Ray Mears: My Outdoor Life

Fresh from being behind schedule on my quest to read a unread book from my library every month this year, I have caught up a bit. For April’s book I chose Ray Mears: My Outdoor Life, the autobiography of a man synonymous with survival skills, although he prefers the term bushcraft (or Woodlore, as he named his company) because he feels that living outdoors is more of a way of life than a mere set of survival skills.

For the most part, it’s an enjoyable read. It’s written in a very matter-of-fact tone, and Mears is clearly grateful for the opportunities that came his way and ensured that he can live his dream. He doesn’t suggest that it’s all down to hard work (although he has put in plenty of that); the people who helped most along the way are embedded into the story. He makes it clear that all of his TV series (for which he is most well-known) were team efforts.

In the book he talks about his most memorable expeditions, including the one where he took Ewan McGregor into the jungle in Honduras, and one in the USA that ended in disaster when their helicopter crashed, injuring the pilot and badly injuring the camerman. They were lucky to survive.

I found the book a little bit too matter of fact, a little bit too unemotional, until Mears gets to the section in which he loses his first wife Rachel to breast cancer. I don’t think anyone could be unemotional about that experience, and Mears admits it made him more empathetic. There’s better news ahead as he meets and falls in love with his second wife, Ruth.

And there’s a chapter detailing the tense situation in which he volunteered his services to track Raoul Moat, a man who had shot several people (including a police officer) with a shotgun, and gone into hiding. With armed police and their support dogs, Mears comes within a whisker of Moat, who leaves the sanctuary of the woods and shoots himself at the end of a stand-off with the police.

Towards the end of the book, Mears talks about his relationship with archaeobotanist (or paleoethnobotanist) Gordon Hillman, and their collaboration on the Wild Food series. It reminds me that I need to revisit the book, and perhaps find a DVD of the series, because I loved it at the time. Hillman’s list of academic publications is impressive; I need to find some time to peruse it!

I like Mear’s approach – to learn as much as possible, both by thorough research and practical experimentation – and his respect for other people. This quote, particularly, resonated with me:

“It seems to be that people today are in love with the idea of being an ‘expert’. Personally, I would rather continue to be a student and keep learning than consider myself in that light…. There’s always something to learn because life moves on and things evolve.”

From my persepctive, there are too many (more than 20,000) species of edible plants for anyone to eat them all, let alone grow them, or declare themselves an expert on edible plants! I think the world would be a better place if more people were willing to admit the limits of their knowledge.

Anyway… in the end, there’s a place for Ray Mears’ books on my shelf, and I may acquire more of them in the future, but this one doesn’t have enough reference value to earn its keep. And so it goes off, with my good wishes, to find a new home with someone else.

Are you a Ray Mears fan? Which of his books or TV series is your favourite?