When Our Roar Was Birdsong

Writer Philip Webb Gregg went looking for ways to let nature get to him, and found them on a bushcraft and survival course, with Extinction Rebellion on the streets of London, and in his garden in the city.

 


2,610 words: estimated reading time 10.5 minutes 


“You have to get the fingers right in. Right between the clavicles. Don’t be shy, just dip them in. Feel the breastbone? Right, now tease it apart with your fingers. You need to make space for your thumbs. Got it? Good. Now just pop them in and pull. See? Peels like a tangerine.”

There is an almost inaudible gasp around the semi-circle as J pulls the torso off of another pigeon. Though most of us are disgusted, we’re also more than a little impressed. J has just shown us a beginner’s technique for preparing a pigeon carcass when you don’t have access to a knife. The theory is quite straightforward. J explains carefully and advises us to take notes. Then we are each handed a pigeon.

There are twelve of us on the wilderness course, and only one refuses to take part. The rest dig in, if not quite with gusto then certainly with willing. Considering it’s nine o’clock on a Friday evening and twelve hours ago most of us were sitting at a desk staring into a screen, I’d say this was pretty impressive.

J paces the semi-circle and gives help where needed. The basics for bare-hand pigeon preparation are as follows:

      • First, hold the pigeon by the legs and dangle — this constricts the bird’s breathing and induces a sleep-like state.
      • Then, make a V with your forefinger and middle finger. Take the back of the bird’s neck and delicately but confidently give a sharp tug. This kills the bird without unnecessary pain or agitation.
      • Separate wings by holding the wings in one hand and twisting the body with the other.
      • Pull head to detach.
      • Insert forefingers into the chest cavity and make room around the breastbone.
      • Fit both your thumbs into the hollow of the bird.
      • Hold with confidence and pull. You will be left with the spine and viscera in one hand (discard these) and the fleshy torso with in the other.
      • Finally, scrape the edible meat away from the breastbone.

J carefully puts the meat into a Tupperware and drops the carcase in a neatly prepared plastic bag, instructing us to do the same. When someone asks what happens to the contents of the plastic bag, he answers with a jovial grin: “Oh, don’t worry. That’ll go to the badgers tonight.”

Looking for the source

It is the 3rd of May, 2019. I am somewhere in the Peak District, about three hours into my first ever ‘Bushcraft and Survival’ course. So far it’s been an enlightening experience. We’ve covered wilderness health and safety, knife etiquette, how to make a pigeon stir-fry, and simple shelters. Now we’re sitting in the dark around a campfire at the edge of the woods. It should be romantic. It sounds romantic. What is less romantic is the dried blood I still have under my thumbnails. The smoke that insists on stalking me around the camp, filling my nostrils and making my eyes pour. Also, the cold. There is nothing at all romantic about the cold.

Bushcraft and survival in the woods
In the woods
Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2019

I came out here looking for a way to let nature get to me, searching for the notion of nature-as-cure. Cure for our bodies, cure for our minds, maybe even our souls. Of course, nature is not a pill. It can’t be prescribed over the counter or sunk straight to the vein. The concept of nature as medication — as a commodity that can be handed over without thought or cause — is one that I deeply disagree with. It’s yet another facet of our human-centred perspective of the wider world.

Instead, I’m looking for the source. I’m hoping to be reminded of the ‘inter-connectivity’ of things. After a long winter living in the heart of London, I’ve become startlingly aware of the disconnect between the concerns of inner-city life and the real, actual worries of our changing world. This disconnect feels like a form of insanity, an illness, or an obsession with unclean things, which can only end in sickness. So, the theory goes: if this madness is man-made, perhaps I can re-learn sanity from wilderness.

Which brings me back to the pigeon blood under my nails, and the smoke of the campfire. J, our instructor, is telling us about his job. I am fascinated to learn that there has been a huge rise in the demand for bushcraft courses in the last few years.

“Yep,” he says. “Probably Brexit.” We laugh, but it’s not a joke. A recent article in The Times reported certain survivalist organisations getting “30 or 40 calls a week asking questions about Brexit.” It’s a sobering thought, and another sign of the changing world. To think there’s a national shift toward a more desperate state of mind.

