Here’s a summary of the month I spent in the woods, up in Scotland. Not sure what to do with it now I’ve written it, so if anyone’s got any ideas, they would be much appreciated.
Cheers and enjoy….
What I learnt in the woods by Jonathan Wise
In general, an adult can survive for 3 minutes without air; 3 days without water; 3 weeks without food.
John ‘Lofty’ Wiseman, SAS Survival Guide
I spent 25 days in a wood in Gleam Meadhonach on the Clan Donald Estate, in Sleat, on the southern end of the Isle of Skye in September and October 2011.
I did this because I am currently studying for an MSc in Sustainability and Responsibility at Ashridge Business School and have embarked on a series of experiences that will hopefully provide insight into how I (and we) should think and behave more sustainably.
I wanted to spend time alone in a wood because I wished to explore whether I could develop a different relationship with nature; a more powerful relationship that would in some way provide me with a greater understanding and appreciation of the natural world and my place within it. What form the relationship might take – spiritual, practical or something else – I did not know, but my sense was that by doing it, on my own, something would change. If not, at least it was going to be a good way to lose some weight!
All I had with me was what I could carry in my rucksack. This included amongst other things a simple shelter: food – the backbone of which was 5kg bag of oats and a 5kg of rice; and a means to acquire firewood – an axe and a bowsaw. I didn’t take a watch, any books (other than a book on foraging and the SAS Survival Handbook) or any music. To record my experience I took a camera and a journal. I also took a mobile phone in case of an emergency and so I could text various people once a week to let them know that I was okay.
The wood I stayed in was about 3 miles from the nearest road and house. It didn’t have a path going through it on the map, but in reality it did. This meant that I saw people – walkers, fishermen or a farmer – about once every three days. Sometimes I would speak to them and I reckon I had a total of two hours human contact in the month I was there.
The length of time and that lack of contact meant that there were two major issues to contend with: myself and nature. Given this and the limited amount of ‘kit’ I took in, meant I learnt a good deal about myself: what I do and don’t need in order to live and what’s really important.
In terms of what’s important, I was advised before I started that the four things I needed to care about most were water, food, fire and shelter. These were wise words because they were vital for my survival and comfort. As a result, they absolutely dominated my thinking, action and time from the moment of my arrival to the moment I left.
I found it fascinating that I spent the majority of my time being concerned about these basic building blocks. This was in total contrast to my ‘normal’ working life where I spent very little time thinking about them and have never considered how important they are.
It was the total focus on these basic elements that led to what I would regard as the most important revelation I had whilst I was there – that we are utterly dependant on nature for our survival and, on the whole, we don’t even realise it. As a result, we abuse it with little thought and in doing so, threaten our own survival.
For example: fire. Fire was critical because I needed to boil water to make it drinkable, cook my food and provide warmth, both physically and mentally – I now know what is meant by the phrase ‘the fire is your friend’. However, I came to regard my relationship with the fire as stronger than that: the fire was my baby. This is because keeping a fire going took a lot of energy and effort as I was constantly tending and caring for it. During the day, I never left if for more than half an hour for fear of it going out so I was restricted as to the sort of activities I could enjoy. Not only was I always close by, but I would spend about six hours a day finding and collecting wood; sawing and chopping it and drying it when necessary. The more time I spend with it, the more aware I became of its subtleties – how it reacted to wind, to rain, to certain types of wood. I came to know what sort of wood I needed to put on the fire and in what way in order to create the intense heat needed for boiling water. Similarly, I learnt what I needed to do to dampen it down so it would burn slowly. During the night I trained myself to always check it when I woke – 5 or 6 times a night – so it wouldn’t go out. I became very adept at being able to get it going from the faintest of embers. I feel I came to ‘know’ the fire and what it needed and when.
This led me to realise that not only did I need the fire but the fire needed me to stay alight – there was dependency and interconnectedness between us. In this understanding, the fire became symbolic; symbolic of the emerging understanding that everything is interconnected. For example, we are interconnected to the food we eat because food provides us with the energy to live and our actions affect the ability for food to grow, or not. And at an even bigger level, everything in nature is interconnected. So, burning fossil fuels here has an effect on the other side of the world as sea levels rise.
Given how much time I spent with the fire I came to feel that I had a strong ‘relationship’ with it. This feels wholly appropriate seeing how much I cared and nursed it and how vital it was for my survival and well-being. Not only this, it stands to reason that the more important something is to me, the deeper my relationship with it should be.
It became very interesting when I compared this relationship with the fire to the relationship I have with ‘fire’ in my flat:
I turn the gas stove or the central heating on or off and turn the heat up or down. Errr, that’s it.
It doesn’t feel as if the contrast could be more dramatic. My relationship with fire in my flat is purely functional and unthinking. I don’t think about it or care about it: there is no bond between us.
I found this fascinating. We have created a society that is wonderful in many ways. One of these is that we don’t have to worry, day to day, about our survival. We have a roof over our heads, access to clean drinking water, are able to eat enough food so we don’t go hungry and can cook food and keep warm. These basic needs are so readily taken care of and woven into the way that we live and we don’t even consider them. I have never had to sleep rough on the street, think about clean drinking water, been hungry for more than 12 hours or not had the means to boil a kettle or turn on a cooker.
