With an apprenticeship alongside Ray Mears under her belt, her own survival school and even a PhD in ethnobotany, Lisa Fenton is the real deal. We caught up with the undisputed queen of bushcraft to find out what makes her tick
There aren’t many civilians that her majesty’s toughest soldiers (we’ll say no more) cheekily call “The Colonel” but Lisa Fenton, co-founder with partner Ben McNutt of leading bushcraft and survival school Woodsmoke, is one of them. Lisa is a Doctor of ethnobotany, the study of peoples’ relationship with plants, who has lived amongst primitive peoples all over the world. OAG caught up with her in the Lake District to learn more about bushcraft, foraging and our relationships with the natural world.
Will Robson: When did your interest in bushcraft begin? How did it become a career?
Lisa Fenton: I’m a north London city girl and it is a quite a leap, I admit. I guess I was always drawn to any patch of nature and I was a bit of a tomboy, climbing trees etc. I began teaching bushcraft and survival skills after university, as an apprentice to Ray Mears for four years in the late 1990s. I’ve been teaching with Woodsmoke ever since, for 17 years now.
WR: What was it about Ray Mears’ work that appealed to you?
LF: When Ray first came on television with Wild Tracks, Ben and I were captivated. We had the survival books, but they didn’t quite resonate. What Ray was doing just made sense to us; it wasn’t about survival, it was about being comfortable in nature. He simplified technology and showed how skills and knowledge could really connect you to the environment. It was almost a little anarchistic by saying: no, I want to be self-sufficient; I want to know how to purify my own water or make fire. I want to be able to meet my human needs without being mediated by technology.
WR: Why walk away from technology?
LF: No one I know in the bushcraft industry rejects technology. We all love a hot shower or to watch some telly. I don’t strive for some throwback to a pre-technological era; it’s more about finding a balance because technology is overwhelming us. It’s turning us physically and socially into different types of humans. Because bushcraft is nature-based, we tend to choose simple technologies, like an axe, which becomes an extension of the self as you develop skill with the axe to access the possibilities
WR: So bushcraft students learn the skills needed to conquer nature?
LF: People develop a relationship with the natural world because they soon realise nature can’t be conquered. Indigenous peoples work with nature, often on a spiritual level and while you don’t find bushcraft people getting too spiritual, they do talk about being connected to the natural world.
WR: What are people looking for when they sign up for a Woodsmoke course?
LF: My research has shown me that bushcraft training is often a response to modern urban lifestyles, which estrange us from both our inner nature (our essential humanity) and our external nature (the natural world). People want to escape the city and see what’s in the natural landscape. People want to see what they could do with wild foods, so they’re drawing nature and the seasons into themselves and their world. Another big draw for many is that they want to teach their children more about nature, picking berries or mushrooming.
WR: Is it a kind of therapy?
LF: Yes, definitely! For example, during my research for my PhD, I spoke with many people worldwide about friction fire-making. I got the same response about it feeling magical, alchemical and primal to make fire, because to do so combines so many nuances of material, skill and perseverance. It’s a very frustrating process to learn and we just don’t get that sort of challenge in the modern world. When it finally works, people get real satisfaction from the achievement.
WR: How transportable are British bushcraft and foraging skills to other parts of the world?
LF: Skill with tools, fire-making etc work wherever you have the materials, although ‘survival tins’ with snares in may not be much good if you are in an environment where snares are not relevant. We find that if we’re in Namibia, for example, Bushmen will see that we know how to use tools and they are more ready to exchange techniques. That sounds simple but lots of people don’t have a handiness with tools, so we get accepted quite quickly.
WR: What’s your favourite part of the world to use your bushcraft skills?
LF: Definitely the winter landscape, but in the boreal forests, Scandinavia or North America for example. Once you get out of the woods it gets really tough: polar explorer type of thing. We prefer to travel with traditional sleds, snow shows, moccasins, packs etc and we make it all in the woods. We take a stove and a canvas tent. It’s such an easy (and warm) place to be if you know what you’re doing, not as the media would portray it sometimes.