Eating dirt

As a Fathers day surprise, my kids booked me onto a bushcraft course. Now I don’t endorse Fathers day as I view it as a cynical commercial marketing ploy on behalf of novelty companies everywhere but the kids thought I would genuinely enjoy learning some bushcraft.

Still in ignorance of what was to come, I was transported to the venue and then told of the event. I realised I was unsuitably dressed for a day in the woods but as it was a family type thing I reckoned it was unlikely that anyone would be wading across a freezing river or swinging from the trees. It was the longest day of the year and the sun was at its strongest so I was already worried that I had not greased myself over with enough sun blocker.

We were split into five groups but most families tended to maintain their intimate relationships and not bother to interact with anyone else. The first jobs were to light a fire and to build a shelter. The females in our family decided to be the homemakers and build the shelter while my son and myself volunteered to be the fire-starters.

A pile of branches had already been dumped close by and we were given loppers and wood saws to trim our faggots to the correct length. Within minutes of me sawing a two inch thick log, drops of sweat were raining down onto the log. We then had to dig our fire pit in a designated area. So each group commenced digging within a few feet of each other. This would have serious consequences later on.

The challenge was to start a fire with tinder and fire sticks (basically a flint and steel). Although I managed to get the tinder alight and then the web of fine branches I had constructed over the tinder, the intermediate sized branches simply would not catch fire. They were possibly too damp or I had constructed my fire incorrectly.  In the end I, and every other group, had to resort to fire-lighters. At least when our fire did get going, it was the first to become a roaring blaze.

I had to break off fire lighting duties occasionally to help with the heavy construction of the shelter. This amounted to punching holes in the earth with a builders steel pole. This was heavy work which I was unused to.

As the other groups’ fires started to get going the consequence of having so many in such a small area became manifest; unavoidable smoke. Whichever way you turned, it seemed a bank of sulphurous white smoke was heading into your face. Before long we were all blinking fiercely and imbued with the stink of burning wood.

One of the organisers then told us we would be baking garlic bread. Sounds nice I thought. My daughter of seven years whispered a question into my ear, “Daddy, is that a man or a girl?” I whispered back, “I’m not sure myself, but I think she’s a girl.”

It turned out the garlic was to be wild garlic and we were marched off to the bank of a nearby stream to pick the leaves of the abundantly available plant. I was near another couple and they were thinking aloud about washing the garlic somehow as it may have been peed on by a dog. I joined in with their conversation as I had the very same thought. At home it is an automatic response to rinse any fruit of vegetable under a running tap. This was necessary with supermarket produce because it was nearly always contaminated with pesticides but here, in the wild, what then?

In the end we decided it was OK to rinse the garlic in the dubious looking stream water (we were only in the grounds of a Hall and very close to built up areas) as it would eventually be cooked.

We took our garlic leaves back to the fire and our hermaphrodite organiser began to mix some dough for us. She did this with hands that had handled wood, wild garlic, shovels, dirt and who knows what else that one is inclined to fondle in the pursuit of bushcraft. I looked on slightly uneasy.

The dough was handed to us, along with a clutch of fresh sardines, banana and some chocolate pieces on a bread board. It was suggested that we cook our bread using either a willow stick and wrapping the dough around it or a flat stone placed over the fire. A pile of such stones was nearby.

I checked on the stones and found a suitable one about the size of a large dinner plate. As I carried it to the fire my hands became grubby with the dirt and dried mud and I realised I couldn’t use the stone as it was. I just couldn’t. So I carried it to the stream and rinsed it thoroughly. I then took it back to the fire and placed it on top of a couple of stout burning logs to heat up. When it had dried out the dough was simply dropped onto the stone to cook.

The sardines were supposed to be cooked in wet newspaper but I managed to get hold of some aluminium foil to wrap the fish in. This silver parcel was also put onto the hot stone.

The unpeeled banana was supposed to be slit and the chocolate pieces inserted into the slit before baking on the stone. I looked at my hands which had chopped wood, handled stone and dirt etc. and looked at the smooth dark chocolate which I had to insert into the banana. Could I be bothered to go to the stream and rinse my hands in its flowing waters (which could possible be loaded with bacteria)?

No, I could not. The chocolate piece was inserted unceremoniously into the banana with grubby hands. I was turning native.

Eating the food was another hygiene dilemma. Hardly any utensils had been brought and it seemed that dirty hands would have to be employed again. Everyone else seemed to be happily eating dirt and I couldn’t help reflecting on just how far I had moved from nature. Eating dirt was the natural consequence of wild living. The human body expected dirt and possibly even utilised some of its beneficial properties. ‘Civilised’ society had become obsessed with hygiene.

The food tasted surprisingly good. Even the nettle tea which was passed around proved to be agreeable.

The day ended with reconstituting the ground by putting out the fires and filling up the pits with soil. The kids loved this part and had terrific fun watching water boil on the hot stones. They then, of course, experimented with other materials to see how they behaved when subjected to great heat (we tend to think of this as play but it is in fact real learning).

As it happened, no one in our family got sun burned and no one suffered any adverse digestive problems. Eating uncontaminated dirt appears to be harmless.

And it was my best Fathers day present ever. Thank you kids.

2 Responses to “Eating dirt”

  1. [...] We then had to dig our fire pit in a designated area. So each group commenced digging within a few feet of each other. This would have serious consequences later on. The challenge was to start a fire with tinder and fire sticks …More [...]

  2. [...] SatNav for the soul® » Blog Archive » Eating dirt [...]

Leave a Reply