The quote above is from my great-grandfather Clifford. When I was 12 it made no sense, when I was 18 I thought it was sentimental rubbish, and now at the age of 36 I couldn’t think of a better way to put it.
I can trace my routes backwards from where I am now to where I began. If I look deeply enough, I can trace it back through the hills and valleys where my ancestors lived, farmed and died. It’s a current of energy running through the soil, winding down through the trees and out into the bay.
I suppose I can blame my family for it all. My grandparents will have to shoulder some of the responsibility, but my mother is the person most directly responsible for where I am now. You see, in my family you had to know ‘the story’ of the plants and the landscape around you. The long and complex latin names didn’t matter, what you needed to know was that this plant grows in gateways and smells like pineapple. This plant tastes like apple peel but will make you ill if you eat too much. This mushroom grows under the beech trees and looks like scrambled eggs and this one on dead elder trees look like ears.
At the time, of course, I hadn’t a clue that any of this was unusual. Diving off into hedgerows to identify plants or fungi seemed like perfectly acceptable behaviour. But as I got older, building dens and following animal trails through the forest turned to illicit smoking and drinking cider on the beach. I slowly started to consider that maybe, just maybe, I had received a different kind of indoctrination to my peers.
After I left school, I discovered that clambering over increasingly steep and dangerous sections of mountainside could be good fun. I decided to have a crack at making a living doing something I would gladly pay a lot of money to be allowed to do. I moved to North Wales and undertook the fairly convoluted qualification journey to becoming an outdoor instructor and somehow fell into a role on the local mountain rescue team.
My first few years as a freelance outdoor professional were, in hindsight, knackering. I would happily jump from job to job, leading an overseas trekking group one month and then guiding somebody else’s clients on back-to-back charity mountain challenges the next. Any time that wasn’t spent working on some damp hillside somewhere seemed to be filled with training, missing person searches and technical rescues. I was young, often stupid but keen to be involved, do more and go further.
When I look back on that period, it’s strange how the energetic, rapid and dramatic moments involving helicopters, rockfalls or tumbling rivers don’t stand out. The quiet, often subdued ones, do. Resting up on a high rock ledge overlooking the Llanberis Pass, having led my first ‘hard’ rock climb with only the wind and clanking of climbing gear in my ears. The first time I heard a stag roar in a remote Scottish glen. Even sitting alongside the bagged and packaged body of a poor, deceased soul while my teammates busied themselves with the stretcher lifting strops in readiness for the approaching helicopter.
I think it was those moments of peace that pushed me towards setting up my own courses and looking to work with clients on my own terms. I wanted to reconnect with those childhood studies and share a different type of knowledge with those I journeyed into the wilderness with.
I began to chase new challenges and work, looking to combine my experience as a mountain and expedition leader with the new skills I was learning with the rescue team. I sought out work in remote areas, moving away from tourism and towards safety, emergency medical and ‘dynamic problem solving’. I sat in tents coordinating medical teams on multi-day adventure races, crouched in RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boats) as they tracked through the waves to be dropped off on some desolate coast while I stood in front of projector screens talking about HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary oEdema), HACE (High Altitude Cerebral oEdema) and AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). I still didn’t have a firm plan, but I felt like several parallel trajectories were merging into one path.
Years of battling through winds, rain, snowy mountains and waking up under dew-laden tarps and a seemingly endless cycle of packing and unpacking rucksacks gave me a good grounding in outdoor skills and outdoor safety planning. I got to work with groups of all types and experience levels, being paid to stand alongside them on one of the best days of their life or volunteering to be there with them on one of the worst.
These lessons and experiences coalesced into some of the work I do today, training clients from all walks of life in how to stay safe and perform their job when working in the outdoors. I train SAR (Search And Rescue) teams in how to conduct searches, crime-fighting agencies in how to read the signs of broken vegetation, companies in how to prepare their teams for harsh conditions, and everybody else in how to make good decisions when every decision matters.
Skills I had learned while searching for vulnerable missing persons in the forests and fields of North Wales complimented the schemas and heuristic techniques developed when working with groups as a leader in remote areas. I would be asked to deliver a specific set of training to a group, which would lead to more conversations and more requests. Again, it was a slow realisation that not only was there a demand for training in these subjects but I had accidentally positioned myself in exactly the right place to deliver them.
