Wild Embercombe: learning in the woods

The Embercombe woods were home to 11 children from Alderbridge Steiner School at the beginning of June. The Go Wild programme was packed full of practical and hands on experiences. The group of eleven and twelve year olds built their own fires, learning how to leave no trace and witnessing fire  being made using the ancient technique of bow drill or fire by friction. As the week progressed the camp became a hive of industry with the students practicing their newly found whittling skills to make spoons and rings around the fire. Bread and pop corn were cooked outside and songs and stories were shared around the fire. The group were entertained one evening by the fabulous story teller Sue Charman who brought the initiatory story of Vasalissa the wise to their evening camp fire.

Many designs of shelter were experimented with and the woods cleared of invasive Bracken to provide insulation for their woodland homes. Almost the entire group chose to test their shelters overnight and on the final morning all of the students emerged from their debris shelters at 4am to listen to the delights of the dawn chorus. With stalking games,  foraging and finding water in the landscape to add to the fullness of the week, the students left looking like they’d had an amazing adventure if not a little mucky!
Lucia Baumann their class teacher emailed after the residential…

“We had our first day back at school today, so are only just starting with the work, but they are all still beaming from it all… and want to be wild children like they could be at Embercombe. I had some lovely feedback from parents too.
It really was very inspirational and you and your team have been great!”

wildcraft perspectives: just being….in nature

I spent last weekend, with Jane, a Wildcraft facilitator, immersing ourselves within nature. It will be something we will do alot of in Wildcraft.

We spent hours imagining ourselves as a deer as we picked our way slowly, with no purpose but existing, through the bluebell woods of the high valley in which I live.

We watched a buzzard quarter the rugged bluffs above us, scouring for a distracted rabbit. Its folorn cry a motif of the moorland beyond.

We stood, as one of our bronze-age ancestors may have done, on a granite promitory that jutted out into misty space hundreds of feet above the river that meandered far below on the valley floor.

In the dark shelter of the conifer woods I got down low, imagining myself as a woodmouse nibbling on a fir cone in the safety of my larder. I scampered around the bowl of a great tree.

I changed into that great fir tree, rooted deep in the peat soil then I became a squirrel, clambering, with its sappy branches in my paws.

Then, high up in the canopy, I imagined myself as an owl looking down from my lofty perch. I understood from this vantage why, as a mouse, I had taken twitchy care in my little journeys between stump and hollow.

We walked blindfolded through the woods touching and hearing the scenery around us.

We scraped the earth with our nails and breathed deep its herbal, resinous, mulchy smell.

We chased along trails and runs, tracing with our fingers, the bumps and edges of prints made by badger, deer and fox.

We made tea from spruce needles and nettles at a little camp amongst the jumbled boulders in the woods.

We got up before dawn and watched the sun pale the sky a rosie pink and light up the dew on the grass like a sea of fibre optics.

We had a front row seats for the Dawn Chorus.

I now feel, once again, very connected with the natural world around me.


wildcraft perspectives: childhood and adulthood

For more details on the Wildcraft programme then click here

Wildcraft is about many things. Foremost it is about our individual relationships with nature, our collective ancestral identity and how we can live together, today and in the future, with our tribe. It is also about strength, confidence and self-realisation.

But, importantly, it is also about childhood and adulthood.

Society has programmed us to ‘grow up’, to leave childhood behind, to leave its innocence, curiousity and playfulness: to put away the joy of now and strive for the future. When we are children we exist in the now. It is a valuable quality that the worries and vanities of the future and the regrets and dissappointments of the past seems to tarnish, over time. Dulling our lives. Wildcraft aims to celebrate the joy of being present, now. We aim to realise that we can pass into adulthood without leaving the child behind and that they can co-exist within us – one nurturing, protecting and guiding, the other full of curiousity, fun, hope, play and revelling in being fully ‘present’: here and now.

Society, in some sense, has been orphaned from its childhood. It may be some reason why, as adults, we have committed some of the most horrendous ills against each other and our planet. But those who hold Wildcraft really believe, that in some sense, keeping the child strong, clear and present within us will help it be the needle on our compass of adult life. Pointing us to make choices that hold the future of our children at their heart.

wildcraft perspectives: gathering and foraging

For more details on the Wildcraft programme then click here

Gathering fruits, flowers, foliage or fungi is part of a long tradition that links us directly with our ancestors. These men and women had a deeper, more fundamental relationship with nature and an understanding that its bounty was a cornerstone to their survival. For the Gatherer, it is the whole plant (root to branch), in every season, that tells a story of, as yet, un-tapped potential. We can walk down the hedgerows, over the hills and along the valleys: every new vista, with its plant-life, helps give us a natural sense of place: within its fecund food-chain.

