Make the woods your home
The most obvious difference between living indoors and living outdoors is the untidyness—hence the urbanite’s obsession with leaf-blowers. But the most striking difference is the acoustics.
And a warm welcome to edition 268. For those of you who are new around these parts, I’m David Charles and I’m a UK-based writer and outdoor instructor. This week I’ve mostly been working on the launch of Spell It Out, a shiny new cycling adventure from Thighs of Steel.
You might have missed that Priti Patel and the UK government have rushed through a ‘sham’ consultation on proposed changes to asylum law that would put the UK in direct opposition to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The proposed law will shut down more of the few remaining legal routes to the UK, meaning that ‘LGBTQ+ people and those fleeing political or religious persecution will be left with no options to travel to the UK’.
In response, we’re aiming to raise £100,000 for grassroots refugee organisations by getting hundreds of cyclists to join us in breaking the record for the world’s biggest ever GPS artwork.
What are we drawing? Pictures speak louder than words:
Now, on with the show!
Make the woods your home
Firstly: thanks for all the lush comments on last week’s bushcrafting story, Forget the kit list. And my sincere apologies to those of you who I made spit out your tea in mirth. I’m happy you found my failure amusing.
But I also didn’t mean to leave you with the impression that I had an entirely miserable time. Once I got my fire going, the rest of the week was an unalloyed delight—so much so that, after only five days in the woods, it felt distinctly weird to be indoors.
For someone who lived in London for the best part of sixteen years, it’s really saying something to declare that I now find Bournemouth ‘too hectic’.
Last Friday, I was welcomed back to the sleepy seaside town by an extraordinary chorus of construction as asbestos recyclers drilled their way through the guts of the hotel opposite. Lugging my firesmoked bushcraft backpack across the car park, a phalanx of gardeners advanced on me with roaring hurricanes.
But it wasn’t just the terrorising leaf blowers employed on the denuded concrete that put me on edge. It was the silence.
Mucking about in the woods and sleeping in an arctic lean-to, I had been open to the elements for five days. Perhaps the most obvious difference between living indoors and living outdoors is the untidyness—hence the urbanite’s obsession with leaf-blowers. But the most striking fact on my return to ‘civilisation’ was the change in acoustics.
Even our most cherished homes are, unromantically, nothing more than a box. We live the days of our lives tightly enclosed by the six sides of a cube. Most of us have completely adapted to this foreshortened life and would never suspect what we sacrifice for the vaunted comforts of interiority.
But after a week in the woods I could literally hear the tightening of the trap. Even in the silence after the leaf-blowers, I could hear the shrinking of my acoustic horizon. Everything closed in. Like a bat in a belfry, my senses, even my thoughts, seemed to reverberate at an uneasy frequency off the close walls. Also like a bat in a belfry, I felt a bit lost.
The woods have no walls. Sounds travel for miles and you can hear the openness and opportunity. Of course, the unimpeded travel of noise is the bane of my delicate ears in the city, but in the woods the noise is restorative. The wishful hoot of an owl, the crackle of a Vaseline-induced fire, the slip-slap of rain against the deep thatch of a watertight shelter. (Ahem.)
I don’t think I would ever have noticed this acoustic variation if I hadn’t made my home in the outdoors for a week. A long sojourn in the woods felt good for my brain: disconnected from the attention-sapping digital workday and restored by birdsong, the antibacterial air of pinenes and the dappling of sunlight through the fractal canopy.
David Strayer, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Utah, calls this the ‘three day effect’. In 2012, Strayer and his colleagues discovered that multi-day backpacking adventures led to a huge increase in creative thinking and insight problem-solving. As he explained in an interview with Florence Williams:
If you can disconnect and experience being in the moment for two or three days, it seems to produce a difference in qualitative thinking.
I’m back in the great outdoors this weekend, getting paid to help kids go on big walks. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. For these expeditions, the young people are usually forced to camp overnight on the Saturday, cooking their own stove-top dinner and learning how to put up a tent (and with each other).
This weekend, however, they get to go home on Saturday evening. This is great news for me because it means I’ll also get to sleep in a nice warm bed, but both me and the kids will be missing out on something important.
Without the direct connection to the environment that camping brings, outdoor expeditions can easily just feel like a walk in the woods—wonderful in itself, but missing much. We usually think of ‘nature’ as a leisure destination to travel through before returning to civilisation, but bushcraft is the art of making the outdoors a comfortable home that you never want to leave.
Last Thursday, in the woods, I rose before dawn to sit in a quiet spot, camouflaged with my back against a western red cedar. I hoped to watch the hares, fallow deer, pheasants and robins as they shook off their sleep and foraged for breakfast. An hour later, frozen stiff, it was almost comical how little wildlife I’d seen. One crow in the mid-distance.
But what I heard, that riotous dawn, was something else. Chitter and chatter, cackles, calls and caws, hoos, honks and hoots, yips and pips. By the time I stumbled back to camp, on a swell of brainwaves, sunlight was sneaking across the understorey.
Saturday. Back in Bournemouth, back in bed, back in the box, I was awoken by a wild beast. Chuffing, rumbling, huffing, clanking. A bin lorry. I checked the time: 5:50. A riotous dawn. A headache.
If the woods taught me anything it’s that the sum of my experience is far more than the naming of my senses. What possibilities do we not realise through decades of habituation to boxlife? Let’s learn some skills and make the woods our home.
NEW! The Books Make Bookshop
It’s almost exactly seven years since Santosh G. kindly deleted my Amazon account.
Correlation is not causation, but since leaving Amazon in April 2014 my life has become indescribably wonderful (ahem) and I would heartily encourage anyone in their endeavour to divest from the evil empire.
Nowadays, I buy my books secondhand from charity shops or resellers on eBay, but when I buy new, I also take a look on Bookshop.org.
Bookshop.org are an American B-corp, the equivalent to a social enterprise in the UK: profit for the public benefit. 10 percent of the profit from every book sold on the website, for example, is handed back to independent bookshops. In the UK, that’s already raised over £1.2 million for bricks and mortar booksellers since November last year.
Bookshop.org are not perfect. Buying secondhand or direct from your local independent bookshop is still the best way to buy a book, in my opinion.
You want to support my writing by buying great books I didn’t write!
I’m delighted to announce the launch of my very own online bookshop where you can discover the books I love best, written by the writers I love best.
The books in the Books Make Bookshop will be arranged thematically and the first to be published is Armchair Travel. These are not your hum-drum this then that then the other travelogues; these are books that truly transported me, by authors like Kapka Kassabova, Tiziano Terzani and Mark Thomas. Take a look.
I’ll be adding new lists over the coming months and I’ll be sure to shout about them in these pages.
NOTE: I receive a 10 percent cut on every book you buy from the Books Make Bookshop. It probably won't make me a millionaire, but it will help support my own writing. Because books make books. Thank you!
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100 Days of Adventure
It’s been a wonderful week, working on Thighs of Steel without an interposing screen for the first time in a year and seizing this moment of mobility to see some of my favourite people in the world. Thanks to N.R., H.S., T.S. and P.A., and the families Granville and Charles.
Finally: a huge happy birthday to G.C.—let’s go for a skate soon! 🥳🥳
Have a great weekend!