Monday, 29 July 2013

A week in the wilds part 2: Living from the land

Previously on ‘A Week in the Wilds’…..(to be said in a silly deep voice..)

So far I had set off into an unfamiliar woodland, equipped with only a small knife, folding pocket saw, stainless steel cooking pot, a three metre length of parachute cord, a cloth bag for filtering water, several brass wire snares, some personal safety equipment (first aid kit, torch, method of communication in an emergency due to the solo nature of the challenge) a modest quantity of wild meat and the clothes I stood up in (all natural fibres, some home-made).

Day one had seen me find a suitable campsite, source water, create fire by friction, build my shelter and bed from scratch, filter and sterilize the stream water, stock up on prime fire wood, butcher my muntjac deer, eat some muntjac deer and preserve the remainder by smoking. My first night without any sleeping gear was bearable with periods of peaceful slumber interrupted by waking due to the cold. The fire would be built up high again (thanks to a fair amount of fuel wood preparation during the day) and peaceful slumber would descend upon me once more. Day one had been a challenging and tiring day with the end result being only to have provided myself with the absolute bare essentials for survival outdoors. A roof over our heads, warmth, water, food, protection – these are all things we take for granted yet it had taken me all my effort, a whole day of hard work and several years of training to accomplish this seemingly simple set of requirements. My strategy had gone pretty much exactly to plan. Any minor failure at this early stage would’ve set a disastrous domino effect in motion.
Home sweet home in the deep dark woods
Of course, I put any success mainly down to the years of training and a positive and confident approach to the situation but there’s no denying that a certain amount of luck played a part too. A couple of hours of heavy rain in the morning might’ve painted a very different picture…

 Day two:

Although in survival terms, food comes right down at the bottom of the priority list, I knew that my hard graft to get ahead of the game on day one would all go to waste if I ignored my daily calorie intake at this stage. Rather than just purely survival, the object of this week in the wilds was to see how truly self-sufficient we could be relying mainly on natural resources. I knew that any easily converted energy stores within my body would’ve been used on day one for building shelter, lighting the fire, getting through the first night. It would be a while before my body started tapping into alternative stored energy (fat and muscle glycogen) and in the meantime, just keeping the fire going and staying hydrated (can’t access aforementioned alternative stored energy sources without adequate hydration) would be a slow and sluggish slog. To continue improving my situation rather than just lie in my shelter waiting for endex, I would need to invest my time and remaining energy in obtaining some quality carbohydrates. It has been said that fat burns in a carbohydrate flame meaning that even a relatively small amount of carbohydrate daily would help tap into my more than adequate energy reserves. The ultra-lean venison I had slowly spinning in the smoke from my fire could be only be considered as prime quality protein for helping to re-build tired muscles, an essential part of a balanced diet and daily calorific intake and several useful by-products (raw hide, sinew, bone) but not really an energy boost.

Nonetheless, with a breakfast of skewered venison and a few handfuls of sugar rich blackberries, fully hydrated on murky but boiled stream water, the fire banked up with slow burning oak, I set off with an empty daysack to discover what natures supermarket had to offer.  From my initial recce I knew that the tiny stream bordering the woods linked in with a couple of ponds out in the open fields, a potential habitat for Greater Reedmace. Greater Reedmace or Cattails (Typha latifolia L) is a supreme survival food. Stacked full of starchy carbohydrates, easy to recognise, relatively easy to harvest, found all over the place and pretty much throughout the year it was number one on my shopping list. I made my way there slowly through the woods, ever vigilant for an opportunity along the way. A prolific patch of wood sorrel provided a tangy treat and although I had a good amount of dry tinder squirreled away back at the shelter, it made sense to grab a few handfuls of clematis bark when spotted and stash them away in my pockets.

Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)

As the open fields came into view, I slowed right down, hanging back in the shadows to see what wildlife might be going about it’s business. I’d already found deer tracks along with squirrel, badger and fox sign but nothing seemed to be out and about in that particular field. Didn’t matter though, the Reedmace could be clearly seen filling the boggy hollow between this field and the next. After a good check to see if there were any other toxic lookalikes or potential pollutants upstream, I set to filling my daysack with food.
Greater Reedmace (Typha latifolia L)
The most energy rich part of Reedmace is the rhizome, an underwater root system which twists and winds it’s way through the murky pond mud linking up and inter-twining with it’s surrounding counterparts. It’s important to trace this rhizome from tip to source and pull the whole thing up. For starters you’ll want the whole plant to make a positive ID but also, there are other parts which are of use to the forager. The long, wide, flat leaves are good for weaving food preparation mats, cordage and woven containers, the dried stems can be used as a delicate hand drill for friction fires and the brown, sausage like heads broken open and used as tinder or clothing insulation (old dead ones are best).
Nutritious pollen from the forming reedmace head

If you have a reedmace stand nearby to where you live, keep a close eye on them in early summer. While the heads are still green and just emerging from the leaves (so not all that obvious to the untrained eye) a bright yellow pollen spike can be found proudly sitting on the top. With a tap and a shake over a collection device (plastic bag) this yellow pollen can be gathered in quantity. Mix it up to a paste with clean water, cook it on a hot rock or in a pan and you have an extremely tasty and nutritious yellow biscuit. I’d missed that particular boat with this crop but didn’t hold back gathering the rhizomes. Although the novelty of delving around in the cold, stinking mud for slimy roots began to wear off almost immediately and I was constantly aware of needing to get back before the fire went out, I gathered as many as I could carry knowing that repeated trips back and forth would be a waste of valuable energy.

Foraged fare: blackberries, plantain, dandelion, hairy bitter cress, burdock root and reedmace


On the return trip, looking like a human cattail stand, I grabbed a good quantity of blackberries, some wood hedgehog fungi, a couple of common puffballs, plenty of dandelion, mint, thistle, ribwort plantain and nettle leaves and a couple of burdock roots. The burdock roots were a calculated risk as despite also being packed with starchy carbohydrates they’re much harder to harvest than the reedmace but these looked like big ‘uns and the ground was soft and easy to dig. I also took a good quantity of the huge leaves (less than 50% of the leaves off each plant to lessen any impact) to help patch up any dodgy areas on my shelter roof and also use as toilet paper should the need arise! One big burdock leaf became a makeshift blackberry basket with some on the spot origami and a sharpened twig. The dandelion leaves are normally quite bitter if eaten raw but these were growing under a tall crop of red clover which had done a good job of shading them from the sun, accidentally ‘blanching’ them nicely. Eating fungi as a survival food is another risky and quite pointless strategy. Nutritionally and calorifically they are pretty poor and the chances of gathering a toxic lookalike are high, however puffballs and wood hedgehogs are both easy to recognise if you know what to look for and difficult to confuse with anything dangerous (puffballs must be completely white inside with no yellowing or signs of an immature mushroom forming). The taste and texture would be a welcome addition to my survival stew!


Common Puffball (lycoperdon perlatum)
Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

The humble blackberry but what a fantastic, sugary 'pick me up'

Wood Hedgehog mushroom (Hydnum repandum)
Weighed down with foraged goodies I re-entered camp and re-kindled my dying fire using the clematis bark. After working so hard to make fire and relying on it to fulfil so many roles during the week, the thought of walking away and leaving it to die down is terrifying but knowing how to correctly manage a fire is almost as much of an important skill as knowing how to light it in the first place. Seasoned oak as a fuel wood along with a well-protected fire place meant that the heart of the fire would stay hot for a long time, certainly hot enough to ignite the finely shredded clematis bark. Building the fire up big on one side of the fireplace allowed me to pull embers and hot ash across to the other side for cooking. I suspended my billycan above the flames to boil water for a mint tea while more skewered venison roasted slowly above the embers. A slack handful of reedmace rhizomes were placed straight in the embers and hot ash at the edge of the fire to steam the starch rich fibres in their own skins, like a long stringy baked potato…sort of.