We teach ‘Gathering’ on Wildcraft because it:

  • Links us with our ancestors – who had a deeper relationship with nature
  • Helps give us a sense of place within nature and its food chain
  • Gives us a sense of cycles and seasons
  • Applies science, art and story – in a naturally evolved context – bringing them to life
  • Gives nature depth and breadth and not just being seen as a ‘green blur’
  • Develops an awareness of what is edible and a ‘bewareness’ of what is not – equiping us with a healthy respect for this knowledge and the responsibility it commands
  • Reveals to us the bounty of nature
  • Increases observation skills – both in the micro (one plant) and the macro (the landscape)
  • Taps into our natural curiousity
  • Celebrates the role of the Gatherer in our society who has always held up the virtue of the Hunter.

wildcraft perspectives: ancestral craft

Through the creation of handcrafts using natural materials we seek a reconnection with the earth-based life of our ancestors. The production of craft items is the culmination of technique, tool choice, material choice, correct processing and safety…along with some creative judgement.

‘Crafts’ is a rather broad church that encompasses many of the skills and equipment to extract, process and use the raw resources around us in order to create useful or pleasing items. Being able to take seemingly un-usable raw materials and create something out of them not only helps to exist in the wilderness by helping us access and utilise our environment but it provides a creative interface with nature that is both aesthetically pleasing and spiritually rewarding. Importantly crafts embody a knowledge of how to make things of use and beauty and by mastering them means a preservation of ancient skills for the next generation and helps us continue to connect with the land around us.

We teach various crafts on Wildcraft because it re-establishes a direct link with our ancestors – placing us directly in their minds, but now, in the present.

It provides a link between the object being crafted and the resource that it is foraged from lying around us.

It teaches both an art and a science and how this comes together, with the application of skill, patience and effort to create something of use or of beauty…or both.

It inspires curiousity in the things around us and frees the imagination as to what can be made from it.

It shows us to make rather than just purchase is rewarding, giving us the confidence to make decisions as to what materials are most suitable and through what methods it can be achieved.

Best of all it helps us value nature around us: a value that which we will hold dear.

wildcraft perspectives: water

Life is made from and sustained by water. Without it we would last just days. Clean water would seem like a human right but in reality it is a luxury that over a billion people struggle to gain access to with over a quarter of the world population with inadequate sanitation: leaving them fighting for life itself. We have gone, and will go, to war over water. It quenches us and our lands. Without it there would be just a barrenness from which no seed will sprout. Water has shaped our landscape from the tallest mountains to the deepest valleys.

Knowing how to find water in the landscape, to make it drinkable and safe from pathogens and contaminants and to transport it enables us to travel further in the wilderness. Water lubricates our joints, aids our thought processes, helps our sight, keeps us cool, enables us to digest and release energy from our food to keep warm. Water not only shapes the landscape but it shapes us.

We teach ‘water’ on Wildcraft because such an important commodity should never be taken for granted – even what is hidden in the smallest drop. It is important to understand how dehydration can cut short more than just your enjoyment in hot aswell as cold climates, how unclean water can limit your ability to exist and how the animals, insects, plants and even the shape of the land can give you important clues as to the location of this precious life-giver – even underground.

For us on Wildcraft we drink water, wash with it, shelter from it, cook with it, stand among the trees that grow in it and rejoice it: we spend time listening to the rushing brook, marvelling at the primordial soup that forms a sluggish pool and give thanks to the trickle of rain that drops from leaf into cupped hand.

Wildcraft perspectives: fire

Fire is one of our most important elements in nature. It is our paradox: it is a destroyer and creator of life. But in its hearth modern humankind was forged.

We can date back the controlled use of fire over 1.5 million years through our capture and preservation of fire from natural sources (lightning, volcanic activity, forest fires etc). Its use enabled us to unlock the calorific potential of certain foods, thereby reducing the need for the evolution of large stomachs and putting our evolutionary energy into the creation of bigger brains instead. It also meant that we could make safe our water, preserve foods, ward off insects and animals, light our way, extend the productive day into night, make better tools and to inhabit colder climes.

