One learns a landscape finally not by knowing the name or identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it.
—Barry Lopez, ‘Landscape and Narrative’
We are polite and tentative with each other. Many of the 18 participants wear the trademark rewilder outfit of buckskin and carry sheepskin rugs. There are flasks made of wood and plenty of hand-carved spoons and bowls stashed neatly on shelves in the hut where we store our utensils and any extra food we have brought. My industrial-era enamelware is out of place, ruining the vibe, violating the aesthetic. I am looking at people’s feet. Some of the shoes look handmade. There is jewellery crafted out of leather and bone, holey sweaters fastened with buttons made from deer claws. There are tufts of fur. I do not look like these people. A few of us city-dwellers wear clothing that shouts ‘civilisation’ and ‘sweat shops’ and I am grateful not to be the only ‘civ’ here.
As if from nowhere, Lynx Vilden bounds barefoot like a cat towards us. I had first heard of Lynx when I was living in Montana. She is revered in the West for living as our Paleolithic ancestors did. Her knowledge of ancestral skills is vast and rumour has it she can get a fire started in 30 seconds with only two sticks. She is all buckskin clothing, chiselled cheekbones, spiky blonde hair and eyes the colour of a mountain lake. Born in 1965, Lynx is exactly my age but looks like Brigitte Nielsen’s younger Stone Age sister. For a rewilder (they tend to be a quiet bunch) she has quite an online presence. The tagline on her website is: ‘We aim to “live” in the wilderness, rather than “survive” it to get back to civilization.’ I never managed the seven-hour drive from my bungalow in Missoula to her yurt in Twisp, Washington. So, when I heard she was teaching ancestral skills for a week in April somewhere in Dartmoor National Park, I pounced.
Lynx silently motions with her hands for us to gather and then begins to walk away. We are to follow her to a nearby patch of flat ground where she instructs us without words to take off our shoes. She is holding a hand drill – a flat piece of wood called the hearth, and a stick, which is the bow. She motions for Leah, one of the participants to hold the bottom of the bow onto the hearth while she spins it. Lynx gestures for us to gather some dry grass. It takes maybe 45 minutes for us to take turns holding the hearth and spinning the bow to get enough heat for the grass to light. Lynx carries this smoking bundle through the woods and we follow. I am not used to walking barefoot over hard early spring ground. The pine needles, sticks and rocks hurt my soft city feet.
Lynx lights a larger fire with the bundle and we sit around it in a circle. Our week of living outdoors on Dartmoor has officially begun. Dusk is settling. A wind picks up and I straighten my legs so my bare feet catch some of the warmth of the fire. We pass around a talking stick and tell each other what ‘miracle’ brought us here.
Back at camp, Katie the cook has a large pot of venison stew waiting for us. The meat came to us from Bob, a local deerstalker. Any worries about the animal’s welfare are put to rest. After supper we take turns saying what we are grateful for. Many people list the deer we have just eaten. Thanking the food and the land seems to be a common thread. It would be easy to be cynical, to do a Portlandia-style satire on the middle-class Paleo folk who don their buckskin, make fire from sticks, play their handmade flutes, and thank the stones for being stones. But there is more here. I can feel it although I have no name for it, yet.
After dinner, we tell the group what we were passionate about when we were seven years old. I talk of my upbringing in the soulless Canadian suburbs. Most of the participants tell tales of playing in streams and catching frogs. Canadian suburbs are designed for cars, for life with sunken living rooms, dry bars, rec rooms, where everything is tinted by the glare of TV. I hated growing up in those suburbs and now I am feeling as I so often do, somewhat disappointed, even a little angry that my childhood was spent not in the woods but in a place where soil was called ‘dirt’, where lawns were mowed to a buzzcut every few days and where bees were swatted to death for fear they might ruin the barbecue. I had no connection with the place I grew up in. This has always rankled me. My birthplace has left me empty-handed of stories, unlike the ground I am sitting on now with its hauntings and druids, ghost stories, songs and rituals involving stone, bone, moss, fertile swathes of soil and rainsoaked ferns.
The next day I tuck my knife into a cloth bag with some bread and cheese, a bottle of water, my journal and Crossing Open Ground by Barry Lopez. We begin a silent walk where each one of us is led to a spot to sit for an hour or so. From my rock I can see a decaying stone wall covered in moss. Fallen trees are criss-crossed with ivy. Gigantic bees buzz around me but what I notice most of all are the birds: wood pigeons and the quick trills of what I think is a wood warbler. Sunlight struggles to make its way to the floor of the forest through the branches of very tall oaks. Where I sit, the air is cool. I am aware of the two landscapes we all move between: the one outside us and the other that exists within.
