You wake up to the sound of birds. They are loud, inconsiderate, alive with the energy of the morning. As the cool wind blows the leaves hush and flutter, the dead ones on the ground held fast by dew and fallen twigs. You breathe in the fresh air deeply. It is not the musty air of your London apartment, humid in the claustrophobic space of your room, top floor overlooking buildings upon buildings, cranes and smoke, drowned in the cacophony of car horns and shouting pedestrians. It is loud here in the woods, but it is a different kind of loud, a rising murmur that is all encompassing.
Since you are the first to wake, and the others underneath their rope-fastened tarps still asleep, your movements in waking must be quiet. You unzip your sleeping bag, unravel your meagre bedding, and kneel upon your mat to flatten, roll, tuck, and squeeze its contents neatly into its container. No thoughts come to you during all of this. You are caught in the deed, a routine quickly ingrained, thoughtless acts that must be carried out before the day truly began. It is a meditative seclusion, an opportunity to be united with your environment and the sky beyond the canopies.
You swat midges away from your face. And again. Continuously, over and over again, as the insufferable tickle of little limbs on skin makes your body lightly convulse. You are not used to this as the bushmen are, those so entwined with nature that its many touches warrant no response or reaction. Bug spray does not work, the chemical stench of which is still upon your person, and so a fire becomes the only alternative, its smoke a remedy.
Bedding put away, clothes and shoes on, skin crawling now because of the morning cold, you set out to start a fire.
Squat by the blackened lumps and grey ashes of the pit the night before, and search for still burning embers to aid the process. None to be found. The dry twigs you’ve assembled await the heat of flame. Your scraping of steel on flint sends a fountain of sparks onto the toilet paper you’ve set, but this only singes and the wind blows out the rest. Cotton wool, your next option, catches your spark better but burns out too quickly. Vaseline is sought, retrieved and smeared upon more fluffed wool, and finally you’ve got sustenance. It catches spark again, burning slow and steady, allowing for a build-up to a bonfire crescendo.
With the fire started you sit upon a log and are lulled into rumination. The dancing flames, the shimmer of smoke, the howls of waking huskies, and the chorus in the trees take you into the quieter reaches of your mind. As time slides by you suddenly notice you are not alone. The others have awakened and are sharing in the warmth and the refuge of the smoke, their breaths slow and contemplative, some rested, others restless, reconciling the differing caresses of the wilderness.
There is much to be done.
With your band of brothers, newly formed and closely tied, you set out to put learned skills to the test. Water from the stream is purified and collected, wood sawn, chopped and set aside for the evening, herbs and plants both medicinal and poisonous recognised and noted down, natural shelters built, first aid practiced and administered, teas and coffees brewed, all while taking in the sights, sounds, smells and auras of the forest around you. Hear the crunch of twigs beneath your walking boots as you ignore the sting of nettles plucked for protein-rich tea; duck carefully under and past the teeth of fallen widow-makers; run your hands through the fur of huskies, a pack of them all exuberant, that are as starved for attention as you are for a hot meal and shower.
And the meal that comes, no matter what it is, is so much more satisfying than any had in the mundane overtones of quotidian life.
Yes, you have the taste of the food itself, generously spiced, soft pieces of chicken breast, large fleshy chicken breasts, steaming atop a bowl of rice. So, simple. A soup of vegetables, carrots, grains, greens, colouring a deep broth that cannot help but warm the soul. Porridge, thick and fibrous, doused cheekily in sugar, lumbers through your digestive system with heavy satisfaction. If you were served this in a restaurant you’d abhor its primitivism, its lack of creativity, balk at its monochromatic visage and demand variety. How spoilt we’ve become. But in the confines of the wood, where resources are scarce, rations limited, and minimalism the name of this proverbial culinary game, the flamboyance of urban cooking is superseded by other elements that transform a basic meal into something worth writing about.
I have spoken about your surroundings already. Let the process of digestion, the familiar goings on, drive a sombre contemplation of the wonders of nature around you. Enjoy the warmth of the fire, the intermittence of the breeze, and the thorough conscription of your senses.
Share this transcendent moment. Grow closer as you realise how all simple desires and pleasures are common. In camaraderie there is laughter, booming, snorting, unrelenting laughter, also song and storytelling. Some speak of war, its trials and triumphs, tribulations and testimonies. Others of past loves, broken hearts, estrangements, marriage and happiness. More unite under the banner of sex and shit, fundamental vulgarities, the retelling of hilarious instances in which natures calling came at inopportune and unfortunate moments.
Bonds are forged around the flickering fire as the sun sets. Drinks make the tongue unravel a little easier, walls coming down to reveal vulnerabilities we all share. As the allure of sleep takes each one away in their own time, the solitary walk back to your tent is filled with a warmth that is not directly related to the heat of the pit. It is to do with friendship, with communion, and the togetherness that is shared beyond the workplace, your home, at the pub or the club. When all is stripped down and back, what is left is but a very human desire to communicate in earnest.
As you rest your head and let the dreams take you, as you allow your consciousness to leak into the realm beyond your waking moments, you are reminded of all the things you truly appreciate in life, and try to make mental note to remind yourself to recognise these when you return to normal living.
But this is hard to do. To replicate this experience with nature, the sublime mood that the Romantics revere. You cherish it so deeply when in it, but in the humdrum of the cityscape it is near impossible. There is too much going on, a loudness that drowns out the essence of your being, replaced with those of the world and its expectations. You cannot, for the life of you, find that beautiful presentness you found carving wooden stakes, when the weight of all your troubles dissipated in simple acts that you would normally outsource.
At least you know where you can find it again. In your darkest moments, exhausted and work-worn, you remember the ghost of a feeling that made you happy. You whip out your phone, scroll to your Whatsapp group and check for when your next expedition is scheduled. A week, a month, a year away, a while in between where responsibilities are your anchor, and yet a smile on your face grows unconsciously for you realise there is something to look forward to. You lay back into your bed, close your eyes, and let your imagination take you to a time where brotherhood joined wilderness, and the world beyond the trees was a distant afterthought.