Interview with Ray Mears – We Are Nature

Angela Sara West chats with the legendary Ray Mears about how outdoor pursuits have evolved, his closest shaves, latest book and current tour, how he’s tackling wildlife crime and how we can all reconnect with the wonderful world of nature.

Survivalist, bushcraft expert, author, photographer and star of countless TV documentaries, this true master of the great outdoors has inspired generations around the globe.

Ray Mears’ fascination with wild environments has shaped his life, while his documented walkabouts around the world have made him a household name over the past two decades. This nature devotee has spent his whole life learning these skills and founded Woodlore, The School of Wilderness Bushcraft, over 35 years ago.

Back to nature

He first fell in love with nature as a seven-year-old when he started to learn about edible plants.

“At first, all the books were very botanical and a bit mysterious to me. But then a book which had photographs in came onto the shelves and I gingerly took it out into the countryside looking for edible plants and came across this plant called wood sorrel. I took ages to study it before I plucked up the courage to try it. The leaf tasted of apple peel… and I’ve never looked back! That was when I really started to get a kick out of being outdoors.”

Surviving close calls

Ray survived a helicopter crash while filming his first TV series in Wyoming. “It was a bad crash. I just did what you learn to do on aircraft. I adopted the brace position and tried to relax to absorb the impact. That’s all you can do. It all happened so fast.”

The pilot broke his back, while the cameraman broke his back and both legs. Ray’s survival techniques and first aid skills quickly kicked in and came to the fore. He says it was a defining moment for him. “Everybody should undergo first aid training. It’s a shame that a lot of people see it as just a chore, but it’s actually one of the most interesting and useful things you can learn, for both in the workplace and at home.”

“I’ve also saved a director from putting his hand on a venomous eyelash pit viper,” Ray reveals. “We were on a reconnaissance trip for a programme I was making with Ewan McGregor and had just been dropped by helicopter in the Honduran rainforest.”

Ray was showing him how to put up his hammock for the first time. “He was just about to wrap his cord around what looked like a vine but was, in fact, a venomous snake. The weather was bad so we could not have got the helicopter back if he had been bitten.”

On a trip Down Under, Mears had another close call. “I’ve had lots of encounters with scary creatures. But on this occasion, I’d been spearing stingray and wanted to cook it in the shade, just back from the shore inland, as usual. But because we were filming, the director wanted it cooked on the beach with the sunset behind it. Crocodiles really like shark and ray meat and it enticed an ENORMOUS, five-metre crocodile, which was very, very dangerous. If it had wanted to eat me, it could have.”

On course for survival

In 1983, Mears founded Woodlore, the oldest bushcraft company in the world, offering courses on the very basics of bushcraft through to advanced skills.

“We take people trekking in Namibia, on canoe trips into the remote wilderness of northern Canada, we teach winter skills in Finland, how to track and how to really live with nature. It’s all real and the highest-quality tuition on this beautiful subject. It’s the real deal.”

He tells me the courses aren’t meant to be tough – they’re designed to be instructional. “The whole purpose is not to overwhelm and put people off. We give them the tools. We do have some more challenging courses which are tougher, but you have to have acquired the right skills first.”

So, what can we learn on the bushcraft courses he leads? “Bushcraft is about being safe outdoors in wild places. A large part of that is about respecting nature. On the courses we run, we teach people to track animals to a very high standard. That involves using their senses and connecting to nature and learning to be stealthy in the countryside and to observe more.

“But more than that, we teach them how to live there. We look at old skills and knowledge that puts the emphasis on understanding the values and the uses of the plants and trees around them. You step into this continuum of knowledge that has been acquired over the whole span of human evolution.”

Bushcraft for kids

Woodlore offers family and children’s courses, too. “Children are the best learners; they’re at the right age to learn and there’s so much to learn in nature. It teaches responsibility, hand-eye co-ordination, determination, patience and to care for each other. There are so many benefits for young people. It’s lovely to spark children’s interest in nature and feel a connection with it. It’s tangible learning, out of the classroom. Learning outside, in the natural environment, is the best thing in life.”

We Are Nature – on tour with Ray

Following his successful ‘Born To Go Wild’ tour several years ago, Ray’s much-anticipated new show, We Are Nature, tours the UK this spring. “It’sabout rediscovering nature and exploring the true depths of our sensory capacity. It’s about rediscovering ourselves, rediscovering who we are and exploring capabilities which have been passed down to us from our ancestors.”

