An Old-Guy Trying to Understand Bushcraft
By Dan Eastland
While talking to a member of the knife community who has been well established for decades, we started talking about growing up in the woods. We chatted about how we learned things, what mistakes we made, and which lessons we applied. He looked at me and said, “You’re a kid. Explain bush crafting to me. I want to understand bushcraft.”
At first I thought, “Oh, great! How about I explain something easy like what do women want or how many licks to get to the center of Tootsie Pop. Then the “kid” comment stood out to me. I realized the confusion was generational.
I had the privilege of growing up as an old school woodsman, but am young enough to bridge the gap of the new school bush crafter. I am nearly the last of a generation that had general access to the free woods. There are some places in the modern world that are still free, but there are fewer and they are farther out then they were 20 years ago. By free woods, I mean a place where you have freedom of choice. The generations after me have not had access to a grandparents’ farm, wood lots, or large tracts of public land that the older guys used as their classroom. Newer generations rely on state and federal parks with strict no-trace policies. There are legitimate reasons for these policies, but they changed the way people enjoy the outdoors.
Fire is a perfect example. Growing up, I made a fire using tiny little sticks and some bark or a bit of fatwood lighter. I would light this kindling; then I would add larger and larger sticks until I had a raging fire. Except for a bit of tender, I never needed to baton anything. I just used more small stick to make the fire bigger. If I had a wet stick, I would get hanging deadfall or sticks from fallen branches off the ground or in hundreds of other places. I could always find a few dry sticks to get the fire going then add small wet sticks. For every log, there are exponentially more sticks, and for every stick, there are exponentially more twigs, and so on.
Because of this reason and where I grew up, I never made a feather stick or batoned anything larger than a twig. People who grew up after me had to get dirt time in regulated areas with very different experiences. They had to build a fire in an area completely devoid of any kindling because it had been picked clean or in an area where they are forbidden from picking up even deadfall. These practices force the newer generation to build a fire from cordwood they brought with them or they have to turn quarter logs into kindling. These outdoorsmen are forced to use skills that we never needed. The different perspectives and experiences are reshaping how we experience the outdoors.
Some of the old school guys refer to people “playing camping,” but this is another difference in perspective. For a lot of the old school, guys camping because they were hunting, fishing, or something related to hunting and fishing, such as building a hunting or fishing camp. The idea of camping for the sake of camping creates a logic loop for my father’s generation.
Before I started knife making, I had never heard of “bushcraft.” My mentor tried to explain it to me, but I kept saying, “So you mean camping?” This is part of the disconnect for a lot of guys like me. As I spent more time in the woods making things, I didn’t understand why people had to go to the woods to make things you can make in your yard. Then I realized how many people do not have a yard and never did.
I came around to understand you make a camp, but what do you do then? Make more camp? This is where the playing camping perception came from because “these kids are not actually doing anything” or “they do not have to get camp built quickly so they can set about …” In a lot of parks, camping is all we are allowed to do, and then only in very controlled situations. This idea makes many old school guys’ heads hurt. They scoff at the idea of camping within sight of your car because they never had to. I could not conceive why you would to unless it was a hunting camp.
Once I explained how things have changed and how many people’s access to the outdoors is limited, the changes in the outdoor community begin to make sense. Soon the conversation changed from “What are these kids doing?” to “I am glad they are able to find a way to get out and enjoy the outdoors.”
I find myself more and more grateful for the freedom I enjoyed in the woods and the lessons I learned in those woods. Those opportunities might be just a few decades from being lost. Get into the outdoors in whatever form it takes while you still can. And take a friend. Above all, before you think yourself too wise or your knowledge all- encompassing, remember there are different environments and each environment requires different skills.