Why I hate Bushcraft...and survival

Why I hate Bushcraft...and survival

don’t remember the first time I heard the word “bushcraft” used but I do remember that I have never liked the term. Despite my negative feelings toward the phrase it seems to be the most popular and newest subset of the survival world. From Instagram hashtags, to TV shows, to outdoor suppliers, bushcraft keeps slapping me in the face and I hate it. What gives?

My dislike for the word is curious to me. As a craftsman who has gained awareness, appreciation and a million life lessons from my craftwork, I love the word “craft”. It implies process, skill, sturdy hands, attention to detail, and a love for your art. I want to be a craftsperson. Furthermore, the word bush is neutral at worst. I do like calling myself a “bush hippie” as it seems to add some wildness and grit to the normally airy and woo woo “hippie” term. We can thank Australia and England for the term “bush” as a term for wilderness. Nothing wrong or unsettling there.

If the words “bush” and “craft” are in Fine standing with me, then why do I still feel so annoyed and angry after seeing another post of a knife sitting on a stump with the hashtag “bushcraft”? Why do I want to punch a kitten after going to the store and seeing a “bushcraft” knife for sale?

It wasn’t until I went and met with one of my respected teachers that I realized why I hate the word bushcraft. Ben, now in his mid 60’s has been a primitive skills instructor for at least 30 years and has been hunting and fishing his whole life in Georgia. We got to talking about survival, flint knapping and all things outdoors as we do and he said something like this,

“It’s the same thing I saw happen to fishing and hunting in the 70’s. It went from being about skill and knowledge to about how many gadgets you got!”

It clicked for me! Of course that’s why I hate bushcraft!!

I realized then that the large majority of bushcraft posts I see aren’t about skill but are instead about what someone has purchased, what cool gadgets you have, what type of spelted wood is in your knife handle , and what angle bevel your knife edge has. My perception is that “bush-crafters” are usually more concerned with who’s got the coolest gadgets and the sharpest knife and everyone’s EDC (every day carry) items. And when things are all that takes to enter the “bushcraft” club, the club itself is devalued.

So the question comes about: how can we as outdoors folk go beyond things?

We need to shift the focus from “things” (that are easy to obtain) to things that are hard to obtain, states of being that require dedication and commitment.

Things like dedication to your craft, the joy you find in the process of making something functional and beautiful, the creativity of making something new and novel, the connection and poetry you feel when you deeply connect with your landscape, the gratitude you feel when you interact with another non-human life form, the lessons you have learned from pushing your edges and coming out of the experience a better human.

All of these things might have been part of the original intention of the word bushcraft, but once again our consumer and capitalistic society took something awesome (connection to nature, craftsmanship, and creativity) and packaged it and sold it as a commodity, which in turn ruins it completely. Once you take an experience, something that cannot be purchased, and then turn it into a commodity for purchase, you cheapen the thing itself and thus deprive yourself of the journey it normally took to get there.

Similarly, the word “survival” got high jacked by our consumerism culture and has thus created TV shows and products ripe for purchase. As with the goal of my school, Holistic Survival School, I want to reclaim the word survival. My goal as a teacher is to not post about items for purchase but rather convey the feeling one can have when connected and proud of something you’ve experienced while out in the bush. When people ask to buy things from me (bows, drums, hides) I usually respond with “I would much rather teach you how to do it yourself! :)” In fact, here is a list of our upcoming classes.

So instead of buying things online go play outside. Let’s reclaim the words bushcraft and survival and make it more about the journey not the end goal.

Instead of dedicating yourself to things, dedicate yourself to a long term relationship with the natural world — I will be more impressed with your process and dedication than I ever will with what knife you’re using, but even more importantly, you will feel the difference when you focus your awareness and intention on your internal and self motivated feelings as opposed to crap you bought at a store.

What do you think? Do you agree? Where did I get it wrong?

Stone Age and Human Evolution

It is within nearly a single icon by which most “civilized” humans today remember our ancestors of the hunter-gathering age—the arrow-head. Many public parks, museums, and even whole towns use such an icon to represent the indigenous people in which these places have been renamed by. Through the past few years or of studying lithic technologies (stone tools and their applications), I am finally beginning to understand the depth and magnitude by which the process of stone reduction lives in our essential humanity.

A mentor of mine once said that the human brain has evolved in direct connection to the succession of lithic technology among humans. To put it more explicitly—major technical breakthroughs in the advancement of stone tool technology correlate directly to turning points in the evolution of modern man, both physically and intellectually. More simply, better stone and hunting technology equals more efficient hunting, which means more meat and fat, allowing the brain to grow progressively over time. More over, flint knapping calls on the part of our brains associated with pattern recognition, the same aspect used largely in the development and usage of language!

