Grab a drink, get comfy and prepare to read…
There have been a number of discussions in the blogosphere lately concerned with the nature of bushcraft. Some inquisitive and insightful minds have taken a step back to try to see the big picture. Why has product “X” become so associated with bushcraft? Why does modern bushcraft mimic certain historical periods? What the f@%# is bushcraft?! I think all of this questioning is great. It means we’re taking time out to examine what we’re doing, rather than just automatically accepting things the way they’re presented to us by certain personalities, marketing departments or crowd mentalities. And while it is worthwhile to explore what the term “bushcraft” itself means to each of us, it is far more meaningful and rewarding to just get out into the field and workshop to develop our skills and knowledge in a way that makes us happy, in whatever form it might be. I have to admit that I was hesitant to write this post at all because my personal view doesn’t pertain to anyone else, but I figured I’d throw my 2 cents out there for the heck of it. I’m not trying to redefine what the community calls bushcraft or ruffle anybody’s feathers. I will continue to publicly use the word bushcraft as it is commonly used. The following simply describes what the word has come to mean to me.
A few months ago, I came across a post by the user “rautasarvi” at the Bushcraft Finland forum that truly redefined the concept bushcraft in my mind (http://bushcraftfinland.atfreeforum.com/metsastys-kalastus-ja-keraily-f30/jousi-t259.html). Actually, what it did was to allow some thoughts which had been brewing for a while to percolate to the surface and crystallize. This guy rautasarvi is talented, and I mean TALENTED. He can probably make just about any piece of gear you’d want and do an amazing job at it, too. His real name is Ilkka Seikku, and his website is http://tuluskivi.suntuubi.com/. In his forum post, Ilkka showed how he made a functional, hunting-legal bow…with no tools. Let me clarify: He made a bow in the forest without bringing any modern tools with him whatsoever. He used rocks, boulders and a moose bone he found to do the work. These were his tools. When I saw that post, one thought sprang to my mind: “Now THIS is bushcraft, TRUE bushcraft.” This man went to the bush and created a serious tool with his brain and hands. At that moment, I realized that my personal understanding of what true bushcraft really is became “the skills and knowledge which allow people to survive and thrive in the natural environment using only those items and materials which can be found/modified there.” This would cover the technology level and lifestyle of natives in the New World, Australia and other areas prior to contact with more artificial technologies from outside, as well as those of any human society which was totally self-sufficient (and yes, I do realize that even this is nebulous, since everything that exists today can be traced back to some original natural material or process if you go back far enough).
I do realize that this definition covers only a small subset of what we call bushcraft, but after seeing how Ilkka made that bow, I just have not been able to view bushcraft in the same way. Somehow, it just doesn’t make sense to me to lump together the making of Ilkka’s bush bow with the use of a ferro rod and Vaseline-soaked cotton balls to make fire and a sil-nylon tarp held up with parachute cord to make a shelter. Don’t get me wrong, I have NOTHING against these items and methods, and a ferro rod and modern tarp are regular parts of my gear selection. I’m not planning on rejecting modern implements and technologies etc. and “going paleo”. I’m just saying that I can no longer categorize those three things together under the general heading of “bushcraft”. Maybe what I think of as true bushcraft should be called “paleocraft” or “stone-age craft” or “nature-craft” or something. Maybe there is already a name for it, and I’m just unaware of it!
What we commonly call bushcraft spans the gamut from “true bushcraft” to “modern camping” (yes, there’s an immense range there), and varies from person to person and area to area. I think of it as often focusing on old-timey camping and survival skills (e.g. those of the mountain men, pioneers in both North America and other continents and that presented by Nessmuk, Kephart, Kochanski etc.) with some modern implements and some ancient skills and knowledge thrown in as well (a perfectly “normal” bushcraft kit might include a Kephart-style knife, a ferro rod and a bow-drill set). My gear choices, skills and methods happen to share much with the conventional view of bushcraft, but considering what I now think of as “true bushcraft”, I hesitate to continue to call most of what I do bushcraft. I would almost rather call it “woodsmanship”, “traditional camping”, “wilderness survival/living” or something along those lines. Sure, there are some elements of true bushcraft in what I do (using natural tinders, eating wild edibles, using fire for warmth and cooking, using harvested materials to make tools/implements etc.), but not nearly enough to put me in a league with people like Ilkka. I am in fact interested in increasing my knowledge and skill in the area of true bushcraft, for example by learning flint knapping and similar skills, but honestly, I love using steel knives and axes, metal pots, matches and other modern items like this.
As I said earlier on, part of me is hesitant to make definitions and categorize things like this, since the important thing is just to get out there and do stuff, not to argue semantics. Hopefully, though, this post has encouraged you to look at our hobby from a slightly different perspective.
By the way, the knives (and axes) are coming, I promise. 😉