of believing you aren’t okay unless you go primitive.  I’ve read several posts and comments in various blogs recently that, in effect, reveal a growing angst over going “aboriginal” when camping.  The truth is if you didn’t grow up immersed in some sort of bushcraft or primitive life then you will never become fully acclimated to doing things in a primordial way.  It takes decades to learn primitive skills.  There is no fast-track to bushcraft.  While you can practice your skills, you will never become a true expert if you did not grow into it.  It’s funny hearing the TV bushcraft/survival “stars” saying they have twenty years of experience or that they were once in the military and with that we are supposed to infer that they are experts.  But they’re students just like all the rest of us and their only real goal, if the truth be known, is to sell advertising.

I don’t consider myself an expert even though I have no recollection of the first time I was in the woods nor do I remember the first time my granddad or one of my uncles taught me about what native plants to eat or use for medicine or how to set traps or make shelters or find water.  I’m just a guy who loves nature, who loves to walk in the woods, who is passionate about saving the land, and who is perhaps more intrigued by living a contemplative life than being out and about in society.  Put me in New York City and I am lost and bewildered and all I want to do is get out.  Put me in a crowd and I’m miserable.  I’d rather ride in an old pickup truck than any Mercedes or BMW.  Besides, you can’t take a Mercedes off the road—not that I’d want to do much driving off road anyway.  I’d rather walk.

But to those of you who have expressed in your blogs and comments and emails that you just want to get out and explore then I say: Go for it.  Enjoy!  If you can handle a heavy pack and aren’t all broken down and getting old like somebody I shan’t mention, then go do it and have a great time.

Bushcraft or woodcraft skills are things I do for reasons that are a bit hard to explain.  Perhaps it will suffice if I say that I enjoy making things myself and that I have always been an experimenter.  I enjoy projects in a backwards sort of way.  In other words, I’ve always been fascinated in knowing how people did things way back when.  As of late, I have had an ongoing need to understand the cultures and primitive technologies of the people who lived in the Coahuiltecan Geographical Region that encompasses most of deep South Texas and northeastern Mexico.  We know practically nothing about the indigenous people who lived in that region; and what we do know comes to us from the writings of the northern Celtic Iberians and southern Mediterranean Iberians who immigrated to the area under the newly constituted country of Spain.  But those writings are extremely superficial and reveal more about prejudices than they do about the Indians who lived here before Europeans arrived.

Unfortunately, bushcraft and wilderness survival and the like have become highly commercialized.  One blogger laments that fact on nearly a weekly basis.  I agree.  But it seems we’ve lost sight of what lies at the center of bushcraft and that is simplicity.  Bushcraft is not about owning a super-duper custom knife, or about buying the latest gadget or about owning tons of equipment or about every-single-time-you-make-a-fire you have to use a bow-drill.  No, bushcraft, at least as I have seen it, is about practical self-sufficiency without injecting any morbid eschatological hyperbole into the mix.  It’s just about getting out and being close to nature in how ever way you feel comfortable without destroying nature in the process.

Go to a far-off place and watch the people make their lives.  You’ll likely never see a Mora knife or a custom this or that.  In my part of the world you’ll see old and much used machetes and maybe a kitchen knife and a pocket knife.  And that’s it!  They consider their cutting tools the most important things they have and tend not to overuse them—not because they don’t want to wear them down but because they have learned frugality in their lives and don’t just chop, chop, cut, cut all the time.  It’s what comes naturally to them just like driving down an expressway at 70 mph is normal to us.  But put them in a car on a freeway and they’ll freak out, just like the two people in the first paragraph who found themselves in the wilderness and said, “We’re in real trouble!  We’ve got to find a way out of here.”