Reedmace rhizomes cooking in their skins, straight on the embers

Once cooked (normally until the outer skin is charred) the stringy fibres are sucked and sucked and sucked…to remove the starch. It’s a weird way of eating something, almost like the reverse of chewing gum. You’re getting the goodness but without the pleasure and satisfaction of actually chewing something! Even so, I had re-booted my system with much needed energy and filled my belly with a hot meal and felt ready for anything.
Reedmace rhizomes cooked. Check out the starch packed fibres!
Although this ‘survival situation’ was self-imposed, putting that energy to good use was still very much a matter of prioritising. Before getting too excited, I took everything right back to basics and concentrated first and foremost on the essentials… shelter, protection and warmth during the coming night. My lean to roof had a few more armfuls of leaf mulch placed carefully to plug the gaps, the sides of my open fronted shelter were closed in using burdock leaves and bracken. My log wall heat reflector was extended to fully enclose the heat of the fire within my shelter walls and I cut, gathered and stacked the best fuel wood I could find so as to be within easy reach of my bed during the night. My mattress benefitted from another thick layer of leaves too. All the while my billycan simmered away over the fire. As soon as the water came to a rolling boil it was taken off the heat, mint leaves added, cooled as rapidly as possible and drunk whether I felt like I needed to or not. Then more stream water was gathered in the millbank filter bag, allowed to slowly drain through into the billy and placed back over the fire to boil while I worked - survival multi-tasking!
Feeding long lengths of fuel wood into the fire, saves a lot of sawing!
One big part of this whole experiment for me was to go beyond the survival stage and start thinking about self-reliance for an extended period. Essentially, identifying problems and finding solutions for them. This water routine threw up a glaring issue; with only one metal pot acting as water boiling device, drinking cup and liquid storage vessel my plans for using precious energy as efficiently as possible were hugely limited. In addition to the 'one pot' clean drinking water issue, having a metal pot to boil up a survival stew was probably my best cooking strategy. Boiling helped release starches from carbohydrate rich foods, the tougher cuts of venison could be made more digestible, infusing wild food stuffs with the more delicate wild flavourings would be easier and any greens included in the stew would be less bitter with loss of nutritional goodness minimised due to being able to guzzle down the liquid they were cooked in. Conclusion…not only was a metal cooking pot proving to be absolutely essential (perhaps second only to a good knife, or even level pegging) but what options did I have without it? Also, even with a metal cooking pot, how could I increase my own efficiency by improvising other supplementary equipment to drink and eat from and store water in once sterilized?

One possible solution to the above problem; a birch bark bucket and super heated rocks acting as a heating element to boil the water without a metal pot

