Monkeying Around | What is 'Woodland Parkour', And Can It Really Improve Your Sex Life?
We got back to our roots with bushcraft's latest iteration
Words & photography by Daniel Wildey
I remember sitting in the school gym, aged around six, in my vest and pants wondering what the point of a “movement" class was. PE was fine (except I could never climb a rope...) but movement felt like esoteric prancing, even to someone who’d only recently graduated from toddling.
So why, 30-something years later, am I rolling around the gravel car park of a 4 star hotel in the Lake District, while guests in luxury cars try to find a space unoccupied by contorted humans?
Cumbrian bushcraft outfit Woodsmoke, run by Ben McNutt, have taken the idea of primitive skills to a more elemental level than most by teaming up with Rafe Kelley and Ben Medder, from a company called Evolve, Move, Play to design a 6-day course called Wild Woods.
"Movement felt like esoteric prancing, even to someone who’d only recently graduated from toddling"
I first tried bushcraft in order to learn some basic survival skills, useful to all of us who like to play outdoors. But I hadn't expected to become thoroughly absorbed in pursuing bushcraft for its own sake. Yet once you begin to appreciate how nature shaped us as a species, looking at how our movement evolved seems to warrant further examination.
Though if I'm honest, it also was the mention of woodland parkour that piqued my interest. Time to banish that "Now-children-try-to-move-like-a-swan"- nonsense, and learn to move like the cool kids do.
"If you're going to spend time in the most beautiful part of England, being able to gaze upon it is a must"
Basing a backcountry course in the grounds of a fancy hotel is clearly incongruous, but even as I was arriving it was paying off. Bushcraft is often practised in the woods, and unless you're a full-on expert in arboreal habitats, you could usually be anywhere.
But Armathwaite Hall occupies an elevated position looking south over Bassenthwaite Lake, and its manicured lawns provide an unobstructed view beyond the water to the towering bulk of Skiddaw, the shapely ridge of Catbells and even glimpses into Borrowdale at a distance. If you're going to spend time in the most beautiful part of England, being able to gaze upon it is a must.
But the hotel also offers acres of ancient woodland, and just a couple of minutes walk from the landscaped grounds our basecamp was immersed in wild nature. After the first night spent in Tentsile treehouse-style tents, suspended in the forest canopy, we were about to be further immersed – up to our elbows in flesh and blood...
McNutt introduced the routine; afternoons would be for movement, and morning sessions would teach us woodland bushcraft skills. The first of which took no prisoners - skinning and butchering roe deer for dinner. It was a real eye opener with regard to the participants on this crossover-course. Many of them at first glance appeared to be fitness-fanatics rather than the mixture of survivalists and luddites that bushcraft can attract. Dietary preferences and nutritional theories had already been extensively discussed. My assumptions were shattered then, as not one person flinched at the idea of carving up a cute furry animal, and one unlikely guest even claimed the testicles to eat later. Being with a group that is ready to fully embrace the activities is always a promising start.
"Not one person flinched at the idea of carving up a cute furry animal"
Kelley and Medder added a rare insight into the process too, analysing and pointing out muscle structure and anatomy, which helped built my interest in the physical afternoon session to come. But mainly I was just salivating over the dark red venison backstrap.
Our movement tuition began with several unexpected elements: rolling around in the car park (to learn about breaking a fall), throwing tennis balls at each other, and lots of bold claims from our instructors. Practising movement increases your empathy. It improves your sex life. It enhances your behavioural flexibility. In short, movement makes you a better person.
"The cynic in me could not be contained, and I enjoyed exercising my debating muscles with Kelley as much as my physical ones"
The cynic in me could not be contained, and I enjoyed exercising my debating muscles with Kelley as much as my physical ones; but by the end of the week he had totally won me over. I'll shorten that process for you by outlining some of the principles of Evolve, Move, Play.
We're becoming a sedentary species. We're ignoring millions of years of evolution. And we've forgotten how to play.
Or in Kelley's words: "I don't think there's any practice of movement that's as meaningful to human beings as engaging in the things that have been important to us physically throughout our entire evolution." Lots of us still move of course, but the movements we make tend to be repetitive and utilise the same body parts. That's as true of a mountain biker as it is of say, a weightlifter. Hence the throwing and catching of tennis balls - although it was only a warm up, it forces unexpected reactions and improvisation, and works parts of the body you might not normally even think about. Being physically adaptable and having diversity of movement got us to where we are today.
Of course you could just go for a run. That's entirely natural, and running was an evolutionary imperative. But it wasn't the whole story, and it is in arboreal locomotion – movement through the forest – that these principles connect to primitive skills and bushcraft. Lots of people climb rock faces, but rocks are low in resources compared to the woods, where we find the raw materials for many of the morning activities of the course; making fire by friction using a wooden bow drill, learning axe skills to process fuel for the fire, whittling tools from green wood, and trees provide the habitat for much of our food.
