#AskWoodlore – Interview with Sarah Day

Just over two weeks ago we asked you to send us some questions for an interview with one of Woodlore’s Aspirant Instructors, Sarah Day. Many of you took the time to kindly send us your questions, which we then whittled down to the best 10 and Sarah took some time out of her busy schedule to give us this insightful interview:

Sarah Day

Sarah Day taking part in Woodlore’s swift water training

1. What made you become a Woodlore instructor and what is the process of becoming one? – Mike (Facebook)

Answer:  I was always interested in natural history, wildlife, and old craft skills.  I used to be an avid fossil collector (half the gravel from our driveway ended up in labelled trays in my room!). I was also interested in edible plants, probably sparked by mum telling me the voracious Ground Elder that choked most of our flowerbeds was brought over by the Romans as a food, I tried some, but I can’t say I was that impressed…

At around the same time that I started re-enacting, I happened across a copy of Ray’s first book:  ‘Survival Handbook’ (now sadly out of print), in WH Smiths while Christmas shopping and just couldn’t stop reading it.  Here was a book that brought together all these things I was fascinated by and showed me how to do them! In the end mum had to drag me away but got the message and bought me the book. That was when I was 7.

Re- enacting gives you access to lots of old skills too: I learned to spin wool, make clay pots, baskets, cook over fires, prepare game, use herbal medicines, and at home in the garden I made flint tools, rawhide, and all sorts of other things. I went through 6th form (and loathed a lot of it) and spent a few months in Canada working at a summer camp. It was there that I realised being outdoors makes me happy.

On returning to the UK, I emailed the Woodlore office asking tentatively how one might become a member of the team and listed a few things I’d had a go at.  It was a few months before I got a letter inviting me to recruitment. The process has changed over recent years; our recruitment process was during a cold wet weekend, the more recent members spent a week being put through their paces! The aim is the same though.

Once you’re on the team, it’s a bit like a good old fashioned apprenticeship, but a bit more structured. You start working behind the scenes, preparing lessons, cooking and keeping camp running smoothly, then eventually progress to doing lectures, then to running courses. There are also formal assessments and tests.  The recruitment process has to be quite tough, because in many ways it’s not a ‘normal’ job. We are all working at close quarters – effectively living together, sometimes for weeks on end, so it’s important we all get on.

2. What is the best wood for bow drill fire-starting in the south of England? – Anthony (Twitter)

Answer: We generally say the 5 best are ivy, willow, alder, lime and sycamore. We usually use willow on courses because it is so plentiful at our sites, but ivy is a little easier to make fire with, though much less plentiful. Don’t forget though that it’s not just the species of wood that’s important – it should be dead, dry, standing (i.e. not laying on the ground) and you should just be able to dent the wood with your thumbnail. If you can’t, it’s too hard; if your nail sinks right in or can scrape chunks of wood off the surface, it’s too rotten and soft. If it’s as close to the right dimensions as possible and straight, the carving will be easier, and finally check if it’s dry by touching the cut end to your lip: if it feels cold, it’s damp and will take a lot more work to get going.  Good luck!

3. Hi Sarah, I hope you’re well and enjoying the course season so far. My question is: When you first started out in bushcraft what were your goals for achieving skills and how does that differ to your present mindset today? Many thanks & all the best. – Andrew (Blog)

Answer: I haven’t yet been out on any courses this year, but watching spring unfold is always great – I have birds nesting in the garden for the first time!

When I started out it was just a case of experimenting, having a go at a skill and seeing where it led – if I saw a bit of flint I would try knapping it, if I saw a plant I would try and find out what it was and if it was good for anything. It wasn’t structured in any way. I didn’t really know that the subject I was interested in had a name! Even once I had Ray’s book I would set out to try a particular skill, and end up going off on a tangent – flint knapping led to hide working, tinder preparation led to cordage. The only skill I was hellbent on ‘getting’ was fire with bow drill – after a few false starts I spent an hour a day for a week skinning my knuckles on the garden path until I got it.

It’s the same now in some ways, except that I’ve got a higher base to build on than I did in the beginning, which opens up possibilities. My goals are often to do with making a particular ‘thing’, whether that’s a bark basket for a particular purpose or a canoe paddle. But it’s not so much the thing itself as the skill it exercises. I want to practice carving so I make a paddle; I want to practice compass work so I go for a meandering walk. My main goal at the moment is to work on my canoeing, my navigation and various other skills so that I can go on an extended canoe trip.