However, in creating this society we have, effectively, divorced ourselves from the rawness of nature and the reality of its importance for our survival. It’s not as if fire, water, food and shelter are any less important in our towns and cities – the Wiseman quote obviously holds true no matter who you are and where you live. So, whilst our society represents great progress in that we don’t have to spend all day securing food, water and firewood, but it can also be seen as potentially very dangerous given that we are not conscious of and have no consideration for the things that we depend on for our very survival.
There is an irony here. We’ve made getting the important things easy, but in doing so, we’ve forgotten how important they are; we don’t have to think about the things we can’t do without. Instead, we have created a society that shields us from this reality and have replaced a concern for securing natural resources with other things to worry about be it economic growth, getting a better job or what to watch on TV tonight.
This disconnection from nature is exacerbated by the fact that, day-to-day, our relationship with those four critical elements isn’t with their source: nature. We have created the buffer of business as an intermediary between us and nature. In the wood, my relationship with the fire was with the flame and with the firewood from nature that I put on the fire. In my flat, my relationship isn’t with nature and ‘fire’. If there is any relationship, it’s with the energy company that supplies the gas and electricity or the appliance that I use to heat things up. Similarly, when I think of ‘food’, again, my relationship isn’t with nature, it’s with Sainsbury’s, Tesco and the local deli.
Not only did I find my relationship with fire skewed, I realised that my relationship with another one of the critical elements for my survival was also somewhat off-balance. Water.
Given that I was in Scotland in September, it rained. A lot. And I learnt pretty quickly that my mood was very weather dependant; upbeat and active when it was fine and fairly despondent and lethargic when it rained. As a result, I would get fairly annoyed when I had to put my waterproof coat and trousers on. Yet, rain is nature’s way of providing me with drinking water (how else?!) and according to Lofty Wiseman’s quote, I’d be dead in three days without it. So, water is extremely important to my survival yet, despite this, when it rained I was getting annoyed – “Oh, it’s raining again!”. Shouldn’t I have been celebrating rather than complaining?! This to me is a wonderful example that demonstrates my distance from nature. Further, perhaps the lack of importance we place on rain is because it’s so abundant. In our society, things that are abundant are seen as being of far less value than things that are scarce. So, for example, we value diamonds over water yet if there were no diamonds it would have no impact on our survival. The same cannot be said about water. Just because something is abundant shouldn’t reduce its value. Something’s value, perhaps, should be linked to its importance to our survival rather than its scarcity?
Thinking back to my baby/parent analogy with the fire, when it comes to water it feels as if it is reversed. This is because I am ‘helpless’ without the water that nature provides. It provides the water for me to survive and I have no influence over that – no matter how much I might want to cry!
This provides added depth and texture to my relationship with nature. In one way it is the baby, in another I am. It again highlights the interconnectedness between us.
So, it felt like I had developed a different relationship with nature – a deepening connection coupled with an appreciation that I am utterly dependent on it for my survival. But, how did this compare to my current relationship?
Strangely, I had never thought to define it before but in doing so, the best I could come up with was one of Abusing Beauty.
This is because, on the whole, nature is something I consider as beautiful – I go for long walks, take photos, especially of landscapes and enjoy TV programmes that reveal the unseen wonders of the world. Nature is a something aesthetic to be admired and revered. Yet, simultaneously, I abuse this thing of beauty. I buy items that use rare metals, eat fish like tuna whose stocks are become dangerously low and use fossil fuels that heat the planet. Given my emerging awareness of the baby/parent relationship I have with nature, the words Abusing Beauty sit very uncomfortably with that. How can I abuse something that I also consider to be a ‘baby’?
Part of my explanation for this is inherent separation from nature within the idea of Abusing Beauty. Nature is something beautiful, ‘over there’, that I can look at and admire. It’s something I can take a picture of and have as a memory. And because I’m not connected to it, I care less about it thus making it easier to abuse.
My experience in the woods has clearly and profoundly shown me that we are in no way separate from nature. We are deeply interconnected to it, to the point of intimacy when considering it as a baby/parent relationship. Perhaps recognising this can provide a different narrative to encourage more people to become more sustainably-minded?
I believe this is the case because, at present, much of the communication around, for example, Climate Change relies on the Abusing Beauty narrative. So, for example, we must stop abusing the atmosphere by pumping too much C02 into it, or ‘raping’ the rainforests. Or we must save the photogenic polar bear or the stunning Great Barrier Reef. Yet, the Abusing Beauty narrative misses the fundamental axis of my ACTUAL relationship with nature – that of nature as provider for my survival – of food, water, fire and shelter.
As a result, I believe that we’ll encourage people to act more sustainably if we can get them to care about nature based on an understanding of both their interconnection to it and that their survival is wholly dependent on it. This may well be more effective than the current situation where so many are observers and abusers of the natural world.
How can we do this? Obviously, spending 25 days in a wood is not for everyone and so we need to be imaginative and practical about developing peoples’ relationship with nature. How can we collapse the barriers between us and nature so we can be both more interconnected to it and aware of its importance for our survival? For example, a ‘solo’, where a person typically spends 24 hours alone in nature with a day of preparation before and a day of reflection after can be a powerful experience of connection. For meat eaters, having a live animal and killing it, preparing, cooking and then eating it can also provide a strong sensation of connectedness to nature. If you eat meat, why shouldn’t you experience what it takes to get it to your plate? Or more simply, cooking a meal on an open fire and then reflecting on how connected you are to nature can help change the way we relate to it.
These examples and many more can help make nature more personal and connected, rather than impersonal and separate.
Could this be a powerfully different way forward?
I know it is for me.