Fire was at the centre of our societies – where people took embers from the centre-fire to their dwellings a short distance away. It was in part the use of this heat that fused society together. Communal ovens were still in evidence in very rural France as late as the middle of the 20th Century. Fire has marked our journey from the tree to the ground and has marked just about every important part of our evolution and technology in the past 10,000 years when we learned to make fire ourselves. Our love affair with fire has in turn stripped our land, sooted our atmosphere, powered our technologies and propelled our population to a tipping point.

We teach about fire in Wildcraft because on a practical level we need to be able to make and use fire safely and efficiently. We need to understand its fragility and respect its power. Mastering it enables us to recreate the interdepenence with nature and a link with our ancestors. It helps us survive. It also teaches us about preparation, patience and overcoming failure when your ember gets extinguished and you have to start over. We aim to show Wildcraft particpants that fire is not just about destruction but it is about preservation and creation. Whilst many would point to rubbing sticks together as the pinnacle of achievement, carrying an ember for a long journey and keeping it alive enough to light your fire at the end of the day is just as fundamental and was used for hundreds of thousands of years before we discovered how to make it ourselves.

For us on Wildcraft it is the fire that is a constant life at the heart of our woodland community for the week. It welcomes you in the morning and lulls you to sleep at night. It is around the fire we exchange stories, experiences and revelations. It is the fire that will be a beacon for us when we return after a long day in the wilderness – a place of gathering and joining as a single tribe.

Wildcraft perspectives: shelter

Shelter in its most basic form is just that: a shield protecting us from the extremes of nature – keeping us warm, dry, cool or safe. However, shelter is not just a physical sanctuary but a mental envelope – helping us face the challenges that these elements can throw at us; allowing us to withdraw – for a time – to a predictable place so we can regroup, recover or reflect. It is a place we might call home; a stable piece of land in a world of flux. A good shelter is one that becomes our bridgehead for pushing further into the unknown or a nest for when we have decided to stay a while longer. Sometimes this shelter might be a fallen tree or even the thin-ness of a hammock or a bivi-bag may be just enough separation from the raw elements swirling around you. It may be a more extravagant design for the longer term: it could even have a thatched roof and proper front door!

Learning how to build a shelter is an important cornerstone for Wildcraft. It teaches us about natural and man-made materials, different designs for different conditions, it teaches the practicalities of knots and lashings. It teaches us how to place and position a shelter in the landscape to ensure that it is safe, comfortable and has little impact. Best of all it shows that building it and living in it helps the bonds of the tribe become strong.

Making a shelter teaches you about your immediate environment (and much about the people who build it with you). However once you have mastered the basics of shelter building we like just sitting back and marvelling at the ingenuity of how our young Wildcraft architects set to making their own wonderful structures and show us that there are no limits to their untethered imagination.

Ghostly tales around the fire

I spent two magical evenings around the campfire at the Wildcraft week, telling the young women’s initiation story of Vasilisa and Baba Yaga and one the Grimm’s story of Iron Jack, an initiation story for young men.  The group had an even better tale to tell me of their wild feline encounter (see blog entry below) and as the evening wore on we fell to telling true stories under the stars.  Just before bed, the group wanted ghost stories, of course, and we told some true ones including one of a picture I took of a house in France, as tumbledown as Sleeping Beauty’s castle, where we dicovered love letters in the attic from two centuries before and when I printed the first photograph of the path through the woods, a friend said: “But who is that young man in old-fashioned clothes with his arm around the women in white with the hat?”  Once you’ve seen them , it’s difficult to imagine they’re not there… I promised I’d post it up for Wildcraft participants  and it not great quality, but here it is:

An encounter with the wild

One particular event in the Wildcraft week was the highlight for most, and it was something we could never have planned and could only have hoped for..!

We were almost at our new camp. After walking for nearly three hours from Embercombe, everyone was exhausted and ready to sit down. Mark was enthusiastically marching ahead, until he stopped and crouched on the ground, tracing the shapes of some animal prints in the mud with his fingers. Everyone gathered around, intrigued. Mark looked puzzled, ‘For a print this big, you’d think it was a dog…But strangely, the print shows no claw marks above the pads, and is therefore much more like a cat print.’ It was clear that if the prints had been made by a cat, it must be a very, very big one. Continue reading