Police officers, SAR teams and military units would seem, at first glance, like a diverse range of clients. Once you take away the specifics of their roles, you find a hell of a lot of common ground between them. The tactics and stratagem of interpreting ‘sign’ (anything from a scuff mark in the soil or bent blade of grass to dropped litter or discarded equipment) translate well between searching for a missing child, hunting a fugitive or stopping your platoon from walking into an ambush. The same goes for more abstract skills such as searching for hidden things. If you can understand the mindset of both the hider and the seeker, you can teach both those trying to hide things in plain sight and those who are tasked with finding them.
In some ways, what I teach is something that could be defined as ‘landscape literacy’. A biologist can look out over a valley and see a multitude of biomes and habitats, a geologist might look at the last vestiges of glacial erosion and an ornithologist might just be transfixed by the osprey circling the estuary. Each specialist reads that landscape in a different language and pulls something unique from it – my job is to show my clients a different dialect for each of those languages. I tell the rescuer how to segment out a woodland into searchable areas and the armed police officer how to look at a muddy footpath and determine if their quarry is long gone or just metres away.
I still can’t shake off that early education though. When talking about the way that a bramble shoot has been brushed to one side by someone moving through the undergrowth, I see the young leaves and think of how they can be steamed and eaten with fish. While gently swearing as I struggle through a patch of gorse bushes, their delicate scent reminds me of my friend who makes a sorbet from the flowers. With potential wild food sources all around me I cannot avoid feeling a tug back towards my childhood, and no matter how I try to interpret a landscape my eyes will always be drawn to the edible parts.
About 10 years ago I received a phone call from a farmer at the other end of the valley. He had an idea about supplying wild, edible plants from his 12,500 acre family estate to Michelin star-laden restaurants in London, Hong Kong and beyond. That first tentative conversation developed into a long-lasting business relationship that continues to this day and now foraging wild food makes up a significant part of my working year. My business, Original Outdoors, runs dozens of foraging courses each year and we work with hundreds of clients of one type or another. This is the subject where I feel the strongest connection to the lessons I learned as a child. Even when I am on some remote Scottish coastline working with military clients, I am still excited to turn over a rock or lift a curtain of seaweed to see what edible things can be found beneath. With the repeated, rolling waves of uncertainty brought about by Brexit, COVID-19 and civil unrest, we have been increasingly asked to deliver a different kind of survival training – how to survive a food shortage in a modern, Western world.
As human beings, we are all still hunter-gatherers. We defer the actions of gathering plants and hunting animals to others who perform it for us, then just collect it from the supermarket. Our brains were not formed by farming and living in stone cities, they evolved from wandering across savannah, through forest and alongside rivers looking for things to eat, avoiding the things that want to eat us and deciding what to do with everything else in between. Those early lessons in the woodlands and hedgerows near my childhood home would have been recognisable to an inhabitant of Britain 40,000 years ago.
I now use my experiences as a lifelong outdoorsman and modern forager to share not only the knowledge of what to eat and what to avoid, but also to help others reconnect with the wider outdoor world and our place within it. More recently I have started working with mental health organisations around these themes. If we can accept that the required mental attributes of our hunter-gatherer ancestors still reside deep in our psyche, then maybe we can borrow a little of their thought processes too. Proof of this can be seen in everything from the way we process visual and audio information to how we construct vast three-dimensional ‘resource maps’ in our brains. Think about how complex your mental 3-D map is for your home and all of the things you keep in it – is that not the same skillset as knowing which areas of the forest contain the useful plants, fungi or other resources? To know that if you walk towards the sun in the middle of the day you will be heading south, or that if you look to Polaris at night then you will be facing the opposite direction?
The phrase “think like a hunter-gatherer” has entered my teaching and coaching vocabulary for almost everything I do. Of all the technical and complex subjects that I teach, foraging has been the one that I have consistently been able to deliver quickly and verbally to users of all types. It’s the same with sitting around a campfire or scrabbling around in rockpools looking for certain species – it feels ‘right’ and ‘natural’ just because we are the product of thousands and thousands of generations of people who were good at doing just that. If they didn’t possess that set of traits then they wouldn’t have survived.
Every year I understand a little more of what my great-grandfather meant. My journey is far from over (I hope!) but now I can look back and appreciate how those early lessons. Those links forged in the meadows and valleys, lead me to where I am. I think now that if you understand truly where you have come from then it will help you discover where you’re going.
What I seek now are new connections, new experiences that help me understand more about my own past – and every glimpse I have of what went before helps open up the river ahead of me.