So arriving into a tangled mass of mature rhododendron branches, we were encouraged to look at it as a problem to be physically solved, in the same way the originators of parkour visualised an efficient and aesthetic path through urban Paris.
"Arriving into a tangled mass of mature rhododendron branches, we were encouraged to look at it as a problem to be physically solved"
This dense and sprawling web of wood is another reason Armathwaite Hall was chosen as the venue for the course, and the carpet of fallen purple petals lit by the dappled sunlight through the canopy was merely a beautiful bonus. Tree climbing is assumed to mean gaining height, but there is so much more fun to be had closer to the ground. Over two afternoons we went feral, learning to brachiate (ie swing like apes), cling to vertical branches, bridge between them, limb walk, land jumps on slim branches, and very quickly to string these elements together to create free running challenges, helped hugely by Kelley's parkour background and instruction on parkour moves including side vaults, step vaults, cash vaults and kong vaults.
All was undertaken with caution, so the exhilaration came not from speed and adrenalin, but for me it came from realising my body has evolved for this. I can do it because I'm supposed to do it.
So maintaining our diverse physical capacity seems a worthwhile end in itself and of course it's rewarding as it's genetically programmed into us. But where does the personal growth stuff come from?
"The essential concept of Evolve, Move, Play," Kelley explained, "is that a human being evolved to move, we always had to move through evolution until very recently. We evolved to develop movement through play, no animal has as prolonged an adolescence as a human, so no animal plays as much as us, and we play more as adults and in more diverse ways than any other animal. The behavioural flexibility that allowed us to conquer the world is rooted in our capacity for play."
I can pinpoint the moment I bought into the idea that movement and play are integral to who we are. We'd retreated to the hotel gym due to rain (the choice of location now abundantly wise) and embarked on some interactive games around roughhousing, 'earthquake architecture' and 'contact improv'.
The latter is a cross between dancing and wrestling, whereby you begin contacting your partner at the wrist and then try to move one another, while maintaining a balance between resisting your partner and flowing with the movement. For reasons I do not understand I hit a kind of emotional wall. Maybe it was the lack of structure to the game, or the daunting scope of an interpretive 'dance' but I was significantly outside of my comfort zone and left the room to have a word with myself.
"For reasons I do not understand I hit a kind of emotional wall"
I like to think I have a fairly good at getting out of my comfort zone – I'll ski off cliffs, scuba dive in frozen lakes and dance like there's nobody watching. I can't pretend I figured out any answers, but I discovered something fairly profound about my limitations, and they weren't where I'd expected.
Perhaps it's simply an indication of how far we've strayed from what should be natural movement.
But the games became more competitive and when there was a purpose, such as trying to touch your opponent's knees, and avoid them touching yours, I was once again fully engaged.
Kelley backed up all this activity with some super-interesting information. Roughhousing is play-fighting, so how does it increase empathy and behavioural flexibility and therefore improve relationships? Well, all animals do it, and all animals instinctively allow any opponent a 30 per cent success rate. Rottweilers fighting terriers, and even rats apply this rule. Research shows that a less than 30 per cent success rate means a person will give up trying, meaning no-one gets to play. This applies to all aspects of life, including relationships.
It's fascinating, not just that this 30 per cent ratio is subconsciously ingrained across species, but more so, that play is valued so highly that animals will not risk losing it simply to win.
On the final day there was still time for another bombshell on how we interact with nature; and again, one that ties natural movement to wilderness skills. McNutt was running a workshop on tracking wildlife and introduced a few eye exercises to force wide-angle vision and peripheral awareness. We spend so much time focused on our feet, or our phones, or the horizon, but by forcing the eyes to see differently we are able to move much more effectively through nature and with a heightened awareness. Or as it applies to free-running (or 'tree'-running), with more fluidity.
The first time I took a bushcraft course was with Ben McNutt, and he began by telling us how we would come to see the forest, rather than look at it. I was sitting quietly with Rafe Kelley during this course when he blurted out: "Look at that climb! Look at the jump right there!" He sees the forest as a terrain park, much as McNutt can see a series of resources and possibilities.
What would you expect to get out of a slightly obscure course like this? Given what I've said above I don't think it's an exaggeration to say it changed the way I see movement, the way I see the world, and in a sense the way I see myself. Not bad for six days days in the Wild Woods.
Woodsmoke run bushcraft courses all year round, from weekends in the UK woods, to expeditions in the tropics, the desert and the frozen North. Find out more at woodsmoke.uk.com
The Wild Woods course will run again in 2018 and dates will be available soon on the Wild Woods page woodsmoke.uk.com/media/woods-2
A further collaboration is planned with Rafe Kelley and Ben Medder in Borneo. Find out more at woodsmoke.uk.com/expeditions/tropical-coastal-borneo