Not everybody wants to run, trek, climb or kayak their way through the wilderness (apparently) so Jenny Gillies took a slower-paced view of the outdoors on a Wild Women day at Findhorn
The weather certainly got in the spirit of my Wild Women outdoors day. Saturday morning started wet and windy, and the steady rain was forecast to continue all day.
The event was organised by Wild Things, an environmental education charity based in Findhorn, whose aim is to give all ages the chance to be inspired by and learn from the natural environment and wilderness regions of Scotland.
The ethos of Wild Things interests me, as the charity wants to encourage all of us into the outdoors regardless of fitness and circumstance.
I usually experience the outdoors through my running and thought that time spent learning skills and connecting with nature would provide a new perspective on familiar landscapes.
Jennie Martin, one of the founders of Wild Things, was our leader for the day. She is passionate about women gaining confidence and learning skills that many still think of as male tasks. She doesn’t feel it’s necessarily a feminist thing, but a chance for women to challenge themselves and each other in a supportive, non-competitive setting.
The reasons for attending were varied – some wanted to gain new skills or refresh ones gained previously, some to meet new people, de-stress, or gain a better understanding of our environment while spending time outside.
Loaded up with kit for the day, we set off into the woods, dodging puddles and stopping regularly to learn about the trees and plants we passed.
The steady patter of rain on our waterproofs was soon forgotten as we used hand lenses to look closely at the catkins and female buds of a hazel tree. It was only at close quarters we could see the tiny purple spray displayed by the female bud.
Stepping off the main path and weaving our way through the woodland a clearing appeared, managing to look idyllic despite the grey weather.
As we set about erecting a tarp to provide a roof, the cold and wet were soon forgotten as a result of the concentration required to learn the knots for securing our shelter against the elements.
Once under the shelter Jennie quickly lit a fire and, sitting round the warmth of the hearth in good company, I was very content. Over lunch and hot tea we discussed the difference between bushcraft (living off the land in harmony with it) and survival (doing anything you can with the land to survive).
The next task, to make our own fires, was more of an art than I’d expected. The thistledown and birch bark tinder proved tricky to light in the damp conditions and it was only with some expert guidance that we managed to get our birch twigs to catch.
The brief duration of the fire did nothing to diminish the satisfaction of our team of three as we successfully fulfilled one of man’s – or should that be woman’s? – basic needs.
While searching for birch branches for the fire I became aware of how little time I spend really appreciating the environment. The difference in the forest floor between mixed native deciduous woodland and pinewoods is something I am aware of as I run through my local woods, but spending time really looking gave me a new insight.
Abiding by the John Muir motto of “leave no trace” we reinstated the forest floor to its previous state and returned to the main fire to experiment with campfire food.
Ash cakes (“campfire croissants”) and dampers were the order of the day. This unleavened dough is cooked either on a stick held over the fire or directly on the ashes of the fire. An experiment with gluten-free dough left many people with more dough on their hands than near the fire, but the cakes that were formed, filled with either cheese or chocolate, were delicious.
Sustenance taken care of, it was time for more skills – first cord making and then using knives to make tinder sticks and carved mushrooms. Once we’d got our heads round the simple technique for cord making, I noticed that many people simply carried on twisting the cord automatically as the conversation flowed around the fire in a timeless fashion.
We were given knives and shown how to make feather sticks. These would help light any fires we wished to make in the future and, once the knife had been mastered, we started the more involved task of carving mushrooms.
At this point, commitments meant I had to leave the group early and I felt a sense of loneliness as I left what had become a place of shelter and comfort during the day.
Underpinning the spirit of the day was that everyone can enjoy the natural environment and work with nature as well as use it as a playground. It can sometimes seem like the “wild” outdoors is reserved for those who are more hardy than most or can achieve extreme feats.
After experiencing a taster of wilderness a mere 15-minute walk from the centre of Forres, I would encourage everybody to get out there, learn about and embrace nature, and have the confidence to explore the outdoors, whether it’s a run, walk, cycle or even a Wild Things wilderness day.
Wild Things is based in Findhorn and works throughout the north of Scotland, providing a variety of courses and training programmes.
As well as Wild Women, there are Bushcraft for Boys courses.
Among the courses on the calendar for the rest of the year are seaweed foraging, tree identification and animal tracking.
There is also a full programme of training for outdoor activity providers.
Information on all programmes is available at www.wild-things.org.uk or by calling 01309 690450.