4. What is it about Woodlore and the outdoors that draw you back to it again and again? – Kevin (Blog) – WINNER OF SARAH’S FAVOURITE QUESTION.

Answer: With Woodlore it’s the people I get to work with, not just the field team and the office team, but the people who come on our courses. I will never get tired of seeing people make fire with a bow drill for the first time, the surprise when they taste wood sorrel and find that it is delicious or the wide-eyed awe when someone who has lived all their life in a city catches a glimpse of a deer or an owl or an enormous jewel blue dragonfly or any of the thousands of other priceless moments. Seeing that spark appearing in people’s eyes is just wonderful. What brings me back to the outdoors again and again? It’s where I find my own spark. 🙂

5. Hi Sarah, I’m stuck with a plant ID, can you help? – Stan (Twitter)

photo for question

Plant for identification

Answer: It looks like a beech seedling to me; often the first two leaves a seed puts out are quite different to those of the plant it grows into which makes ID tricky. Some tree ID books show pictures of the ‘seed leaves’, a few (particularly beech) are quite surprising!

6. Hello! As a woman too, I have to use a smaller axe, for example, to carve to avoid my hand and arm getting tired. Just thinking about making a portage alone and my back is already suffering. Did you ever have similar difficulties and how did you deal with it? Thanks! – Nathalie (Blog)

Answer: I tend to use a Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe for most things; I can use a larger axe if I’m splitting or chopping firewood, but I always feel I have less control. Much of that comes down to practice though; the more you work with an axe, the more your muscles will catch up. Women generally aren’t as physically strong as men (no point denying it!). That means we need to use TECHNIQUE rather than brute force and ignorance.  And of course make sure your axe is seriously sharp.

Regarding carrying stuff on a portage, my top tips would be to make sure your rucksack is properly fitted – it makes a huge difference. And make sure there is adequate padding on your shoulders (a yoke-shaped bit of foam Karrimat will do) – men have more muscle covering their shoulder bones than we do, which can make carrying the canoe and packs uncomfortable and encourages you to lead forward which then leads to back problems. Loading it with the heaviest items at or above shoulder height helps too – it seems counterintuitive but it is a lot more comfortable to have a pack that pushes you into your stride rather than one that’s trying to pull you backwards.

Don’t try to carry too much at once – it’s better to do an extra trip than damage yourself and have to go home.  If you can practice carrying heavy weights before you go on a trip then you will be more used to it – it doesn’t take long. At the beginning of the season sometimes it’s all I can do to carry one jerry can; after a few busy courses I can usually lift two with a bare minimum of grunting.

7. My twin daughters are five. They love walks in the park, feeding ducks, and looking at bugs in the garden with a magnifying glass, and roasting marshmallows on a fire. I am working on ways to help them explore and learn about the outdoors. What are the best ways to introduce young girls to the outdoors and keep that interest moving forward? Are there specific things that should be done to encourage girls to explore the outdoors that differ from encouraging boys? – Stan (Blog)

Answer: Children have a wonderful capacity to believe anything is possible, whereas adults tend to discount ideas based on previous experience or preconceptions. As long as it’s safe, let them experiment and question and look at little details. Learning about nature doesn’t have to be confined to days out in the park either – much of my plant ID was practiced as I walked to school; that nondescript weed growing in a crack in a wall might be something really interesting – look it up and find out (so long as they know not to eat anything)! The differences are less in younger children, but I have noticed that boys seems to have an interest in hunting/tracking tools and generally destroying things from an early age, whereas girls tend to lean towards making things and picking plants. I have no idea if that’s something deeply ingrained in our DNA or if it’s one of those unconscious influences they pick up from society. Either way, visits to the British Museum (and others) are great for inspiring creativity, and many country parks do open days where you can go on plant walks and look at animal tracks and signs and make dens. If there is a forest schools contingent near you, that is also worth looking into, as many of those activities also feed into bushcraft. When they are old enough, consider one of our family courses; the minimum age is 8.

Sadly, gender starts to have more of an impact as children get older; often peer pressure sees girls giving up ‘ungirly’ pursuits, which is a real shame. The best way to avoid that is to foster confidence; that way anyone can not only have the strength to stand up for their interests, but pass on their enthusiasm to their friends.

