The skin lays fur-side down on the forest floor onto which we place the fillets as we cut them: tenderloin and shoulders, belly, back. Finally the haunches, which remain hanging side by side still joined at the pelvis, are divided on a tree stump with a sharp blow from a log onto the back of a sturdy blade, then placed in metal bowls and shared equally between the four of us. No one else seems to want the kidneys and liver. I can’t pass up this nutrition. I have eaten only rosehips and sloes so far today. Each autumn I head to the trees to live for a while. For years this meant a wild camp or a bushcraft workshop. These days I do it formally, as both a retreat and a kind of challenge to improve my skills. There are four of us in the woods this week, all in our own little camps with varying amounts of knowledge and experience. We walked out at first light on empty stomachs from base camp to these Wiltshire woods, which are part of a huge private estate protected by gamekeepers; lucrative woods, yet also teeming with wildlife, largely unmolested and beautiful.
The forest is the site of the rite of passage. Without the woods, we humans are stuck in a hall of mirrors, bound to reflect only our man-made world and ideas.
In his book The Forest and The Field, playwright and theatre-maker Chris Goode writes of this site of transformation. In European myth and story the liminal space where most challenges and tests occur is in the trees, the forest is the site of the rite of passage. Without them, we humans are stuck in a hall of mirrors, bound to reflect only our man-made world and ideas. If we fail to protect the woods, we have one less route to the non-human. As the leaves inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, the humus of woods absorbs hubris and permits livelihood, to those who will lower themselves a little. Yet we who chance our arm in the forest must return with the knowledge we gain amongst the trees to ‘the field’, to ‘the village’. Do this, or risk staying forever in a false liminality, writes Goode, in an artificial deferment of community and responsibility, things which capitalism encourages us to avoid, so that it may better sell us expensive salves for our broken-heartedness.
Living on a boat, making natural art materials, spending time beneath trees, you are always learning the ropes, spinning a yarn, mulling things over. Somehow I have learned to trust the physical world and to know in my bones my small place within wider nature. I don’t have delusions of invincible capability. Yet it is something new and good to be a woman, approaching 50, menopausal, reeking of woodsmoke, standing here with my knife in hand fletching an atlatl dart so that it will fly true and hit its mark.
There are many things to consider when picking a place to make camp, but after a few years exploring English woodlands you just get a sense of it: stay clear of trees that are likely to fall in high winds, have firewood nearby, some shelter from the prevailing wind, not too far from the water supply. I walk around to see where the three chaps have settled. They are cutting beams, building lean-tos, raised sleeping platforms and walls. We each have with us a small folding saw, a fixed blade knife, a billy can, a length of cord, a head torch, and apart from any personal medication, just the clothes we stand up in, all which must be made of natural materials – no Gore-Tex or shell layers. The challenge is not to survive, anyone could do that by curling up under a bush and waiting. We are here to live well, to be at home in these woods.
I go back towards the huge fallen oak that seems to have chosen me, and slide under the now horizontal trunk, weathered with age but still whole and strong. The space it leaves is tall enough for me to sit up if I keep my bed low. I pile up long sticks along the windward side and cover it with brash and bracken. Realising I am light-headed with hunger I make a fire with flint and steel, as I am not yet quick enough, or skilful enough, to make a bow-drill set on the fly, but by next year I must be. Using the upturned lid of my billy can I fry a couple of bits of tenderloin and liver in a small glob of deer-fat. Hours go by thatching the shelter, but I neglect to construct a fire reflector – being waylaid by making a tripod on which to dry venison for jerky – which our instructor points out to me just before dark, and so I work until 11pm. Venison stew with nettles, dandelion leaves and root, silverweed root, plantain leaves, water. I only eat half, so I have something for the morning, I sleep well, waking when the fire is low, to build it up.
I have questions for the woods again. A year ago to the day (a ‘year and a day’ by lunar reckoning) I was sitting in a 20-foot circle carpeted with fallen needles, under a huge spruce tree in Transylvania. I was in Romania as one of two artists in residence invited by Andres Roberts and Paul Kingsnorth for the year-long Dark Mountain course ‘Fire and Shadow’. On reaching the spot where I was to spend the next 27 hours, I dropped my bag, sat down on a root, and looked up at the grand tree beside me. I asked myself: I wonder if this spruce tree produces a sticky resin like the local Scots pine trees back home?
At that moment I put my hand down beside me and immediately felt a large lump of resin, which must have fallen not long before, as it was still malleable. Turning it over in my palm I jumped, as the distinct features of a very old woman’s face looked back at me. I am not a superstitious person but this moment of pareidolia felt like a meeting. What was that line in the Lindwurm story we had heard told around the fire only two nights before? ‘An old woman appeared from behind, or perhaps from within, the tree.’ The questions I brought to the woods that night were of how to deal with the fierce changes wrought by menopause, of how to reconnect with nature as I had in my youth, and how to be of help to someone dear to me, who was suffering great losses. I asked with a sincere heart under a full moon as practically and simply as I could.
