Mastery is a strong concept. Yet, many times I’ve heard people use mastery in a sloppy fashion to mean something along the lines of “I’ve pretty much got the hang of the basics”.
Getting something right once or twice doesn’t mean you’ve mastered it, particularly when it comes to bushcraft.
Nature presents many different characters and has a way of exposing your weaknesses. If your techniques are shaky and your knowledge limited, you’ll sooner or later face circumstances which overwhelm your skill level.
On the other hand, the more you hone your techniques, extend your knowledge and broaden your experience, the more remote that day of reckoning becomes.
That’s the way I view the route toward mastery – pushing to reduce the chances your skill and mental fortitude will not meet the challenges thrown at you. But the road to mastery is very long, where there is always a little further to go.
A mathematical analogy would be an asymptote – a straight line approached but never quite met by a curve. They get closer and closer and closer together but there’s always a little bit more to go.
Another way to think about it is to ask the question how many times do you have to cut something in half until you have nothing left?
So how do we get on the route to mastery and start reducing our skills deficit?
First I’d like you think about carving a spoon… When you carve a spoon, you work in two dimensions at a time – plan view and elevation. You start with a log. Let’s say you’ve chosen a section of green birch with an S-shaped kink in it, which will give a nice, natural curve to the spoon.
You split the log with your axe, along the axis that will form the upper surface of your spoon. Looking at the plan view of your spoon, it looks like a plank. Looking at the elevation it looks like a log with a flat top. You then take a carpenters pencil and draw the shape of a spoon in plan view on the flat surface.
You take your axe and start roughly hewing the sides to take the shape of the drawn spoon. After a few minutes of deft axe work, you look down at the plan view of the piece of wood and it looks like a rough spoon. You hold up the piece to look at the side elevation. While some of the grain is visible from your hewing activity, it still looks like a log, with no discernible spoon shape other than the S-curve you selected.
You now draw a side-on spoon shape on the elevation. Again you roughly hew this shape into the wood using your axe. The plan view still looks exactly as before but the side elevation is starting to take on the shape of a spoon. You go back to the plan view and work the wood with your knife to refine the shape. Then you move back to the elevation, refining the shape. In particular, you work the curve of the underside of the bowl. You keep alternating, refining the side of the spoon that requires most work, each time making it more spoon-like than the other.
Concentrate On What You Are Bad At
Approach the improvement of your skills like carving a spoon. Just as you work on the aspect of your spoon that looks least like a spoon, work on areas of your skills that are least fully formed.
We all enjoy performing tasks or undertaking skills that we are good at. It makes us feel good. Trying to do something in which we are inexperienced, lacking in skill and which requires a large amount of conscious effort to even produce mediocre results is not as pleasurable.
It’s exactly these more difficult areas we should be spending most time in improving. Concentrate on what you are bad at or afraid of and your bushcraft skills will come on leaps and bounds. Spending little time on these, spending most or all of your time doing what you are already good at – or naturally inclined towards – is a very limiting approach.
If your response to this point is, “well, I’m bad at everything”, my reply would be that you haven’t discovered your natural bushcraft talent yet (another reason why you should try many different facets). If you are intent on improving your core skills but feel several areas need significant work, concentrate on what is most important.
Build Strong Foundations
Beginners in many subjects, not only bushcraft, often want to quickly advance or cover many different topics in a short space of time. This can make for shaky foundations.
Don’t neglect the basic techniques. These are the core of your skill set and form the foundation on which everything else is built.
A common mistake is to equate complicated with advanced.
“If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several; for we observe that nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices.” – Thomas Aquinas
In bushcraft, simple, elegant solutions are what you should be striving for. Bear in mind, though, that simple can be harder to achieve than complicated.
Find Somewhere To Practice
What you intend to practice determines what resources and surroundings you actually need. When it comes to finding somewhere to practice bushcraft skills, many immediately picture an area of private woodland.
To my mind, though, this is confusing two things. The first is that we need somewhere to practice a particular skill. The second is the desire to have a quiet, natural place to spend time. The two can be the same place but aren’t necessarily so.
While a camping venue may need to be aesthetically pleasing, a place to practice a skill doesn’t need to be. Finding a landlord who is willing to allow you access to their land is not always easy. It’s also not necessary for progressing many bushcraft skills.
Think about the skills you want to progress. Can you practice them in your back yard or in your garage? Can you legally gather materials locally and bring them to your back garden to use? If you can’t bring the resources with you – for example in honing your tree and plant identification – are there public footpaths you can walk where you can develop your abilities? Can you find other like-minded people who you can join on camps, where the group does have access to private land?
Read more about how to find a place to practice bushcraft skills in the UK.
Spend More Time Observing Nature
At its heart, bushcraft involves a strong understanding of nature.
Whether you have somewhere you can go to wild camp regularly or you can go to a park near your office, which you can visit at lunchtime, make a conscious effort to observe nature more closely.
Set time aside for sitting still and watching. Also force yourself to be more inquisitive. If you see something you don’t recognise or a behaviour you don’t understand, take the time to investigate.