Introduce them to fire and cutting tools as early as you feel comfortable with; learning about knives as a useful tool early on expands the skills you can practice and encourages a sense of responsibility and safe practice. If you do, it is definitely worth having some training in carving yourself, so you know how to teach them safely. We cover carving on our Junior Fundamental Bushcraft course, but it will be a few years before they will be old enough for that. I would recommend a small fixed blade knife rather than a dangerous folding penknife type, though if you can’t find one, Opinel are good as a starter knife because there is a range of sizes small enough for even the littlest hands, and the blades lock (although they’re not strong enough for heavy work).

Finally, make sure they have some clothes that can get well and truly filthy – too often little boys are free to go jumping in muddy puddles but little girls are prevented from joining in by parents who worry their little pristine pink coats might get dirty. A grubby child is usually a happy one!

Sarah leading a Junior Fundamental Bushcraft course

Sarah leading a Junior Fundamental Bushcraft course

8. What advice would you give to someone with mental health problems who wanted to explore the outdoors for its health benefits? – Peter (Twitter)

Answer: Firstly, that sounds like a good idea – do it! My advice is:

  • Get a good coat – it’s easier to feel the benefits of being outdoors when you’re warm and dry. I personally love going out in the rain – there are fewer people about to interrupt my musings and the smells and sounds of a forest during/ just after rain are just wonderful.
  • Consider getting involved with a local conservation volunteer group – physical activity is good for the soul and volunteer types are usually great fun. You also get to find out more about a site because you’re seeing how it grows and changes. It’s like being in on a secret! It also gives your outdoor wanderings a definite purpose which is satisfying.
  • Just wandering and exploring can be rewarding too – I live in a town at the moment, but there’s still lots to discover – if you wander off the beaten track a bit you can find some real gems. It’s nice sometimes to set out with no particular plan and just see where your feet take you – (just don’t get lost, and take warm clothing just in case). Also take a load of carrier bags – I always find something I want to ‘gather’, be it blackberries, cordage fibres, bones or whatever, and it’s very frustrating if I don’t have anything to put them in!
  • If you start to experiment with bushcraft skills, there will be times when it feels like it’s not going your way. We’re used to things being immediate in modern life – hungry? Go to the fridge! But real skills take practice and time. You know that hollow feeling when you get to the end of a really good book and wish it wasn’t over? Bushcraft skills aren’t like that because there’s always the next step to try – it’s exciting. Made smoke with a bow drill? Well done – now make fire! Made fire? What about different woods, natural cordage, harsher weather conditions etc. etc? It’s a huge, endlessly fascinating subject; every skill links to every other in some way and together they can take you on adventures.

9. What would your idea be for the ultimate bushcraft challenge? – John (Blog)

Answer: I love canoeing, but I also love foraging. I would love to do a really long canoe trip where most of the food is gathered along the way. It would be difficult to travel quickly because foraging, hunting and fishing all take time (often more than people realise – until they do a course like the Journeyman!), but I love the idea of being as self-reliant as possible. It also makes you look more closely at the environment you’re travelling through, which can only be a good thing! I am working towards doing a trip where I go down one river, round the coast a little way and back up the next river, portage over land to the next and back to the sea and so on. This summer I hope to take my canoe out into the Orwell Estuary and practice sailing and paddling on more open water. East Anglia has several rivers that start fairly close together, but really it needs to be somewhere like Canada (or maybe I just want an excuse to go back!).

10. Hi Sarah, you obviously enjoy spending nights outdoors. What is the one thing that puts a smile on your face and motivates you to spend the next night outdoors? – Jim (Blog)

Answer: I love waking up warm and snug in my sleeping bag, but breathing cold, fresh air.  Nothing beats it; even when I’m in a tent, it takes pretty horrendous weather to make me keep the door closed at night.  Sleeping out under a tarp is best; you are so much closer to the environment and get to see things that you would miss if you were in a tent.  I’ll never forget waking up with a Great tit savaging my possum fur hat to get fluff for her nest!

Sarah has thoroughly enjoyed reading and answering your questions; we hope you’ve enjoyed it too. We’d like to thank everyone who sent in their questions for Sarah and congratulations to Kevin, whose question was picked by Sarah as her favourite. Kevin wins a £20.00 Woodlore Voucher for his entry.




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