Welcome to the Anthropocene, where we pump carbon into the atmosphere, chop down millions of hectares of forest every year, acidify the oceans, melt the ice caps and generally jeopardize our very future.
As if all that wasn’t enough, humanity is now in worldwide lockdown thanks to COVID-19. It’s not surprising, therefore, that there’s now massive interest in practical survival skills.
Survivalists come in three broad flavors. First are the preppers, who, according to the media stereotype, stockpile automatic rifles, dehydrated food and pleasingly arcane acronyms like TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it).
Next are the loose association of farmers, engineers and architects who have developed open source plans for every piece of agro-industrial machinery needed to reconstruct late capitalist civilization from scratch – starting with 3D printers and going right up to bioplastic extruders, whatever those might be.
Finally, there are the bushcrafters, who have more of a back-to-basics mentality. Bushcrafters argue that everything we need to thrive is readily at hand in nature – food, drink, shelter, warmth, clothing and even basic medicine. Bushcrafters reckon that the greatest existential threat to humanity is, well, ignorance. Forget any zombie apocalypse – we’re far more likely to die from not knowing how to live without the global supply chains that stock our shelves, the oil wells that fill our gas tanks, and the machine learning algorithms that somehow make smart fridges a thing.
Fundamentally, though, humans can only survive three hours without shelter, three days without water, three weeks without food and scarcely three months without Netflix. It seemed prudent, given the forthcoming climate catastrophe, to enroll post-haste in a weekend bushcraft course in a distant corner of Oxfordshire in the southern U.K.
So, one bitingly cold March weekend pre-lockdown, I tramped into the woods with a nervous yet merry band of fellow bushcraft acolytes – and immediately exited my comfort zone.
When was the last time you started a fire without matches, built a storm-proof shelter to sleep under, foraged lunch from the undergrowth, or made rope from the fibers of the humble nettle? Bushcraft teaches all these, and much, much – too much, some would argue – more.
Our first task, the reassuringly earthy instructors told us, was to secure shelter. After a constant supply of oxygen, shelter is your number one priority – no matter how peckish you might be. There’s no point grubbing around for insect protein if you’re about to die of hypothermia. Which, in the rapidly falling temperatures, seemed an increasingly likely scenario.
After a brief lesson in woodland architecture, I had to build my own bivouac out of materials scavenged from the understory. My accommodation for the weekend looked unsettlingly like the ribcage of an enormous sea creature, with a central spine propped up at a chest-height angle to the ground by two load-bearing poles (a.k.a. the entrance). Smaller branches, poles and sticks made up the two side walls, over which I layered copious pine foliage and as much waterproofing leaf litter as I could scoop up. We were in for a storm that night. I was not confident.
After shelter, next on the list is drinking water. The good news is that you can filter reasonably fine particles from a river by using a thick cotton shirt. If you’d rather not go that route, the instructors showed us how to build a filter out of a plastic bottle filled with stones, pebbles and sand. Tasty.
Only with shelter and water secured were we set loose on the real reason we were all here: lunch. The instructors guided us through a labyrinth of intricate animal traps, and we spent the afternoon skinning and gutting rabbit, pigeon and trout. It might be a coincidence, but I’m now eating a vegan diet – foraging is so much less fiddly.
Bringing out the eager arsonist in us all, our instructors showed how fire is the bushcraft multiplier. A toasty blaze makes shelter more homely and scares off the less aggressive wild animals. Fire kills pesky viruses in water and makes food less poisonous, more nutritious and, in some cases, taste great with barbecue sauce. A good fire also means light, smoke signaling for communication, and, if you’re really ambitious, some basic blacksmithing.
Even after our basic needs are met, I’m still way out of my comfort zone, which is on the sofa, central heating turned up, plugged into the Internet. Nature is too cold, too hot, too dry, or – at least in the U.K. – too wet. It certainly doesn’t offer us six different ways to stream David Attenborough documentaries.
But perhaps don’t need that. A 15 minute ‘sit spot,’ in which I sit motionless and watch as the birds and the beetles toddle along in their busy lives, gives me an unexpected surge of tranquillity. Nature as instant mindfulness, the antidote to Instagram.
Everyone on the course found a weekend in the woods somehow nourishing, in spite of – or perhaps because of – its primitivism. Without our screens and a well-stocked fridge to comfort us, we’re forced to acknowledge who’s really boss. Nothing reminds me of my puny position in the universe quite like watching a thunderstorm from the porch of a leaf-litter shelter
When the weekend is over, I wonder: could I survive on my wits alone if there were a complete breakdown in civilization tomorrow?
Absolutely not. But I won’t forget the feeling of waking up after heavy rain, miraculously dry and cosy in my shelter, with the waft of woodsmoke drifting over from the campfire.
Through bleary eyes, I thought I saw the truth: surviving the Anthropocene will look nothing like the scenarios of preppers. The only real survival for humanity is where we are harmoniously integrated into nature, as I suppose our ancestors once were.
Over the weekend, I learned how to navigate by the stars and by the trees. I coaxed the first sparks of a fire from a hand-carved bow drill, piled dead wood onto the blaze for warmth and then cooked damper bread in the embers. I picked beetles out of my sleeping bag, heard the hooting of the owls and saw a treecreeper.
Rather than panic buying in the supermarket, we can all stockpile something that never runs out: knowledge of how to live closer to the Earth. I’m proud that I’ve finally learned a few things that would have come as second nature to my great-grandparents.