By Naomi Walmsley
“I awoke from a version of sleep to feel snow on my face! My only comfort was that snow meant the rain had passed. I had escaped from our cave, escaped from the only thing offering us any protection from the storm. It had seemed like a good plan at first. But after the fire had gone out and the stories had finished the cave had seemed so much smaller. The people next to me were now less ‘comforting friends’ and more ‘claustrophobically close’ My pillow had transformed back into a log and was nowhere near as endearing a piece of bedding as it had been an hour ago. I ran to the fire, desperate for air. Now, there was just me under a looming sky stormy sky, my felted blanket just about covering me. Grateful for the small fur rim on my buckskin hood I held it close to my neck hugging my heated jagged rock for warmth. Cold and shivering I couldn’t help but feel blessed to have the chance to feel so close to the elements”.
My partner Daniel and I flew out to America journeying out to a place far far away to the small town of Twisp in Eastern Washington, right on the edge of the North Cascades to a place far far away. For 4 months we would be learning primitive and traditional skills, working towards living an entirely Stone age existence for the final month. Prior to the course starting we had been fortunate to meet with our teacher Lynx with her friend and fellow teacher, Rico. They just happened to be visiting family in England. We met in a park on the outskirts of London. The last thing we or anyone else expected to see was a couple walking through any part of London dressed from head to toe in buckskins! Nor did we know at this point how normal and familiar that sight would become to us.
Dan and I had been learning bushcraft and outdoor skills for the previous 4 years or so but nothing compared to the teachings we were about to start learning. The first 4 months was classed as the ‘Preparation’ period, time spent learning the necessary skills and crafts needed for our Stone Age experience. Each class was a step further into living in the wild. I remember clearly the first day of class. We were packed into the back of a truck and taken to the butchers shop in the town. We were led around the back, given a saw each and a bin bag full….of sheep s heads. Apparently, we needed their brains. There was nothing for it other than to get stuck in. It’s amazing how much you can alter your thinking when needed. Instead of being a totally disgusting task, I made myself think of it as a ‘unique experience in gathering important materials. It was our first day however and I have to admit, good intentions aside I did feel a little nauseous to begin with! The classes continued to be lessons in patience, endurance and strength (both mentally and physically), including preparing an entire buffalo using stone and bone tools seconds after life left its enormous body. We used the meat for jerky, pemmican, patties and fat. Its hide was used for shoes straps for our packs and sinew for sewing. None was wasted. Throughout the months, we learnt skills in natural fire making, brain tanning, clothes and moccasin making, flint knapping, blanket felting, pottery, foraging, drying and preserving food, fishing line and hook making and, not to forget at the heart of it all, community living, a truly intrinsic skill needed when looking at our task ahead. Each class, each new skill equipping us physically, mentally, and practically but nothing truly could prepare us for the Stone Age, the determination needed and the emotions we would face head on.
And finally the day came. It was an amazing sight to see everything laid out ready to be packed; everything had been hand made from scratch from natural materials. I had a feeling of great pride arranging these hand crafted items to be wrapped in our felted blankets and folded into backpacks. We took nothing that we did not absolutely née. All the food weighed out, buffalo fat distributed between gourds, each day counted for, every calorie in protein and fat wrapped up like gold dust.
I remember clearly the feelings of apprehension and excitement the night we set off. We were all packed up, our 50lb blanket packs uncomfortably fitting on our backs, the buffalo straps digging in, our thinly moccasined feet itching to go, clad from head to toe in buckskins, pulsing with anticipation, just waiting for night to fall. Lynx wanted us to leave under the disguise of night. We would slip out of society she said and into the ‘real’ world unnoticed.
We jumped into the back of a pick-up truck around 11pm, blessed with a crystal clear night full of stars above. An owl flies alongside for a while, guiding our way. We drove through the night, everyone deep in their own thoughts. We disembarked in silence and started up the mountain trail wrapped up in our own journeys. We walked for what seemed like miles, up, up, up. We reached the first of many destinations several hours later. Lynx lit a fire, we shared some thoughts between us, ate some jerky, laid out our sheepskins and felted blankets and succumbed to the call of sleep.
There were 6 of us in total in our tribe. Myself and partner Daniel, John Michael, JT, Lynx and Eric. The only contact we had with the outside world was the odd hiker we passed with confused and intrigued looks on their faces. Our days were mostly spent walking or foraging for greens and berries. We would spend hours swimming in ice cold lakes or fixing holes in worn moccasins. Our days felt full and long. We awoke when the sun did and went to bed as it set. We ate when we were hungry, not governed any more by clocks or diaries. We met some of the local natives including a young bear, marmots, dancing Picas and a majestic mountain goat. What was strange was how unafraid of us they were. Some were even fascinated, creeping closer for a better look. It led us to wonder if the wild animals were getting tamer or were we getting closer to being wild? We certainly were looking wilder by this point, relying only on one another for updates of our appearance or finding different ways to see our reflections. I remember one day tying my hair up using the silhouette of my shadow and another day looking on in wonder as I saw a vague replica of my face in a pool of water. I certainly was beginning to feel more feral, more alive, more connected to the land. Dirt was ingrained in the cracks of our skin; our clothes were black with charcoal from walking through the ash of a fresh wild fire. The colours of our clothes muted into the background helping us merge into the landscape. I was beginning to feel lighter both in mind and body.
