The Bookcase Project: Book 16 – Northern Wilderness by Ray Mears

Ray Mears Northern Wilderness, Hodder & Stoughton, 2010

I was desperate, desperate I tell ya to get this book in hardback when it first came out. I practically drooled over it in Waterstones. But it was just too expensive. So I hung on and hung on and hung, on until my lad got me a copy in paperback for my birthday. One thing that really niggled me with the paperback though was the spacing between the lines. I mean, they are GIGANTIC!  I don’t know why, I guess it’s because…no. I really don’t know. Is it so you can put your own notes in? I might Google it actually.

Ray Mears is a top lad, he really is, and I love him on the telly, but I don’t think he is quite cut out for writing the sort of book he has here. Ray is excellent, truly excellent at describing how to do things when you are out and about in the wilderness (or so I have gathered when I’ve flicked through my brother’s books) but when it comes down to writing about the history of the first explorers to venture to Canada he doesn’t quite cut it. The back of the book is quite off the mark too.

Northern Wilderness is a stunning celebration of one of earth’s great wildernesses. Ray Mears journeys through mountains, forests, tundra and ice in a land where roads are still scarce.

This book is rich in bushcraft, as Ray reveals the unique survival techniques of the Native Canadians and the Inuit, and discovers how they used essential skills to survive in a landscape that is as beautiful as it is awesome.

It’s not really a celebration and it isn’t as rich in bush craft (or maybe I’m just greedy) as I was hoping it to be. It is, basically, a in-depth look at explorers like Samuel Herne  and John Rae, who followed the ways of the native Canadians and exploited Canada’s rich wildlife with the fur trade. Don’t get me wrong, it is absolutely fascinating and I learnt lots of new stuff, but the flare from Ray that comes across on camera isn’t really there in the pages. The writing is a bit lifeless. (I’m so sorry Ray, I love you, I really do.) One of my favourite parts though (and yes, I do have one. I’m not all about the slagging off you know!) was when he met Sally Milne, a Cree craftswoman. She showed Ray the fantastic craft of bark-biting. She learned how to do it as a child when she lived in the forest.

She seperates layers of birch bark, as if peeling away the backing on thin sheets of sticky plastic, and then folds the sheets into small triangles, which she bites. The marks she makes with her teeth create beautiful patterns…as a child, she would sit with her grandmother and cousins to make ‘bitings’, it was a regular and productive pastime for them all, and doing it today reminds her of her childhood. Her grandmother was quite specific about the way the patterns had to be formed, with a flower at the centre and four identical items around it to balance the whole picture.   

Another part I really enjoyed was when Mears talked about the Boreal Forest.

Its name is taken from the Greek god Boreas, the god of the northern wind. If you think of the term Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights – you’ll get an idea of the provenance of the name. The boreal forest, is to my mind, probably the most under-rated environment on the planet. It sits on the shoulders of Canada like a cloak, and stretches in a band that is almost 1,000 kilometeres wide and runs more than 5,000 kilometres from the Yukon in the West to Newfoundland on the Atlantic coast. If you were in space, looking down on the Earth, you’d see that it carries on through Alaska and across the top or Russia, through Finland, Sweden and Norway, and even clips the north of Scotland on its way to forming a massive trans-continental forest.

Northern Wilderness was worth reading, for sure, and I have gained a new, quite thorough knowledge about the history of Canada, and a greater respect for important people residing there today, keeping the old traditions alive.

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