Exploring the Welsh wilderness was a fundamental part of Richards life, growing up. So it seemed only natural that the wilderness would form part of his adult life, too. Richards career has been varied and ever changing but one thing has always stayed stable throughout: being in the wild has been at the heart of it. Now running courses in survival and search and rescue, we spoke to Richard to hear more about his connection with the wild and what he describes as landscape literacy.
Growing up, a sense of the outdoors was really drilled into me. It was difficult to escape. In the area we lived were hillforts, forests and even villages that had my family name on them, and the older generations knew how they tied into my own family history. I think when there is such a connection between your family and one small location you cannot ignore the animals, plants and trees that also inhabit the area. These werent just the woods we walked the dogs in these were the woods where my ancestors collected mushrooms and berries. In my family you had to know the story of the plants and the landscape around you.
After I left school, I discovered that clambering over increasingly steep and dangerous sections of mountainside could be good fun. I decided to have a crack at making a living doing something I would gladly pay a lot of money to be allowed to do. Becoming a mountain and expedition leader early on in my career kind of came about by accident, from talking to people at the local climbing wall or chance encounters in the mountains. I was the annoying 19yr old who thought they knew it all – then swiftly discovered there was a whole world out there that I hadnt even considered. The idea that you could make a living, even a career, out of walking in the mountains did not occur to me until I started to meet people who were doing exactly that.
After some years I started to run my own training courses for all sorts of industries: search and rescue teams, the police force, the army and even crime fighting agencies. The training I deliver as a paid, external instructor initially came about from unexpected routes. The first requests were from people within those organisations who had attended my public courses. They later got in touch and asked if I could deliver the same tracking, navigation or even foraging course for their team at work. That led into a more structured, formalised training scheme that we crafted and honed to meet the unique requirements of those organisations. The tracking or outdoor safety courses I deliver for SAR organisations are very similar to the ones I deliver to armed police officers the soil, rocks and the leaves are the same, its just the uniform and the intent that changes.
I think patience and being comfortable with your own emotions are important life skills for anyone, but particularly as either a coach or instructor, teaching these types of courses and people. Recalling what it felt like the first time I stepped onto an airy ledge with a 300m drop underneath helps me coach others through that experience. Being able to temporarily put aside discomfort and anxiety is vital when performing complex and technical tasks in difficult environments, and learning how to deal with that myself has helped me coach others through it. If you just scream and shout at people then it will actively slow down their learning process – but if you jump down into the mud and go through the task alongside them it will always produce positive results.
Skills I had learned while searching for vulnerable missing persons in the forests and fields of North Wales complimented the schemas and heuristic techniques developed when working with groups as a leader in remote areas. I would be asked to deliver a specific set of training to a group, which would lead to more conversations and more requests. Again, it was a slow realisation that not only was there a demand for training in these subjects but I had accidentally positioned myself in exactly the right place to deliver them.
In some ways, what I teach is something that could be defined as landscape literacy. A biologist can look out over a valley and see a multitude of biomes and habitats, a geologist might look at the last vestiges of glacial erosion and an ornithologist might just be transfixed by the osprey circling the estuary. Each specialist reads that landscape in a different language and pulls something unique from it my job is to show my clients a different dialect for each of those languages. I tell the rescuer how to segment out a woodland into searchable areas and the armed police officer how to look at a muddy footpath and determine if their quarry is long gone or just metres away.
Now I use my experiences as a lifelong outdoorsman and modern forager to share not only the knowledge of what to eat and what to avoid, but also to help others reconnect with the wider outdoor world and our place within it. More recently I have started working with mental health organisations around these themes. If we can accept that the required mental attributes of our hunter-gatherer ancestors still reside deep in our psyche, then maybe we can borrow a little of their thought processes too. The phrase think like a hunter-gatherer has entered my teaching and coaching vocabulary for almost everything I do. Of all the technical and complex subjects that I teach, foraging has been the one that I have consistently been able to deliver quickly and verbally to users of all types. Its the same with sitting around a campfire or scrabbling around in rockpools looking for certain species it feels right and natural just because we are the product of thousands and thousands of generations of people who were good at doing just that. If they didnt possess that set of traits then they wouldnt have survived.
My journey is far from over (I hope!) but now I can look back and appreciate how those early lessons. Those links forged in the meadows and valleys, lead me to where I am. I think now that if you understand truly where you have come from then it will help you discover where youre going.
To read more about Richards story and experiences as a wilderness instructor, click here.