Children in the woods

Woodlore for young sportsmenVermin, real and unreal (e.g. Golden Eagle, Wild Cat, Tawny Owl), Handling the Ferret, Snaring, Skinning an animal for mounting …  it isn’t just the sexist title of this 1922 book by H. Mortimer Batten that seems to be from another era.  The book however captures the spirit of childhood almost 90 years ago, when children would spend days on their own exploring the countryside, building shelters and catching their own food.

Reading this book I was immediately struck by the resonance with Richard Louv’s award-winning book: Last child in the woods (Latest Edition 2010).  I mentioned in a previous post Louv’s ground-breaking articulation of something that all in society, particularly parents, were aware of but perhaps unable to define: a nature-deficit in our youngest generation.

As Richard Louv explains:

“Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically. The polarity of the relationship has reversed. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment—but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That’s exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child.”

Louv’s book led to the creation of a movement Leave no child indoors.  He presented a Testimony in front the House of Representatives, calling for action and suggesting collaboration between Government agencies and organisations tackling obesity, promoting experiential learning, and building links between communities and the land.  This clarion call was well received and led to action across the USA (e.g. Outdoor Bill of Rights) and around the world.

Here are some delightful quotes from H. Mortimer Batten’s 1922 book:

“The delights of possessing a home away from home – that is a permanent shelter house out in some chosen spot, where you can eat, sleep, and have your being, will be easily imagined by any youth who has ever tried camping.” 
Making a summer house or permanent home in the woods.

“Obtain a strip of good chrome leather …. and next cut a piece of ashwood, and with your knife and finishing file, shape it … Next, rub it over with a red hot iron til the surface is blackened, then burnish it by rubbing energetically with a soft duster.” 
Making a Dog Slip.

“Now when one has the whole run of the countryside, the act of spending money on a walking stick is about equivalent to carting coals to Newcastle or Wigan … I never go into the woods without keeping a weather eye open for a good stick.  … Do not forget always when cutting a stick to smear earth over the stump you leave behind so that it is not too visible, and also, when you have trimmed the stick up, pick up all the litter and push it into a rabbit hole.” 
Make your own walking stick.

As we move towards a “Big Society” in Britain, we have an opportunity to be creative in how we help engage young people with the outdoors.  We must think hard about how we can link Government agencies together, and in turn link them with local Government and non-governmental organisations.  We should encourage the Environment (Defra) and Education (Dfes) departments to collaborate.  We should aim to tackle obesity, improve other health and wellbeing needs, connect local communities to their local countryside (relevance to the public forest estate sale!) and urban green spaces, while ensuring a greater and more meaningful environmental consciousness in the young.  Afterall, the polar bear and Amazon forest may grab the headlines, but only a minority of children have a meaningful connection with our fabulous countryside.  Let’s create an Outdoor Bill of Rights for British children.

Gabriel Hemery

H. Mortimer Batten (1922).  Woodlore for young sportsmen.  Heath Cranton Limited, London.  286pp.

Contents

  • Life habits of British wild animals
  • The game birds of Great Britain
  • Vermin, real and unreal
  • The destruction of vermin
  • Minor hints for the gunner
  • Angling and habits of fresh water fish
  • Rabbiting
  • Snaring
  • Box traps for rabbits
  • Mole catching
  • Make your own walking stick
  • Skinning and preserving skins
  • Making leather goods
  • A permanent home in the woods
  • Making a toboggan
  • Taking care of your puppy
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6 thoughts on “Children in the woods

  1. This was the thrust of the entire Woodcraft movement in its original form, which was a strand also of Scouting. There were no computer games in 1902 but there was also no constructive or creative approach to being in nature with others – it was after all the interruption of some semi-delinquent children into his life that inspired Ernest Thompson Seton to imagine and set up the first Woodcraft tribe. Woodcraft has in the intervening years developed, after the Outward Bound blip, into Bushcraft but this is an adult pursuit of survivalism. The Scouts and others (Woodcraft Folk) have gradually become more and more concerned with the indoors. We definitely also need to revive the close link between education, its reform, and the bringing in of the outdoors that came into being with the Open Air School movement from around the same period.

    1. I agree Mike and thanks for your comments. I am a big fan of the Forest School ‘movement’ too, in that it brings young people into the outdoors without being over structured in terms of its learning approach. What I was getting at in this post was that the problem is much bigger than any current approach seems capable of tackling. So, where can we go from here …?

      1. Ha! Good question – I suppose the answer would be on the lines of ‘Just start’! Although he became known as a great advocate of communing in nature, although he wrote reams on the subject, and despite the fact that the guidance was eventually codified, Seton just gathered some youngsters around, not knowing where it would lead but (I suppose) being precisely aware of what kind of change he wanted to produce in the minds of those young people in their attitudes towards nature and people because he himself was fully convinced of the value of both. I take your implicit point about not being overly structured either (which is why I would shy away from a ‘Bill of Rights’ approach, personally).

        So, practically one way would be to reproduce the early work of the Woodcraft movement, seeing it in the context of helping families and ‘lonecrafters’ get the practical skills needed in order to have confidence in taking on the outdoors in a way that is more than the consumption of scenery. Would the National Trust help to promote woodcraft or woodlore learning as part of its offer to visitors? It’s not much fun having it explained to you how woodcraft might work wonders but if you have seen others achieving such magic and so inspired, made something yourself from raw materials, slept under the stars in your own camp, or foraged for food, you can decide for yourself. Get Ray Mears behind such a campaign or Bear Ghylls (or better still, both!). Get a programme made, or just short pieces covering some of say Batten’s skills on YouTube.

  2. Gabriel

    A very thought provoking post. As a father to two young children we are lucky to have access to a fantastic natural woodland just across the road. However it is a SSSI and it concerns me to reflect on the prevailing attitudes of the environmental bodies, regulators et al. towards people’s engagement with the countryside. I try to give my kids a free reign in the woods, it is the roads that really scare me. But I think that the philosophy of “fortress conservation” is at least partly to blame for driving a wedge between people and their environment. There is far too much “don’t touch” and far too little “woodcraft”. Virtually all the activities mentioned in H M Batten would be illegal today. Wildlife and Countryside Act, EU legislation, protected species … the list goes on. Cutting a hazel stick – even outside a SSSI and you risk stepping on a dormouse nest which even if it is empty is a strict liability criminal offence.

    I support the idea of a bill of rights for children in the outdoors – clearly we need to balance conservation and access but where we are right now we are getting neither conservation nor connection to the outdoors.

    Bill MacDonald

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