The Ray Mears Interview | Why We Must Preserve the Methods of Indigenous Northern Tribes
We talk to the renowned survival authority Ray Mears about 'Out on the Land', his latest release...
“There are very few experts in this field. There are a lot of gifted amateurs and a lot of others pretending to be experts who aren’t, but there are very few actual experts."
It’s safe to say that Ray Mears, the man behind the words, would be considered an expert by the vast majority of the bushcraft world.
Mears grew up tracking foxes through the North Downs in Southern England, exploring and engulfing himself in nature while picking up the techniques that allowed him to do so without owning a sleeping bag until he was 16, or a tent until he was 21.
“I don’t think in terms of adventures," he tells us. “I’m just perusing the interests of my life. I don’t think it’s adventurous, I just think it’s the norm."
Mears became particularly enamoured with the forests of his home region and those further afield, describing them as “sponges for wildlife" and making it his mission to learn as much about outdoor survival as he possibly could. Bushcraft was liberation in nature for him, and he became such a master of it that he went on to become revered like few others as a guide, instructor, television presenter and author.
It’s the latter of those job titles which brings us to sit down with Ray in a comfortable hotel lounge near the Edinburgh Book Festival. He’s preparing to present his latest book ‘Out on the Land’ to the Scottish capital – a manual and in-depth insight into bushcraft skills honed in northern forests.
When we talk about 'northern forests', we're referring to the boreal forests which cover most of inland Canada, Alaska as well as Sweden, Finland, much of Norway and more.
“You have to ask the right questions of the right people, and the right people are disappearing..."
“To go out on the land is a very important phrase," Mears notes. “The indigenous people who we spent many years working with in the far North use the term often.
“But out on the land is also where we validate that historical information that they pass on. The only way to know if certain methods work is to go out and test them."
The book centres on understanding the practicalities of tribes indigenous to the boreal forests around the world; on capturing the true craft and techniques of ‘the other’ – the people you don’t see on television or in print, but who have been practising outdoor survival skills in order to do exactly that for generations.
‘Out on the Land’ was co-written with the 70-year-old Lars Fält, with whom Ray has been teaching Arctic skills in Swedish Lapland for the past 30 years. But through all of his experience and after all of his work, Ray still wouldn’t call himself, or anyone else, an expert. He doesn’t like the term.
“One of the things Lars and myself have in common is a deep curiosity about our subject," he tells us. “That’s the joy of it. Every question you answer poses 10 more. You never stop learning and that’s why I don’t like the term ‘expert’. It gives the impression that you’ve arrived.
“I don’t think either of us have ever felt that. We’re both very much on the journey. We’re pilgrims in the wild rather than experts. We always want to know more. What I want to do is to try and put down some of the knowledge that I’ve acquired.
“Many of the things we encountered 20 or so years ago have gone. 30 years ago you were talking to people who not only remembered the old life but had lived it. Now you’re talking to newer generations who have witnessed the things of the past but haven’t lived them or who may not have been permitted to explore their traditional culture.
“For a whole range of complex reasons it’s becoming more difficult to really see the detail of the older knowledge. You have to ask the right questions of the right people, and the right people are disappearing."
Those reasons vary from diabetes to a whole range of social issues in remote parts of the North, and with advancing technology and problems with cultural integration (Mears highlights examples in Canada where indigenous natives were sent to residential schools and forbidden to speak their own language) these unique and specialised skills are in danger of fading away.
And it’s not about preservation for preservation's sake. Bushcraft is as practical a skill as they come, and these ancient methods provide essential insights on how best to master problems that natives have had to deal with for years past.
Access to these tribes though, and to the information they hold, can often be as tricky as dealing with the problem itself.
Mears continued: “A lot of people don’t even get to start the conversation.
