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Back to Basics

“Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!” – Thoreau

“Would not one ‘Simplify‘ have sufficed?” – Emerson

The point of my year of microadventure is to prompt people to conjure up their own ideas (like this, this, this or this), not to be prescriptive. And in this case that’s probably a good thing because, unless you have a friend who can start a fire by rubbing two sticks together, then you’ll likely find this one even harder than I did!

I had decided I wanted a microadventure that was about getting back to basics. Simplifying. Getting away from it all. Slowing down. I got in touch with Nick Weston who I first met a couple of years ago living in a treehouse. By chance he had been asked to write a magazine article about living as a hunter-gatherer [hence the delay in this blog post – I had to wait for the article to come out first]. He was happy for me to join him for a few days.

The last song I heard before walking out into those green, fresh Sussex woods was Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt‘. It seemed prescient.

Off we went, armed only with a knife, an axe, and a bow-drill. We had some pre-made biltong and a lump of meat to start us off. And, as nicking wild birds’ eggs is frowned upon, we took a box of eggs with us too. We had the clothes we stood up in and a couple of furs for nighttime warmth. That was all. It was an easy trip to pack for.

The Caveman Diaries

We were curious to find out if we could cope in an English wood with only these basics. The brief answer is ‘no’!

In May we were too late for spring greens, too early for nuts and fruit. We lived on burdock roots, pig nuts and three-cornered leeks. We were hungry. Very, very hungry! We made fire with a bow-drill, built shelters from pliant hazel and hornbeam boughs, shivered at night and struggled to find sufficient food. It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun…

Hop shoots

This microadventure was the most interesting of the year so far. We didn’t move anywhere, we didn’t see much, we didn’t do much. But living in a small wood for a few days, with no contact with the real world, and all our meals, comfort and shelter entirely dependent on our hard work, was an incredibly difficult, enlightening, calming experience. I highly recommend having a go at slowing your life right down and simplifying things, if only for a day or two.

Back in London, on the Underground, nobody sat next to me (bonus!) for I reeked of woodsmoke. I was hypersensitive after days in a green world of silence, wind and birdsong. I looked with more attention and interest at the mundanities of life. Food smelled better. Women looked more beautiful. Music sounded better.

The Caveman Diaries

Returning home (via -shamefully yet salivatingly- McDonalds) and switching on my computer I discovered I had just an hour before a deadline for an article. It was for an interesting project and I didn’t want to let them down. So here’s what I rattled off:

“Huge news in England: another plane-grounding volcanic eruption from Iceland, Obama-mania overcomes British determination to keep calm and carry on, and a footballer’s been sleeping with a big-boobed Reality TV “star.”

All this is news, and news to me.

With some thought, I figure out it’s Wednesday. I have to check my calendar for the date for I emerged, only a couple of hours ago, from the woods. Not far from home, but far from the world. I have been trying to live as a primitive hunter-gatherer in 21st Century, over-populated England. The story behind this is not relevant. Here’s what is relevant on May 25th, on this late spring evening 145 days into our year:

  • A bit of skill and a lot of practice pays off: my pal made fire from rubbing sticks in just minutes
  • Once you’ve lit a fire, gathered wood, and built a shelter, it’s quite boring for a buzzing mind to face the prospect of several days in a small wood
  • To these things I am addicted: knowing the time, coffee, music, email, Twitter
  • The days became an ever more-focused drive to forage or catch food. Food tastes better when you’ve earned it
  • Wildness and beauty is never far away: you just have to seek it out
  • Waking in the open air to birdsong and sunrise beside a smoldering fire is good for the soul

After a few hours of hating this stupid experiment, I noticed that my mind was slowing down. I was coping with no phone, no internet, no news. Instead, I started to observe; really observe. I started looking hard for those tiny edible leaves; pausing at the footfall of rabbits; paying attention to all the nature, red in tooth and claw, that was trying to survive alongside us in that wood.

My fingernails are still grubby. It feels too hot indoors. But the late-night coffee tastes so snappy now, O Soave Fanciulla sounds so sweet, and, once I’ve finished this paragraph, my bed will feel wonderful as I fall asleep, grateful for the day’s big lessons: simplify, slow down, focus only on the things that matter, remember to be grateful.”

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Comments

  1. Jackson Griffith Posted

    Even in that brief 9mins and 51seconds I already feel totally relaxed just watching you both chill out in the woods! Imagine what four days in the wilds could do for me.

    Brilliant stuff as always. Keep it coming Al (and friends).

    Reply
  2. Ironically while watching that I glanced at the time to see whether or not I had run over my supposed 30-minute lunch break.

    Reply
  3. Fascinating Al. I spent a couple of weeks on a ship a few years back completely disconnected from the world… and I remember it was fantastic.

    Reply
  4. Nice one again. We’re finishing up an Andes to Amazon trip that had way too many complications. I’m liking your back to basics ideas. Keep up the good work!

    Bob and Claire Rogers

    Reply
  5. A great bit of any adventure, be it micro or macro, Brecons or Borneo, is looking down at your phone and seeing ‘no service’. There should be a map created of where you cant get reception so you can find the closest place to get away from email, text etc.

    Reply
  6. Great stuff. For years now I’ve not worn a watch as I find it too stressful watching time tick by on your wrist. I’ve found my sense of time is now pretty darn good – it’s amazing how such a little thing can help build a stronger bond with our environment. I’ve also got over worrying about ‘what other people might think’, and will happily sit in random/interesting places (countryside or urban) and observe, absorb and relax – very rewarding for the soul, whether you are looking for equanimity or creativity.
    Ryan.
    PS. Thanks for the links through to our webbo.

    Reply
  7. Lovely film Al.

    A couple of years ago I hiked the West Highland Way using these ‘mesolithic’ methods – fishing lines and foraging. I lasted two days then ended up in a hotel with (almost) hypothermia.

    Still enjoyed it though!

    Reply
  8. this blog just got me SUPER excited, thank you! you are an amazing writing!!!!!! i love your book, moods of future joy-reading it now to prepare for my trip starting in less than a week, im so nervous but your book totally calms me down! i cant wait to get disconnected from the internet some, i wont ever be in a situation quite like this though, your journey is beautiful to read about. 🙂

    Reply
  9. Right that is me fixed. Looking for stuff to do with some primary school children. I think a source to sea it is.
    Why did it takeme so longto find a blog that reflects how I feel about getting out and doing stuff.

    Reply
  10. Hey there! Great blog. Just a quick note – you were hungry because you didn’t catch any meat. I grew up in the woods in the rockies. Game is what keeps you alive. If you want to stay alive in the woods in the north – forget foraging. Trapping and hunting skills are number one. You’ll need 2 to 3 thousand calories a day sometimes more as you’ll be cutting firewood, walking and moving. The ONLY way you’ll get that kind of calorific intake is from animal source foods. You’ll need to eat the whole animal too. Bone marrow, fat organs. Going primitive style into the woods is no joke as you probably found out! Anyway good article mate.

    Reply
  11. Thank you for the inspiration.

    Reply

 
 

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