Here’s a second pattern that I’ve noticed during my time as a bushcraft instructor:
“My son isn’t keen on the outdoors – he’s just not the gnarly ‘survival’ type”
Machismo did not die after the 1980s, it just got clever. One trick it performed was to elevate itself into pseudo-aspirational but unattainable places. It chose extremes, scuttled into them, and then proceeded to occupy all the attention.
When the extreme has the loudest voice, trouble is not too far away. And in the case of our young (and older) men, this sort of trouble seems to be frequently manifesting itself in confusion around masculinity.
This is visible in politics I think, but I’m not so interested in that. In the field of bushcraft, it takes the form of Survival Skills. This is a fascinating craft requiring skill and dedication (and can lead to very deep experiences), but it is a pretty small niche overall. However, the nature of the practice makes it an area well suited to extremism and elitism, the perfect place for machismo to crawl off to and make noise.
There seems to be a tendency in my country’s culture to do more Viewing that Doing, and extreme survival does have high viewing value. I suppose it is much more entertaining to watch someone lost in the desert eating beetles than it is to watch them chilling by a campfire. The survival genre, however, shares a key characteristic with movies and games (and therefore they often mix) – it is utterly unrealistic, pure fantasy, and totally out of reach.
But in the real world, this attention-seeking niche fantasy can make the whole outdoors feel exclusive. There does seem to be a concern that if you can’t skin a badger, track a field mouse over rocky terrain and sneak up invisibly to tickle a vigilant squirrel, then you just haven’t Got What It Takes to come outside and play.
The resultant loss is a great shame – back in front of the screens we go, to pretend our way through life.
There is a worse effect.
When SAS survivalists take their place next to porn stars and save-the-day action heroes as modern day role models, then feelings around body image get confused, and the journey of discovering and embodying a healthy masculinity gets badly distorted. I regularly hear parents expressing concern about this. On the part of the young men, masculinity as a concept is usually too intellectual or abstract, and body image too embarrassing, to engage in directly. Instead, they need meaningful practical experiences through which to address these matters and shine light on the path; without them there will only be room for dark confusion and erratic behaviour.
In our culture, somehow the mainstream is the extreme. I suspect this condition is a big reason behind why the polar bears are dying; victims of our desperate search for peak experiences. If I spend too much time enveloped in this debilitating mainstream, then something dies in me too. I need to create pockets of insulation from news, gossip and distraction in order to have at least one original thought and to connect up my scattered fragments into a useful and sturdy container.
No matter how good my intentions, I will almost inevitably be a product of the environment I put myself in. So what sort of environment do I seek? Less fantasy and more reality. Less viewing and more doing. Less survival, more everyday, accessible adventure.
Only when a young man finds it in himself to abandon the comfort of watching other people’s adventures, and embrace the risk of having his own real ones, will he ever be able to discover what amazing things his remarkable body is capable of, and find the hidden clues of what being a man really means to him.
It has been this way for many thousands of years in the past, and it is still this way today.
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In 2019 you’ll find me running two adventurous programmes for teenagers, one out of Sussex and one out of Devon. Bookings are open. They are both called Wolf Pack and they share common threads:
1. Wolf Pack in Sussex has been set up by me for 2019
2. Wolf Pack in Devon has been put on by Wildwise for a number of years and led by me since 2016, and will also run in 2019