I thought I’d have a stab at a review of a great 3 day course I went on with Natural Pathways in Kent. It was the ‘Discovery Course- Basic Bushcraft, Survival Skills and Nature Awareness’ 9th-11th May near Canterbury in Kent.
The school is run by Hannah Nicholls, who has an extensive knowledge of bushcraft and has spent time with Trackways in the UK as well as the Tracker School with Tom Brown Jnr in the States. Her assistants are Lief Bruylant, who has an amazing knowledge of, and passion for, wild plants and herbs and Sally Wallington whose knowledge of all things practical in bushcraft is vast. Each seems to have a subtly different take on the whole subject of bushcraft with Lief erring towards the spiritual, Sally the practical and Hannah somewhere in between. All of them are generous with their knowledge, which surprisingly I haven’t always found to be the case at other places. They are also extremely passionate about bushcraft, and that, as we all know, is infectious.
I have been on a couple of basic courses in the past so some of the practical stuff I already knew but it was great to have a refresher course, as it were. The topics you might expect from a ‘Basic Bushraft’ course were covered in good detail i.e., debris shelters, fire by friction, natural cordage, knife use and safety as well as loads more but what attracted me most to book the course in the first place, and indeed what I got most out of, was the nature awareness and ‘spiritual’ aspects of the course. I am not using the word Spiritual here in a sense of the divine or in any religious context; in fact quite the opposite as religion can imply a ‘blind faith’ of the unknowable and to some extent the undetectable. Here I am using the word spiritual in the sense of our perception of things that are around us and the feelings that they create within us. How we perceive what is around us effects how we relate to what is around us and therefore our connection to it. I guess I am, ultimately, talking about a change in the way we see what is around us.
Now, I have never been labelled a ‘tree hugger’ nor have I ever been called a ‘survivalist’ (honestly no offence meant to either groups) – well actually I have been called both but only by the guys in the office who’s idea of interacting with nature is flicking to the National Geographic channel accidentally while looking for football . As simply as I can put it, I love spending time in our woodland and bushcraft lets me do that more comfortably, more safely and opens my eyes and helps me appreciate the beauty that is there. Even as a child I remember many times cycling to our local heathland to spend time alone whenever things got too ‘tough’ at home. I never knew it then but realise now that I instinctively felt a ‘connection’ to the natural beauty that was there. As I moved into the dreaded teenage years and then adulthood I think I lost that connection for the most part and it is only now that I am beginning to explore again how I relate to nature and how it makes me feel.
As I said, it was the nature awareness and spiritual side of this course that drew me to it initially and throughout the weekend the practical lessons were interspersed with more ‘leftfield’ exercises such as being told to walk off into the woods and find a quiet spot to sit, think and connect with your surroundings. By nature I can be a deeply cynical person (much to my annoyance) so at first this struck me as rather odd thing to do on a ‘Bushcraft’ course, which I had, for the most part, seen as a purely practical recreation. I am also very self conscious at times and can be deeply afraid of looking a fool. These two feelings combined made me sit there the first few times we did this and think, ‘what on earth am I meant to be doing’. After this though I began to relax into it more and found myself noticing things around me that I wouldn’t have seen before. The only way I can describe it is as an increasing feeling of being aware of my surroundings. From leaves and petals that were at my feet to the insects that were on them and then further away to the sounds that were all around me. The more I did this the more I saw. The more I saw, the more I felt. I find it hard to explain the feeling this gave me, to be honest even now months after the course I am still trying to work it out but the important thing was that it felt good, it felt peaceful and it made me relax. I began to feel a connection to all that was around me; in fact at times I felt ‘part’ of everything that was there. Another good exercise was being led blindfold to a tree and then spending a few minutes, still blindfolded, feeling and getting to know it in total silence. After the few minutes were up you were led back to your starting point, spun around a few times and then had the blindfold removed. You then had to go with your gut feeling and find you way back to ‘your’ tree. Amazingly, I walked in an almost direct line to mine (one of hundreds in the area). I still have no idea how I did it, but as I said the feeling was amazing and dare I say it…… emotional. There were lots of little exercises like this throughout the weekend and once I got over my initial crippling cynicism, and fear of looking like an idiot, I thoroughly enjoyed them all.
It would probably be going too far to say I’ve changed the whole outlook of my bushcrafting but I’ve certainly had a peek at a different approach and I like it. The course has opened my eyes to the fact that I need to really open my eyes to see, touch and listen to what is around me and explore the emotions that arise from that awareness. The atmosphere of the whole weekend was relaxed and nurturing, never once did I feel that ideas should be accepted as definitive, I felt more ‘invited’ to explore how the ideas related to me and what effect they had on me. I also had a real sense that the teaching was two-way and that Hannah, Lief and Sally genuinely enjoyed the company, and got something back from our take on the subjects and from the people on the course. If I had to sum up the course and come up with a common theme throughout the weekend it would be two words- respect and gratitude. I guess the best example of this for me would be how Lief thanks every wild plant she takes a few leaves from to add to the wonderful salads she makes. The course must have left a mark on me as I’ve found myself muttering a few words of thanks under my breath now and again on my foraging!
Would I recommend this course?......... wholeheartedly.
Would I go again?........... I am!.