The boys and Lynx had bows and arrows for hunting, I had a sling shot, although the grouse need not fear me, I was a poor shot. But alas, we had no luck in finding deer. It seemed they were wise to our amateur hunting ways. Two giving grouse and an unlucky squirrel made it to the fire side .We cooked them and gnawed at the bones like hungry cave men.
People often asked us afterwards if we got hungry at all. The answer is of course yes, sometimes, but the food was different to what we were used to. Our bodies took some time to adjust to the new proportions and altered diet, high in proteins and fats and not much else in-between. Fresh food was scarce but whenever we saw something edible we’d jump on the opportunity eager to fill that fresh food urge. Once, we found ourselves literally hanging off an elderberry tree eating its fruits straight from the branches, hands free, like ravenous wild animals.
We had prepared a lot of food prior to going out, foraging then steam baking or drying to preserve it all. Every night we’d make some sort of wild concoction. A combination of morel mushrooms or wild onions, dried salmon or buffalo pieces, dollops of buffalo fat and my favourite, steam baked bryoria, a type of black lichen, would be added to the pot. Funnily enough when fresh from the tree, Bryoria was also the groups favourite choice for toilet paper! We’d vary the stew nightly, adding freshly baked pine nuts or meticulously prepared cat tail pollen to thicken the mixture. And Honestly, it never tasted the same and I never got bored of it. After a long day of walking from place to place a big steaming bowl of what could only be called ‘goodness’ was what we all needed. Sitting around a fire, sharing the days thoughts and ponderings, sipping from our bowls and gourds was always a perfect end to the day. Sometimes we couldn’t wait for meal time to come and needed a quick injection of energy. We’d take a berry cake and using a finger coat on a layer of buffalo fat. We’d sandwich this together with another berry cake, and hey presto, a primitive Oreo!
It would be wrong to say the new diet didn’t affect us. We all had strange adjustment incidents. I found myself after climbing up the side of a scree covered mountain in a surreal haze only stopping when I got to the top to look down, not remembering the steep clamber up, not out of breath, looking down to see bare feet, feeling revived! Or others found themselves seeing with clearer eyes when out hunting, feeling lighter, or food fantasying to the point of salivating hallucinations.
Everyday we’d load up our blanket packs once again, ever getting lighter, us and our packs heading to higher ground to hunt. We were a nomadic tribe. We never stayed in the same place for longer than a couple of days if that. For me this was the hardest part of the experience, to continuously be on the move. Because of the heavy weights of our pack we couldn’t afford to add any more to the load so we didn’t carry water other than lynx’s small gourd between the whole group. Walking in the hot sun we’d get thirsty quickly and i’d spend the next hours praying for a stream or spring to be around the next corner. And sometimes it was. We’d run to the source, even if it was just a trickle. We’d greedily scoop up the water in our hands, gulping it down with upmost delight, it was like being at free bar! I had a small gourd cup. Strangely enough, amongst all my possessions, this was my most treasured and favourite thing I owned in my entire pack. It bought me time….and joy. You see, after the initial excitement of the water I could fill my cup and leisurely sip my water, I could even carry a small amount with me for the next part of the journey. It’s funny what becomes so precious to you.
Although I try, it is hard to truly express what the whole experience meant to me, how it all affected me, changed me even. It was the most intense and incredible journey of my life so far. We had no plan, no map, no time frame and no modern kit. We wore nothing but the buckskins we had made, used no other tools than those of stone, bone or wood and ate only foods we’d hunted, fished or foraged. We slept under the stars with a rock for a pillow if we were lucky, huddled close to each other for warmth, the odd jagged rock warmed by the fire acting as a hot water bottle. We had no other entertainment than that of our surroundings, our tribe and our voices. We swam in lakes so beautiful photographs don’t do them justice and took in sights so breathtaking words couldn’t paint the same picture. We felt truly alive and blessed….. To say that it inspired and challenged me would be an understatement.
We emerged back into some form of civilization some time later, tired and exhilarated, our skin mapped out with a thousand lines of engrained dirt, insects in my hair that had lost their way and couldn’t find their way out, photographs of beautiful scenes imprinted in my mind, memories so special they deserve a box all of their own, a feeling of freshness, excitement and rejuvenation yet a sense of relief to be home. We knew were in for an intense adjustment period to get back to the ‘busy business as usual’ shoe wearing, sensory overload society. But, we were excited to share our stories.
By Naomi Walmsley
Editors note, Naomi and Dan have a Bushcraft and Primitive skills school in Shropshire