As I pondered, I got to work on the venison meat smoking over my fire. The smoke had kept insects at bay and had sealed the outside of the meat to a degree but if I wanted it to last longer then it would need to be ‘jerked’. Making jerky involves slicing meat as thinly as possible then drying it as speedily as possible without cooking the meat. Your aim is to reduce the moisture content considerably to prevent spoiling. Drying in the sun will do this but drying in the smoke of a fire has the added advantage of keeping flies at bay and flavouring the meat at the same time. In the shade of the woods, this would be my best option. Above my fire was a handy, smoky spot where a couple of long sticks were suspended. These became my drying/smoking rack and anything that needed to be dried or smoked was laid across them, jerky, elder berries, buckskin moccasins, reedmace leaves (better to weave with if they’re dried first then dampened before weaving). The jerky only took a couple of days until it was good to go and if I was hungry during the time it took to dry fully, I took off a couple of the thicker pieces and boiled them up in a stew. 
Venison jerky and elderberries slowly drying in the smoke of the campfire
My survival stews were pretty good actually; peeled and sliced burdock root, sliced and diced reedmace rhizomes, dandelion, thistle, nettle, plantain leaves, hedgehog mushrooms, the oak smoked venison jerky and some lovely hairy bitter cress to pepper it up a bit. One particularly good breakfast involved slow cooking the venison shanks by suspending them on a withy to one side of the fire from about five in the morning. By breakfast time this normally tough cut of meat was juicy and tender like spare ribs…it’s making me hungry just thinking about it!
I have undertaken types of similar survival training in the past, most of which have involved an element of living from the land but what made this experience different? For me, prior extensive training helped greatly. A combination of taking time to gain more of an understanding of what my body needs to function combined with an increased knowledge of wild foods…not just which plants are edible but their food values, available nutrition, energy expended during harvesting; this information is important to help you target certain species over others, therefore minimizing time wasting and energy expenditure by bumbling around the woods grabbing randomly at the local flora. An increased skill level in ALL areas, including wild food foraging made the whole process seem easier, more within my comfort zone (as you would hope..) thereby giving me the headspace needed to make sensible decisions. Stocking up during my initial foraging foray was definitely a good move too. Repeated trips back and forth would have had a negative impact on my energy expenditure versus calorie intake equation. So; regular practice, experimentation, testing oneself, just getting out there and getting stuck in – they do all make a huge difference. Even if you don’t ever expect to need to feed yourself from the land, but you have an interest in natural history and bushcraft then taking your experimentation to the next level like this helps complete a bit more of the jigsaw.  This is the stuff you can’t learn from books!
My fellow Hunter Gatherers, doing their own thing in another corner of the wood. This is Dave 'the android' Slate
Seasonality obviously played a part (autumn is one of the better foraging seasons) but many of the plants I targeted would still have been around during the winter months with the exception of blackberries. Burdock root might’ve been more of a mission although the area I gathered from had first and second year growth hopefully allowing me to identify a source of potential roots from the dead second year flowering stalks during the winter. Admittedly the colder weather would’ve placed a lot more emphasis on gathering a higher number of calories daily. Feeding oneself adequately would be a fulltime occupation and an abundant area would be depleted pretty quick too. Therefore, in this case anyway, location potentially played a bigger part than seasonality. 
Scotty had a cosy set up and turned out to be an expert squirrel catcher
I wasn’t able to count my daily calorie intake accurately but it was definitely lower than normal (not a bad thing to be honest..), despite my best efforts to gather as much high calorie food as possible. During the week I lost half a stone in bodyweight! However, rather than feeling low on energy and sluggish, I felt fitter, more energetic, a real spring in my step! I’m no dietician but I put this down to a couple of potential reasons. Firstly, what carbohydrate I was eating was unprocessed, top quality, pure energy. Mostly slow release carbs providing a more steady, regulated type of energy. Some natural fruit sugars were included daily but nowhere near the Billy Bunter quantities of chocolate I consume daily back in the real world. Also, these sugars were needed and used immediately rather than being mainly excess to requirements, accompanied by all manner of dodgy chemicals and giving me mega sugar highs and lows.
Guy's little corner of the wood. A well constructed fire screen if ever I saw one!
My second theory is based on the wonders of including dandelion leaves in your diet. As a well-known diuretic along with being a healthy green leaf (something I don’t eat enough of) I just feel that my system had a super de-tox, fortified by the fantastic unprocessed, healthy calories coming straight back in. Of course, none of this can be proven (not by me anyway) but my feeling is that had I continued with the experiment a bit longer, my weight loss might’ve reached an optimum level as well as my calorific requirements being slightly lower (already had fire, shelter and plentiful supplies of water and fire wood close by coupled with a more streamlined physique to feed). I’d like to think that in the right location, with no hunting and trapping restrictions (more on this in the next post) then living from the land successfully could certainly be achievable, if not indefinitely then maybe for an extended period. This may well be fanciful pie in the sky on my part but I certainly felt extremely positive after my own experiences.
In the next post I’ll detail how all this excess time and energy was invested to improve my situation by crafting effective hunting weapons, trying my hand at a bit of primitive pottery and other Robinson Crusoe style shenanigans. 
For Part 3, click here



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