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Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Applied Bushcraft: Mental GIS

Today the ‘applied’ element of this post is a bit… abstract? I am attempting to illustrate what has been a pretty clear concept in my mind… but my mind can be a cluttered place so I’m not sure how successful this will be.


The human brain is an incredible tool: consider the rapid advances in technology we have seen in recent decades and indeed over the last few millennia at a slower pace. All that innovation and ingenuity has originated in the head of just one person or a team of people synthesising their ideas - it is, in the true sense of the word, awesome to consider just what we (as in humans) are capable of and have achieved! Many innovations aim to increase mankind’s natural abilities by reducing the effort required to complete tasks, increase our output or efficiency or limit the risk of human error through increased memory (data storage) or a level of mechanical consistency simply not replicable by human-kind.

It is one such (admittedly incredible powerful and useful) innovation which I have been thinking about for some time in relation to the practice of ‘bushcraft’ activities. GIS (or Geographic Information Systems in non-abbreviated form) are complex computer systems which allow data to be linked with spatial information (i.e. a map) and cross referenced with other data to examine, analyse, display and report patterns or potentials. They are widely used by a range of companies from petro-chemical companies, through utility companies and commercial agriculture and forestry operations, to nature conservation charities and a wide variety of scientific research… the list is quite literally endless. In essence almost every professional need for information tied to a location (again, a map) will be met by a GIS of some sort.

An example of a GIS output - I produced this as part of an assignment while
studying for an MSc in Ecology & Conservation. It was based upon a
hypothetical farm trying to determine habitat suitability for Yellowhammers
(Emberiza citrinella).  Based on 6 habitat variables, all measured and spatially
aligned to the base map, a formulae automatically complied all the variables
for a given boundary and calculated the probability of Yellowhammers setting
 up territory in or along that boundary which is what  this output illustrates. The
GIS further allowed improvements to be calculated for different habitat
management  options, in a real world situation potentially guiding or
determining habitat management plans and allowing often restricted funds
for conservation to be effectively prioritised. 
BUT!!... to me these systems are based on how we as humans view the world around us - inspired by mankind’s instinctive and inbuilt ability to blend spatial data with knowledge to use their environment for their own benefit and survival. Allow me to explain my thinking, I hope it makes sense. I promise there is a bushcraft theme if you stick with it. In order to understand my train of thought you need to understand that GIS’s typically work on a layer system with all added data forming a ‘layer’ along with similar data overlaid and aligned to a base layer - a map. This data can then be analysed, cross referenced or compared to data in other layers to show trends or conflicts or whatever else may present itself, which could not be done in isolation.

Every one of us, whether we have considered it or not, has a mental map of areas they use regularly - a base layer if you will.

This will be overlayed (again, subconsciously) with a variety of information ranging from mundane trivia such as the location of the local shops, your child's school (or of course your school if you are one of our younger readers) or your parents home to complex and intricate knowledge based on individuals own specialisms and experiences. We will be aware of where we can access food (shops), find shelter (home), acquire necessary resources to achieve necessary tasks (garden centre / builders merchants / office supplier / bank etc) and much much more.

We could add detail to this hypothetical ‘mental map’ or, now that we have some layers of spatially aligned data, a ‘mental GIS’ ad infinitum based on different people’s use of and knowledge of their environment: but this obviously needs a bushcraft theme and so I shall endeavour to make my ramblings relevant.

Back in the days where humans survived hand-to-mouth as hunter gatherers this ‘mental mapping’ would have enabled them to re-locate (I will expand on why this emphasis on relocation is significant shortly) reliable or safe sources of food or water, or good places to shelter during inclement weather. Simply knowing where something is though is only half the story - some additional ‘layers’ of information are required to make the best possible use of this information.

Knowing where an Apple tree is does you no good if you go to pick apples in March, why? Because they are not ripe, in fact they may not even have flowered yet! Knowing which river Salmon use to spawn does you no good if you go in January, because they are still out at sea. Going to a wetland area to collect duck eggs in October will be equally unfruitful because they will all have hatched and fledged months before. And on and on.

