A matchbox and I

A match box and I.

Imagine you have a box of matches. At first it is full and seems it’ll last a long time. But a small fire here, a candle there, a stove lit, one by one, they are used up and before long the box goes empty.

All gone.

Growing up in Ullapool we did two things as children, swim in the sea and light bonfires on the beach. Literally burning matches. It was a sense of vagabond freedom that so few have access to and those who do (me) take for granted. A privilege I am so fortunate for. Bushcraft was my bible then with Ray Mears as my child-hood hero. We lit fires most days to practice techniques and hone our skills in fire-craft.

Over weeks of regular fires, my friends and I noticed something; each time we had to walk further and hunt harder for wood. Eventually the 600m stretch of beach we had available to forage was all but empty of burnable material, only the small twigs we used least remained.

We had emptied our box of matches.

What did we do next? We ‘borrowed’ from our garden, scavenging what we could find, sneakily pilfering from my parents woodshed, generally causing mischief. We burned whatever we could find until the next storm brought more ashore and the cycle repeated.

We thought little of our impact at the time, we just wanted to enjoy another fire all in good fun.

I wouldn’t change that childhood. I loved it and regret nothing of that time nor the wood that I burned. It was normal in the 90’s for rural kids to be free range, to explore and learn for themselves, developing with distant but observant parental guidance.

My adult ethics on what is good and bad practice in the outdoors came from this and the inevitable mistakes made along the way. If I built a fire on grass, I wasn’t screamed at (for long), or trialled on social media, I was firmly educated on why it was bad and then made to remedy the issue by re-seeding or re-turfing. If I left stuff behind and made a mess, I was made to clean it up. My parents didn’t believe in ‘grounding’ but in productive effort to remedy a wrong. I learnt pretty quickly that brief fun in the wrong way meant a lot of hassle, hard work and grief to remedy the misdemeanour and/or damage. A mess doesn’t clear itself, someone has to do it. Not enough travellers appreciate this.

This was then re-enforced by good local field clubs and primary education, all from people who both cared and perhaps more importantly knew what and how to teach about outdoor responsibility.

This week, all over the UK pictures and horror stories are surfacing of rubbish being left by careless recreation and roadside campers. This is not new. But is perhaps more obvious when a single wave is released from lockdown than from the normal tide that flows in as the tourism season opens.

I’ll admit it boils my blood to see it and it is easy to chastise the ignorant and/or the apathetic. I have done this too.

Most of my friends sharing these stories, like I am with this, are speaking to a captive audience of fellow exasperated citizens. Most of which are white middle class and have enjoyed the time and relative wealth of resources in their life to have learnt similar lessons as I. Comments quickly flow agreeing these people are ‘tossers’ but this only appeases the posters own sense of self-righteousness, not the issue at hand.

Lets skip to 2018: Returning from work, Canoeing below Stac Pollaidh, I found four lads cutting down a silver birch tree with a chainsaw on the banks of the loch; where trees are in small pockets and grow slowly…it’s a small matchbox.

I’d just passed an overflowing bin in the Stac Pollaidh car park and I was already annoyed. This was too much and I lost it.
I stopped, walked down and shouted at them with anger and posted about it on social media.

Do you know what happened? It was shared 700 times on facebook and had over 1000 comments. Yes, It made me feel a little better momentarily seeing so much agreement that these people were dicks.

Then guess what… the lads themselves saw it….

Three of the four of them were very angry and threatened to bash my head in if they ever come to Scotland again, lots of profanities ensued. Defiant they did nothing wrong as it was only one tree (match). But one lad had the courage to explain that they simply didn’t know they were doing wrong and they were just as affronted by my trial on social media as I had been about their disregard to the tree.

He apologised and said he would never light a fire, or come here again. NO ONE WON HERE. They all felt I had ruined their experience of a lifetime, three of them aggressively so and defendant that I was just some aggressive local twat.
One of them feels so guilty he will never have a wild fire again, which is just as bad. None of them were bad people, they just didn’t know better.

I’ve built my living by promoting freedom of access in the outdoors, by camp or van and I still do. I want to welcome everyone to enjoy what I have, to learn lessons and make mistakes with the privilege of a child on a beach. It was never my intention to scare them away, but my method did.
I welcome all four of those lads back, but next time i’d talk quieter, sit down and explain why, not yell.
All i’d ask is their consideration of their impacts.

This is what trial by facebook does….it breeds nothing but anger and resentment. It definitely doesn’t educate and no one wins. Ask yourself, if you’ve ever met someone like this who shouted back, did you come across approachable or aggressive.

It is easy to forget, like I did, that most of the population didn’t have a beach to burn wild wood from as children (although if they did it would be an ecological disaster.) It is easy to forget that most of the population don’t know what is the right or wrong practice in the outdoors. Most of us haven’t learned the same lessons.

Our rural communities now fear they are the matchboxes facing a wave of people who’ve never played with fire. They are angry because they are scared of what is likely to happen.

To tourists passing through, cutting one tree feels like removing one match from the box, and leaving one plastic bottle or disposable tent on the roadside is like adding one match back in. Can you tell the difference? I can’t.

But if you’re there long enough to keep count and one by one the box empties (or overfills with plastic) you get concerned and angry.

At the moment the police can’t deal with this and the councils who are responsible are under funded to do any viable action or deterrents. Bins aren’t emptied in time, signs aren’t present, communication is poor until people have arrived.

A LOT of people are justifiably eager to visit the country after lockdown. In lieu of restrictions easing, now is the time we as a community must have a serious discussion on educating and enforcing responsible camping and outdoor recreation.

Teaching the ignorant:
Support your local outdoor centres, encourage clubs and forest schools, insist to your MP to lobby for natural education…England is soon to gain a GSCE in Natural History…Scotland must follow. Encourage more than passive signs and branding, seek for active solutions to the deep roots of the problem.

Most importantly of all is instilling the value of community contribution and respect to travellers and locals alike.

Educating the Apathetic:
Enforceable guidelines with realistic enforcement, not banning, not jail, but community contribution for repeat offenders to clean up their and others mess to see exactly what they have done and why they are disliked.

Not everyone has access to a beach like I did. Not everyone knows what you might. Not everyone knows they are doing harm. Everyone however can learn and listen and we all can make a difference to keep our matchbox full if we do it as a community and prioritise our effort and funding toward it.

None of this involves facebook.