Warning: This is just another one of my rants, so don’t take it too seriously…
Many of you have probably heard the recent unfortunate story of David Austin, whose body was found in the Scottish Highlands. His family indicates that he had intended to live off the land for a year, using his skills and a small number of tools. It appears that he died from hypothermia less than a month after his adventure began.
The media has been quick to bring Bear Grylls into the fray, saying that the 29 year old David was trying to emulate Bear Grylls. For once, I can honestly say, I do not think this is Bear Grylls’ fault. As foolhardy and dangerous as his methods may be, his aim always seems to be to get out of the wilderness as quickly as possible, the opposite of what David Austin was attempting to do.
Not that there is any need for blame here, but if I was going to place it anywhere, it would be not on Bear Grylls, but rather on people like Ray Mears, and in particular the masses of followers who spend most of their time on forums, regurgitating half though out information with no experience to back it up. Inevitably, one is left with the impression that as long as you are “one with nature”, and “learn to understand her ways through the magic of bushcraft”, you can “thrive” under any conditions, armed with your knowledge and whatever bushcraft knife your favorite celebrity happens to be pushing this season.
All sorts of platitudes get espoused about how bushcraft is some transcendent knowledge that will make nature your loyal friend. If only you were one of the inner circle, and acquired this knowledge, then even after being stranded in the woods for months, the rescue team will find you living in a comfortable shelter, sipping spruce needle tea and relaxing by the fire. The proclamations about bushcraft get only more esoteric and abstract from there, to the point where reading a thread on “What is Bushcraft” can make you feel like you are in a cult.
To be fair, there is some truth to those statements, but anyone who has spent significant time in the woods, more than ten feet away from their car, knows that these are just overly romanticized musing. Unfortunately, as a culture we have lost the day to day connection to our more primitive living skills. Few people even go into the woods, let alone try to make a living there with their own two hands. As a result, we now look at the past with rose colored glasses, and just like an old man sitting on the porch, yelling at kids about the “good ol’ days”, we paint the lives of those who actually had to live that way in a light that removes all of the toil, suffering and hardship. We have lost all realistic grasp on what it takes and the hardships one has to endure when living alone in the woods for any period of time.
Being one with nature, and living off the land looks great on TV. It’s even great when you are doing it with a support crew on a TV show, where a set of cast iron pots magically appears so you can cook your food, and the Range Rover is right there to take you to the nearest hotel when you get cold.
By being so isolated from the reality, and having as our only source of information the limited amount we see on TV, or from someone who has made a few YouTube videos, and now styles himself a bushcraft instructor, we come away with the impression that the only thing that separates us from a glorious and harmonious existence and unity with nature, is the bushcraft knowledge that we have to acquire. The reality of actually feeding yourself off the land, and surviving for prolonged periods of time under harsh conditions gets whitewashed by the romanticism perpetuated by certain TV hosts, and especially those who self-proclaim themselves as their disciples.
The likely reality is that for our ancestors, trying to live alone in the wilderness was either a test of manhood, if done for a short period of time, or a death sentence if done for a prolonged period of time. People survived in communities, which together strived to gather resources where locally available, so that they can survive periods of the year where those resources could not be procured. It is not uncommon to see cultures where the well being of the group depended on one particular time of the year where a specific game was hunted, or food gathered, whether it be salmon run, reindeer migration, or acorn collection. Similarly, the image of the lone mountain man is largely an illusion. Trappers traveled and worked in large teams, separating from base camp only at the end of the trip in order to set traps. Living alone with no human contact or source of resupply has more to do with our imaginations than reality.
Lacking this local knowledge, and the ability to exploit the available resources at exactly the right time, and lacking the safety net and support structure of a community, or resupply chain, “living off the land” or “thriving in nature” becomes wishful thinking, no matter how well you can carve a spoon. It looks like we unfortunately have another person to add to the list of people who have proven that point.
As you can hopefully guess by now, the title of this post was written with tongue firmly planted in cheek. I by no means intend to disparage the practice of bushcraft. I believe those skills should be preserved, and they can make a well planned out trip that much more enjoyable, and an unforeseen survival situation that much more manageable. However, we should make a strong effort not to get delusions of grandeur, and start thinking that living alone in the wilderness is firmly within our grasp.