In my short flint knapping career I have spent hundreds of hours breaking stones; each piece of stone that sits in my hand presents a new challenge, a new puzzle. Given that each new piece of stone has its own unique shape, density, desired outcome, etc., every time you sit down to work the stones ask a new dynamic way of applying the principles of reduction. It essentially becomes a game of chess mixed with a rubix cube, each move additionally requiring fine motor skills and a keen sense of proprioception (knowing where one's body parts are in space, as well as how much strength being used). In such a state of zen with each stone I am brought to new heights of problem solving skills, new levels of awareness, and greater proficiency in observing patterns in the stone that allow for more efficient reduction. You think sudoku is a mind-teaser, try flint knapping!

In the business of our modern lives I know it can feel like a waste of time to engage in a craft that seemingly has no relevance or use to our current lives. When you consider how to spend your weekend after a long week of work, soccer games, meetings, etc., is it really top on the priority list to sit down and make a pile of homemade gravel in your backyard? Probably not. Yet, there is something that continually draws me to working stone, somewhat of a daily meditation and release of energy—where else but the flint knapping pit do you get to smash two rocks together and it be totally socially acceptable?

No other skill has made me feel more closely related to human history. The process of stone reduction and using stone tools offers a window into the evolution of the thought processes and developments that have shaped us into our modern physiology and brain chemistry as homo sapiens. All it took was the search for a sharp edge.

flint knapping

The Universe Responds...

Luke McLaughlin

I was standing in the desert, nearly naked. My eyes were closed, my feet sturdy on the ground.  Moonlight abundantly rained on both the beautiful, barren land, and myself. I felt my body. I felt the desert. I felt alive.

It had only been about 4 months since I had started working in wilderness therapy in the West Desert of Utah.  I had blossomed. The program was everything I was looking for; great people, time in the wilderness, mentoring, and primitive skills.

This one particular August night, I had decided to go do some meditation/prayer/quiet time (whatever you want to call it) alone.  During my time alone, I felt this energy flow through me.  I felt gratitude, joy, and such connection to all things wild.  At this moment I dedicated my life to the pursuit of learning ancestral knowledge and teaching nature connection to other people. With this statement spoken to the universe, I again felt a surge of energy through my entire body.  Satisfied with my affirmation, I went to sleep.

In the middle of the night I suddenly awoke out of my slumber to the noise of something moving outside of my shelter. I initially thought it was a student, walking around and being sneaky, but when I looked outside of my tarp shelter, my jaw dropped.  There, not twenty feet in front of me, was a horse.  Our field in Utah was one of the last places on Earth where wild horses still roamed free, and here was one, in our camp, and stomping around.  The all black horse seemed to be displaying its power, stomping its hooves, and moving in tight circles.  At its back the full moon lit up its silhouette and dust flew all around.  I woke my co-staff to make sure it was real.  We both sat there in awe and admired the beauty and power of this beautiful animal.  And as quickly as it came in, it left our camp.



The next morning, we checked the horse’s tracks.  It, unshod, came from a nearby sagebrush field, walked into camp, did its dance, and then walked back the way it came. Its tracks confirmed that it was a strange visit indeed.

Later that week, I asked around my program if anyone had ever experienced anything quite like that.  Even after asking dozens of people all of whom had had hundreds of days in the same field, none of them had ever heard or experienced anything like that.  To this day, that was the most magical moment I have ever experienced, and I still can’t believe it happened.

The only thing that partly explains my horse experience is the idea of the universe responding to my energy.  Just hours before this once in a lifetime thing happened, I dedicated my life to the Earth and felt so connected to all living things.  The horse came to me to tell me “message received”.   I know this is “out-there” thinking, but really, what are those odds?  1 in a million?  Probably closer to 1 in a billion.

After many more weeks in the desert I have witnessed other odd experiences that occur during extremely powerful moments in people’s lives.  And I am a firm believer that the universe/nature/existence/god/ whatever you seem fit to call it, is responding to our actions.

Quantum physics teaches us about the observer effect.  Basically, our observation, our no-effort, just-look-at-the-damn-thing-energy, changes the way sub-atomic particles act.  Other studies show our thoughts can effect living things as well, which makes sense because we are all cut from the same material (protons, neutrons, electrons etc.)  If we apply these two ideas, it isn’t that far of a stretch to believe that our mindset and energy can effect the way the universe responds to us.

I know a lot of scientific minds will refute this claim with vigor, I don’t blame you, I was once the same way, and I respect your truth.  However, I choose to believe that the universe responds to my energy and I respond to it.  In my universe, nature is always communicating with me and I am always learning from it.  Our mindset creates our universe and truth, and I am so grateful for moments like these.