Our assigned task is to gather ‘vegetal matter with a utilitarian value for the whole group’. This way of thinking is so foreign. We have all become so individualised, so atomised with our own phones, computers, flats, social media accounts. City life is the opposite of what Lynx is creating here which in a word can only be described as a tribe. I bristled when I heard it being used earlier in the day. I felt it was a word one needed to earn. But now I am beginning to understand that a tribe can be formed when we rely on others for our food and shelter, warmth and companionship.
I am seeing the landscape for what it can do rather than as a collection of named objects; as active, not passive. Barry Lopez captures this idea in his essay ‘Landscape and Narrative’ when a black-throated sparrow lands in a paloverde bush: ‘the resiliency of the twig under the bird, that precise shade of yellowish-green against the milk-blue sky, the fluttering whir of the arriving sparrow’, these are what he means by ‘landscape’. It is by watching the landscape that one learns it, not necessarily by knowing the names of things.
I spot some fiddleheads. My mother would buy small packs of these velvety green ferns at vast expense from the supermarket in Ottawa. She would unwrap them from their clingfilm, lift them from their Styrofoam trays and then soak them, boil them and sauté them in butter. We would savour the two or three on our plates as if they were gold. I harvest a few to bring back to the group. I look around for something else I might be able to share. I pull off a hunk from a charred stump. We could draw with it. Then I spot a bone. This could be a ladle or a spoon. I put that in my bag and top it up with some young nettles. We can use these for tea. My inadequacy is making me manic. Just then I see members of the group approach. I take a breath and join the line. Some of them have bulging bags and I wonder what foods and implements they have conjured from these woods.
We walk silently across fields and through forests of bluebells. Eventually we come to Blackingstone Rock, a 75-foot high, Christmas-pudding-shaped tor of pure granite flecked with shiny feldspar. Running up the back of the tor, like a spine, is a metal ladder. We climb to the top where the wind whips and where the views over Dartmoor spread out on all sides.
The Dartmoor chronicler William Crossing believed that in an attempt to settle an argument, King Arthur and the Devil hurled a giant quoit at each other. As the quoits hit the ground they turned to stone creating the two tors, one of which was Blackingstone Rock and the other Hel Tor. The tor is pockmarked with small circular basins, which I am told were druidical altars. Like a cat, Lynx curls into one for a nap.
We head back into the forest, quieter now, feeling the effects of the sunwarmed stone on our backs. Lynx instructs us to gather two dry sticks and eight switches of hazel. People are running into the woods, knives and folding saws at the ready. I am feeling lost. Ella and Carlos, a couple who I had spoken to earlier, notice my anxiety and patiently show me what hazel looks like and offer me the use of their saw.
Once we have our sticks, we head back to camp. Katie has prepared fried pollock with mashed swedes, parsnips and celeriac. I am hungry. In my effort to lighten my backpack, I took out a lot of my food. Hunger is something I have forgotten how to live with. I am shamed by this.
As I try and sleep that night, I hear an owl’s repeated hooting and the response from a more distant owl. They are marking their territory. I fall asleep with a burning desire to understand them. It is only when they stop their hooting around 4:00 a.m. that I wake. It is the silence that has roused me. A very faint light creeps over my tent, almost like a shadow. I feel I am suspended in that fleeting moment between night and day, between the animals of the dark and those who emerge with the light. I am inhabiting a precious liminal moment. At 52, I am suspended between youth and old age and this sense of being between things seems to be the frequency I am tuned to. The word comes from the Latin limen, or threshold. I am feeling it everywhere. A strange sense of total and utter wellbeing consumes me. And then the birds of the morning take over. The woods around me fill with sound. Life can continue for another day.
We are to find a partner and forage for our lunch. I am paired with Lynx. We walk together down a lane away from the camp. Lynx had seen some very young, green spruce buds. She shows me how to remove the brown husks from the lime-green almond-shaped buds. They have a sharp, astringent lemony taste. She spots a curved slice of fallen tree bark to put them in. It makes the perfect receptacle which in New York or London would add about £20 to the price of a meal in a restaurant (‘served on a hand-harvested spruce board infusing the buds with the taste and smell of wilderness’).
With her survival skills, Lynx shares similarities with Preppers. But, rather than fill her bunker with dried food, bottled water and ammunition, she is prepared in another way: Lynx can live in the wilderness by hunting, gathering, making bows, arrows, clothing and whatever else she needs; she does not have to escape the wild in order to survive it. The Doomsday approach of Preppers who see themselves surviving the economic collapse by storing up on man-made supplies is based on fear and a mistrust of government. A bunker lined with tin cans and bars of gold is finite, whereas Lynx has the skills needed to survive indefinitely – skills that can be passed on. They might both share a mistrust of the system, but their approach could not be more different.