In the old stories as in life, it turns out that the answer you ask for is rarely given in the form you expect.
Today the jerky is drying well on the tripod, it’s time to pick more greens, rosehips, sloes and dig a burdock root from the wood’s edge. I pick an inch-thick stick and cut a chisel point on it with my knife, meet up with one of the lads and go for a foraging walk. Lars has come all the way from Norway, as to train in deciduous forests is a novelty for him. He teaches people outdoors skills for a living and has been diligently filming himself on his video camera for his YouTube channel. He has already made a yew bow and some hazel arrows as we all have to make some kind of projectile weapon, to retrospectively earn our venison rations with target practice on the final morning of camp. I will make an atlatl tomorrow, a kind of lightweight spear with a separate hand-held accelerating thrower.
We dig roots in hot sunshine, nibbling at warm berries, which have all become very sweet in the late heatwave. Later, with the burdock softened in today’s version of the stew, my body now accustomed to hunger and work without carbohydrates, the starches go straight to my head and I lie back on one of my host-tree’s wide branches, and look up at the Milky Way humming to life above the Great Ridge Woods. I once read that an oak tree like this supports more living beings in its ‘death’ than most other species do in life. I ask the tree, silently, is my burning-time over for now? Can I settle my heart and tend to my hearth? How can I best work with nature, both the inner and outer wilds, not to tame them, but also not to get eaten?
I was not always so happy outdoors. In the summer of 2001, on tour with my band, I slipped a disc. By the time the excruciating pain lifted somewhat, two days after my wedding day, I hobbled round to my doctor to take her a piece of wedding cake. I mentioned the numbness and she immediately tested the feeling in my limbs using a pin. By the evening I was in an MRI scanner, the next morning on the operating table. During my recovery the band decamped to The Lake District, a bad idea during the widespread foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. We walked around Derwent Water, and as the guys swam, I limped off to answer a call of nature under a spreading oak tree. I wondered if ceps and bay boletus fungi grew here under the oaks, they were supposed to grow hereabouts… As I squatted down, all around me I could suddenly see ceps, bay boletes, and other fungi which I had not seen from above when walking in, despite a decade of foraging experience. Getting low, humble, even broken, allowed me to see what I had been missing, what was there all along. The light seemed for a long moment to illuminate each thing from within, there was a crispness to the edges of everything in my field of vision. I felt part of nature in a way I hadn’t since my childhood. By the time I stood up and fastened my belt the feeling had gone, lost in analysis and inspection by my mind. It took me over ten years to remember how to return to this way of being.
Somehow I have learned to trust the physical world and to know in my bones my small place within wider nature
It’s the morning of the fourth day in camp, tomorrow we walk back to a fry-up breakfast and debrief with my long-time bushcraft and wilderness skills instructor Joe O’Leary. In the 1990s and early 2000s, ‘Bushcraft’ was a booming business in the UK, with thousands of people heading off to the woods to train with famous instructors from TV, and to get expensively kitted-out. Friends who still teach these skills say the last few years have seen a dramatic change: most people want instant results, take photos constantly to post to their social media in real-time, and want to opt out of anything physically demanding, or lengthy. Ironically, books about ancestral skills and the outdoor life in general are selling better than ever. One friend sees his future in writing more books about his knowledge, rather than passing it on in person.
We stand 30 feet in front of a target. One of the crew, a heart surgeon, had to leave early to operate urgently on a young girl. His camp was left immaculate, raised bed, thick thatch. If you came across it in the woods, you would know something of the attitude and skill of the man who made it. Joe has brought us each a potato, a Baby-bel cheese, a Snickers bar, a stock cube and a banana, which we get to earn by hitting the target. I would normally only choose the potato from all these things in a shop but my stomach says, ‘Shoot straight!’ and as we take our turns, we earn our treats. It takes me a while longer than the guys with bows and arrows, but the spear flies true and the pheasant feather and deer sinew fletching holds up well. Afterwards we take a tour of each other’s camps, appreciating the different skill-sets and features. Mine is the one camp without straight lines, and it appears I am the only woman to have completed this ‘Hunter Gatherer Challenge’ in all the years Joe has run it. The rest of the day is free to relax and just enjoy the woods. I make a basket from hazel and ivy and go foraging with it for greens to add to the pot.
Things pass between me and the fallen oak tree. A few things get buried. Lying under the red-brown trunk on my last night, I ask myself just how many life-forms this tree still supports. Little black beetles scurry away, a spider settles in a crack by my head. There is a word of carved graffiti above my face, where only another recumbent human could have placed it. I think it says ‘- Clive’, or ‘- Olive’ or perhaps ‘to live’. I take a piece of chalk gathered deeper in the woods, wondering what to add. Who might one day lie here, and find someone had left greetings for them? Fox, owl, stag beetle, human?