Of course, it’s good for the bushcraft industry. But this is in itself is a juxtaposition, as practising bushcraft requires, well, bush: the preservation of which is rarely in the interest of a capitalist society. The figures for UK woodland are somewhat haphazard, but according to the 2018 Forest Research Woodland Statistics we currently stand at 13% — 10% in England, 15% in Wales, 19% in Scotland and 8% in Northern Ireland.

Now, whether these numbers are positive or negative it’s hard to tell. Some sources see the current percentage as a huge success, stating that they’re higher than they’ve been for almost a thousand years (in 1086 the Domesday Book recorded forest levels at 15%), and comparing them to a devastatingly low 5% at the start of the 20th century. However, other organisations claim that woodland ecology in the UK is under serious threat, and British wildlife in a state of chaos. It’s certainly worth noting that the European average is far higher, at 44%. No doubt there’s a Brexit analogy in there somewhere, if anyone has the energy to find it.

J kicks some ashes over the remaining flames and declares that it’s time for bed. Early start in the morning, apparently.

“Wrap up warm,” he grins. “It’s gonna be a cold one.”

The peace of the wild?

Five hours later I’m lying under a canopy of fallen branches and bracken. The shelter is roughly two meters long and a meter wide. A classic A-frame structure, known to anyone who spent any time in the Scouts or who watches a lot of Ray Mears. It’s a clever design: not only does it shield you from the wind, it also traps your body heat and feeds it back down to your legs. However, tonight is unseasonably cold. My sleeping bag was last used in the hot hills of southern Spain, and is woefully inadequate for middle England in early May.

I lie shivering for hours, cursing my poor planning. When using a sleeping bag it’s often said that you should strip naked because the moisture in your clothing will sap your body heat. After an hour or two in nothing but slim thermals, I decide this is a lie. I resolutely and somewhat awkwardly don all of my layers, from my socks to my gloves. I’m fully dressed inside the bag and still there’s a throbbing numbness in my fingers and toes. Eventually, at around 4am, I decide to give up on sleep, and go to find the campfire instead.

Bushcraft - the embers of the campfire
The embers
Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2019

The embers are low, barely a tinge of orange or red. But the ashes are hot and bracken is everywhere. It’s enough. Soon the fire is roaring again, and the kettle is on the flame (I hear J’s voice as I do this: “flames to boil, embers to cook”). By the light of my head torch I settle down to my notebook. Hours pass. The night is deep and full of life. Badger, rustling close. Insects and small mammals living and dying in the understory. Above me an owl asks its endless question: Who? Who? Who? The breeze moves through the trees, making laughter.

Periodically I put more wood on the fire. Logs and branches. Hazel, beech, birch. Their green wood spits and my eyes burn with smoke. They will hurt for days, I know. So much for the peace of the wild. I am long lost in my thoughts when the birdsong starts. Not just owl or bat, real birdsong. Full and loud. The illustrious chorus of dawn. A spring chant of mating and renewal.

I put down my pen and click the head torch off. I sit on a log in the dark and listen to the birds while my eyes run with smoke.

The first day

It is two weeks earlier, 15th of April. I am standing in the centre of the city of London, right outside the Houses of Parliament. They are shrouded in scaffolding like the bandages of a leper. I think: now there’s a simile.

Next to me, someone is shouting. All around me, people are shouting and roaring. I am roaring. There are banners being waved by children and grandparents alike. The sky is full of them. They show the stark outline of bird carcasses and flowers. They are all embroidered with an hourglass held within a circle. XR.

Extinction Rebellion - humans on the XR March in London May 2019
Extinction Rebellion humans
Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2019

Over the next eleven days, four prominent roads in central London will be blocked, and a total of 1,130 people will be arrested. During these days, there will be countless conversations had between strangers about the current state of the world. Talks and discussions and poetry readings and songs will abound. It will sometimes feel like a festival. Teenagers will do cartwheels down the road. People will flirt and laugh and maybe find love on the barricades. In the dead of night, on the bridges, surrounded by police officers in wraithlike hi-visibility jackets, it will feel like the end of the world.

But all that is days away. Right now, it is the first day, and there is genuine hope in the air. Hope and determination and positivity. I walk around the square a dozen or so times, joining a march here, a debate there. Most people seem just as keen to sit on the grass and have a picnic as they are to change the world. But it is England, and the sun is shining. Maybe that’s how real revolution works, not through violence or petitions, but flasks of tea and vegan sandwiches kept in Tupperware.