Stop Obsessing About Kit
It’s easier to re-organise your kit cupboard than it is to study a family of plants or to learn to recognise small mammal prints. It’s easier to browse online kit stores during your lunch break than find a green space where you can eat your sandwiches and observe nature.
Every modern outdoors person needs to acquire or make an amount of equipment for their safety and comfort. What sets the bushcraft and survival person aside from your average outdoors person is tools. Because bushcraft involves use of natural materials, we tend to have a few tools, which help with this – a knife, saw and spoon knife for example.
It’s difficult to make a set of tarp pegs or carve a spoon without these few tools. Combined with our skills and knowledge, having these few extra items makes a huge difference to our abilities in the outdoors. Having a drawer full of knives at home, however, makes no difference to your capabilities outdoors.
Don’t mistake this as a criticism of knife collecting. It isn’t. Many people collect things – stamps, model trains, vintage cars, ceramics, to name a few – and I see knife collecting no differently to these. Every collectible has – and needs – its collectors, historians and aficionados.
Just bear in mind that collecting outdoor equipment will no more to make you an effective outdoors person than collecting vintage cars will turn you into Stirling Moss.
Spending less time thinking about kit and more time obtaining skills and knowledge will be time better spent for those who wish to significantly improve their abilities.
Don’t spread yourself too thinly. Concentrate on learning one thing at a time. Don’t be satisfied with knowing a little about something. Strive to learn as much as possible about each particular subject. This is easier when you have the time and energy to focus on one subject/skill.
Burn Your Bow Drill Set
The true skill with friction fire-lighting is not that you can whip out your favourite bow drill set, which has been stored in your centrally-heated house, to produce an ember.
Rather, the full skill-set lies in being able to go into the forest, locate and identify suitable raw materials, which have been stored in the ambient level of humidity, fashion the bow-drill set quickly, then produce an ember. You also need to be able to locate, identify and process suitable tinder and kindling.
Going back to a bow-drill set that you have previously manufactured and you know works is counter-productive to maximising your ability to make fire at will by this method.
The answer is to burn your bow-drill set once you have established your fire. This forces you to make a new set each time. It’s a good discipline for learning.
Similarly, if you make a really good spoon, give it away and then make another one.
Create Positive Constraints
A positive constraint is a situation or event you impose upon yourself or allow to be imposed on you by others, which puts pressure on you to improve in one or more areas.
Positive constraints can be applied in many areas of life. In terms of fitness, you could enter an event or race, competing in which will require you to improve your fitness or skill from its current level. This simple strategy is much more effective than some vague resolution to “get fitter”.
A positive constraint is even more effective if it is structured so you can’t pull out without losing face amongst friends, peers or team-mates. Similarly, if you can create positive constraints around your bushcraft and survival skills, then your mind will be focused on improving the particular skills and areas of knowledge involved. You could set aside a number of days where you go to the woods with only very limited equipment and provisions, then use your bushcraft skills to provide for the needs your equipment and provisions don’t. This could be done solo or with a group of like-minded individuals.
“Make voyages. Attempt them. There’s nothing else.” – Tennessee Williams
There’s nothing like a self-contained journey to give your outdoor skills a good dose of realism. It’s all well and good practicing elements of your skill-set but at some point, you have to combine them into a useable whole. Making a journey does this.
For example, even if your campcraft skills are good, you can control an open boat, your paddle strokes are efficient, you know – at least in theory – how to pack a boat for an expedition and you can navigate, you will still learn a huge amount by making a multi-day journey by canoe.
Sitting at home, our thinking becomes flabby. Our mental packing lists contain too many items. Our virtual menus contain a luxurious amount of food. Our perceived packing systems are impractical. Nothing is tempered and honed by the discipline of the journey.
Making a self-sufficient journey under your own steam provides the exposure to reality that is required. It also exposes you to nature. Immersing yourself in nature for a number of days does something to you that spending an afternoon or a day wandering does not. Your rhythm and perspective change.
You are also exposed in the sense that there is less on which to fall back, less of a safety net. You must cope with the conditions and the travails of the journey, using only the things you carry with you and what resources there are around you. You are now responsible for seeing that you remain in good health on the journey and return home safely.
Find A Mentor
At some point you will need help from others. While you can gain input from friends and peers, taking your skills to the next level will, at some stage, benefit hugely from obtaining more focused, expert input.
Find a mentor who will either teach or help you with skills directly and/or push you to achieve higher standards. This can be one mentor or you may need to pick multiple mentors, each for different skills.
The Route To Mastery: A Long And Winding Road
I’m not suggesting that the application of the above ideas and strategies is easy. Some will be easier for you, some easier for others. Practical considerations as to where you live, where you work, what land and resources you have access to and how much time you can spare from family and work will all come into play.
The biggest over-riding factor of mastering any subject, however, is mastery of oneself. If you can take control of your direction and take charge of yourself, applying self-discipline and forsaking the whim of only doing what you feel like at the time, then your skills and knowledge will look very different in 12 months time compared to how they are now.
I’d love to know which areas or skills you aim to focus on in the coming 12 months. Let me know in the comments section below…