“I was very lucky in that when Lars was in the army as a young soldier he had been sent to the North and put in charge of a group of Sami [tribesmen and women]. They were very good skiers and he wasn’t, but they liked him. He had a foot in the door, which was incredibly useful, and I was able to learn from him. But then I asked different questions to him when I was in. And I know how to approach people and what issues concern them.
“That’s the great thing about a collaboration; you have two brains with similar interests approaching the same problem from slightly different perspectives, and that’s really great. We’d sit round a fire or in a cabin and talk things through and talk about what we’ve seen."
Guides in the book include everything from how to suspend a cooking pot to how to fillet Arctic char and waterproof leather or make insect repellent from the bark of a birch tree. It really is quite extensive.
It’s the kind of thing that many millennials might refer to as ‘life hacks’. It’s the kind of the thing that Mears would more accurately refer to as bushcraft.
“The information in there is completely reliable," he continues. Speaking not just with sureness but with a passion for the subject. “There’s a big chapter on hypothermia in there for example, but just one paragraph on knives. Everyone in the bushcraft world is mad on knives but it’s just a tool. Get over it. It’s really important to learn how to stay warm.
“There’s a higher craft in there and you have to do more with your hands and improvise more and rely on nature more, but when you do that suddenly you can make something to meet a need that when you started would’ve been a two day project but now might take 10 minutes.
“What amuses me when you see people in cold places on television is that they’ll say ‘oh it’s -18’ and wait for a reaction. We’re used to working at -50, and that’s quite normal. I don’t believe in that kind of [shock factor] nonsense. There’s too much of it. The real wilderness is a very sober place, and I’m used to taking people far out into it, where if something goes wrong we have to deal with that ourselves. That puts a whole different perspective on things.
“People who lived the old life had a knowledge built over generations of living on their landscape and environment and weather. They were cultures that valued elders’ wisdom, which is something that we’re not good at. It’s a very grown up pursuit."
Intrigued by this last point, I ask Ray to expand. Is he referring to a lack of will to learn among the younger generations? More, he explains, to the often hasty advancement of enthusiasts from student to leader, and in the lack of outdoor opportunities being offered to the young.
“I see a lot of people wanting to show off with tricks they’ve seen on YouTube, which isn’t the same as hard-earned experienced..."
“Normal outdoor pursuiting is geared towards getting young people leading far too soon. When you’re young you’re fearless and there are things you should do – when I was a kid I bent a bit of metal into a carabiner and abseiled down an 80ft cliff with a hemp rope – but very often at 35 people either leave the industry because there are fewer jobs available that bring them disposable income or go into management. And I think that’s a mistake. It’s at that age that they’re really in their prime. They’ve got very good knowledge, they’ve gained wisdom, and it’s then really that they should really be doing the teaching outdoors, with the youngsters mentoring underneath them.
“As a professional guider you really need to have done these [crazy] things when you’re young because sometimes nature calls on all of that previous experience and you’ve got to have the strength of will to make it work. You have to have done all of that groundwork at the right time in your life.
“I had the opportunity to discover myself when I was young, and a lot of people out there these days don’t have those opportunities. I think outdoor pursuit education is extremely important. If you take somebody who’s spent most of their childhood playing video games canyoning, it’s a massive ask, but when they’ve done it they’ve done it and self-belief is a tremendously powerful force. It’s really important that these things happen."
So what does the future hold for bushcraft?
“Bushcraft is alive and kicking but it’s not necessarily going in the direction I would steer it," admits Mears. “What I see a lot of is people wanting to show off with gimmicks and gizmos and tricks they’ve seen on YouTube, which isn’t nearly the same as hard-earned experience. I’d like to see more realism."
“Bushcraft as I know it is a serious outdoor subject for grownups as well as a way of getting children back into nature, and it’s great to start young but you can’t deal with all of the topics young because it’s a very grown up subject."
If there’s a place to start learning, it’s surely from Mears himself, and through a book sculpted over three decades guiding, exploring and discovering the northern forests alongside those who have lived on the land for generations.