From August 2018 – For many years one of my true hobbies – something I do purely for the love of it – has been bushcraft, or what is called wilderness or earth skills in most other countries. It has fed into my art, my crafts, my practice and my sense of being a human in the greater web of life. Everyone I have studied with has been good, thankfully. I have learned more with Joe O’Leary than with anyone else and been on perhaps a dozen of his courses over the years, some of them a couple of times or more.

Also, it will be a year since my transformative fast in the wild woods of Carpathia, Romania, so I am hoping to complete a challenging year by stepping mindfully back into the woods with my wits about me for the Hunter Gatherer Challenge. I will hone my skills again later this Autumn. Unless you have been doing lots in the woods, you won’t be able to join me on this one, but I will happily accept your wishes of good luck and for a plentiful hazelnut and porcini harvest to coincide with the course.

Joe, like many of my friends who teach real skills, finds that folks coming along now just don’t have the staying power for long courses, and that their attention spans are shorter each year. Is the ubiquity of the internet making us all stupid and distracted? Discuss.

The three or four most important internally transformative moments of my life have taken place in the forest, while hungry, at some risk and usually slightly under the weather or recovering from injury. I always get more than I bargain for when I pay attention to nature, ask sincere and simple questions, such as ‘I wonder if ceps grow under these oak trees at Derwent.’ Or ‘I wonder if spruce trees have resin on the bark that I can collect, as with pine trees.’ So, rather than struggle for ever in the dark where we are, (though the dark is an important phase and must be endured), at some point we have to pick ourselves up and mindfully put ourselves in the place where we feel life can reveal itself to us again. Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes superbly about this in her book ‘Women Who Run With The Wolves’, as part of the life/death/life process. (It is also written of in Robert Bly’s ‘Iron John’, in relation to men’s psyches.)

One of the ways out of the mire of self is by exercising one’s hard-won skill. That may be a craft, a quality in one’s daily work, a hobby, an inner practice. This is not about being good at something for the sake of it, or indeed making anything that another person would recognise as a product at all. It could be tending the garden with great care and attention. It might mean finishing that tapestry or carpentry we have neglected. It is risking singing aloud, reading that poem out, sleeping out in the autumn woods alone with little kit and no tent. When I was younger I used to think freedom was being able to ‘do what I want’. Now I feel it is more often being able to have the time and space to practice what I love. This can be my art, writing, T’ai Chi, earth skills… it changes according to the year and to life, as to what feeds me. Right now it’s Heart Work and drawing. Who knew?

May you find what you love to practice that feeds your life, and if you already know what that is, may you have time this year to practise it.

Published by Caroline Ross

Artist, maker, teacher of earth materials, founder of Great River T'ai Chi.

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