Once a source of food, but only if you get there at the right time of year - a seabird
colony on Anglesey. Now a nature reserve - but you still have to get there at the
right time of year to see the spectacle. Arrive in January and you'll be lonely!
(Photo taken by author).

With almost all plant food sources being seasonal to at least some extent, a deep understanding of seasonal changes and prime harvest period would have been critical to a successful harvest and ultimately survival. Survival does not come from a single crop though; survival depends upon a steady supply. Late summer and autumn are easy times to find wild plant food in the shape of nuts, berries, fruits, seed heads and so on - even the most uninitiated would struggle not to find something to eat at this time of year. But what about in February? or March? Yes the green shoots are starting to make themselves seen by March certainly, but what of something to eat!? That is when a knowledge of what food could be stored comes in useful, because you will need to set aside enough of it to get you through the period of dearth.

Remembering the right place to go becomes a more impressive feat when it has to be linked with the knowledge to look for the right plant and at the right time of year. Without these additional ‘layers’ of knowledge (seasonal changes, nourishment value, storage suitability, botanical identification) survival would have become difficult if not impossible.

Much the same could be said for meat harvesting, except of course the animals are not rooted to the spot so remembering a location becomes a far more general affair. Further layers of knowledge are required to streamline the hunting process - tracking, animal behaviour and habits. Where is the herd of deer likely to shelter / feed / give birth given the conditions? Where will the highest concentration of waterbird nests* be based on the vegetation conditions or water levels at the time? What time of year will they nest? Where is a good place to set a snare for ground game? In the middle of a field? Or in one of many runways through dense brush?

Spot the deer above. Presented with this view where would you look first for the deer? It
would depend on the time of year, as it happens they most often lie up during the day
under the trees to the left in the middle distance, and if you look really carefully you can
see a few on their way out to feed in the open in the shadow.
(Photo taken by author on Cannock Chase)

You get the idea that I am trying to illustrate I hope. That simply remembering a location in and of itself is (or rather would have been) insufficient to hunter gatherers, and therefore largely to us in our practice of bushcraft (well, foraging and hunting at least).

Before I wrap this up, and at the risk of going on for far too long, we have the issue of initially locating these resources. This can of course happen by chance, and there is nothing wrong with that, it just takes time. By adding additional layers of knowledge, or deepening the layers of knowledge we have already mentioned, the finding process becomes more efficient, which to a hunter gatherer would have been everything! On a sarcastically basic level, what I mean is if you are searching for a fish, you know not to look in a tree, or if hoping for apples, you wouldn’t start by digging. At a more realistic level this means knowing which sort of habitats are likely to hold certain plants or animals. This means that rather than walking aimlessly through the landscape you can head purposefully towards an end goal. That could be a wetland area for sedge seeds, a particular deep, shady meander on a river for resting fish (which you are going to find in the middle reaches of a river's course, not right up in the head waters nor on the coastal plain where it is turning into an estuary) and on the examples could go indefinitely.

I hope this concept has come across as clearly as I visualised it… but I suspect not. As in a digitised GIS the more layers of data added (or knowledge we acquire) the more precise and varied the range of useful information which can be gleaned from the system. Our modern day bushcraft application (I got it in!!) for this concept of layered knowledge is largely the same as it would have been for our ancestors, albeit in a environment altered beyond the recognition of Mesolithic man. Of course our relevant knowledge and experience isn’t neatly compartmentalised as I have described for the sake of this analogy. It is very dynamic, with new knowledge being added through current experiences and practice, and other knowledge fading with time through lack of application. However I believe the point stands - perhaps the best tool we can carry into the field with us is in fact a computer system - the GIS we all carry in our heads.


* NB - I have referred to knowledge regarding the nesting season of waterbirds with the intention of collecting eggs as a food source. I wish to make it clear that this needs to be taken in the context written, i.e. a food source of mesolithic hunter-gatherer communities. The collection of wild birds eggs for any purpose is now quite rightly prohibited by law (Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 - Section 1) in the UK and these comments do not in anyway infer that it is or should be permissible.

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