He describes his show as a celebration of nature. “It’s definitely a celebration of the nature in the world around us but, more importantly, it’s a celebration of that nature that is within us. It’s the gifts of our evolutionary heritage.”

Tune in and turn on to nature

He says it’s important to enjoy nature, what nature can do for you in terms of life, and what wildlife means. “The show is all about thinking and feeling the depth of our ability and turning up the volume of the senses that we normally suppress. Effectively ‘tuning in and turning on’ to nature.

“I will be showing how we can reconnect with an evolutionary heritage that stretches right back to the earliest of our ancestors. We have these abilities which are handed down by each generation for most of our species’ history. These skills were essential for survival and I would argue that they still are. It’s never been more important than to feel, understand and connect to nature than now.”

The evolution of outdoor pursuits

How has the world of outdoor pursuits changed over the years with new technology and materials entering the market? “We have made fantastic advances in materials and technology which makes the outdoors in many ways more accessible and more comfortable,” he tells me.

“What I have noticed over the past 20 years is that I don’t see people going out and doing so many adventurous things. It’s never been easier for people to go out into wild places, experience them and have a really fantastic time, but there seems to be a reluctance to go on expeditions, which reflects the fact that equipment isn’t all the solution – knowledge, training and guidance are still the most important things.”

Ray says he and his audience will together go on a voyage of discovery of their senses. “But it won’t be limited to just that – we will be talking about a lot more; how we can read a landscape, the kind of equipment that we can use to ‘supercharge’ our senses, and how we can use these skills, not only for our own enjoyment and benefit but also to protect wildlife, which is such an integral part of the British countryside.”

Rewild with Ray

What will audiences take away from ‘We Are Nature’?“I hope that when they leave the theatre, people will start to notice things that they didn’t notice on their way to the theatre. I hope that they slow down just a fraction to take in the information that often gets missed.

“And some of our audience members will also help to protect wildlife from some of the threats that it currently faces. But the most important thing is that they go away and see and feel and, most importantly, enjoy nature. I don’t think there is a more important skill that I teach than that. It’s a very powerful skill.”

There’s alsofascinating section on ‘rewilding yourself’.“There are some very good books written about rewilding, but if we’re going to look after the planet and nurture it, we need to rewild ourselves. That means understanding ourselves and our place in nature and feeling a deeper connection. That’s what this show is about.”

Keeping it real with Ray

Ray’s accompanying ‘We Are Nature’ book has already made a huge impact. “I have had incredible feedback and people have said they like it because it’s not theoretical. It’s based on lived and real experiences and this show is an extension of that and will also bring the subject matter to a wider audience.”

Tackling wildlife crime

Another aspect of Ray’s show will look at the extraordinary work that the National Wildlife Crime Unit and how they protect the environment and combat wildlife crime which increased during lockdown. 

The police have provided Ray with footage to explain the problems that wildlife faces today. “It’s something that we can all help with. If we keep a notebook or phone with us, we keep our wits about us, our eyes open and we have some binoculars, we can make a difference and protect animals that can’t speak for themselves. Even if only one person from each audience goes out and spots something nefarious in the countryside, it will make a difference.

“I think there are a lot of naturalists out there who do bump into things and could help with this. So, it’ll be a plea for friendly observers who are sharp enough to record what they’re finding and pass it on.”

A Wilderness Chef

Ray recently wrote a cookbook, ‘Wilderness Chef”.“My son gave me this blank book and asked, ‘Would you write some of your recipes down?’ And I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to do that, I might as well write a cookery book.’ And it’s become popular.”

He says his book is fun because it covers everything from Aboriginal cooking in leaves, right down to French sauces. “If you take those things that you learn outdoors, you become a better indoors cook, too! And many of those recipes are delicious cooked indoors.”

The highlights of this ultimate bushcraft expert’s wild’n’adventurous career? “The next thing. What’s yet to come. I don’t live in the past; I live for now. Life is short. You’ve got to fill it. You never get a minute again, so make the most of it!”

Ray’s book and cookbook are out now, while his new show, ‘We Are Nature’, tours the UK this spring.

For further information, visit: www.raymears.com Follow Ray on Insta @raymears_woodlore

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