At one point there is a march of giant papier-mâché skeletons, accompanied by a sorrowful jazz band, a troupe of red-clad mourners, and a coffin. The skeletons are those of animal species, extinct and endangered. People in animal masks hold high the fleshless silhouettes of ape, rhinoceros, lion, tiger, whale, etc. etc. And also: humans, soon to be extinct. A giant magpie walks among the procession, waving a placard: ‘One for sorrow…’ it reads, in thick black Sharpie.

Magpie - 'one for sorrow' - on the XR March. London 2019
Magpie on the march
Photpgraph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2019

I buy a roll of toilet paper with Trump’s face on from a man with a supermarket trolley overflowing with them. “For the cause!” he waves a revolutionary fist.

Just as I’m thinking of leaving, I pass the central podium. On it is a man, standing staring into space. The audience, some thirty or forty people, is enthralled, looking up at him with their mouths open. He’s holding a device in his hand, either an MP3 player or a phone, and from it trails a wire. The wire leads into an amp, and a second wire links the amp to a set of speakers on either side of the podium. From the speakers — a pair of massive monoliths standing like two-thirds of a trilithon — comes the sound of birdsong.

It booms across Parliament Square with an eerie softness. Nightingale, chaffinch, common blackbird, magpie, green woodpecker, great spotted woodpecker, greenfinch, garden warbler, European robin, starling, lapwing, goldfinch, redshank. On and on, and on. There is utter silence in the crowd for at least 20 minutes, and then people start to laugh and cheer. They try to imitate the calls, falling into peels of laughter at the difficulty. Everybody is clapping furiously and chirruping at the top of their lungs. There is a beautiful madness to the moment that feels like sanity at last.

Bushcraft and birdsong

It is two weeks and three days later. Monday the 6th of May. I have just returned from the ‘Bushcraft and Survival’ weekend and I am in the garden of our tiny London flat, kneeling over the raised beds pulling up unwanted life. Weeding is a necessary death, I think. All around me is the furniture we’ve built from up-cycled pallets and discarded planks of wood. ‘Frankenstein furniture’, we affectionately call it.

Bushcraft - cultivating the garden in the city
In the garden
Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg

Today the UN released its biodiversity report, otherwise known as the Summary for Policymakers IPBES Global Assessment. It’s a dense document, replete with all manner of figures and statistics. The numbers are intimidating and complex, but they add up to a series of simple truths:

      • Due to human civilisation, 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction.
      • Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered.
      • More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater recourses are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
      • Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992.
      • Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980.
      • The amount of plastic and pollutants in the ocean have created over 400 ‘dead zones’, the total area of which is larger than the United Kingdom.

The report, compiled by 145 experts over the course of three years concludes that ‘Transformative Changes’ are needed to restore and protect nature. The current global response is insufficient.

I sit in the sunshine and listen as the radio feeds me these facts, these prophecies and warnings, and I think of ancient Rome. I think of Pompeii, of the portents of disaster that were not heeded. I think of Cassandra running toward the Trojan Horse with a burning torch in one hand and an axe in the other, screaming: “Death is within!” But of course, no one listened.

I wonder if this will be any different, as I pluck baby weeds from my bed of courgettes. I think about the nature of human nature, and the difficulty of staying sane in an irrational world. I think about revolution and wilderness and the beautiful indifference of it all. Suddenly there’s a sound. I look up into the sky.

Birdsong.


Find out more

The ‘Bushcraft and Survival’ weekend course Philip took part in is run by Woodland Ways, a family-run bushcraft company employing a small close-knit and highly experienced team of individuals.

The Dark Mountain Project recently published Questions for the Woods by Caroline Ross — who enters the liminal territory of the forest and forges a wild camp by a fallen oak — as part of their new ‘Becoming Human’ section, which explores the physical, psychological and experiential aspects of our current predicament and how we might realign our bodies and minds with the living world. 

The 2018 Woodland Statistics report is available to download from Forest Research and the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) Global Assessment Summary for Policy Makers is available from IPBES.

You can find all the news and actions from XR, and how to get involved, at Extinction Rebellion.

And if you’d like to consider birdsong and, among other things, the difficulty of human reproduction of it – in this case through music – you might take a look at my piece, Interstices of Things Ajar, from March 2017…