The Living Land Series at An Sanctoir in Ballydehob will culminate with Johnny Walshe of Living Wilderness leading a two-day Bushcraft experience in April. A modern day Fionn MacCumhaill and Ireland’s answer to Ray Mears, Johnny will teach people how to read the landscape, light fires and survive in the wilderness and will focus on essential knife skills and the craft of wooden spoon carving.
Johnny Walshe started Living Wilderness Bushcraft School in 2011, a venture, which stemmed from a desire to get people back into nature, reconnecting with our fast-depleting countryside. “I’ve worked in forestry for years and have loved spending time in the forest for as long as I can remember but there was a dawning moment when I realised that not everybody knew how to camp and be outdoors,” says Johnny.
Bushcraft is the art and science of learning to live in a place, it is a mindset, which teaches you to work with what you have around you and to develop equilibrium within the environment you are living in. Be it for a weekend like most bush crafters or for life like many indigenous people, Bushcraft is literally the biggest subject in the world, as it takes you on a journey of learning about every aspect of life; from the skills to look after yourself, your tools and equipment, to understanding the flora and fauna around you and how they grow and live, to understanding weather patterns and movements of water or tides…it doesn’t stop, there’s always something new to learn. “It’s as broad as learning to blacksmith and forge your own knife to how to knit your own hat to counting stamen on a flower or building a canoe to travel,” explains Johnny, who says bushcraft is becoming more popular, partially due to survival shows on television but mostly because people feel there is something missing from modern life and are hungry for something real.
Living Wilderness courses are based around the five core topics of; Fire, Water, Shelter, Food and Craft. In the Bushcraft Essentials course, participants learn the core skills of bushcraft – how to light, build and maintain a fire using modern methods like a fire steel, which drowns sparks; as well as going right back to basics and using a Bow Drill to generate fire by friction, for example rubbing sticks together. Living Wilderness teaches how to source water and make it safe for drinking and how to identify plants, trees and habitats and the resources they hold, be it food, medicine or materials. Tool selection use and safety is taught, as well as knots and rope work. You can expect to learn how to cook on an open fire without utensils and how to understand shelter in all its forms.
The more specialised courses, such as the Living Woodland course, will bring you deeper into learning about the life around you in the woodland – how to harvest plants and trees sustainably and how to prepare them into food and medicine to preserve them. Participants are taught how to read the tracks and signs of wildlife. “Woodland Ways is dedicated more to the skills you use whilst living in the wilds,” explains Johnny. ‘We develop your knife skills further through various craft projects and also learn more advanced techniques in building and core skills through working on a project. We harvest materials sustainably to prepare natural glues and preserving agents such as birch tar and pine pitch, and fibre for lashing and net making, as well as learning country cooking techniques such as roasting your dinner in a pit oven and understanding shelter better.”
The Canoe Ranger course is the first in a series of journeyman courses where all these learned skills are put into practice out in the wilds. The weekend is spent on the lakes in open canoes, setting up camp at night, preparing dinner and doing some skills, then breaking camp in the morning, loading the canoes and going off exploring for the day. There are also a range of more specialised courses such as spoon carving, axe work, medicine making and more.
Johnny says that the only way to learn is by doing. “Just go do it. Don’t get hung up on buying all the gear you see on youtube or trying to only go with bare minimum kit; bring the kitchen sink with you if you need to and then every time before you go out, make a list of your gear and when you come back check what you used and what you didn’t and whittle it down to the essentials.” His advice is to make sure piece of kit you carry has multiply functions, as this helps reduce bulk. “Prepare for where and when you’re going out and enjoy the challenges and experiences that come up.”
A basic tool kit for most bushcraft is a knife and a folding saw. With this a skilled hand can make or process most things you would require. “From there you can specialise for your own requirements or environment such as an axe, spoon knife, billhook and so on.”
Improvised shelter can be made from an array of materials like fallen branches and leaf debris by building a frame and covering it with what you have to hand. “It can be very rewarding if you do it right, albeit a lot of work and a horribly uncomfortable wet night is ensured if you do it wrong!”
Johnny says that this is a skill worth learning for anyone who spends a lot of time out bushcrafting but it’s also something which he discourages people from doing every time they are out. “It hugely invasive to the local environment, causing a lot of disruption or damage,” he explains. “Done occasionally, it’s not a problem, but if you can read habitats well you start seeing how the seed bed suffers – mycelium near the surface dies off and things stop growing, not to mention the poor wee invertebrates and so on who’s home you’ve just trashed. It’s a point I try to educate people about, so they can make informed decisions on when and where to try it, as we have precious little woodland in Ireland and need to look after what’s there.”
If you are setting up a shelter in the wilderness, Johnny advises that you use your common sense. “Look around and overhead, choose a good well-drained safe site with no dangerous branches overhead, on land you have permission to camp on. Don’t camp in flood plains and watch out for cold air, which sinks at night. Setting up camp in a snug little hollow at the bottom of a hill can seem perfect during the day but when the sun goes down is can fill up with cold air rolling down the hill and make a micro climate a lot colder than elsewhere in the same area.
If you decide to forage for your meals, depending on the time of year, you’ll find different things in flower or fruit. “There are roots, seeds, nuts, leaves and mushrooms that can all be abundant at different times and if you are into hunting or fishing you have seasons for that too,” says Johnny. “Traditionally we work seasons ahead of ourselves; harvesting, preparing and preserving what’s in season now for when it’s not. This notion of walking out of doors and living off picking your food, as you need it is, is not a reality all year round in Ireland.”
Soon the birch sap will be flowing in the trees of West Cork, which can be tapped just like maple trees in Canada. “It’s an excellent spring tonic to refuel us after a long winter without much fresh food,” says Johnny. “There are various roots you can harvest now like Burdock, which can be prepared into a nice starch vegetable and all the spring greens are starting to come up, dandelion, nettle and so on.”
“Don’t be in a rush to eat everything though,” he advises. “If in doubt, leave it out!
“We are not in a life or death situation so we don’t have to eat something we’re unsure of. If you see a plant you think is comfrey but you’re not quite sure, then harvest a leaf, take some photos and bring it home and research it. Make sure it’s not primrose or Foxglove, which all look quite similar when they emerge first; the latter could be very bad news to eat. You can always come back again.”
Foraging is great fun but you won’t learn it all in a couple of weeks out looking.
“For me the excitement is in learning new plants and their uses. There are not many plants that will do you serious harm, but there are some – the trick is not to be scared or brazen, just be informed.
“The most important thing I’ve learned is that I am small and biodegradable; human arrogance and brick walls make us feel we are in charge, but I’ll let you into a secret…we’re not!
To get information on the Living Wilderness event or to book please contact Fodhla on 086 1025484.