We all place our foraged food onto a picnic table. The colours are spectacular. We silently take turns trying every plant, taking in the smells and tastes and textures: stitchwort, garlic mustard or Jack-by-the-hedge, gorse flowers, pink purslane, primrose, violets, landcress, pennywort or navelwort, dock leaves, hawthorn leaves and spruce buds. It is like eating a fairytale.
That afternoon we are to begin our baskets. This is what the sticks are for. I break into a sweat. I have only ever made one basket and it looked like those photos of webs made by spiders on LSD: anxious, wonky and a bit mental, revealing more about me than I care to.
Lynx shows us how to strip the bark from our hazel sticks, how to bend them and tie them into a U-shape using animal hide as string. I feel my body move in sync with the making of my basket: I bend to make the wood bend, my muscles contract when I tie the struts together. When the deer hide is soaking, I stand, relaxed, watching it soften in the water. This work is three-dimensional, tactile. There are smells and sounds – it is anathema to the flat, backlit screens we all spend our days staring into. It is this physical dimension I have been craving without knowing it.
On our second-to-last day, there is a snow flurry. As the snow gets heavier, we take shelter in the lodge, the one structure with a roof, and watch the grove of beeches bleach to white. A wind whips the flakes around us. Lynx announces we will walk out onto the moor with what we can fit in our baskets and we will camp without tents. Many of us think she is joking and look at each other and laugh. We go silent as we realise she is being absolutely serious. I am not prepared to camp in the snow. An elderly gentleman from France comes over and whispers to me, ‘This is too much!’ He is on the verge of a very Gallic rebellion.
‘Let’s see what the weather is like tomorrow,’ Lynx says as a way of placating us.
The following morning the inside of my tent is a golden pink. I step out onto crispy, white grass. We had agreed that if it wasn’t raining we would head off for our night of wild camping. I pack. We hike out late morning walking through bluebell meadows, crossing streams on bridges made of fallen granite slabs and we say hello to the inhabitants of the few small towns we pass through. They stare at our buckskin and hazel baskets strapped to our backs. We are filthy and giggle like children at the disconnect between us and the villagers with their Lidl bags, heading home to their running water and televisions.
After about three or four hours we come to a wall of Herculean boulders. We scramble up. On the other side is a tiny patch of flat ground, just big enough to cradle a fire and our bodies around it. We set up camp and Katie heats up some leftover stew made from Chunko the lamb, whom we had been eating throughout the week. She adds nettles and throws a few garlic heads into the fire along with some sweet potatoes. We eat with our hands and there is something wonderfully primitive about being here, eating like this from the land. We sing, we laugh, we chat. The group is one unit now.
After dinner, I am told the temperature will sink below freezing. I move my bivvy bag from between two slabs of rock to a spot next to Tiffany, a woman with a surplus of blankets. We agree to ignore the ticks. I go to bed before the others. Maybe it is because I am the youngest of seven children, but I feel comforted falling asleep to the faint murmur of voices. When I was young, much of my education came from this late night eavesdropping. Perhaps it was my attempt to recreate tribal life in those cold, atomised suburbs.
I listen to the laughter and the crackling of the fire. I watch the stars above me. I never want to leave. I am suspended here. We all are. This is the discovery I make: we are all living liminal lives. Denying this is part of the madness. The only real thing is the liminality of life, the moments when we can inhabit fluidity, accept the threshold. We are just passing through, why should we expect anything other than being between places and times and states of being. I let my tears quietly fall. There is that familiar tickle as the salty water slides along my cheekbones into my ears. This is right. I should be crying. I have lived another day. We have all lived another day. This feels like the miracle it is. Sleep comes to me before the group has dispersed for the night. My dreams are more vivid than they have been for a long time.
I get back to London very late that night. My ten-year-old daughter is still up. She runs to hug me. ‘You smell of dead animal,’ she says excited at this meaty version of her mother.
My husband Jason asks, ‘So, are you a new person?’
Me: ‘Um, yeah.’
Jason: ‘Will I like this new person?’
Me: ‘I don’t know.’
Jason: ‘Do you like this new person?’
Me: ‘I don’t know yet. I have no idea.’
All photographs by author
Joanna Pocock is an Irish-Canadian writer living in London via Montana. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, Orion Magazine, The Tahoma Literary Review, The Los Angeles Times, Distinctly Montana, Litro, Mslexia and 3:AM. She is currently writing a series of linked essays on extreme relationships between humans and their environments.